The Irish Folklore Centre

Providing a focus for the whole Irish folk tradition

A little man, his impish mischief can be read on his face. His complexion is ruddy and dry. His eyes are twinkling and bright.

As the red man he is dressed in vermilion, crimson, scarlet and carmine. They like traditional Irish cooking and are greedy eaters and great drinkers.

They are sometimes benevolent, always mischievous, usually sly. They are always playing tricks on mortals.

From The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins and Other Little Creatures by Pierre Dubois, New York, 2005

The Lucky Guest

The kitchen of some country houses in Ireland presents in no ways a bad modern translation of the ancient feudal hall. Traces of clanship still linger round its hearth in the numerous dependants on “the master’s” bounty.  Nurses, foster-brothers, and other hangers on, are there as matter of right, while the strolling piper, full of mirth and music, the benighted traveller, even the passing beggar, are received with a hearty welcome, and each contributes planxty (harp tune of a sportive and animated character), song, or superstitious tale, towards the evening’s amusement.

An assembly, such as has been described, had collected round the kitchen fire of Ballyrahenhouse, at the foot of the Galtee mountains, when, as is ever the case, one tale of wonder called forth another; and with the advance of the evening each succeeding story was received with deep and deeper attention.

The history of Cough na Looba’s dance with the black friar at Rahill, and the fearful tradition of Coum an ‘ir morriv (the dead man’s hollow), were listened to in breathless silence. A pause followed the last relation, and all eyes rested on the narrator, an old nurse who occupied the post of honour, that next the fireside.

She was seated in that peculiar position which the Irish name ” Currigguib,” a position generally assumed by a veteran and determined storyteller.  Her haunches resting upon the ground, and her feet bundled under the body; her arms folded across and supported by her knees, and the outstretched chin of her hooded head pressing on the upper arm; which compact arrangement nearly reduced the whole figure into a perfect triangle.

Unmoved by the general gaze, Bridget Doyle made no change of attitude, while she gravely asserted the truth of the marvellous tale concerning the Dead Man’s Hollow; her strongly marked countenance at the time receiving what painters term a fine chiaro obscuro effect from the fire-light.

“I have told you,” she said, “what happened to my own people, the Butlers and the Doyle, in the old times; but here is little Ellen Connell from the county Cork, who can speak to what happened under her own father and mother’s roof -the Lord be good to them !”

Ellen, a young and blooming girl of about sixteen, was employed in the dairy at Ballyrahen. She was the picture of health and rustic beauty; and at this hint from nurse Doyle, a deep blush mantled over her countenance; yet, although “unaccustomed to public speaking,” she, without further hesitation or excuse, proceeded as follows : –

“It was one May eve, about thirteen years ago, and that is, as every body knows, the airiest day in all the twelve months. It is the day above all other days,” said Ellen, with her large dark eyes cast down on the ground, and drawing a deep sigh, “when the young boys and the young girls go looking after the Drutheen, to learn from it rightly the name of their sweethearts.

“My father, and my mother, and my two brothers, with two or three of the neighbours, were sitting round the turf fire, and were talking of one thing or another. My mother was hushoing my little sister, striving to quieten her, for she was cutting her teeth at the time, and was mighty uneasy through the means of them.

The day, which was threatening all along, now that it was coming on to dusk, began to rain, and the rain increased and fell fast and faster, as if it was pouring through a sieve out of the wide heavens; and when the rain stopped for a bit there was a wind which kept up such a whistling and racket, that you would have thought the sky and the earth were coming together.

It blew and it blew as if it had a mind to blow the roof off the cabin, and that would not have been very hard for it to do, as the thatch was quite loose in two or three places. Then the rain began again, and you could hear it spitting and hissing in the fire, as it came down through the big chimbley.

‘God bless us,’ says my mother, ‘but ‘t is a dreadful night to be at sea,’ says she, ‘and God be praised that we have a roof, bad as it is, to shelter us.’

“I don’t, to be sure, recollect all this, mistress Doyle, but only as my brothers told it to me, and other people, and often have I heard it; for I was so little then, that they say I could just go under the table without tipping my head.

Anyway, it was in the very height of the pelting and whistling that we heard something speak outside the door. My father and all of us listened, but there was no more noise at that time. We waited a little longer, and then we plainly heard a’ sound like an old man’s voice, asking to be let in, but mighty feeble and weak.

Tim bounced up, with-out a word, to ask us whether we’d like to let the old man, or whoever he was, in – having always a heart as soft as a mealy potato before the voice of sorrow. When Tim pulled back the bolt that did the door; in marched a little bit of a shrivelled, weather-beaten creature, about two feet and a half high.

“We were all watching to see who’d come in, for there was a wall between us and the door; but when the sound of the undoing of the bolt stopped, we heard Tim give a sort of a screech, and instantly he bolted in to us. He had hardly time to say a word, or we either, when the little gentleman shuffled in after him, without a God save all here, or by your leave, or any other sort that of thing that any decent body might say.

We all of one accord, scrambled over to the furthest end of the room, where we were, old and young, every one trying who’d get nearest the wall, and farthest from him. All the eyes of our body we’re stuck upon him, but he didn’t mind us no more than that frying-pan there does now.

He walked over to the fire, and squatting himself down like a frog, took the pipe that my father dropped from his mouth in the hurry, put it into his own, and then began to smoke so hearty, that he soon filled the room of it.

“We had plenty of time to observe him, and my brothers say that he wore a sugar-loaf hat that was as red as blood: he had a face as yellow as a kite’s claw, and as long as to-day and to-morrow put together, with a mouth all screwed and puckered up like a washer-woman’s hand, little blue eyes, and rather a highish nose; his hair was quite grey and lengthy, appearing under his hat, and flowing over the cape of a long scarlet coat, which almost trailed the ground behind him, and the ends of which he took up and planked on his knees to dry, as he sat facing the fire.

He had smart corduroy breeches, and woollen stockings drawn up over the knees, so as to hide the kneebuckles, if he had the pride to have them; but, at any rate, if he hadn’t them in his knees he had buckles in his shoes, out before his spindle legs.

When we came to ourselves a little we thought to escape from the room, but no one would go first, nor no one would stay last; so we huddled ourselves together and made a dart out of the room. My little gentleman never minded any thing of the scrambling, nor hardly stirred himself, sitting quite at his ease before the fire.

The neighbours, the very instant minute they got to the door, although it still continued pelting rain, cut gutter as if Oliver Cromwell himself was at their heels; and no blame to them for that, anyhow.

It was my father, and my mother, and my brothers, and myself, a little hop-of-my-thumb midge as I was then, that were left to see what would come out of this strange visit; so we all went quietly to the labbig (leaba – bed) scarcely daring to throw an eye at him as we passed the door. Never the wink of sleep could they sleep that live-long night, though, to be sure, I slept like a top, not knowing better, while they were talking and thinking of the little man.

“When they got up in the morning every thing was as quiet and as tidy about the place as if nothing had happened, for all that the chairs and stools were tumbled here, there, and everywhere, when we saw the lad enter.

Now, indeed, I forget whether he came next night or not, but anyway, that was the first time we ever laid eye upon him. This I know for certain, that, about a month after that he came regularly every night, and used to give us a signal to be on the move, for ‘t was plain he did not like to be observed.

This sign was always made about eleven o’clock; and then, if we ‘d look towards the door, there was a little hairy arm thrust in through the key-hole, which would not have been big enough, only there was a fresh hole made near the first one, and the bit of stick between them had been broken away, and so ‘t was just fitting for the little arm.

” The Fir darrig continued his visits, never missing a night, as long as we attended to the signal; smoking always out of the pipe he made his own of; and warming himself till day dawned before the fire, and then going no one living knows where: but there was not the least mark of him to be found in the morning; and ‘t is as true, nurse Doyle, and honest people, as you are all here sitting before me and by the side of me, that the family continued thriving, and my father and brothers rising in the world while ever he came to us.

When we observed this, we used always look for the very moment to see when the arm would come, and then we’d instantly fly off with ourselves to our rest. But before we found the luck, we used sometimes sit still and not mind the arm, especially when a neighbour would be with my father, or that two or three or four of them would have a drop among them, and then they did not care for all the arms, hairy or not, that ever were seen.

No one, however, dared to speak to it or of it insolently, except, indeed, one night that Davy Kennane – but he was drunk – walked over and hit it a rap on the back of the wrist: the hand was snatched off like lightning; but every one knows that Davy did not live a month after this happened, though he was only about ten days sick. The like of such tricks are ticklish things to do.

“As sure as the red man would put in his arm for a sign through the hole in the door, and that we did not go and open it to him, so sure some mishap befell the cattle: the cows were elf-stoned, or overlooked, or something or another went wrong with them.

One night my brother Dan refused to go at the signal, and the next day, as he was cutting turf in Crogh-na-drimina bog, within a mile and a half of the house, a stone was thrown at him which broke fairly, with the force, into two halves.

Now, if that had happened to hit him he’d be at this hour as dead as my great great-grandfather.  It came whack-slap against the spade he had in his hand, and split at once in two pieces. He took them up and fitted them together and they made a perfect heart.

Some way or the other he lost it since, but he still has the one which was shot at the spotted milch cow, before the little man came near us. Many and many a time I saw that same; ’tis just the shape of the ace of hearts on the cards, only it is of a dark-red colour, and polished up like the grate that is in the grand parlour within.

When this did not kill the cow on the spot, she swelled up; but if you took and put the elf-stone under her udder, and milked her upon it to the last stroking, and then made her drink the milk, it would cure her, and she would thrive with you ever after.

But, as I said, we were getting on well enough as long as we minded the door and watched for the hairy arm, which we did sharp enough when we found it was bringing luck to us, and we were now as glad to see the little red gentleman; and as ready to open the door to him, as we used to dread his coming at first and be frightened of him.

But at long last we throve so well that the landlord – God forgive him – took notice of us, and envied us, and asked my father how he came by the penny he had, and wanted him to take more ground at a rack-rent that was more than any Christian ought to pay to another, seeing there was no making it.

When my father – and small blame to him for that – refused to lease the ground, he turned us off the bit of land we had, and out of the house and all, and left us in a wide and wicked world, where my father, for he was a soft innocent man, was not up to the roguery and the trickery that was practised upon him.

He was taken this way by one and that way by another, and he treating them that were working his downfall. And he used to take bite and sup with them, and they with him, free enough as long as the money lasted; but when that was gone, and he had not as much ground, that he could call his own, as would sod a lark, they soon shabbed him off. The landlord died not long after; and he now knows whether he acted right or wrong in taking the house from over our heads.

“It is a bad thing for the heart to be cast down, so we took another cabin, and looked out with great desire for the Fir darrig to come to us. But ten o’clock came and no arm, although we cut a hole in the door just the moral (model) of the other. Eleven o’clock ! – twelve o’clock ! -no, not a sign of him, and every night we watched, but all would not do.

We then travelled to the other house, and we rooted up the hearth, for the landlord asked so great a rent for it from the poor people that no one could take it; and we carried away the very door off the hinges, and we brought every thing with us that we thought the little man was in any respect partial to, but he did not come, and we never saw him again.

“My father and my mother, and my young sister, are since dead, and my two brothers, who could tell all about this better than myself are both of them gone out with Ingram in his last voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, leaving me behind without kith or kin.”

Here. young Ellen’s voice became choked with sorrow, and bursting into tears, she hid her face in her apron.

From Irish Folklore: Traditions and Superstitions of the country by Rev. John  O’Hanlon (Lageniensis), first published 1870, republished E.P publishing Ltd., 1973.

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