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Seumas MacManus

Donegal Fairy Tales

Our tales

Donegal Fairy Tales - ZnJvbnQ5LnBuZw

Tales as old as the curlew’s call are today listened to around the hearths of Donegal with the same keen and credulous eagerness with which they were hearkened to hundreds of years ago. Of a people whose only wealth is mental and spiritual, the thousand such tales are not the least significant heritage. Of those tales, the ten following are but the lightest.

The man who brings his shaggy pony to the forge “reharses a rale oul’ tale” for the boys, whilst he lazily works the bellows for Dan.

As she spins in the glow of the fir-blaze on the long winter nights, the old white-capped woman, with hair like a streak of lint, holds the fireside circle spellbound with such tales as these.

When at Taig, the tailor’s, on a Saturday night, an exasperated man clamors angrily for the long-promised coat, Taig says, “Arrah, Conal, man, have sense, and be quate, and sit down till ye hear a wondherful story of anshint happenin’s.” And the magic of the tale restores Conal to a Christian frame of mind, and sends him home forgetful of a great procrastinator’s deceit.

When the beggarman, coming in at dayli’gone, drops his staff and sheds his bags in token that he deigns to honor the good people with his presence for that night, among young and old there is anticipative joy for the grand stories with which he will certainly enchant them till (too soon) an bhean-an-tighe shakes her beads and says it is rosary-time.

The professional shanachy recites them to a charmed audience in the wake-house, in the potato field, on the green hillside on summer Sundays, and at the cross-roads in blissful autumn gloamings, whilst the green marge rests his hearers’ aching limbs.

Like generations of his people, one particular barefoot boy, being himself enchanted with them, longed to transmit their charm to others, and spent many, many delightful hours acquiring fresh ones, and recounting old ones to groups the most sceptical of whom more than half believed, like himself, in their literal truth. To a wider world and more cultured, he would fain tell them now. He would wish that this world might hear of the wonderful happenings with our ears, and see them with our eyes, and consent to experience for a few hours the charmed delight with which our simple, kindly people, at the feet of their own shanachies, hearken to them. He would wish that this world might, for a few hours, give him their credence on trust, consent to forget temporarily that life is hard and joyless, be foolish, simple children once more, and bring to the entertainment the fresh and fun- loving hearts they possessed ere the world’s wisdom came to them.

And if they return to the world’s wise ways with a lurking delight in their hearts, the shanachy will again feel rejoiced and proud for the triumph of our grand old tales.


Donegal, Old Lammas Day, 1900.

The Plaisham

Nancy and Shamus were man and wife, and they lived all alone together for forty years; but at length a good-for-nothing streel of a fellow named Rory, who lived close by, thought what a fine thing it would be if Shamus would die, and he could marry Nancy, and get the house, farm, and all the stock. So he up and said to Nancy:

“What a pity it is for such a fine-looking woman as you to be bothered with that ould, complainin’, good-for-nothing crony of a man that’s as full of pains and aches as an egg’s full of meat. If you were free of him the morrow, the finest and handsomest young man in the parish would be proud to have you for a wife.”

At first Nancy used to laugh at this; but at last, when he kept on at it, it began to prey on Nancy’s mind, and she said to young Rory one day: “I don’t believe a word, of what you say. Who would take me if Shamus was buried the morra?”

“Why,” says Rory, “you’d have the pick of the parish. I’d take you myself.”

“Is that true?” says Nancy.

“I pledge you my word,” says Rory, “I would.”

“Oh, well, even if you would yourself,” says Nancy, “Shamus won’t be buried to-morrow, or maybe, God help me, for ten years to come yet.”

“You’ve all that in your own hands,” says Rory.

“How’s that?” says Nancy.

“Why, you can kill him off,” says Rory.

“I wouldn’t have the ould crature’s blood on my head,” says Nancy.

“Neither you need,” says Rory.

And then he sat down and began to tell Nancy how she could do away with Shamus and still not have his blood on her head.

Now there was a prince called Connal, who lived in a wee sod house close by Nancy and Shamus, but whose fathers before him, ere their money was wasted, used to live in a grand castle. So, next day, over Nancy goes to this prince, and to him says: “Why, Prince Connal, isn’t it a shame to see the likes of you livin’ in the likes of that house?”

“I know it is,” said he, “but I cannot do any better.”

“Botheration,” says Nancy, “you easily can.”

“I wish you would tell me how,” says Prince Connal.

“Why,” says Nancy, “there’s my Shamus has little or nothing to do, an’ why don’t you make him build you a castle?”

“Ah,” says the prince, laughing, “sure, Shamus couldn’t build me a castle.”

Says Nancy: “You don’t know Shamus, for there’s not a thing in the wide world he couldn’t do if he likes to; but he’s that lazy, that if you don’t break every bone in his body to make him do it, he won’t do it.”

“Is that so?” says Prince Connal.

“That’s so,” says Nancy. “So if you order Shamus to build you a castle an’ have it up in three weeks, or that you’ll take his life if he doesn’t, you’ll soon have a grand castle to live in,” says she.

“Well, if that’s so,” says Prince Connal, “I’ll not be long wanting a castle.”

So on the very next morning, over he steps to Shamus’s, calls Shamus out, and takes him with him to the place he had marked out for the site of his castle, and shows it to Shamus, and tells him he wants him to have a grand castle built and finished on that spot in three weeks’ time.

“But,” says Shamus, says he, “I never built a castle in my life. I know nothing about it, an’ I couldn’t have you a castle there in thirty- three years, let alone three weeks.”

“O!” says the prince, says he, “I’m toul’ there’s no man in Ireland can build a castle better nor faster than you, if you only like to; and if you haven’t that castle built on that ground in three weeks,” says he, “I’ll have your life. So now choose for yourself.” And he walked away, and left Shamus standing there.

When Shamus heard this, he was a down-hearted man, for he knew that Prince Connal was a man of his word and would not stop at taking any man’s life any more than he would from putting the breath out of a beetle. So down he sits and begins to cry; and while Shamus was crying there, up to him comes a Wee Red Man, and says to Shamus: “What are you crying about?”

“Ah, my poor man,” says Shamus, says he, “don’t be asking me, for there’s no use in telling you, you could do nothing to help me.”

“You don’t know that,” says the Wee Red Man, says he. “It’s no harm to tell me anyhow.”

So Shamus, to relieve his mind, ups and tells the Wee Red Man what Prince Connal had threatened to do to him if he had not a grand castle finished on that spot in three weeks.

Says the little man, says he: “Go to the Fairies’ Glen at moonrise the night, and under the rockin’ stone at the head of the glen you’ll find a white rod. Take that rod with you, and mark out the plan of the castle on this ground with it; then go back and leave the rod where you got it, and by the time you get back again your castle will be finished.”

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