Emerald Isle

The Pooka

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

The rider of the crossroads, The Pooka

The Pooka or Puca is one of the most ancient fairy creatures of Ireland, and is known further abroad as well, called Puck or Pook. In some places he is feared and in others respected. He can take many shapes, most commonly that of a wild horse wrapped in chains with sulfurous or blazing crimson eyes - the night mare - a huge dog, a raging bull, a handsome young man or lovely woman often with an animal's tail or hooves, but always he could speak with the voice of a person, and it is said the old peoples used to take counsel from the wisdom of the Puca at the tops of hills and high places.

In those times they were far more numerous than today, and farmers would always leave a portion of their crops out after Halloween for the one day when the Puca would feast, on November the first. After that day the Puca would spit on any wild blackberries or fruit still in the fields, making them dangerous to eat. Other legends speak of the Puca as a vampire or eater of human flesh!

In County Down, the Puca was a wizened little hobgoblin who'd show up at peoples' houses demanding its share of the crops. In Laois it was a terrifying shadowy phantom, chasing after lone travellers after the sun had set. To the south, he takes the form of a great eagle or bird of prey, and in the midlands the Puca is a black goat.

Late at night they would terrorise the countryside, sneaking up behind travellers drunk or sober and pushing between their legs, taking them for a wild and terrifying midnight ride across the land, bringing them to any place on earth that took its fancy. Other mischiefs they would wreak, breaking down fences and destroying property, spoiling crops and causing harm to livestock. Even the sight of a Puca would stop the cows from giving milk and the hens from laying eggs.

Other legends speak of the Puca joining groups of travellers, befriending them, and speaking knowingly of their past as well as predicting future catastrophes that would befall them. Then he would take himself off to a hole under the hills, chuckling as he watched these events unfold.

One account from the 19th century tells of an encounter with the Puca:

"In November 1813, Kildare Hunt known as Killing Kildares set out. Having indulged in traditional stirrup cup at Tipper crossroads, near Naas, hunt failed to raise a fox until it was approaching Tipperkevin, north of Ballymore Eustace, county Kildare. Here a large fox appeared and led a course towards Liffey. Simultaneously, an un-mounted black horse appeared, that did not belong to any of riders. It was Pooka!

The terrain was difficult and fox ran fast, so that near the Liffey, only one of members of hunt, a man named Grennan, and horse, who was really Pooka, remained with pack. The gorge was in full spate but hounds were gaining on their quarry and started to pick their way across rocks. Seeing danger, Grennan attempted to recall hounds, but Pooka ahead of them was tempting them onwards.

The fox headed for ledge on narrow part of gorge then, seeing Pooka’s red eyes spitting fire, fox jumped. It missed ledge, falling into turbulent waters below. The Pooka easily leaped across gorge, disappearing into woodlands, but pack of hounds hard on scent of fox went headlong into pool.

“Looking down, Grennan saw fox and hounds trying desperately to swim to safety through swirling swell; other hounds dashed against rocks were yelping in pain and dying. He wept as most of pack went under. Suddenly his sorrow give way to terror, he heard a diabolical neighing, like an animal laughing – from woods opposite. Grennan knew then it was Pooka."

Only one man in Ireland has ever successfully ridden a Puca, and that was the mighty King Brian Ború, he who defeated the evil Viking raiders and slavers and drove them from the shores of Ireland. By taking three hairs from the tail of a Puca, he wove an eldritch bridle and so controlled the spirit, riding it to collapse. Refusing to dismount, he made it promise never to torment Christians again, and to do no harm to an Irishman unless he was drunk or up to no good.

Of course true to its capricious fairy nature, the Puca has long since forgotten its promises!

Silver seems to cause anguish to the Puca, as a man in county Wicklow found out when his silver spurs made the spirit buck and throw him off. It's not wise to anger them silver spurs or no, for they hold grudges for generations, standing outside that person's house and demanding they join it on one of its dark gallops. Should they refuse, it would work to destroy their home and farm forever after.

They weren't entirely malicious mind you - sometimes they would warn of a coming fairy host and help to hide people from the hunters.

There are many sites in Ireland associated with the Puca, in Cork there are two places called Carraig phooka - the pooka's rock. One is near Doneraile and the other is near Macroom. More famous is Poul-a-phooka - the pooka's cavern in Co. Wicklow, where the silver spurs saw off the spirit. There is a mound and a natural cave at Clopoke in Laois. There is also a cairn on Inis Mor, the Aran island off Galway coast which is called Clochán a Phúca. Binlaughlin Mountain in County Fermanagh is known as the "mountain of the speaking horse".

There is also a fair held every year in honour of the goat called "Puck Fair" at Killorglin, Co. Kerry, which can be found on the map below.


Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore