Emerald Isle

Stairs of the Giant

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

Dark caves lie behind the Stairs of the Giant

On the road going down to Cork there's an old set of four walls that used to once be called Ronayne's Court. Although there's little enough to see of it nowadays still the stack of the chimneys stands proud, and on it can be seen the coat of arms of the family that built it and used to live there.

They were a fine couple and had one son called Philip, after the King of Spain, and why not. He was a likely little fellow who gave a sneeze the minute he took his first breath, which as everyone knows is a good sign for a clear head, and he learned more quickly than most children too.

One morning though young master Philip, who was then but seven years old, went missing. Servants were sent to the north, the south, the east and the west, on foot an a'horse, but all returned without a bit of news. The couple were beside themselves with grief and offered a handsome reward for any tidings of the lad, but years flew by and nothing new was learned.

Now as it turned out there was a blacksmith living near Carigaline called Robin Kelly, a handy fellow indeed, and he had a good reputation not only for the shoeing of horses and the straightening of ploughshares, but also for the interpretation of dreams, a power common to all smiths. People would come from all about to tell him their dreams and went away satisfied.

One night as he lay on his bed though, he himself had a dream, in which he saw young Philip Ronayne astride a mighty white horse under a green moon. The giant Mahon MacMahon who held court in the deep places of the stony earth, he said, had carried him off, but his seven years of service were up and he promised great wealth should Robin come to fetch him out.

“And how will I know,” asked Robin, even in his sleep a crafty sort, “that this is anything but a dream?”

“Take that,” said the boy, “for your proof!” and his horse kicked Robin right between the eyes, waking him with roaring fit for a thousand murders! Near drowned in sweat he was as though he'd run a mile with the devil at his heels, but when he went to get a drink of water he saw the mark of a hoofprint right on his forehead, red as a tomato.

Well, the reader of dreams sat down and had himself a good long think about his own dream, considering all he knew of giants and that there was only one place nearby which would do. That was the Giant's stairway above the harbour, great masses of rock piled one above another, which rise like a flight of steps, from very deep water, against the bold cliff of Carrigmahon.

And they wouldn't make bad stairs if you could walk over a house, or cover a mile with a hop, skip ad a jump! Then her remembered that both these feats the giant MacMahon was said to have performed in the days of Fenian glory; and people around said his dwelling was within the cliff at the top of the stairs.

Robin decided to take a closer look at these stairs, but before he set off he slung his favourite smithing-hammer at his side, for it had settled more than one disagreement peacefully and quickly! He took himself off through the Hawk's Glen and into Monkstown, where one of his old friends, a man by the name of Tom Clancy, lived.

Tom promised him the use of a rowing boat and himself to take the oars, and after supper the pair of them set off into the bay. A grand soft night it was, no sound but the dip and splash of the oars for company, and before too long they made the tide into the shadow of the stairs.

Robin looked up and down, left and right for a way in under the moonlight but had only unyielding rock for his trouble, and remarked to Tom that they were a pair of fools for coming all this way because of a dream. Tom told him shortly that it was his own idea, and the two were set to argue but then a strange green light twinkled from the cliff face!

It grew larger and brighter until it was the size of a castle's gatehouse, and near to the lapping waves too. Tom rowed over to it and Robin, hefting his hammer over his shoulder, leapt into the light.

Wild and strange was that entrance, the whole of which appeared formed of grim and grotesque faces, blending so strangely each with the other that it was impossible to define any - the chin of one formed the nose of another - what appeared to be. a fixed and stern eye, if dwelt upon, changed to a gaping mouth, and the lines of the lofty forehead grew into a majestic and flowing beard.

The more Robin allowed himself to contemplate the forms around him, the more terrific they became; and the stony expression of this crowd of faces assumed a savage ferocity as his imagination converted feature after feature into a different shape and character.

Undaunted, Robin went through and presently found himself wandering down a twisting maze of deep passages, while over him the great weight of rock rumbled and complained. Now at last he began to feel afraid, but knowing he'd never find his way out again he pressed on, deeper into the dark places of the world where the sun hadn't shone since creation.

He followed a very faint glimmer of light until he came at last to a wide hall whose edges he couldn't see, lit only be a solitary lamp hanging from the roof high above. Before him sat several huge figures around a stone table, far larger than the common man, but the only one who saw Robin was Mahon MacMahon himself! He'd been seated so long his beard had grown into the stone slab, so when he suddenly stood up, it shattered into a hundred dusty pieces!

Coughing, the giant rumbled in a voice like grinding boulders, “What do you want?”

“I'm here,” said Robin with as much grit as he could muster, “to collect young Philip Ronayne, whose time of service is up this very night.”

“Oh are you now,” said the giant in a breathy voice, combing the last shards of stone from his beard, “well if you can pick him out from among my lads, you can have him! But be warned – if you pick wrongly it's into my mouth you'll go, for I've a fierce hunger on me! And you can only choose once.”

They went deeper into the hall and presently Robin saw before him hundreds of little children all standing before identical white horses, and Robin was sadly baffled for he couldn't clearly remember the face in his dream. Still, he proceeded along beside the giant whose coat was made of clanking metal plates.

They had nearly reached the end and Robin was doing his best to hide his growing despair, when an idea came to him.

“These are very fine horses,” said he, “and well shod with it! Was it yourself did the shoeing?”

“It was,” said the giant, “ and all in a single night, with a little help from my little friends,” and he winked at the children, who laughed. “Will I show you how it was done?”

“I'd like to see that for sure and certain!” exclaimed Robin, and the giant asked for his hammer. He took Robin's hammer and started battering it on the stone floor, so hard that in one blow it was flat as a plate, and all the horses reared up in salute!

“I see young Philip there,” said Robin, “for though a smith may forget a face he'll never forget a horseshoe, especially after it's branded his face!” He ran through the crowd and grabbed the lad whose horse's shoe he'd spotted, and turned to make a run for it, but at that moment the hall fell into complete darkness, shot through with bellows and shrieks.

Robin held tight to the young lad through it all and suddenly awoke on the green hill above the Giant's Stairs, and it was the next morning. They went to the estate of the Ronaynes, who after some consternation and searching questions – for the boy hadn't changed at all in the last seven years – wept tears of grateful joy and showered Robin with fat gold coins.

Philip, they said, grew to a great old age and became a smith famous throughout the world himself. On this map here can be found Monkstown harbour and nearby those very stairs that storytellers speak of.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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