The Calf of Knockshegowna
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
The Leaping Calf of Knockshegowna, when a fairy queen was outwittted
It's well known among those who know of such things that fairies love to dance more than anything else, and they take it ill should anything interfere with their merriment. And if someone wanted to spoil a dance, they could come up with few better ways of doing so than to send a herd of cattle wandering through!
The hill atop Knockshegowna was a place of great beauty so the local fairies had made it their own, until one day a rosy-cheeked farmer decided it'd be a grand spot upon which to graze his herds. Cows, sheep, and men to look after them settled in, much to the frustration of the fairies.
After a few weeks of this the fairy queen decided to put an end to it, so she gathered all her fairies around and they spoke among themselves about how best to not only frighten off the men and beasts but to make sure they never came back.
When next the moon was setting full and silver over the Shannon so there'd be no mistaking it, the fairy queen appeared before the men and danced like a whirling dervish, but it was not this which put the terror on them – it was her changing into horrible looking creatures while doing so!
Owls with eyes of fire, hungry looking serpents with the fur of wild wolves and slaver that hissed as it fell, black bulls with five heads, each singing a different song and every one sounding like a broken banjo, even taking the shape of creatures from faraway lands, tigers with spiders legs and more terrifying visions yet!
Well I don't need to tell you that the shepherds were terrified, and who wouldn't be – they got no sleep that night nor the cattle either, for even if they hid their faces the fairies would pull aside their hands and coats and laugh in their ears like cackling bedlams.
Before too long neither man nor beast would set foot on the hill, between the apparitions and the dreadful accidents that befell any who trespassed on fairy land. The poor farmer was beside himself for it was the best land he had and he'd be starving himself if he didn't find someone to get him out of his fix.
As for the fairies, they laughed in their way and raised a toast of honey mead to celebrate their success, dancing for all they were worth.
Then one fine day who should wander up the path but the bold Michael O'Toole, well known player of pipes and a man who feared nothing after he'd a few drops in him. He'd cheerfully tell the devil himself to go back to hell and play him a marching tune for the journey.
Michael spied the farmer sitting downcast and miserable by the side of the road, although the day was bright and pleasant. He asked the farmer what ailed him and soon enough got the story out of him.
“Sure what,” said Michael, “a fairy is only a little thing, what's there to be afraid of?”
“Easy now Michael,” said the farmer, casting a wary eye about him, “you wouldn't know who might be listening! But I'll tell you what, if you look after my cattle for one full week I'll look after you for the rest of your life.”
And so it was done, they spat and shook on it, and Michael took himself and his pipes up the hill that very night. Finding a cosy spot he took out his pipes and started playing a lively tune to make the trees dance.
And dance they did, but twas no wind that moved them! For the fairies beneath their roots had heard his music and stamped their little feet in frustration, until finally the queen herself came out to greet him.
Again she took terrible forms, a clenching fist with blood running down it, a goat with ten legs, and a man too thin to stand upright, with teeth like fence posts as long as your arm.
“Aren't you a pretty thing,” Michael said, not a bit flustered, and began playing his tunes in time and mood with the shapes she took and the dances she danced. After carrying on like this while the moon rose high, the queen grew crafty and turned into a beautiful white calf with large brown eyes, the better to sidle up to him and catch him off his guard.
But Michael was craftier yet, and as soon as she came close enough he threw his pipes aside and sprang onto her back, for he knew if you took hold of a fairy they must do as you bid! The fairy queen thought to herself that she'd finally put the fear on him once and for all, and leaped ten miles clean across the Shannon river, landing with a thump that was heard in Dublin Cathedral.
Michael held fast though, and whispered in her ear, “Not a bad leap – for a little calf!”
Well that was enough for the queen, she knew she'd been bested. She promised from that day forward never to bother the herds or those looking after them as long as Michael was about, and the farmer kept his end of the bargain too, building Michael a fine house and paying him well for his troubles.
Whether or not the fairies have since returned to the hill of Knockshegowna, the hill of the fairy calf, is another story! You can see for yourself on the map below.
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