Emerald Isle

The Secret of Labraid

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

The Secret of Labraid and what he would do to protect it

In ancient days there was an Irish King whose name was Labraid Lioseach, known also as Labraid the Sailor for a long voyage he took into fairy seas, and when he came back from that voyage he was never seen without a deep hood over his head, except by one man.

That man saw him once a year to trim his hair, and after the King's hair was cut, the barber was put to death for fear he should speak the King's secret! So dreadful was this duty that the person who did the cutting was chosen by lot, and one year it happened to be the son of the poor widow Shaughnessey.

When Mrs Shaughnessey heard what was to befall her son, she went to the king and fell on her knees, begging and pleading that his life be spared, for who would look after her if he was gone? The King was moved by her pleas and sorrow, so he said her son would live on one condition – that he never breathed a word about the haircut.

Her son gratefully agreed to the condition and swore that he would never speak of it to another human being, so he did what was appointed for him and went home. But he had no peace for the wonder of the secret that he had learned preyed upon his mind so that he could not rest for thinking of it and longing to reveal it, and at last he fell into a wasting sickness and was near to die.

Then a wise druid came to see him, who was skilled in all maladies of the mind and body, and after he had talked with the youth he said to his mother,

“Your son is dying of the burden of a secret which he may not reveal to anyone, but until he reveals it he will have no ease. Let him walk along the road till he comes to a place where four roads meet. Let him turn to the right, and the first tree that he shall meet on the roadside let him tell the secret to it, and so it may be he shall be relieved and his vow will not be broken.”

The mother told her son of the druid's advice, and next day he went up the road till he came to a crossroads, and he took the road to the right, and the first tree he found was a great willow tree. So the young man laid his cheek against the bark, and he whispered the secret to the tree, and as he turned back home he felt lightened of his burden, and he leaped and sang, and he was as well and light hearted as ever he had been in his life!

Some while after that it happened that the King's harper, namely Craftiny, broke the straining post of his harp and went out to seek for a piece of wood to mend it. And the first timber he found that would fit the purpose was the very same willow tree by the cross roads.

He cut it down and took as much as would give him a new straining post, and he took it home with him and mended his harp. That night he played after meat before the King and his lords as usual, but whatever he played and sang the folk that listened to him seemed to hear only one thing, “Two horse's ears has Labraid the Sailor!”

Then the King plucked off his hood, and after that he made no secret of his ears and none suffered on account of them afterwards.

They say the King got his hair cut near the spot marked on the map below.


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