The Stolen Piper
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
A piper plays for an unexpected audience
Lough Gur is a place of great antiquity and the source of many strange rumours and legends, surrounded by misty forests and low rolling hills, not all of which are natural in origin!
Once there was an island in the middle of the lake, but now it is a peninsula, and it is joined to the eastern shore by a causeway, not far from the village of Aney. Situated right in the middle of this place is a very ancient rath, or ring fort, which they say once belonged to Áine, queen of the fairies in those parts.
Donal O'Grady was a well known piper in the area, who could even have been called one of the best pipers in Munster, and it happened on a gloomy and moonless night that he had been playing at a wedding close to Lough Gur.
From sunset long into the small hours of the morning had he played, and the odd drop of whiskey and perhaps a sup of port had helped to keep life in the merry jigs and reels he spun and whirled from his uilleann pipes. Although his head was heavy and his hands were weary, never a note did he miss for his spirits were light and fresh with merriment.
When the party was done he was given a long round of applause and a few shillings into his pocket, which back in those days was a handsome reward. He thought it a fine night's work, although a long night's work, so he stopped awhile to rest at the foot of a strange tall hill he had happened to wander near on his way home.
Sitting down on a flat rock with odd round holes in it, he lifted his pipes and began to play the first bars of Maureen Rua to keep himself company in the shadows, when suddenly a door in the hill swung silently open behind him, bathing him in amber light, and he was seized by many hands in the twinkling of an eye and pulled inside!
Then the doors swung shut without a sound, and it was if Donal had never been there, or anywhere else at all! For only the lonely wind sighed softly in witness, and it was soon gone to different lands itself.
Naturally Donal was far from gone, although in truth he was far from where he started too – looking around he beheld his captors, small men of wizened and unclear features who wore matching finery of an older sort. The hoisted him up on their shoulders and whisked him away down a deep tunnel, paying no heed to his terrified cries.
Soon they passed through another door and revealed a most magnificent sight. He was deposited in grand hall of immense proportions, overarched by a ceiling of exquisite beauty held up by lofty marble pillars, all lit by a thousand golden lamps which hung above the heads of a peculiar throng of men and women arrayed in the most gorgeous and fantastic costumes.
And yet for all their splendour, Donal saw that all the fairy gentlemen were little wizened creatures, their faces old and wrinkled, and not at all easy to gaze upon. Their bodies and limbs were for all the world like those of Daddy Long Legs. The ladies greatly resembled their lords, with the single exception of Queen Áine, who was the greatest beauty Donal’s eyes ever beheld.
He gulped for then he realised where he was and who he beheld – he was among the Sidhe, the fairy folk, the other crowd!
At the other end of the hall, reclining on a throne of stars, Donal beheld a lady of breathtaking loveliness. On her golden locks she wore a golden crown, all ablaze with emeralds and brilliantine exotic jewels of a type he had never seen before. She was holding a reception for the crowds of tiny creatures who flocked about her to pay homage.
All were chattering to one another and to her, but in a language he could not understand, for it was not Irish, and it was not English, although he thought it bore some resemblance to an odd and older form of Irish, since he could almost recognise some of the words.
One word he heard repeated often though, and that was the name Áine, and when it was spoken he knew it must refer to the queen upon her throne!
A rangy looking character in a particularly elaborate outfit seemed to be introducing the little people to Áine one by one, until at last it was Donal's turn to be presented, and he was led by the hand to the lowest step of the throne.
Now I'll tell you, you would have to look for a long time before you found a man more courteous than Donal, but what he knew about the business of royal etiquette could be written on a postage stamp with a large pencil! So despite his befuddlement, and not wishing to be caught short, he had been paying close attention to how the fairies were behaving.
He had noticed how gracefully the fairy lords and ladies had approached and retired, the men bowing very low, and the women courtesying almost to the ground, then kissing the Queen’s right hand, and afterwards backing out with repeated bows and more courtesies, until lost behind the groups still advancing.
Feeling he had a handle on it although still very nervous and discomfited, when Donal O’Grady stood before the throne, he took off his straw hat with the left hand, and pulling down his forelock with the right, he bent his right knee left and his left knee right, which made the fairy courtiers giggle and titter.
Donal considered this poor form on their part, especially given how sporting he had been about his own kidnapping, but when the Queen graciously held out her hand and smiled, he kissed it, and all his resentment vanished like snow on water.
Áine said something in the fairy tongue to another official and pointed to Donal's pipes. A white wand was waved and all the fairy lords and ladies lay down upon to the elegant cushioned seats prepared for them. Donal was also led to a chair where the pipes were removed from his shoulders and placed on his knee.
Understanding now what they wanted of him, the piper set his pipes going and soon the fairies were gleefully dancing in a skilfully executed maze of steps and lines, with Queen Áine above them all in grace and beauty.
They danced for what seemed to be an eternity before Donal's admiring eyes, although it was probably only half an hour or so, when a signal was given, and the Queen and all the dancers filed before Donal O’Grady with smiles of approval and with graceful salutes. Afterwards they suddenly vanished, and the lights were all extinguished!
Now left alone in complete blackness of the kind that drives people mad, Donal began groping around looking for the door he had entered through, and sure enough he found it – but it had been securely bolted and locked!
Hours passed and he grew more and more dejected, but then he observed the fairies flitting through the hall, and jabbering to one another in their strange language.
They had dressed themselves in ancient-looking armour and bore peculiar golden swords before mounting on tiny steeds. A dim light began to reveal their movements and Donal saw the chief ride out at the head of his cavalcade and approach the door.
Then, raising his sword, the fairy leader shouted out, “tatther rura!” and every one of his warriors repeated “tatther rura!” Immediately the door opened, and all rushed out through the passage. The door closed behind them.
The imprisoned piper waited until their sounds were lost in the distance. Then he also cried out, “tatther rura!” The door at once opened, and he was able to rush out and gaze once more on the fields around Knockainey. Gathering the pipes under his arm, he joyfully hastened homewards.
For many a long day after that, Donal O’Grady told all who would listen of his extraordinary meeting with Queen Áine and her courtiers, especially when he was at fairs, christenings, weddings, and country parties, where his admirable musical performances were still and always in great demand.
Knockainey can be found on the map below.
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