Emerald Isle

The Young Piper

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

Sometimes your neighbours might have a point

Not all that long ago there lived a decent family on the border of Tipperary, Michael Flannagan and Judy his wife were the two that were in it. Although they were not blessed with wealth, they were blessed with children, four sons to be exact.

Three of these lads were as fine and stout a trio as you'd ever hope to see, and it was enough to make any Irishman proud of his breed to see them standing at the cabin door around midday with big laughing potatoes steaming in their hands for dinner.

Their parents were rightly proud of their three sons, but of the fourth they seldom spoke, the third eldest – sad to tell, he was the most miserable and ill favoured brat that ever had the life put into him. Barely able to stand, let alone leave his cradle, he had long, shaggy curled hair as black as soot. His face was of a greenish yellow colour, his eyes were like two burning coals, and were forever moving in his head, this way and that.

Before he passed a twelvemonth he had a mouth full of great teeth, his hands were like eagles' claws, and his bandy legs were no thicker than the handle of a whip. To make the matter worse, he ate like a horse and the whinging and the yelping and the screeching and the yowling were never gone from his mouth.

Now back in those days they had their own way of seeing the world, and the neighbours all suspected that there was something off about this child. It was observed that when people, as they do in the country, sat about the fire and began to talk of religion and good things, the brat sat up and begin to bellow as if the devil was in him in right earnest!

So one windy night there was a general consultation held about what would be best to do with him. One old woman, who was considered very wise in the ways of the fairies, suggested that she should put the tongs in the fire, heat them red hot, and to take his nose in them! For that would beyond all manner of doubt make him tell what he was and where he came from. They suspected that he had been changed by the good people, and this was the usual remedy, as hair raising as it may sound to us today.

But Judy was too soft-hearted, and too fond of the imp, so she would not agree to this plan either, though they all said said she was wrong. Amid the hubbub of suggestions and ideas, someone said she should send for the priest, to which Judy was agreeable. But as it happened, one thing or other always prevented her doing so, and the upshot was that the priest never saw him.

Things went on like that for a while longer, with the brat eating more than his three brothers put together, yelping and yowling, and playing all sorts of cruel tricks, according to his mischievous inclination until one day Tim Carroll, the blind piper, called in and sat down by the fire to have a bit of chat with the woman of the house.

Soon enough Tim, who wasn't miserly with his music, lifted up his pipes and began to bellows away in high style – but he had only just begun when the young fellow sat up and grinned, twisting himself into strange shapes in great glee at the music!

Tim was informed of this event and decided to lend him the pipes, as he was kind to children, so his mother brought the pipes to the cradle and tried to buckle them on – but there was no need at all! The youth buckled on the pipes, set the bellows under one arm and the bag under the other, and worked them both as if he had been twenty years at the business!

Everybody was astonished and Judy crossed herself thinking what the neighbours might make of this. Tim who had the darkness over his eyes was absolutely delighted when he heard it, and said that if his mother would let him take the child off her hands, he'd turn the boy into the finest piper in Ireland.

Slightly mollified, Judy was pleased to hear it since it meant the boy wouldn't have to beg for his supper but could earn a good loaf with honest piping. No less pleased was her husband Mick, for the boy had been a great trouble to him.

So the very next day he took the pig to the fair and with his earnings from its sale he travelled to Clonmel and had a brand new set of pipes made!

It took about two weeks for them to arrive, and when they did the fellow in his cradle squealed with delight and bumped in his cradle, and went on with a great many comical tricks until at last, to quiet him, they gave him the pipes.

He straightaway began playing and pulled away at Jig Polthog to the admiration of all that heard him. The fame of his skill on the pipes soon spread far and near, for there was not a piper in the six next counties could come at all near him in Old Madra Rua, or The Hare in the Corn, or The Fox-hunter's Jig, or The Rakes of Cashel or any of the fine Irish jigs which make people dance whether they want to or not!

Now while it did cross his mother's mind to wonder where such a young lad had heard these tunes to begin with, let alone acquired the skill to master them, she thought it a fair trade for his deformities and bad manners, and said nothing more of it.

He was always quick to play and many a merry dance the boys and girls of the neighbourhood used to have in his father's cabin. He would play music for them that they said put quicksilver in their feet, and they all declared they never moved so light and so airy to any piper's playing that ever they danced to.

But even in this uncanny thing he was uncannier yet, for he had one queer tune of his own, the oddest that ever was heard! The moment he began to play everything in the house seemed to dance, the plates and cups used to jingle on the dresser, the pots and pot-hooks used to rattle in the chimney, and people used even to fancy they felt the stools moving from under them!

Whatever about the stools dancing, no one could sit on them for long, for both old and young always leaped up dancing as hard as ever they could. The girls complained that when he began this tune they never could handle their feet rightly, for they felt the floor like ice under them, and the young bachelors in their bright green and yellow garters swore that it confused them so that they felt themselves bedizzied and bewildered.

Young and old would jostle and knock together and the brat would cackle and chatter when he had them all aspin.

And the older he got, the worse it became! By the time he was six you could hardly go into the house with him, and he was always causing injury to his brothers, whether making them crack their shins on stools or scald themselves.

One time around the harvest he was left at home by himself, and when his mother came in she found the cat straddling the dog, with her face to the tail, and her legs tied round him, and the urchin playing his queer tune to them so that the dog barked and jumped around and puss was mewing for dear life!

There would be no end to telling all his pranks, and all the mischievous tricks he played. Soon after, the farmer who employed Mick began to have terrible luck. A horse took the staggers and a fine calf died of the blackleg, some sheep died of redwater and the cows began to grow vicious, kicking their milk pails away.

Well one day that farmer took Mick aside and said

“Mick, you see things are not going on with me as they ought, and to be plain with you, Mick, I think that child of yours is the cause of it. I am really falling away to nothing with fretting, and I can hardly sleep on my bed at night for thinking of what may happen before the morning. So I'd be glad if you'd look out for work somewhere else, you're as good a man as any in the country, and there's no fear but you'll have your choice of work.”

Mick shook his head and said he was sorry to be thought the cause of these misfortunes, but what could he do but move on. The next Sunday at Mass Mick put it about that he was seeking new work, and immediately a farmer from a few fields across the way took him up on it! He was looking for a ploughman, and had heard Mick was a good worker, so he offered him a little house, a patch, and work all year round.

Mick wasted no time in accepting this good fortune, and he packed his belonging and family onto a little cart the farmer had sent round to pick him up. The cow was driven before them, the dog followed, and the young fellow was sat in his cradle at the top of the heap in the cart.

All went as well as could be expected, until they had to cross the river, but as it ran through a bottom between two high banks you could not see it till you were close. The young fellow was lying pretty quiet until they came to the head of the bridge, when hearing the roaring of the water, for it had rained heavily for the last two or three days, he sat up and looked about him.

The instant he spotted the water, and saw they were about to cross, oh how he screeched! No rat caught in a snap-trap ever sang out equal to him. His mother tried to calm him but he would have none of it.

“Bad luck to you, you old tart!” he bellowed, “what a pretty trick you've played me, to bring me here!” and still went on yelling. The further they got on the bridge the louder he yelled; till at last Mick could take it no longer, and gave him a great lash of the whip he had in his hand.

“Devil choke you, you brat!” said he, “will you never stop bawling? A body can't hear their ears for you.”

I can tell you this – for someone who was meant to be an invalid, the child hopped nimbly enough at the touch of the scourge! He leaped up, clapped the pipes under his arm, gave a most wicked grin at Mick, and jumped clean over the edge of the bridge down into the water!

Poor Judy started shouting and wailing but Mick and the rest of the children ran to the other side of the bridge, and looking over they saw him coming out from under the arch of the bridge! He sat cross-legged on the top of a white-headed wave playing away on the pipes as merrily as if nothing had happened.

The river was running very rapidly, so he was whirled away at a great speed, but he played as fast and faster than the river ran. Although they tried to follow and set off as hard as they could along the bank, by the time they got to the nearest bend in the river he was out of sight, and no one ever laid eyes on him since. The general opinion was that he went home with the pipes to his own relations, the good people, to make music for them.

Mick's old house may well have been close to the spot marked on the map below!

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