Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I took part in an event called 'Breaking Bread' last December, as part of a festival called Make Belief: An evening of Winter Fictions, curated by the great Kate Strain. The festival took place in Kilkenny Castle on December 10th and featured live music, art and readings.

The Breaking Bread event was organised by Fiona Hallinan and Paddy Bresnihan. They gathered groups of people together and served them warm food at tables where two speakers would give a talk about superstition, which was the overarching theme of the festival. When Paddy asked me to give a talk about superstition in November, I froze, wondering how I would harness all my lunatic superstitions and half-cocked notions into one meaningful whole.

The Piper's Mother: Snuff connoisseur

For fear that I would have to spill my heart about the pattern-making I invent to try to understand the world, I chose instead to make an illustrated book for the event and so with a much relieved and gladdened heart, I began to research old Irish superstitions. My primary teaching head hummed happily, looking to knit together Irish heritage with storytelling. I was thrilled when I found a story about the pooka translated by Douglas Hyde from the Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta and so it took off!

Douglas Hyde
Translator of the story, Ireland's first President and moustache-grower extraordinaire!

The story is about a half-wit of a piper who is kidnapped by the Pooka and brought to the house of the Banshee (similar to a faery or witch). The pooka (or púca in Irish, meaning ghost) is a figure from Irish folklore. He is a shape-shifter who can appear as a horse, a rabbit, a dog or a goat, though he most commonly appears as a horse. The descriptions of his appearance are fairly terrifying. He is described in folktales as having a dark coat, a fiery flowing mane and glowing eyes.

Glowering Púca

The main thing to remember if you were to come upon the púca is that he goes wild when he sees a river or stream. You'd want to throw yourself off his back before he dives straight into the water or else you'd be drowned. Generally though, the pooka is a pleasant enough sort who won't do you any harm. The first of November is the Púca's day. The tradition in Ireland was for farmers to leave a corner of a field for the púca during harvesting time to try to placate him. This particular superstition continues to this day in rural Kilkenny, as an elderly man at my table told me.

I made a picture book to illustrate the story and read it to two groups at Breaking Bread. It started off lots of great conversations about old wives tales of not cutting down hawthorn trees which are known as fairy trees. There's a white hawthorn tree in Co. Offaly where the road was cut and diverges around the tree, so you come around a corner and there's an island right in the middle of the road, with rags tied onto the tree to bring good luck to the locals. Although it has the effect of looking like an upended trolley in a river bed threaded with plastic bag lacework. Gammy but still lovely.

White hawthorn

I meant to put up photos of the book a long time ago, but other projects have been nudging it out of the way, like a little runty piglet looking for milk it kept being pushed to one side. So here it is...finally! The book is enormous and is too big for the scanner so I'm afraid it's mostly photos. I've included the double page spreads first and then the story follows afterwards page by page.

The Pooka and The Piper

The Pooka and The Piper

In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the "Black Rogue." He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him.

One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother's house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the "Black Rogue" (an rógaire dubh). The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back.

There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said-- "Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff."

"Never mind your mother," said the Púca, "but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes." Then the Púca said to him, "Play up for me the 'Shan Van Vocht' (an t-seann-bhean bhocht)." "I don't know it," said the piper. "Never mind whether you do or you don't," said the Púca. "Play up, and I'll make you know."

The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder. "Upon my word, you're a fine music-master," says the piper then; "but tell me where you're for bringing me."

"There's a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric tonight," says the Púca, "and I'm for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you'll get the price of your trouble." "By my word, you'll save me a journey, then," says the piper, "for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas."

The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room. The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it.

The old woman rose up, and said, "A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November. Who is this you have brought with you?" "The best piper in Ireland," says the Púca.

One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William. "By my conscience, then," says the piper, "myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it's she told the priest I stole his gander."

The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, "Play up music for these ladies." The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him. "By the tooth of Patrick," said he, "I'm as rich as the son of a lord."

"Come with me," says the Púca, "and I'll bring you home." They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, "You have two things now that you never had before--you have sense and music.

The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother's door, saying, "Let me in, I'm as rich as a lord, and I'm the best piper in Ireland."

"You're drunk," said the mother. "No, indeed," says the piper, "I haven't drunk a drop." The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, "Wait now," says he, "till you hear the music, I'll play."

He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He awakened the neighbours and they all were mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.

The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.

The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began. "Leave my sight, you thief," said the priest. But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.

He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the ay of his death, there was never a piper in all of Ireland.