IT was about two hundred years ago, in the month of May, that a secret druid near Rathdowney in Queen's County was awakened at midnight to attend a dying man in a distant part of the parish. The druid went there and performed his duty to the expiring sinner, saw him depart this world before he left the cabin. As it was yet dark, the man who had called on the priest offered to accompany him home, but he refused, and set forward on his journey alone. The grey dawn began to appear over the hills. The good druid was highly enraptured with the beauty of the scene, and rode on, now gazing intently at every surrounding object, and again cutting with his whip at the bats and big beautiful night-flies which flitted ever and anon from hedge to hedge across his lonely way. Thus engaged, he journeyed on slowly, till the nearer approach of sunrise began to render objects completely discernible, when he climbed off his horse, and slipping his arm out of the rein, and drawing forth his Druid Primer from his pocket, he started to read his "morning office" as he walked leisurely along.
He had not walked very far, when he observed his horse, a very spirited animal, trying to stop on the road, and gazing intently into a field on one side of the way where there were three or four cows grazing.
He did not pay any particular attention to this circumstance, but went on a little farther. Then the horse suddenly plunged with great violence, and strove to break away by force. The druid with great difficulty succeeded in restraining him, and, looking at him more closely, observed him shaking from head to foot, and sweating profusely. The horse now stood calmly, and refused to move from where he was, nor could threats or entreaty induce him to proceed.
The druid was greatly astonished, but recollecting to have often heard of horses labouring under affright being induced to go by blindfolding them, he took out his handkerchief and tied it across his eyes. He then mounted, and, striking him gently, he went forward without reluctance, but still sweating and trembling violently.
They had not gone far, when they arrived opposite a narrow path or bridle-way, flanked at either side by a tall, thick hedge, which led from the high road to the field where the cows were grazing. The priest happened by chance to look into the lane, and saw a spectacle which made the blood curdle in his veins. It was the legs of a man from the hips downwards, without head or body, trotting up the avenue at a smart pace. The good druid was very much alarmed, but, being a man of strong nerve, he resolved, come what might, to stand, and be further acquainted with this singular spectre.
He accordingly stood, and so did the headless apparition, as if afraid to approach him. The priest observing this, pulled back a little from the entrance of the avenue, and the phantom again started walking. It soon arrived on the road, and the priest now had enough opportunity to view it minutely. It wore yellow buckskin breeches, tightly fastened at the knees with green ribbon; it had neither shoes nor stockings on, and its legs were covered with long, red hairs, and all full of wet, blood, and clay, apparently contracted in its progress through the thorny hedges.
The druid, although alarmed, felt eager to examine the phantom, and for this purpose summoned all his philosophy to enable him to speak to it. The ghost was now a little ahead, pursuing its march at its usual brisk trot, and the priest urged on his horse speedily till he came up with it, and thus addressed it
"Hello there, who are you, and where you going so early?"
The hideous spectre made no reply, but uttered a fierce and superhuman growl, or "Umph".
"A fine morning for ghosts to wander abroad," again said the priest.
Another "Umph" was the reply.
"Why don't you speak?"
"You don't seem disposed to be very talkative this morning."
The good man began to feel irritated at the obstinate silence of his unearthly visitor, and said, with some warmth
"In the name of all druids, I command you to answer me, Who are you, and where are you travelling?"
Another "Umph", more loud and more angry than before, was the only reply.
'Perhaps," said the druid, "a taste of whipcord might render you a little more communicative"; and so saying, he struck the apparition a heavy blow with his whip on the breech.
The phantom uttered a wild and unearthly yell, and fell forward on the road, and what was the priest's astonishment when he perceived the whole place running over with milk. He was struck dumb with amazement; the prostrate phantom still continued to eject vast quantities of milk from every part; the priest's head swam, his eyes got dizzy; a stupor came all over him for some minutes, and on his recovering, the frightful spectre had vanished, and in its stead he found stretched on the road, and half drowned in milk, the form of Sarah Kennedy, an old woman of the neighbourhood. She had been long notorious in that district for her witchcraft and superstitious practices, and it was now discovered that she had assumed that monstrous shape, and was employed that morning in sucking the cows of the village. He gazed awhile in silent amazementthe old woman groaning, and writhing convulsively.
"Sarah," said he, at length, "I have long admonished you to repent of evil ways, but you were deaf to my entreaties; and now, wretched woman, you are surprised in the middle of your crimes."
"Oh, oh, oh," shouted the unfortunate woman, "can you do nothing to save me? I am waiting a little if you can."
But as she talked, her body swelled and writhed, her face sunk, her eyes closed, and in a few minutes she was dead.
The druid departed homewards, and called at the next cabin to give notice of the strange circumstances. The remains of Sarah Kennedy were removed to her cabin, situate at the edge of a small wood at a little distance. She had long been a resident in that neighbourhood, but still she was a stranger, and came there no one knew from where. She had no relation in that country but one daughter, now advanced in years, who lived with her. Sara had kept one cow, but sold more butter than any farmer in the parish, and it was generally suspected that she got it by underhand means, and was finally buried in a sand-pit near her own cabin.
On the evening of her burial the villagers gathered and burned her cabin to the earth. Her daughter escaped, and never after returned.
On the road between Passage and Cork there is an old mansion called Ronayne's Court. It may be easily known from the stack of chimneys and the gable-ends. Here it was that Maurice Ronayne and his wife Margaret Gould kept house. They had but one son, who was called Philip, after a king of Spain.
The father and mother were proud of their heir. One morning, however, when the boy was just seven years old, he was missing, and no one could tell what had become of him. Servants were sent in all directions to seek him on horseback and on foot, but they returned without any tidings of the boy, and no one could account for how he had disappeared. A large reward was offered, but in vain; years rolled by.
There lived at this time, near Carrigaline, one Robin Kelly, a blacksmith by trade. He was what is termed a handy man, and his abilities were held in much estimation by the lads and the lasses of the neighbourhood; for apart of shoeing horses, which he did very well, and making plough-irons, he interpreted dreams for the young women, sung "Arthur O'Bradley" at their weddings, and was good-natured too.
Now it happened that Robin himself had a dream where young Philip Ronayne appeared to him in it at the dead hour of the night. Robin thought he saw the boy mounted on a beautiful white horse, and that he told him how he was made a page to the giant Mahon MacMahon, who had carried him off, and who held his court in the hard heart of the rock.
"The seven yearsmy time of serviceare clean out, Robin," said he, "and if you release me tonight it will be good for me and for you too."
"And how will I know," said Robin-cunning enough, even in his sleep"but this is all a dream?"
'Take that," said the boy, "for a token"and at the word the white horse struck out with one of his hind legs, and gave poor Robin such a kick in the forehead that, thinking he was a dead man, he roared as loud as he could after his brains, and woke up, calling a thousand murders. He found himself in bed, but he had the mark of the blow, the regular print of a horse-shoe, on his forehead as red as blood; and Robin Kelly, who never before found himself puzzled at the dream of any other person, did not know what to think of his own.
Robin was well acquainted with the harbour called the Giant's Stairs. They consist of great masses of rock, which, piled one above another, rise like a flight of steps from very deep water, against the bold cliff of Carrigmahon. Nor are they badly suited for stairs to those who have long enough legs to stride over a moderate-sized house in a hop, step, and jump.
Such was the impression which the dream made on Robin, that he determined to put its truth to the test. It occurred to him, however, before setting out on his adventure, that a plough-iron may be no bad companion, as, from experience, he knew that it was an excellent knock-down argument, having on more occasions than one settled a little disagreement very quietly: so, putting one on his shoulder, off he marched, in the cool of the evening, through the Hawk's Glen to Monkstown. Here the old gossip Tom Clancey lived. When heard of Robin's dream, he promised him the use of his boat, and moreover, offered to assist in rowing it to the Giant's Stairs.
After supper, which was of the best, they embarked. It was a beautiful still night, and the little boat glided swiftly along. The regular dip of the oars, the distant song of the sailor, and sometimes the voice of a belated traveller at the ferry of Carrigaloe, alone broke the quietness of the land and sea and sky. The tide was in their favour, and in a few minutes Robin and his gossip rested on their oars under the dark shadow of the Giant's Stairs. Robin looked anxiously for the entrance to the Giant's palace, which, it was said, may be found by anyone seeking it at midnight; but no such entrance could he see. His impatience had hurried him there before that time, and after waiting a considerable space in a state of suspense not to be described, Robin, with pure vexation, could not help exclaiming to his companion, 'It is a pair of fools we are, Tom Clancey, for coming here at all on the strength of a dream."
"And whose doing is it," said Tom, "but your own?"
At the moment he spoke they perceived a faint glimmering of light from the cliff. The light gradually increased till a porch big enough for a king's palace unfolded itself almost on a level with the water. They pulled the skiff towards the opening, and Robin Kelly, seizing his plough-iron, boldly entered with a strong hand and a stout heart. Wild and strange was that entrance, the whole of which appeared formed of grim and grotesque faces, blending so strangely each with the other that it was impossible to define any: the chin of one formed the nose of another; what appeared to be a fixed and stem eye, if dwelt on, changed to a gaping mouth; and the lines of the lofty forehead grew into a majestic and flowing beard. The more Robin allowed himself to contemplate the forms around him, the more terrific they became; and the stony expression of this crowd of faces assumed a savage ferocity as his imagination converted feature after feature into a different shape and character. Losing the twilight in which these indefinite forms were visible, he advanced through a dark and devious passage, whilst a deep and rumbling noise sounded as if the rock was about to close on him, and swallow him up alive for ever. Now Robin felt afraid.
"Robin, Robin," said he, "if you were a fool for coming here, what in the name of fortune are you now?" But, as before, he had scarcely spoken, when he saw a small light twinkling through the darkness of the distance, like a star in the midnight sky. To retreat was out of the question; for so many turnings and windings were in the passage, that he considered he had but little chance of making his way back. He therefore went on towards the bit of light, and came at last into a spacious chamber, from the roof of which hung the solitary lamp that had guided him. Emerging from such profound gloom, the single lamp afforded Robin abundant light to discover several gigantic figures seated round a massive stone table, as if in serious deliberation, but no word disturbed the breathless silence which prevailed. At the head of this table sat Mahon MacMahon himself, whose majestic beard had taken root, and in the course of ages grown into the stone slab. He was the first who perceived Robin; and instantly starting up, drew his long beard from out the huge piece of rock in such haste and with so sudden a jerk that it was shattered into a thousand pieces.
"What do you seek?" he demanded in a voice of thunder.
"I come," answered Robin, with as much boldness as he could put on, for his heart was almost fainting within him; "I come," said he, "to claim Philip Ronayne, whose time of service is out tonight."
"And who sent you here?" said the giant.
"It was of my own accord I came," said Robin.
"Then you must single him out from among my pages," said the giant; "and if you fix on the wrong one, your life is over. Follow me." He led Robin into a hall of vast extent and fined with lights; along either side of which were rows of beautiful children, all apparently seven years old, and none beyond that age, dressed in green, and every one dressed exactly alike.
"Here," said Mahon, "you are free to take Philip Ronayne, if you will; but, remember, I give you but one choice."
Robin was sadly perplexed; for there were hundreds on hundreds of children; and he had no very clear recollection of the boy he sought. But he walked along the hall, by the side of Mahon, as if nothing was the matter, although his great iron dress clanked fearfully at every step, sounding louder than Robin's own sledge battering on his anvil.
They had nearly reached the end without speaking, when Robin, seeing that the only means he had was to make friends with the giant, determined to try what effect a few soft words might have.
"'It is a fine wholesome appearance the poor children carry," remarked Robin, "although they have been here so long shut out from the fresh air and the blessed light of heaven. "You must have reared them tenderly!"'
"Ay," said the giant, "that is true; so give me your hand; for you are, I believe, a very honest fellow for a blacksmith."
Robin at first look did not much like the huge size of the hand, and, therefore, presented his plough-iron, which the giant seizing, twisted in his grasp round and round again as if it had been a potato stalk. On seeing this all the children set up a shout of laughter. In the middle of their mirth Robin thought he heard his name called; and all ear and eye, he put his hand on the boy who he fancied had spoken, crying out at the same time, "Let me live or die for it, but this is young Phil Ronayne."
"It is Philip Ronaynehappy Philip Ronayne," said his young companions; and in an instant the hall became dark. Crashing noises were heard, and all was in strange confusion; but Robin held fast his prize, and found himself lying in the grey dawn of the morning at the head of the Giant's Stairs with the boy clasped in his arms.
Robin had plenty of gossips to spread the story of his wonderful adventure: Passage, Monkstown, Carrigalinethe whole barony of Kerricurrihy rung with it.
"Are you quite sure, Robin, it is young Phil Ronayne you have brought back with you?" was the regular question; for although the boy had been seven years away, his appearance now was just the same as on the day he was missed. He had neither grown taller nor older in look, and he spoke of things which had happened before he was carried off as one awakened from sleep, or as if they had occurred yesterday.
"Am I sure? Well, that's a queer question," was Robin's reply; "Seeing the boy has the blue eye of the mother, with the foxy hair of the father; to say nothing of the pretty wart on the right side of his little nose."
However Robin Kelly may have been questioned, the worthy couple of Ronayne's Court doubted not that he was the deliverer of their child from the power of the giant MacMahon; and the reward they bestowed on him equalled their gratitude.
Philip Ronayne lived to be an old man; and he was remarkable to the day of his death for his skill in working brass and iron, which it was believed he had learned during his seven years' apprenticeship to the giant Mahon MacMahon.