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  1. The Soul Cages
  2. The Potentate and the Fisherman
  3. The Nail

The Soul Cages


People say the merrow is not uncommon on the wilder coasts. The female merrows are pretty for all their fish tails and the little duck-like scale between their fingers. Sometimes they prefer good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers. Sometimes they come out of the sea and wander about the shore in the shape of little hornless cows. They have a red cap when in their own shape, and it is usually covered with feathers. If it is stolen, they cannot again go down under the waves.


Jack Dogherty lived on the coast of the county Clare. Jack was a fisherman, as his father and grandfather before him had been. Like them, too, he lived all alone (but for the wife), and just in the same spot. People used to wonder why the Dogherty family were so fond of that wild situation, so far away from all humankind, and in the middle of huge shattered rocks, with nothing but the wide sea to look on. But they had their own good reasons for it.

The place was just the only spot on that part of the coast where anybody could well live. There was a neat little creek where a boat might lie as snug as a puffin in her nest, and out from this creek a ledge of sunken rocks ran into the sea.

Now when the Atlantic was raging with a storm and a good westerly wind was blowing strong on the coast, many a richly-laden ship went to pieces on these rocks; and then the fine bales of cotton and tobacco, and such like things, and the pipes of wine, and the puncheons of rum, and the casks of brandy, and the kegs of Hollands that used to come ashore! Dunbeg bay was just like a little estate to the Doghertys.

Not but they were kind and humane to a distressed sailor, if ever one had the good luck to get to land; and many a time indeed did Jack put out in his little corragh (which, though not quite equal to honest Andrew Hennessy's canvas life-boat, would breast the billows like any gannet), to lend a hand toward bringing off the crew from a wreck. But when the ship had gone to pieces, and the crew were all lost, who would blame Jack for picking up all he could find?

"And who is the worse for it?" said he. "For as to the king, everybody knows he's rich enough already without getting what's floating in the sea/

Jack, though such a hermit, was a good-natured, jolly fellow. No other, sure, could ever have coaxed Biddy Mahony to quit her father's snug and warm house in the middle of the town of Ennis, and to go so many miles off to live among the rocks, with the seals and seagulls for next-door neighbours. But Biddy knew that Jack was the man for a woman who wished to be comfortable and happy; for, to say nothing of the fish, Jack had the supply of half the gentlemen's houses of the country with the Godsends that came into the bay. And she was right in her choice; for no woman ate, drank, or slept better, or made a prouder appearance at chapel on Sundays than Mrs. Dogherty.

Many a strange sight did Jack see, and many a strange sound did he hear, but nothing daunted him. So far was he from being afraid of merrows, or such beings, that the very first wish of his heart was to fairly meet with one. Jack had heard that they were mighty like humans, and that luck had always came out of an acquaintance with them.

However, although he sometimes thought he dimly discerned the merrows moving along the face of the waters in their robes of mist, and made direct for them; he never could get a right view of one. What vexed him more was that both his father and grandfather had often and often seen them; and he even remembered hearing, when a child, how his grandfather, who was the first of the family that had settled down at the creek, had been so intimate with a merrow that, only for fear of vexing the priest, he would have had him stand for one of his children.

Fortune at length began to think that it was only right that Jack should know as much as his father and grandfather did. Accordingly, one day when he had strolled a little farther than usual along the coast to the northward, just as he turned a point, he saw something, and knew he had never seen anything like it before. It was perched on a rock at a little distance out to sea. It looked green, and had a cocked hat in its hand. Jack stood for a good half-hour straining his eyes, and wondering at it, and all the time the thing did not stir hand or foot.

At last Jack's patience was quite worn out, and he gave a loud whistle and a hail, when the merrow (for such it was) started up, put the cocked hat on its head, and dived down, head foremost, from the rock.

Jack's curiosity was now excited, and he constantly directed his steps toward the point; still he could not get another glimpse of the sea-gentleman with the cocked hat, so Jack began at last to fancy he had been only dreaming.

One very rough day, however, when the sea was running mountains high, Jack Dogherty determined to have a look at the merrow's rock (for he had always chosen a fine day before), and then he saw the strange thing cutting capers on the top of the rock, and then diving down, and then coming up, and then diving down again.

Jack had now only to choose his time (that is, a good blowing day), and he might see the man of the sea as often as he pleased. All this, however, did not satisfy him - "much will have more"; he wished now to get acquainted with the merrow. In this he succeeded.

One tremendous blustering day, before he got to the point whence he had a view of the merrow's rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack had to take shelter in one of the caves there are so many of along the coast. And there he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig's eyes. It had a fish's tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged in thinking very seriously about something.

Jack was a little daunted; but now or never, thought he; so up he went boldly to the cogitating fish man, took off his hat, and made his best bow.

"Good day, sir," said Jack.

"Good day to you too, Jack Dogherty," answered the merrow.

"You know my name?" said Jack.

"Why, I knew your grandfather long before he was married to your grandmother! Ah, Jack, I was fond of that grandfather of yours; he was a mighty, worthy man. I hope you are like him in some ways!"

"Never fear me for that," said Jack.

"Well, you and I must be better acquainted."

Jack said, "Since you live down under the water, you could need to drink something to keep you warm down there. But where you get the spirits?"

"Where do you get them yourself, Jack?" said the merrow. "Hubbubboo," cried Jack, "now I see how it is; but I suppose you have got a fine dry cellar below to keep it in. "I m sure it must be well worth looking at."

"You may say that, Jack," said the merrow; "and if you meet me here next Monday, just at this time of the day, we will have a little more talk with one another about the matter."

Jack and the merrow parted the best friends. On Monday they met, and Jack was not a little surprised to see that the merrow had two cocked hats with him, one under each arm.

"You are not going to give me one of the hats, to keep for the curiosity of the thing?" asked Jack.

"No, Jack," said the merrow, "I don t get my hats so easily, and don't part with them that way; but I want you to come down and dine with me, and I brought you the hat to dine with."

Jack cried in amazement, "Would you want me to go down to the bottom of the salt sea ocean?"

"Your grandfather - may a time he stuck that same hat on his head, and dived down boldly after me; and many a the snug bit of dinner and good shellful of brandy he and I have had together below, under the water."

"Is it really true and no joke?" said Jack.

"Come along, then, and do as I do," said the old fellow.

They both left the cave, walked into the sea, and then swam a piece till they got to the rock. The merrow climbed to the top of it, and Jack followed him. On the far side it was as straight as the wall of a house, and the sea beneath looked so deep that Jack was almost cowed.

"Now, you see, Jack," said the merrow: "just put this hat on your head, and mind to keep your eyes wide open. Take hold of my tail, and follow after me, and you'll see what you'll see."

In he dashed, and in dashed Jack after him. They went and they went below the waves of the Atlantic, and Jack thought they'd never stop going. Many a time did he wish himself sitting at home by the fireside with Biddy. Still he held hard by the merrow's tail, slippery as it was. At last they got out of the water, and he found himself on dry land at the bottom of the sea. They landed just in front of a nice house that was slated very neatly with oyster shells! And the merrow, turning about to Jack, welcomed him down.

Jack could hardly speak, out of breath with travelling so fast through the water. He looked about him and could see no living things, except crabs and lobsters walking leisurely about on the sand. Overhead was the sea like a sky, and the fishes like birds swimming about in it.

The merrow said to him: "I dare say you had no notion that I had such a snug little place here. Now let's see what they've got for us to eat."

Jack followed the merrow into the house, and there he saw a good kitchen, right well provided with everything.

There were plenty of pots and pans, and two young merrows cooking. His host then led him into a room where a good fire was blazing on the hearth.

"Come now, and I'll show you where I keep the liquor," said the merrow, and opening a little door, he led Jack into a fine cellar, well filled with pipes, and kegs, and hogsheads, and barrels.

Jack smacked of his under-lip admiringly.

They went back to the room, and found dinner laid. The choicest of fish was there, and lobsters, and oysters, and twenty other kinds, and plenty of the best of foreign spirits. The wines, the old fellow said, were for his stomach.

Jack ate and drank till he could eat no more; then, taking up a shell of brandy, "Here's to your good health," said he. don t know your name yet."

"And by the way, my name's Coomara," said the other.

Jack took another shellful and cried, "Here's to your good health, Coomara, and may you live fifty more years!"

"Fifty years!" repeated Coomara; "Say five hundred, that is something worth the wishing."

Old Coomara got exceedingly comfortable and sung several songs; but Jack, if his life had depended on it, never could remember more than the chorus to one of them:

"Rum fum boodle boo,

Ripple dipple nitty dob;

Dumdoo doodle Coomara,

Raffle taffle chittiboo!"

At length Coomara to Jack, "Now, my dear boy, if you follow me, I'll show you my curiosities!" He opened a little door, and led Jack into a large room, where Jack saw a great many odds and ends that Coomara had picked up at one time or another. What chiefly took his attention, however, were things like lobster-pots ranged on the ground along the wall.

"May I ask what these lobster-pots are for?"

"The Soul Cages? Yes, I keep the souls in them."

"What souls, sir?" said Jack amazed.

Coomara answered quite coolly, "These are the souls of drowned sailors."

"How did you get them?"

"Easily enough, I place some empty ones on the bottom floor from time to time when a good storm is coming and sailors are drowned. And when the souls get out of the bodies under the water, the poor things make into my pots for shelter, and then I bring them here and keep them dry and warm here. Is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?"

Jack did not know what to say, so he said nothing. They went back into the dining-room, and had a little more brandy, which was excel lent, and then Jack stood up, and said he thought it was time for him to be on the road.

"Just as you like, Jack," said Coomara, "but take a due door-drink before you go; you've a cold journey before you."

Jack knew better manners than to refuse the parting glass. "I wonder," said he, "will I be able to make out my way home?"

"I'll show you the way," said Coomara. He took one of the cocked hats and put it on Jack's head the wrong way, and then lifted him up on his shoulder that he might launch him up into the water.

"Now," said he, giving him a heave, "you'll come up just in the same spot you came down in; and mind and throw me back the hat."

He canted Jack off his shoulder, and up he shot like a bubble - whirr, whirr, whiz - away he went up through the water till he came to the very rock he had jumped off, where he found a landing-place, and then he threw in the hat, which sunk like a stone.

The sun was just going down in the beautiful sky of a calm summer's evening. Jack set off home; but when he got there, he did not say a word to Biddy of where he had spent his day.

The state of the poor souls cooped up in the lobster-pots gave Jack a great deal of trouble, and how to release them cost him a great deal of thought. He at first had a mind to speak to the priest about the matter. But what could the priest do, and what did Coomara care for the priest? Besides, Coomara was a good sort of an old fellow, and did not think he was doing any harm. Jack had a regard for him, too, and it also might not be much to his own credit if it were known that he used to go dine with merrows. On the whole, he thought his best plan would be to ask Coomara to dinner, and to make him drunk, if he was able, and then to take the hat and go down and turn up the pots. It was, first of all, necessary, however, to get Biddy out of the way, for Jack was prudent enough to wish to keep the thing secret from her.

Accordingly, Jack grew mighty pious all of a sudden, and said to Biddy that he thought it would be for the good of both their souls if she was to go and take her rounds at Saint John's Well, near Ennis. Biddy thought so too, and accordingly she set off one fine morning at dawn. The coast being clear, away went Jack to the rock to give a signal to Coomara: it was throwing a big stone into the water. Jack threw, and up sprang Coomara!

"Good morning, Jack," said he; "what do you want with me?"

"Well, would you come and take a bit of dinner with me?"

"It's quite agreeable, Jack, at what time?"

"At one o'clock, if it suits you."

"I'll come," said Coomara.

Jack went home and prepared a noble fish dinner, and got out plenty of his best foreign spirits. It was enough to make twenty men drunk, for that matter. Just to the minute came Coomara, with his cocked hat under his arm. Dinner was ready, they sat down, and ate and drank away. Jack plied old Coomara well with brandy, and encouraged him to sing, hoping to put him under the table, but Jack forgot that he had not the sea over his own head to keep it cool. Finally Coomara reeled off home, leaving Jack dead drunk.

Jack did not wake up till the next morning, and then he was sad. "It's no use thinking to make that old merman drunk," said Jack. "So how can I help the poor souls out of the lobster-pots?"

After ruminating nearly the whole day, a thought struck him. "I have it," said he, slapping his knee; "I guess Coomara never saw a drop of poteen (illegally produced whiskey), as old as he is, and that's the thing to settle him! I can have another twist at him."

Jack told Coomara, "I'll try to drink you drunk and sober."

At this dinner Jack took care to have his own liquor well watered, and to give the strongest brandy he had to Coomara. At last Jack said, "Did you ever drink any poteen?"

"No," said Coomara; "what's that?"

"It is fifty times as good as brandy or rum. Biddy's brother just sent me a little in exchange for some brandy, and as you're an old friend of the family, I kept it to treat you with."

"Well, let's see what it is," said Coomara.

The poteen was first-rate and had the real smack on it. Coomara was delighted; he drank and he sung Rum bum boodle boo over and over again; and he laughed and he danced till he fell on the floor, fast asleep. Then Jack, who had taken good care to keep himself sober, snapped up the cocked hat, ran off to the rock, leaped in, and soon arrived at Coomara's dwelling. All was as still there, and there were none. In he went and turned up the pots. He did not see anything, he only heard a little whistle or chirp as he raised each of them. Afterwards he set the pots as they were before, and sent a blessing after the souls to speed them on their journey wherever they were going.

Jack now began to think of returning; he put the hat on the wrong way - which was right - but when he got out he found the water so high over his head that he had no hopes of ever getting up into it. He walked about, trying to find out what to do. At last he saw a spot where the sea hung lower than anywhere else, so he made up his mind to try there. Just as he came to it, a big cod happened to put down his tail. Jack made a jump and caught hold of it, and the amazed cod gave a bounce and pulled Jack up into the water.

The minute the hat touched the water, Jack shot like a cork, dragging the poor cod with him, for he forgot to let go. He got to the rock in no time, and without a moment's delay hurried home, rejoicing in what he had done.

Meanwhile, after Jack had left the house on his soul-freeing expedition, Biddy came back from town. When she entered the house and saw the things lying on the table before her, she thought that Jack had been drinking. Then she heard an outlandish grunt, from beneath the table, looked down, and saw Coomara lying there.

"Oh," snorted she, "if Jack has not made a real beast of himself! Well, well, I've often heard of a man making a beast of himself with drink! Oh Jack, honey, what will I do with you, or what will I do without you? How can any decent woman ever think of living with a beast?"

With such laments Biddy rushed out of the house and was going she knew not where, when she heard the well-known voice of Jack singing a merry tune. Biddy rejoiced to find him safe and sound and not turned into a thing that was like neither fish nor flesh. Jack had to tell her all, and Biddy, though she had half a mind to be angry with him for not telling her before, owned that he had done a great service to the poor souls.

Back they both went most lovingly to the house, and Jack woke up Coomara and comforted him, saying he had had too much of the poteen, and suggested that he should have some more for repair work.

Coomara then got up, quite out of sorts, and sneaked off to cool himself by a jaunt through the salt water. He never missed the souls. He and Jack continued the best of friends in the world, and perhaps no one ever equalled Jack for freeing souls from purgatory. For he found fifty excuses for getting into the house below the sea, unknown to the old fellow, and then turning up the pots and letting out the souls.

[After Yeats, "The Soul Cages", in Irish Legends and Fairy Tales.]


The Potentate and the Fisherman

The countries washed by the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates were once ruled by a certain potentate who was passionately fond of fish. He was seated one day with his wife, in the royal gardens that stretch down to the banks of the Tigris, at the point where it is spanned by the wonderful bridge of boats; and looking up spied a boat gliding by, in which was seated a fisherman having a large fish.

Noticing that the potentate was looking closely at him, and knowing how much the potentate liked this particular kind of fish, the fisherman bowed, and skilfully bringing his boat to the shore, came before the potentate and offered him the fish as a present. The potentate was greatly pleased at this, and ordered that a large sum of money be given to the fisherman.

But before the fisherman had left the potentate, his favourite wife turned towards the potentate and said: "You have done a foolish thing."

The potentate was astonished to hear her speak in this way, and asked how that could be. The wife replied: "The news of your having given so large a reward for so small a gift will spread through the city and it will be known as the fisherman's gift. Every fisherman who catches a big fish will bring it to the palace, and should he not be paid in like manner, he will go away discontented, and secretly speak evil of you among his fellows."

"You seem to speak the truth," said the potentate, "but can't you see how mean it would be for a potentate, if for that reason he were to take back his gift?" Then perceiving that the queen was ready to argue the matter, he turned away angrily, saying: "The matter is closed."

However, later in the day, when he was in a more amiable frame of mind, his first wife again approached him, and said that if that was his only reason for not taking back his gift, she would arrange it. "You must summon the fisherman," she said, "and then ask him, 'Is this fish male or female?' If he says male, then you will tell him that you wanted a female fish; but if he should say female, your reply will be that you wanted a male fish. In this way the matter will be properly adjusted."

The potentate thought this an easy way out of the difficulty, and commanded the fisherman to be brought before him. When the fisherman stood before the potentate, he said to him: "Fisherman, tell me, is this fish male or female?"

The fisherman replied, "I don't remember."

The potentate smiled at the answer, and to add to the queen's annoyance, directed the keeper of the royal purse to give the fisherman a further sum of money. Then the fisherman placed the money in his leather bag, thanked the potentate, and swinging the bag over his shoulder, hurried away, but not so quickly that he did not notice that he had dropped one small coin. Placing the bag on the ground, he stooped and picked up the coin, and again went on his way, with the potentate and his favourite wife carefully watching his every action.

"Look, what a miser he is!" said the first wife. "He actually put down his bag to pick up one small coin because it grieved him to think that it might reach the hands of one of the potentate's servants, or some poor person, who, needing it, would buy bread and pray for the long life of the potentate."

"Again you seem to speak the truth," replied the potentate, and once more was the fisherman brought into their presence.

The potentate said sharply to the fisherman. "Although I have made you rich without toil, yet you could not allow yourself to leave even one small piece of money for others."

Then the potentate bade him to go away and show his face no more within the city. At this the fisherman cried: "Not for its value did I pick up the coin, but because on one side it bore the likeness of the potentate. I feared that someone, not seeing the coin, would tread it into the dirt, and thus defile the face of the potentate."

This answer pleased the potentate, and he gave the fisherman another large sum of money. And the wrath of his wife was turned away too. She even looked kindly on the fisherman as he left with his bag laden with money.

[Retold. From The Cat and the Mouse]


The Nail

A tradesman had had a very good day at a fair and filled his purse with gold and silver. Afterward he prepared to go home and be there by the evening, so he strapped his large leather suitcase with the money in it, on his horse's back, and rode off.

At noon he halted in a small town. As he was about to set out again, the stable-boy who brought his horse said to him: "Sir, a nail is wanting in the shoe on the left hind foot of your animal."

"Let it be wanting," replied the tradesman; "I am in a hurry and I think the iron will hold the six hours I have yet to travel."

Late in the afternoon he had to dismount again and feed his horse, and at this place also the boy came and told him that a nail was wanting in one of the shoes, and asked him whether he should take the horse to a farrier.

"No, no, let it be!" replied the man; "it will last out the couple of hours that I have left to travel today; I am in haste."

So saying he rode off. But his horse soon began to limp, and from limping it came to stumbling, and suddenly the horse fell down and broke its leg. Then the tradesman had to leave his unfortunate horse lying on the road, to unfasten the suitcase, and to walk home with it on his shoulder. It was late night when he arrived.

"And all this misfortune," said he to himself, "is due to the want of a nail. More haste, the less speed!"


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