There was an old fisherman once in Erin who had a wife and one son.
The old fisherman used to go about with a fishing-rod and tackle to the rivers and lochs and every place where fish resort, and he was killing salmon and other fish to keep the life in himself and his wife and son.
The son was not so keen nor so wise as another, and the father was instructing him every day in fishing, so that if himself should be taken from the world, the son would be able to support the old mother and get his own living.
One day when the father and son were fishing in a river near the sea, they looked out over the water and saw a small dark speck on the waves. It grew larger and larger, till they saw a boat, and when the boat drew near they saw a man sitting in the stern of it.
There was a nice beach near the place where they were fishing. The man brought the boat straight to the beach, and stepping out drew it up on the sand.
They saw then that the stranger was a man of high degree (duine uasal).
After he had put the boat high on the sand, he came to where the two were at work, and said: "Old fisherman, you'd better let this son of yours with me for a year and a day, and I will make a very wise man of him. I am the Gruagach na g-cleasan (Gruagach of tricks), and I'll bind myself to be here with your son this day year."
"I can't let him go," said the old fisherman, "till he gets his mother's advice."
"Whatever goes as far as women I'll have nothing to do with," said the Gruagach. "You had better give him to me now, and let the mother alone."
They talked till at last the fisherman promised to let his son go for the year and a day. Then the Gruagach gave his word to have the boy there at the seashore that day year.
The Gruagach and the boy went into the boat and sailed away.
When the year and a day were over, the old fisherman went to the same place where he had parted with his son and the Gruagach, and stood looking over the sea, thinking would he see his son that day.
At last he saw a black spot on the water, then a boat. When it was near he saw two men sitting in the stern of the boat. When it touched land, the two, who were duine uasal in appearance, jumped out, and one of them pulled the boat to the top of the strand. Then that one, followed by the other, came to where the old fisherman was waiting, and asked: "What trouble is on you now, my good man?"
"I had a son that wasn't so keen nor so wise as another, and myself and this son were here fishing, and a stranger came, like yourself to-day, and asked would I let my son with him for a year and a day. I let the son go, and the man promised to be here with him to-day, and that's why I am waiting at this place now." "Well," said the Gruagach, "am I your son?"
"You are not," said the fisherman.
"Is this man here your son?"
"I don't know him," said the fisherman.
"Well, then, he is all you will have in place of your son," said the Gruagach.
The old man looked again, and knew his son. He caught hold of him and welcomed him home.
"Now," said the Gruagach, "isn't he a better man than he was a year ago?"
"Oh, he's nearly a smart man now!" said the old fisherman.
"Well," said the Gruagach, "will you let him with me for another year and a day?"
"I will not," said the old man; "I want him myself."
The Gruagach then begged and craved till the fisherman promised to let the son with him for a year and a day again. But the old man forgot to take his word of the Gruagach to bring back the son at the end of the time; and when the Gruagach and the boy were in the boat, and had pushed out to sea, the Gruagach shouted to the old man: "I kept my promise to bring back your son to-day. I haven't given you my word at all now. I'll not bring him back, and you'll never see him again."
The fisherman went home with a heavy and sorrowful heart, and the old woman scolded him all that night till next morning for letting her son go with the Gruagach a second time.
Then himself and the old woman were lamenting a quarter of a year; and when another quarter had passed, he said to her: "I'll leave you here now, and I'll be walking on myself till I wear my legs off up to my knees, and from my knees to my waist, till I find where is my son." So away went the old man walking, and he used to spend but one night in a house, and not two nights in any house, till his feet were all in blisters. One evening late he came to a hut where there was an old woman sitting at a fire.
"Poor man!" said she, when she laid eyes on him, "it's a great distress you are in, to be so disfigured with wounds and sores. What is the trouble that's on you?"
"I had a son," said the old man, "and the Gruagach na g-cleasan came on a day and took him from me."
"Oh, poor man!" said she. "I have a son with that same Gruagach these twelve years, and I have never been able to get him back or get sight of him, and I'm in dread you'll not be able to get your son either. But to-morrow, in the morning, I'll tell you all I know, and show you the road you must go to find the house of the Gruagach na g-cleasan."
Next morning she showed the old fisherman the road. He was to come to the place by evening.
When he came and entered the house, the Gruagach shook hands with him, and said: "You are welcome, old fisherman. It was I that put this journey on you, and made you come here looking for your son."
"It was no one else but you," said the fisherman.
"Well," said the Gruagach, "you won't see your son to-day. At noon to-morrow I'll put a whistle in my mouth and call together all the birds in my place, and they'll come. Among others will be twelve doves. I'll put my hand in my pocket, this way, and take out wheat and throw it before them on the ground. The doves will eat the wheat, and you must pick your son out of the twelve. If you find him, you'll have him; if you don't, you'll never get him again."
After the Gruagach had said these words the old man ate his supper and went to bed.
In the dead of night the old fisherman's son came. "Oh, father!" said he, "it would be hard for you to pick me out among the twelve doves, if you had to do it alone; but I'll tell you. When the Gruagach calls us in, and we go to pick up the wheat, I'll make a ring around the others, walking for myself; and as I go I'll give some of them a tip of my bill, and I'll lift my wings when I'm striking them. There was a spot under one of my arms when I left home, and you'll see that spot under my wing when I raise it to-morrow. Don't miss the bird that I'll be, and don't let your eyes off it; if you do, you'll lose me forever."
Next morning the old man rose, had his breakfast, and kept thinking of what his son had told him.
At midday the Gruagach took his whistle and blew. Birds came to him from every part, and among others the twelve doves.
He took wheat from his pocket, threw it to the doves, and said to the father: "Now pick out your son from the twelve."
The old man was watching, and soon he saw one of the doves walking around the other eleven and hitting some of them a clip of its bill, and then it raised its wings, and the old man saw the spot. The bird let its wings down again, and went to eating with the rest.
The father never let his eyes off the bird. After a while he said to the Gruagach: "I'll have that bird there for my son." "Well," said the Gruagach, "that is your son. I can't blame you for having him; but I blame your instructor for the information he gave you, and I give him my curse."
So the old fisherman got his son back in his proper shape, and away they went, father and son, from the house of the Gruagach. The old man felt stronger now, and they never stopped travelling a day till they came home.
The old mother was very glad to see her son, and see him such a wise, smart man.
After coming home they had no means but the fishing; they were as poor as ever before.
At this time it was given out at every crossroad in Erin, and in all public places in the kingdom, that there were to be great horse-races. Now, when the day came, the old fisherman's son said:
"Come away with me, father, to the races."
The old man went with him, and when they were near the race-course, the son said:
"Stop here till I tell you this: I'll make myself into the best horse that's here to-day, and do you take me to the place where the races are to be, and when you take me in, I'll open my mouth, trying to kill and eat every man that'll be near me, I'll have such life and swiftness; and do you find a rider for me that'll ride me, and don't let me go till the other horses are far ahead on the course. Then let me go. I'll come up to them, and I'll run ahead of them and win the race. After that every rich man there will want to buy me of you; but don't you sell me to any man for less than five hundred pounds; and be sure you get that price for me. And when you have the gold, and you are giving me up, take the bit out of my mouth, and don't sell the bridle for any money. Then come to this spot, shake the bridle, and I'll be here in my own form before you."
The son made himself a horse, and the old fisherman took him to the race. He reared and snorted, trying to take the head off every man that came near him.
The old man shouted for a rider. A rider came; he mounted the horse and held him in. The old man didn't let him start till the other horses were well ahead on the course; then he let him go.
The new horse caught up with the others and shot past them. So they had not gone half way when he was in at the winning-post.
When the race was ended, there was a great noise over the strange horse. Men crowded around the old fisherman from every corner of the field, asking what would he take for the horse.
"Five hundred pounds," said he.
"Here 'tis for you," said the next man to him.
In a moment the horse was sold, and the money in the old man's pocket. Then he pulled the bridle off the horse's head, and made his way out of the place as fast as ever he could.
It was not long till he was at the spot where the son had told him what to do. The minute he came, he shook the bridle, and the son was there before him in his own shape and features.
Oh, but the old fisherman was glad when he had his son with him again, and the money in his pocket!
The two went home together. They had money enough now to live, and quit the fishing. They had plenty to eat and drink, and they spent their lives in ease and comfort till the next year, when it was given out at all the cross-roads in Erin, and every public place in the kingdom, that there was to be a great hunting with hounds, in the same place where the races had been the year before.
When the day came, the fisherman's son said: "Come, father, let us go away to this hunting."
"Ah!" said the old man, "what do we want to go for? Haven't we plenty to eat at home, with money enough and to spare? What do we care for hunting with hounds?"
"Oh! they'll give us more money," said the son, "if we go."
The fisherman listened to his son, and away they went. When the two came to the spot where the son had made a horse of himself the year before, he stopped, and said to the father: "I'll make a hound of myself to-day, and when you bring me in sight of the game, you'll see me wild with jumping and trying to get away; but do you hold me fast till the right time comes, then let go. I'll sweep ahead of every hound in the field, catch the game, and win the prize for you.
"When the hunt is over, so many men will come to buy me that they'll put you in a maze; but be sure you get three hundred pounds for me, and when you have the money, and are giving me up, don't forget to keep my rope. Come to this place, shake the rope, and I'll be here before you, as I am now. If you don't keep the rope, you'll go home without me."
The son made a hound of himself, and the old father took him to the hunting-ground.
When the hunt began, the hound was springing and jumping like mad; but the father held him till the others were far out in the field. Then he let him loose, and away went the son.
Soon he was up with the pack, then in front of the pack, and never stopped till he caught the game and won the prize.
When the hunt was over, and the dogs and game brought in, all the people crowded around the old fisherman, saying: "What do you want of that hound? Better sell him; he's no good to you."
They put the old man in a maze, there were so many of them, and they pressed him so hard.
He said at last: "I'll sell the hound; and three hundred pounds is the price I want for him."
"Here 'tis for you," said a stranger, putting the money into his hand.
The old man took the money and gave up the dog, without taking off the rope. He forgot his son's warning.
That minute the Gruagach na g-cleasan called out: "I'll take the worth of my money out of your son now;" and away he went with the hound.
The old man walked home alone that night, and it is a heavy heart he had in him when he came to the old woman without the son. And the two were lamenting their lot till morning.
Still and all, they were better off than the first time they lost their son, as they had plenty of everything, and could live at their ease.
The Gruagach went away home, and put the fisherman's son in a cave of concealment that he had, bound him hand and foot, and tied hard knots on his neck up to the chin. From above there fell on him drops of poison, and every drop that fell went from the skin to the flesh, from the flesh to the bone, from the bone to the marrow, and he sat there under the poison drops, without meat, drink, or rest.
In the Gruagach's house was a servant-maid, and the fisherman's son had been kind to her the time he was in the place before.
On a day when the Gruagach and his eleven sons were out hunting, the maid was going with a tub of dirty water to throw it into the river that ran by the side of the house. She went through the cave of concealment where the fisherman's son was bound, and he asked of her the wetting of his mouth from the tub.
"Oh! the Gruagach would take the life of me," said she, "when he comes home, if I gave you as much as one drop."
"Well," said he, "when I was in this house before, and when I had power in my hands, it's good and kind I was to you; and when I get out of this confinement I'll do you a turn, if you give me the wetting of my mouth now."
The maid put the tub near his lips.
"Oh! I can't stoop to drink unless you untie one knot from my throat," said he.
Then she put the tub down, stooped to him, and loosed one knot from his throat. When she loosed the one knot he made an eel of himself, and dropped into the tub. There he began shaking the water, till he put some of it on the ground, and when he had the place about him wet, he sprang from the tub, and slipped along out under the door. The maid caught him; but could not hold him, he was so slippery. He made his way from the door to the river, which ran near the side of the house.
When the Gruagach na g-cleasan came home in the evening with his eleven sons, they went to take a look at the fisherman's son; but he was not to be seen. Then the Gruagach called the maid, and taking his sword, said: "I'll take the head off you if you don't tell me this minute what happened while I was gone."
"Oh!" said the maid, "he begged so hard for a drop of dirty water to wet his mouth that I hadn't the heart to refuse, for 'tis good he was to me and kind each time he saw me when he was here in the house before. When the water touched his mouth, he made an eel of himself, spilled water out of the tub, and slipped along over the wet place to the river outside. I caught him to bring him back, but I couldn't hold him; in spite of all I could do, he made away."
The Gruagach dropped his sword, and went to the water side with his sons.
The sons made eleven eels of themselves, and the Gruagach their father was the twelfth. They went around in the water, searching in every place, and there was not a stone in the river that they passed without looking under and around it for the old fisherman's son.
And when he knew that they were after him, he made himself into a salmon; and when they knew he was a salmon, the sons made eleven otters of themselves, and the Gruagach made himself the twelfth.
When the fisherman's son found that twelve otters were after him, he was weak with hunger, and when they had come near, he made himself a whale. But the eleven brothers and their father made twelve cannon whales of themselves, for they had all gone out of the river, and were in the sea now.
When they were coming near him, the fisherman's son was weak from pursuit and hunger, so he jumped up out of the water, and made a swallow of himself; but the Gruagach and his sons became twelve hawks, and chased the swallow through the air; and as they whirled round and darted, they pressed him hard, till all of them came near the castle of the king of Erin.
Now the king had made a summer-house for his daughter; and where should she be at this time but sitting on the top of the summer-house.
The old fisherman's son dropped down till he was near her; then he fell into her lap in the form of a ring. The daughter of the king of Erin took up the ring, looked at it, and put it on her finger. The ring took her fancy, and she was glad.
When the Gruagach and his sons saw this, they let themselves down at the king's castle, having the form of the finest men that could be seen in the kingdom.
When the king's daughter had the ring on her finger she looked at it and liked it. Then the ring spoke, and said: "My life is in your hands now; don't part from the ring, and don't let it go to any man, and you'll give me a long life."
The Gruagach na g-cleasan and his eleven sons went into the king's castle and played on every instrument known to man, and they showed every sport that could be shown before a king. This they did for three days and three nights. When that time was over, and they were going away, the king spoke up and asked:
"What is the reward that you would like, and what would be pleasing to you from me?"
"We want neither gold nor silver," said the Gruagach; "all the reward we ask of you is the ring that I lost on a time, and which is now on your daughter's finger." "If my daughter has the ring that you lost, it shall be given to you," said the king.
Now the ring spoke to the king's daughter and said: "Don't part with me for anything till you send your trusted man for three gallons of strong spirits and a gallon of wheat; put the spirits and the wheat together in an open barrel before the fire. When your father says you must give up the ring, do you answer back that you have never left the summer-house, that you have nothing on your hand but what is your own and paid for. Your father will say then that you must part with me, and give me up to the stranger. When he forces you in this way, and you can keep me no longer, then throw me into the fire; and you'll see great sport and strange things."
The king's daughter sent for the spirits and the wheat, had them mixed together, and put in an open barrel before the fire.
The king called the daughter in, and asked: "Have you the ring which this stranger lost?"
"I have a ring," said she, "but it's my own, and I'll not part with it. I'll not give it to him nor to any man."
"You must," said the king, "for my word is pledged, and you must part with the ring!"
When she heard this, she slipped the ring from her finger and threw it into the fire.
That moment the eleven brothers made eleven pairs of tongs of themselves; their father, the old Gruagach, was the twelfth pair.
The twelve jumped into the fire to know in what spark of it would they find the old fisherman's son; and they were a long time working and searching through the fire, when out flew a spark, and into the barrel. The twelve made themselves men, turned over the barrel, and spilled the wheat on the floor. Then in a twinkling they were twelve cocks strutting around.
They fell to and picked away at the wheat to know which one would find the fisherman's son. Soon one dropped on one side, and a second on the opposite side, until all twelve were lying drunk from the wheat.
Then the old fisherman's son made a fox of himself, and the first cock he came to was the old Gruagach na g-cleasan himself. He took the head off the Gruagach with one bite, and the heads off the eleven brothers with eleven other bites.
When the twelve were dead, the old fisherman's son made himself the finest-looking man in Erin, and began to give music and sport to the king; and he entertained him five times better than had the Gruagach and his eleven sons.
Then the king's daughter fell in love with him, and she set her mind on him to that degree that there was no life for her without him.
When the king saw the straits that his daughter was in, he ordered the marriage without delay.
The wedding lasted for nine days and nine nights, and the ninth night was the best of all.
When the wedding was over, the king felt he was losing his strength, so he took the crown off his own head, and put it on the head of the old fisherman's son, and made him king of Erin in place of himself.
The young couple were the luck, and we the stepping-stones. The presents we got at the marriage were stockings of buttermilk and shoes of paper, and these were worn to the soles of our feet when we got home from the wedding.
Notes: Contains 20 Irish folktales.
Author: Jeremiah Curtin
Publisher: Sampson Low, Martson, Searle & Rivington, London