A long time ago, in county Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, there lived a boy who played the pipes. To be precise, he could play exactly one tune on the pipes, which was ‘Black Rogue’. He played it often enough, and earned good money for his single song. One night he had been performing at a gentleman’s party, and was returning home in jolly spirits. As he crossed an old stone bridge, slightly swaying from side to side, and piping his one and only tune, the Pooka came up behind him.
Now in case you don’t know, the Pooka is a creature that lives in the countryside of Ireland. It can easily shift its shape. Sometimes the Pooka might look like a horse, or a goat, or a goblin. In this case it walked on two legs and had horns on its head. He gave the piper boy such a hard shove in the back that he fell right over, landed on his pipes and squeezed all the air out of the bag so that it made a sound like a cat. The boy had fighting spirit in him. He was soon back on his feet and he grabbed the fairy creature by the horns. The Pooka, however, had the strength of the supernatural and he easily picked the lad up and placed him on the side of the bridge.
“Any more trouble and you and your bagpipes will be swimming in the river,” he snarled. “Now stand up and play ‘Shan Van Vocht’ for me!”
“I would gladly, but I don’t know the notes,” said the boy.
“Put your wind in your pipes and I’ll put the notes in your head,” replied the Pooka.
The boy blew with all his might and played the jig, so that he wondered at his own skill.
“Musha! You’re a fine music teacher,” said the boy. “How come you’re so keen to teach me new tunes?”
“Tonight there’s a feast in the house of the Banshees,” said the Pooka. “And you shall play for them.” Now the Pooka transformed himself into a horse, and as the boy had little choice, he climbed onto its back.
The Pooka dashed over hills and through bogs. Finally they clattered down a road to the gates of a grand country house. The Pooka knocked three times on the door with his hoof, and it opened by itself. They clip-clopped through, into a grand dining room. Here the raucous cackling, shrieking and chattering of a 100 old women filled the air to the rafters.The banshees were in the midst of a magnificent feast. One of them stood up, and raised a goblet of wine to the new arrivals.
“Welcome Pooka,” she called out. “Who have you brought to us riding on your back?”
And the Pooka replied: “The finest piper in Ireland.”
Then the piper boy stood on a chair, blew into his pipes and played jigs and reels, waltzes and polkas. The old ladies all took to the floor and danced in a frenzy until the first morning light kissed the window panes.
The Pooka called out: “Time to pay the piper for his tunes,” and each of the ladies threw a gold coin into the musician’s cap.
The boy’s eyes boggled: “By the tooth of Saint Patrick,” he declared, “I’m as rich as a lord.” Before he left, there was one more surprise in store for him. A goose came into the dining hall and started to clear up the tables.
“I know that goose,” said the boy. “I took her from Father Mulligan’s garden last Christmas. I swear, my mother, my sister and I ate her all, except for one wing that we gave to Mary next door, and then she told the priest that it was I who had stolen his bird.”
Fortunately, neither the Pooka nor the banshees held a poor opinion of the lad who stole birds for his mother’s table. The boy mounted the Pooka once again, and they rushed back to the bridge where they had met. From there he returned home on foot.
“Mother!” he called out as he came through the door. “I’ve just come from the house of the banshees. The Pooka carried me there on his back and returned me safely to the stone bridge just ten minutes ago.”
“Musha, you’ve been at the whisky!” exclaimed the good lady.
“I’ve not had a drop,” insisted the boy, and he took out his purse and emptied the gold coins onto the table.
“There,” he said. “See the proof. I’m as rich as a lord!”
But his mother said: “Deary me, you’ve had more than a drop.”
For they were not gold coins that spilled out of the boy’s purse, but acorns.
“Fairy magic!” declared the boy. “But you’ll believe my story when you hear my skill at the pipes.”
He blew into his pipes. At first he made a sound like all the geese in Ireland were screeching at one time. He woke the neighbours who came first to complain and then to mock him. But gradually the boy’s pipes came back into tune, and he started to play marvelous music.
Later that day he went to Father Mulligan’s house and told him the story.
“You’re nothing but a thief and a liar,” scolded the priest. But when he heard the boy play the pipes so wondrously well, even the priest wondered if there was some truth in the tale.
And so long as he lived, the boy was the finest piper in all of Ireland.
And that was the story of the Piper and the Pooka – a traditional tale from Ireland. Bertie adapted it from a collection of stories edited by the Irish poet, WB Yeats.
We would like to thank Patrick Darcy of www.patdarcy.com for kindly allowing us to use his pipe playing.