Irish Fairy Tales, by William Butler Yeats

Owney and Owney-na-peak

By Gerald Griffen

When Ireland had kings of her own — when there was no such thing as a coat made of red cloth in the country — when there was plenty in men’s houses, and peace and quietness at men’s doors (and that is a long time since)— there lived, in a village not far from the great city of Lumneach,7 two young men, cousins: one of them named Owney, a smart, kind-hearted, handsome youth, with limb of a delicate form, and a very good understanding. His cousin’s name was Owney too, and the neighbours christened him Owney-na-peak (Owney of the nose), on account of a long nose he had got — a thing so out of all proportion, that after looking at one side of his face, it was a smart morning’s walk to get round the nose and take a view of the other (at least, so the people used to say). He was a stout, able-bodied fellow, as stupid as a beaten hound, and he was, moreover, a cruel tyrant to his young cousin, with whom he lived in a kind of partnership.

Both of them were of a humble station. They were smiths — white-smiths — and they got a good deal of business to do from the lords of the court, and the knights, and all the grand people of the city. But one day young Owney was in town, he saw a great procession of lords, and ladies, and generals, and great people, among whom was the king’s daughter of the court — and surely it is not possible for the young rose itself to be so beautiful as she was. His heart fainted at her sight, and he went home desperately in love, and not at all disposed to business.

Money, he was told, was the surest way of getting acquainted with the king, and so he began saving until he had put together a few hogs,8 but Owney-na-peak, finding where he had hid them, seized on the whole, as he used to do on all young Owney’s earnings.

One evening young Owney’s mother found herself about to die, so she called her son to her bedside and said to him: ‘You have been a most dutiful good son, and ’tis proper you should be rewarded for it. Take this china cup to the fair — there is a fairy gift upon it — use your own wit, look about you, and let the highest bidder have it — and so, my white-headed boy,9 God bless you!’

The young man drew the little bedcurtain down over his dead mother, and in a few days after, with a heavy heart, he took his china cup, and set off to the fair of Garryowen.

The place was merry enough. The field that is called Gallows Green now was covered with tents. There was plenty of wine (poteen not being known in these days, let alone parliament), a great many handsome girls, and ’tis unknown all the keoh that was with the boys and themselves. Poor Owney walked all the day through the fair, wishing to try his luck, but ashamed to offer his china cup among all the fine things that were there for sale. Evening was drawing on at last, and he was thinking of going home, when a strange man tapped him on the shoulder, and said: ‘My good youth, I have been marking you through the fair the whole day, going about with that cup in your hand, speaking to nobody, and looking as if you would be wanting something or another.’

‘I’m for selling it,’ said Owney.

‘What is it you’re for selling, you say?’ said a second man, coming up, and looking at the cup.

‘Why then,’ said the first man, ‘and what’s that to you, for a prying meddler? what do you want to know what it is he’s for selling?’

‘Bad manners to you (and where’s the use of my wishing you what you have already?), haven’t I a right to ask the price of what’s in the fair?’

‘E’then, the knowledge o’ the price is all you’ll have for it,’ says the first. ‘Here, my lad, is a golden piece for your cup.’

‘That cup shall never hold drink or diet in your house, please Heaven,’ says the second; ‘here’s two gold pieces for the cup, lad.’

‘Why then, see this now — if I was forced to fill it to the rim with gold before I could call it mine, you shall never hold that cup between your fingers. Here, boy, do you mind me, give me that, once for all, and here’s ten gold pieces for it, and say no more.’

‘Ten gold pieces for a china cup!’ said a great lord of the court, who just rode up at that minute, ‘it must surely be a valuable article. Here, boy, here are twenty pieces for it, and give it to my servant.’

‘Give it to mine,’ cried another lord of the party, ‘and here’s my purse, where you will find ten more. And if any man offers another fraction for it to outbid that, I’ll spit him on my sword like a snipe.’

‘I outbid him,’ said a fair young lady in a veil, by his side, flinging twenty golden pieces more on the ground.

There was no voice to outbid the lady, and young Owney, kneeling, gave the cup into her hands.

‘Fifty gold pieces for a china cup,’ said Owney to himself, as he plodded on home, ‘that was not worth two! Ah! mother, you knew that vanity had an open hand.’

But as he drew near home he determined to hide his money somewhere, knowing, as he well did, that his cousin would not leave him a single cross to bless himself with. So he dug a little pit, and buried all but two pieces, which he brought to the house. His cousin, knowing the business on which he had gone, laughed heartily when he saw him enter, and asked him what luck he had got with his punch-bowl.

‘Not so bad, neither,’ says Owney. ‘Two pieces of gold is not a bad price for an article of old china.’

‘Two gold pieces, Owney, honey! Erra, let us see ’em, maybe you would?’ He took the cash from Owney’s hand, and after opening his eyes in great astonishment at the sight of so much money, he put them into his pocket.

‘Well, Owney, I’ll keep them safe for you, in my pocket within. But tell us, maybe you would, how come you to get such a mort o’ money for an old cup o’ painted chaney, that wasn’t worth, maybe, a fi’penny bit?’

‘To get into the heart o’ the fair, then, free and easy, and to look about me, and to cry old china, and the first man that come up, he to ask me, what is it I’d be asking for the cup, and I to say out bold: “A hundred pieces of gold,” and he to laugh hearty, and we to huxter together till he beat me down to two, and there’s the whole way of it all.’

Owney-na-peak made as if he took no note of this, but next morning early he took an old china saucer himself had in his cupboard, and off he set, without saying a word to anybody, to the fair. You may easily imagine that it created no small surprise in the place when they heard a great big fellow with a china saucer in his hand crying out: ‘A raal chaney saucer going for a hundred pieces of goold! raal chaney — who’ll be buying?’

‘Erra, what’s that you’re saying, you great gomeril?’ says a man, coming up to him, and looking first at the saucer and then in his face. ‘Is it thinking anybody would go make a muthaun of himself to give the like for that saucer?’ But Owney-na-peak had no answer to make, only to cry out: ‘Raal chaney! one hundred pieces of goold!’

A crowd soon collected about him, and finding he would give no account of himself, they all fell upon him, beat him within an inch of his life, and after having satisfied themselves upon him, they went their way laughing and shouting. Towards sunset he got up, and crawled home as well as he could, without cup or money. As soon as Owney saw him, he helped him into the forge, looking very mournful, although, if the truth must be told, it was to revenge himself for former good deeds of his cousin that he set him about this foolish business.

‘Come here, Owney, eroo,’ said his cousin, after he had fastened the forge door and heated two irons in the fire. ‘You child of mischief!’ said he, when he had caught him, ‘you shall never see the fruits of your roguery again, for I will put out your eyes.’ And so saying he snatched one of the red-hot irons from the fire.

It was all in vain for poor Owney to throw himself on his knees, and ask mercy, and beg and implore forgiveness; he was weak, and Owney-na-peak was strong; he held him fast, and burned out both his eyes. Then taking him, while he was yet fainting from the pain, upon his back, he carried him off to the bleak hill of Knockpatrick,10 a great distance, and there laid him under a tombstone, and went his ways. In a little time after, Owney came to himself.

‘O sweet light of day! what is to become of me now?’ thought the poor lad, as he lay on his back under the tomb. ‘Is this to be the fruit of that unhappy present? Must I be dark for ever and ever? and am I never more to look upon that sweet countenance, that even in my blindness is not entirely shut out from me?’ He would have said a great deal more in this way, and perhaps more pathetic still, but just then he heard a great mewing, as if all the cats in the world were coming up the hill together in one faction. He gathered himself up, and drew back under the stone, and remained quite still, expecting what would come next. In a very short time he heard all the cats purring and mewing about the yard, whisking over the tombstones, and playing all sorts of pranks among the graves. He felt the tails of one or two brush his nose; and well for him it was that they did not discover him there, as he afterwards found. At last —

‘Silence!’ said one of the cats, and they were all as mute as so many mice in an instant. ‘Now, all you cats of this great county, small and large, gray, red, yellow, black, brown, mottled, and white, attend to what I’m going to tell you in the name of your king and the master of all the cats. The sun is down, and the moon is up, and the night is silent, and no mortal hears us, and I may tell you a secret. You know the king of Munster’s daughter?’

‘O yes, to be sure, and why wouldn’t we? Go on with your story,’ said all the cats together.

‘I have heard of her for one,’ said a little dirty-faced black cat, speaking after they had all done, ‘for I’m the cat that sits upon the hob of Owney and Owney-na-peak, the white-smiths, and I know many’s the time young Owney does be talking of her, when he sits by the fire alone, rubbing me down and planning how he can get into her father’s court.’

‘Whist, you natural!’ says the cat that was making the speech, ‘what do you think we care for your Owney, or Owney-na-peak?’

‘Murther, murther!’ thinks Owney to himself, ‘did anybody ever hear the aiqual of this?’

‘Well, gentlemen,’ says the cat again, ‘what I have to say is this. The king was last week struck with blindness, and you all know well, how and by what means any blindness may be cured. You know there is no disorder that can ail mortal frame, that may not be removed by praying a round at the well of Barrygowen11 yonder, and the king’s disorder is such, that no other cure whatever can be had for it. Now, beware, don’t let the secret pass one o’ yer lips, for there’s a great-grandson of Simon Magus, that is coming down to try his skill, and he it is that must use the water and marry the princess, who is to be given to any one so fortunate as to heal her father’s eyes; and on that day, gentlemen, we are all promised a feast of the fattest mice that ever walked the ground.’ This speech was wonderfully applauded by all the cats, and presently after, the whole crew scampered off, jumping, and mewing, and purring, down the hill.

Owney, being sensible that they were all gone, came from his hiding-place, and knowing the road to Barrygowen well, he set off, and groped his way out, and shortly knew, by the rolling of the waves,12 coming in from the point of Foynes, that he was near the place. He got to the well, and making a round like a good Christian, rubbed his eyes with the well-water, and looking up, saw day dawning in the east. Giving thanks, he jumped up on his feet, and you may say that Owney-na-peak was much astonished on opening the door of the forge to find him there, his eyes as well or better than ever, and his face as merry as a dance.

‘Well, cousin,’ said Owney, smiling, ‘you have done me the greatest service that one man can do another; you put me in the way of getting two pieces of gold,’ said he, showing two he had taken from his hiding-place. ‘If you could only bear the pain of suffering me just to put out your eyes, and lay you in the same place as you laid me, who knows what luck you’d have?’

‘No, there’s no occasion for putting out eyes at all, but could not you lay me, just as I am, to-night, in that place, and let me try my own fortune, if it be a thing you tell thruth; and what else could put the eyes in your head, after I burning them out with the irons?’

‘You’ll know all that in time,’ says Owney, stopping him in his speech, for just at that minute, casting his eye towards the hob, he saw the cat sitting upon it, and looking very hard at him. So he made a sign to Owney-na-peak to be silent, or talk of something else; at which the cat turned away her eyes, and began washing her face, quite simple, with her two paws, looking now and then sideways into Owney’s face, just like a Christian. By and by, when she had walked out of the forge, he shut the door after her, and finished what he was going to say, which made Owney-na-peak still more anxious than before to be placed under the tombstone. Owney agreed to it very readily, and just as they were done speaking, cast a glance towards the forge window, where he saw the imp of a cat, just with her nose and one eye peeping in through a broken pane. He said nothing, however, but prepared to carry his cousin to the place; where, towards nightfall, he laid him as he had been laid himself, snug under the tombstone, and went his way down the hill, resting in Shanagolden that night, to see what would come of it in the morning.

Owney-na-peak had not been more than two or three hours or so lying down, when he heard the very same noises coming up the hill, that had puzzled Owney the night before. Seeing the cats enter the churchyard, he began to grow very uneasy, and strove to hide himself as well as he could, which was tolerably well too, all being covered by the tombstone excepting part of the nose, which was so long that he could not get it to fit by any means. You may say to yourself, that he was not a little surprised, when he saw the cats all assemble like a congregation going to hear mass, some sitting, some walking about, and asking one another after the kittens and the like, and more of them stretching themselves upon the tombstones, and waiting the speech of their commander.

Silence was proclaimed at length, and he spoke: ‘Now all you cats of this great county, small and large, gray, red, yellow, black, brown, mottled, or white, attend —’

‘Stay! stay!’ said a little cat with a dirty face, that just then came running into the yard. ‘Be silent, for there are mortal ears listening to what you say. I have run hard and fast to say that your words were overheard last night. I am the cat that sits upon the hob of Owney and Owney-na-peak, and I saw a bottle of the water of Barrygowen hanging up over the chimbley this morning in their house.’

In an instant all the cats began screaming, and mewing, and flying, as if they were mad, about the yard, searching every corner, and peeping under every tombstone. Poor Owneyna-peak endeavoured as well as he could to hide himself from them, and began to thump his breast and cross himself, but it was all in vain, for one of the cats saw the long nose peeping from under the stone, and in a minute they dragged him, roaring and bawling, into the very middle of the churchyard, where they flew upon him all together, and made smithereens of him, from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.

The next morning very early, young Owney came to the churchyard, to see what had become of his cousin. He called over and over again upon his name, but there was no answer given. At last, entering the place of tombs, he found his limbs scattered over the earth.

‘So that is the way with you, is it?’ said he, clasping his hands, and looking down on the bloody fragments; ‘why then, though you were no great things in the way of kindness to me when your bones were together, that isn’t the reason why I’d be glad to see them torn asunder this morning early.’ So gathering up all the pieces that he could find, he put them into a bag he had with him, and away with him to the well of Barrygowen, where he lost no time in making a round, and throwing them in, all in a heap. In an instant, he saw Owney-na-peak as well as ever, scrambling out of the well, and helping him to get up, he asked him how he felt himself.

‘Oh! is it how I’d feel myself you’d want to know?’ said the other; ‘easy and I’ll tell you. Take that for a specimen!’ giving him at the same time a blow on the head, which you may say wasn’t long in laying Owney sprawling on the ground. Then without giving him a minute’s time to recover, he thrust him into the very bag from which he had been just shaken himself, resolving within himself to drown him in the Shannon at once, and put an end to him for ever.

Growing weary by the way, he stopped at a shebeen house over-right Robertstown Castle, to refresh himself with a morning, before he’d go any farther. Poor Owney did not know what to do when he came to himself, if it might be rightly called coming to himself, and the great bag tied up about him. His wicked cousin shot him down behind the door in the kitchen, and telling him he’d have his life surely if he stirred, he walked in to take something that’s good in the little parlour.

Owney could not for the life of him avoid cutting a hole in the bag, to have a peep about the kitchen, and see whether he had no means of escape. He could see only one person, a simple-looking man, who was counting his beads in the chimney-corner, and now and then striking his breast, and looking up as if he was praying greatly.

‘Lord,’ says he, ‘only give me death, death, and a favourable judgment! I haven’t anybody now to look after, nor anybody to look after me. What’s a few tinpennies to save a man from want? Only a quiet grave is all I ask.’

‘Murther, murther!’ says Owney to himself, ‘here’s a man wants death and can’t have it, and here am I going to have it, and, in troth, I don’t want it at all, see.’ So, after thinking a little what he had best do, he began to sing out very merrily, but lowering his voice, for fear he should be heard in the next room:

‘To him that tied me here,

Be thanks and praises given!

I’ll bless him night and day,

For packing me to heaven.

Of all the roads you’ll name,

He surely will not lag,

Who takes his way to heaven

By travelling in a bag!’

‘To heaven, ershishin?’13 said the man in the chimney-corner, opening his mouth and his eyes; ‘why then, you’d be doing a Christian turn, if you’d take a neighbour with you, that’s tired of this bad and villainous world.’

‘You’re a fool, you’re a fool!’ said Owney.

‘I know I am, at least so the neighbours always tell me — but what hurt? Maybe I have a Christian soul as well as another; and fool or no fool, in a bag or out of a bag, I’d be glad and happy to go the same road it is you are talking of.’

After seeming to make a great favour of it, in order to allure him the more to the bargain, Owney agreed to put him into the bag instead of himself; and cautioning him against saying a word, he was just going to tie him, when he was touched with a little remorse for going to have the innocent man’s life taken: and seeing a slip of a pig that was killed the day before, in a corner, hanging up, the thought struck him that it would do just as well to put it in the bag in their place. No sooner said than done, to the great surprise of the natural, he popped the pig into the bag and tied it up.

‘Now,’ says he, ‘my good friend, go home, say nothing, but bless the name in heaven for saving your life; and you were as near losing it this morning as ever man was that didn’t know.’

They left the house together. Presently out comes Owney-na-peak, very hearty; and being so, he was not able to perceive the difference in the contents of the bag, but hoisting it upon his back, he sallied out of the house. Before he had gone far, he came to the rock of Foynes, from the top of which he flung his burden into the salt waters.

Away he went home, and knocked at the door of the forge, which was opened to him by Owney. You may fancy him to yourself crossing and blessing himself over and over again, when he saw, as he thought, the ghost standing before him. But Owney looked very merry, and told him not to be afraid. ‘You did many is the good turn in your life,’ says he, ‘but the equal of this never.’ So he up and told him that he found the finest place in the world at the bottom of the waters, and plenty of money. ‘See these four pieces for a specimen,’ showing him some he had taken from his own hiding hole: ‘what do you think of that for a story?’

‘Why then that it’s a droll one, no less; sorrow bit av I wouldn’t have a mind to try my luck in the same way; how did you come home here before me that took the straight road, and didn’t stop for so much as my gusthah14 since I left Knockpatrick?’

‘Oh, there’s a short cut under the waters,’ said Owney. ‘Mind and only be civil while you’re in Thiernaoge,15 and you’ll make a sight o’ money.’

Well became Owney, he thrust his cousin into the bag, tied it about him, and putting it into a car that was returning after leaving a load of oats at a corn-store in the city, it was not long before he was at Foynes again. Here he dismounted, and going to the rock, he was, I am afraid, half inclined to start his burden into the wide water, when he saw a small skiff making towards the point. He hailed her, and learned that she was about to board a great vessel from foreign parts, that was sailing out of the river. So he went with his bag on board, and making his bargain with the captain of the ship, he left Owney-na-peak along with the crew, and never was troubled with him after, from that day to this.

As he was passing by Barrygowen well, he filled a bottle with the water; and going home, he bought a fine suit of clothes with the rest of the money he had buried, and away he set off in the morning to the city of Lumneach. He walked through the town, admiring everything he saw, until he came before the palace of the king. Over the gates of this he saw a number of spikes, with a head of a man stuck upon each, grinning in the sunshine.

Not at all daunted, he knocked very boldly at the gate, which was opened by one of the guards of the palace. ‘Well! who are you, friend?’

‘I am a great doctor that’s come from foreign parts to cure the king’s eyesight. Lead me to his presence this minute.’

‘Fair and softly,’ said the soldier. ‘Do you see all those heads that are stuck up there? Yours is very likely to be keeping company by them, if you are so foolish as to come inside these walls. They are the heads of all the doctors in the land who came before you; and that’s what makes the town so fine and healthy this time past, praised be Heaven for the same!’

‘Don’t be talking, you great gomeril,’ says Owney; ‘only bring me to the king at once.’

He was brought before the king. After being warned of his fate if he should fail to do all that he undertook, the place was made clear of all but a few guards, and Owney was informed once more, that if he should restore the king’s eyes, he should wed with the princess, and have the crown after her father’s death. This put him in great spirits, and after making a round upon his bare knees about the bottle, he took a little of the water, and rubbed it into the king’s eyes. In a minute he jumped up from his throne and looked about him as well as ever. He ordered Owney to be dressed out like a king’s son, and sent word to his daughter that she should receive him that instant for her husband.

You may say to yourself that the princess, glad as she was of her father’s recovery, did not like this message. Small blame to her, when it is considered that she never set her eyes upon the man himself. However, her mind was changed wonderfully when he was brought before her, covered with gold and diamonds, and all sorts of grand things. Wishing, however, to know whether he had as good a wit as he had a person, she told him that he should give her, on the next morning, an answer to two questions, otherwise she would not hold him worthy of her hand. Owney bowed, and she put the questions as follows:

‘What is that which is the sweetest thing in the world?’

‘What are the three most beautiful objects in the creation?’

These were puzzling questions; but Owney having a small share of brains of his own, was not long in forming an opinion upon the matter. He was very impatient for the morning; but it came just as slow and regular as if he were not in the world. In a short time he was summoned to the courtyard, where all the nobles of the land assembled, with flags waving, and trumpets sounding, and all manner of glorious doings going on. The princess was placed on a throne of gold near her father, and there was a beautiful carpet spread for Owney to stand upon while he answered her questions. After the trumpets were silenced, she put the first, with a clear sweet voice, and he replied:

‘It’s salt!’ says he, very stout, out.

There was a great applause at the answer; and the princess owned, smiling, that he had judged right.

‘But now,’ said she, ‘for the second. What are the three most beautiful things in the creation?’

‘Why,’ answered the young man, ‘here they are. A ship in full sail — a field of wheat in ear — and ——’

What the third most beautiful thing was, all the people didn’t hear; but there was a great blushing and laughing among the ladies, and the princess smiled and nodded at him, quite pleased with his wit. Indeed, many said that the judges of the land themselves could not have answered better, had they been in Owney’s place; nor could there be anywhere found a more likely or well-spoken young man. He was brought first to the king, who took him in his arms, and presented him to the princess. She could not help acknowledging to herself that his understanding was quite worthy of his handsome person. Orders being immediately given for the marriage to proceed, they were made one with all speed; and it is said, that before another year came round, the fair princess was one of the most beautiful objects in the creation.

7 The present Limerick.

8 A hog, 1s. 1d.

9 White-haired boy, a curious Irish phrase for the favourite child.

10 A hill in the west of the County of Limerick, on the summit of which are the ruins of an old church, with a burying-ground still in use. The situation is exceedingly singular and bleak.

11 The practice of praying rounds, with the view of healing diseases, at Barrygowen well, in the County of Limerick, is still continued, notwithstanding the exertions of the neighbouring Catholic priesthood, which have diminished, but not abolished it.

12 Of the Shannon.

13 Does he say?

14 Literally —walk in.

15 The abode of the fairies.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/y/yeats/william_butler/irish-fairy-tales/part3.2.html

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02