The Pooka

by Thomas Belton


(Based on a Traditional Irish Folk Tale by W.B. Yeats)

There was a man named Daniel O’Rourke who lived at the bottom of Holly Dale just beyond the ford to Murray’s Gate. An old man he was too, with steely grey hair and a red bulbous nose, a flat head you could cook an egg on when he got so hot and flustered a-times with his temper. He’d a horse named Marie, a shy little mare with soft green eyes and gay speckled fetlocks above her hoofs that blew like white puffs of smoke you ever got her running. Now Daniel was known as a fiddler and a storyteller and was often invited to perform at ceilidh dances or weddings at the parish hall where hospitality was given to all who could appreciate his skills, even at high manor houses as far afield as the next county. And it was well known at these gatherings that he’d often find himself a-dither and in his cups and that he’d rely on Marie to get him home apace.

It was after a wedding feast and a great party in the High Manor near Brockmartin that he became a bit ‘under the clouds’ as they say, and as he left the party to make his way home, he became hopelessly lost. Which was a hard thing to do for Daniel, a fellow raised both man and boy thereabouts. But nonetheless he found himself on a strange road at midnight with no one to keep him company ’cept for a full moon shining overhead and a strange fairy light that beckoned within the depths of a stream he was crossing like a burnished golden sovereign.

Silly twit that he was, he had no idea he was looking at the reflection of the yellow moon in the creek beneath his horse’s hooves, and when he leaned over to pick up that celestial coin, per plunk! Down he fell, full clothed, into the freezing water.

‘Halp,’ he cried. ‘Death alive! I’m drowning now! Will someone na’ help me?’

But it was no use that anyone could, so he decided to swim. Which is peculiar, for until that very moment he had never swum a stroke in his life. And more amazed was he when his arms and legs came out of the water completely and he proceeded to breaststroke through the night sky like he was swimming the River Liffey.

It’s then he heard a strange voice over his shoulder, “How are you this fine, soft night, Daniel O’Rourke?”

Amazed at this development Daniel looked back and saw that he was being carried aloft through the night sky by a prodigious golden eagle. As big as a Belfast house it was, with a wingspan that could cover a whole barn rood, its claws like pruning hooks, and its long wicked black beak a set of sharp shears clacking away when it talked. But it’s the eyes tell Daniel this is no ordinary eagle. Its eyes glowed bright red with a bilious green halo, like a cauldron of deep mischief was in there. And that’s when Daniel O’Rourke knew the Pooka has captured him.

The Pooka is a faerie creature as old as old is, as old as when the first men walked this weary world, as old as the first fishes that swam in the deepest holes of the sea, a creature so dark and cunning that few men know him when they sees him. His name is Pooka and he is a shape-shifter, capable of turning himself into a goat or a tree or even an eagle. He lives in the deep forest and usually in a fairy hole. A fairy hole is a deep secret place where the wee spirits hide in the daytime from the tall folk.

As everyone knows, the Pooka is a trickster and a hateful one at that. Forever playing practical jokes and convincing gullible fellows to do things they wouldna’ do in a stone’s throw. He especially hates people he finds in his woods at night for with all the clear-cutting of trees to make farmland he feels humans are laying waste to his natural domain and anything he can do to scare them off is just a ruse de guerre.

“Where are you taking me?” Daniel cried in fright.

And the Pooka, cocking his eagle head in reply, asked, “Where do you want to go?”

Daniel looked down and saw the Manor House falling far behind, some people still there dancing, others repairing to the out crofts to sleep and dream, so he said, “Take me back from whence I’ve come.”

“Assuredly,” said the Pooka as it turned in a deft glide neat as a pin but away from the Manor House, sweeping his wings up and down, taking Daniel higher and higher, the moon getting bigger and bigger as they rose up and out into the darkness of the night.

“Halp!” Daniel hollered again. “Where the devil are you taking me?”

“Why Dan,” the Pooka said, “I’m taking you from whence you’ve come. Poor sod, didn’t you know that when God made all you Irish folk, he’d run out of good red clay so he used yellow moon dust instead? A poor afterthought by the creator, I admit, but makes sense if you think upon how many of your kinsmen have been cast-out lunatics.”

“Wait now, Pooka, I meant back to the Manor House and ye know it.”

“Dan, Dan,” the Pooka said, looking askance at him in the way a pigeon does at a cat, nervously tilting his head from one good eye to the other. “Didn’t the good prefects tell you to say what you mean and mean what you say back there in the Grammar School and to not speak frivolously?”

Now the moon at the time was shaped like the letter Q with a little hook hanging off the side, a handle made from a whole oak tree. The belief amongst the faerie folk was that God had used the hook like a soup tureen handle when he poured out the moon dust to make the Irish, rattling it about like a saltshaker. It was to this hook that the Eagle eventually took Daniel and dropped him like a budgie bird on a perch.

“Ya canna leave me here,” he cried.

“Oh, but I can and I will, Dan,” the Pooka said amicably. “You see, a year ago, didn’t you make your way to mount Ben Bulben and pull some eggs out of my nest for your supper?”

“Aye!” he answered nervously. “But it was only for me omelette. I left you two and did’na think ye’d mind. You were so egg rich and me a starving thing so far from home and me cupboard.”

“It’s only fair I return the favour then, Dan. Nicked you fair and square, I did. Now you can hang on the moon cooling yer heels till doomsday crows three times for all I care.”

And with that the Pooka flew away like a thunderbolt leaving poor Dan with his feet a-hanging off the edge of the moon so lonely and small in the night sky. I tell you Dan began a bawling like a baby then, so grief-stricken was he, so beyond anyone’s help or caring. The penances he promised the Good Lord, the prayers he sent up, the things that crossed his mind that convinced him he’d never see the pearly gates of heaven with such sins as his on his soul.

That’s when much to his surprise and right below his dangling feet, a trap door opened in the face of the moon with a loud bang and out came the ‘Man in the Moon’, like a centipede escaping his hole. First his head appeared, bobbing up and down like he was climbing the basement stairs then his torso and his swinging arms then finally his sandaled feet. He was a great bit of a man too, with a long brushy grey beard down to his belt and a great white sheet wrapped around his body for a robe and a great flaming coal lamp attached to a band around his head like a coal miner back in Tipperary.

“And a healthy good morrow to you, Daniel O’Rourke,” he said. “But by whose leave are you visiting me today? I don’t remember sending out invitations to tea and biscuits nor an open invitation to hospitality.”

“Saving your honour’s presence,” Daniel began respectfully, and related the harrowing previous hours of his eventful adventures from the first moment playing his fiddle at the wedding to the false golden sovereign in the stream, his vain attempt at swimming, his capture by the deceitful abducting Pooka disguised as an eagle, and his abandonment for no apparent reason (he figured he’d keep the egg pilferage to himself).

“Well,” the Man in the Moon replied, “That is indeed a woeful and pitiful story, Dan. Worthy of a great epic, it is. But, Dan, ye canna’ stay there on that hook. You’re rocking my home something dreadful, and I canna take my bath it’s splashing around so much inside with all yer bellowing and caterwauling about yer wrongs. Do if you please jump off.”

“Jump off! Indeed not!” Daniel huffed and pulled himself tighter against the protruding hook. “Are you daft, man? I’ll fall back the many miles to the hard ground below and surely kill myself, every bone in me body busted like a rack of kindling.”

“No concern of mine, Dan,” he said. “Now be off with you.”

“Nay, I’ll not,” Dan said. “And who’ll it be to put me off, not you!” he added puffing his chest out like a rooster in grand cock-fighting form. “I’ve been known to take a man mightier than you in fisticuffs, I have, back of the barn on threshing day and beat him senseless. So there, you blackguard,” Daniel added, puffing himself up like a yard cock, and raising his fists into the Marquees of Queensbury fighter’s stance.

“A fight is it, Dan’l? Well, I see how that stands to reason with such an ungracious guest as yer ’self.”

Then without another word the ‘Man in the Moon’ repaired backwards down the steps he come, as Daniel relaxed on his perch, figuring he’d showed that old coot ‘what for’.  “Ahh but the ladies they loved me for me pugnacity,” he said wistfully, looking off towards the blue marble of the Earth in the black emptiness of the night sky. For he would usually lose those altercations, which was alright he thought as he smiled, because the village girls loved a loser with panache and would curse the bully who’d thumped him while applying cool compresses to his swollen eye and cradling him in their soft bosoms.

“Man alive! I wish I were home again with my lady wife, Myrtle, and not here standing alone arguing with a looney madman.”

That’s when the ‘Man in the Moon’ came back up the stairs stomping dreadfully mad and with a monstrous meat cleaver in his hand. Then without a how-do-you-do, whack! He splits the tree limb in half. And before Daniel can offer up a plea for mercy, he’s falling the long way home to the grand blue planet below.

Looking up, he saw the Old Man smiling and shouting, “Thank you for your visit, Dan. Always good to see you! Next time would ye be so considerate as to bring some of them potato dumplings from Paddy Doran’s Public House on Ester Street in Dublin? I do love a good dumpling.”

And that was the last thing Daniel O’Rourke heard from that wicked evil man who lives in the moon. And he swore to himself as he fell that he’d never ever give him any dumplings of his. He’d rather feed it to the sow and her piglets in the yard than share it with a blackguard.  And as he fell, and he fell, he had time to take his bearings. He saw the white shores of Araby go by with their sandy beaches that go on forever, he saw elephant and tigers wrestling on the green grass plains of Asia as he tumbled past in a dark funk at his predicament, and then he saw Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin sail by, and he knew it was not far to his own hometown in County Sligo on that lovely green sward of Ireland.

Dan, sensing an opportunity to save himself, pulled out his shirttail and threw it up over his head like a great ship’s sail and lo! it snapped tight like a great umbrella and slowed Daniel down, rocking him in a long sliding motion towards the earth below. But fate was not done with Dan yet as he realised too late that he’d missed his mark by a good league and splash! He landed in the middle of Sligo Bay.

Now there’s poor Dan sitting at the bottom of the bay with his shirt tail hanging over his head, his best Sunday suit ruined with the deep saltwater, when who swims up but the great behemoth, Blue Whale, yawning. “Why are you here, Daniel?” the whale asked. “You’ve awakened me from a deep dark sleep.”

So, Dan tells him the story of playing his fiddle at the wedding, the golden sovereign in the stream, his capture by the deceitful abducting Pooka, his abandonment on the moon, his precipitous departure from that silver orb, his ingenious parachute adventure and unfortunate miscalculation upon landing. And lastly, he said, “Is there any way you can help a poor fiddler home, Sir Whale? My feet are cold and my suit is soggy and my fiddle fair ruined. I need a hot toddy to warm me up and a snooze in me blanket by the fireside.”

In a sonorous voice with large bubbles drifting up from his cavernous mouth, the whale said, “Daniel O’Rourke, indeed you are far from home. But I’m too sleepy to carry you there on my back this night.”

“Have pity on me, great sir. Is there no way to get me abed before dawn?”

With a great yawn the whale slowly slid around from nose to tail, its huge eye passing a few feet from Dan’s shivering form, its great fins swaying up and down in a sleepy motion until the giant’s monstrously large tail was but a few inches from Dan’s face.

“May the road rise up to meet you, Daniel O’Rourke,” the whale said in a low bubbly rumble as he fanned him with his prodigious tail, tumbling Dan end-over-end like a top spinning across the muddy bed of Sligo Bay, the mole crabs and starfish scuttling out of his way, spinning on his bum till he’s pushed up against a sunken ship and fell wobbling to the bottom in a huff.

“Halp,” Daniel cried again, his coat, shirt, and drawers flapping about him like Tuesday’s wash in the current. Then much to Dan’s surprise, just when he thinks it’s quits; time to meet the Good Lord himself and ask forgiveness for his sins, a hole opens in the water in front of him, forming a bubble of air, and out popped the Pooka smiling.  The Pooka’s transformed  like a Billy Goat now with horns all a-twisted and curly and a wispy bit of a beard that jiggles when he talks. His lop-sided smile, leering eye, and bitty beard made Dan think of his wife, Myrtle, when she’d caught him a fib and was contemplating what kind of deviltry to play on him in recompense.

“You dastardly old man, Daniel. Have ye fallen down again? Wake up I say and get out of my bay. And tell your friends not to dump their trash in my water and foul my marshes with their gear.”

“In the Lord’s name, Pooka, I’m not a fisherman to leave me nets on your smelly swamp or dump me garbage in your bay. Nor am I a woodsman to cut down yer forests or a farmer to plough yer meadows under. I am but a fiddler who plays and sings to make the lads and lasses dance, sing a tune to take away their worries. Why, oh why, have you bedevilled me so?”

“That’s neither here nor there, Dan. It’s your whole lot that annoys me and you a smidgen in me eye worth wiping. Off with you now!”

With that the Pooka snickered and with a kick of his four furry feet jumps back through the hole creating a backwash that sucked Daniel up and dropped him out a-tumbling on the other side.

Dan sat up and shook his befogged head, the peculiarities of the night now worn off and the dawn’s red light just gleaming through the trees. Looking about he saw not the cold saltwater of Sligo Bay before him but the muddy stream he’d fallen into the night before. Just then a rough bit of wetness scraped across his baldpate and he shrieked, thinking the Pooka’s come back in the form of a lion to gobble him down. Twisting in terror, he looked up into the loving face of his good mare, Marie. The horse licked his face once more with a long slurping tongue as he heard her belly rumble like a hollow drum, no doubt thumping for her oats back at the barn, needing His Honour to get up and ride her back to the barn for breakfast.

Gaining his feet, Daniel slowly pulled his body onto Marie’s back and swung his swollen rump into the saddle but as the mare sidestepped with the first nudge of his knees, Daniel spun in his saddle to look up into the morning sky. He saw the pale white moon there too large to be real and the Man in the Moon sitting on what was left of his tree, kicking his feet and eating porridge from a prodigious bowl.

He waved at Daniel, who shook his fist and shouted back, “Irishmen made of moon dust, indeed. You’re no kin of mine, old man!”

But then Daniel heard a “Caw, caw cawing” coming from behind and turned to see a giant raven circling him, the bird’s beak moving, but it’s the voice of the Pooka he heard, “Stay outta my forest, Dan, and dinna think of cutting down me trees and planting yer corn and potatoes in me woods.”

Daniel blinked and shook his head to clear the cobwebs out of his brainpan then waved at the bird crying, “Keep yer blasted forest, Pooka! I’ll nay see ye no more for it’s off to Dublin I’m bound to tell my tales and sing my songs where nary a man may meet a trickster like you. But this I might do to keep you outta my hair. I’ll make a song of this night and tell the tale and maybe the parson down in the vale will hear it and pass it on. Maybe the magistrates will hear it and maybe the squires who’ll teach the gentle folk to respect your woods and your waters.”

“You think so?” The Pooka squawked and laughed dubiously. “I’ll see you around, Daniel O’Rourke.”