The Piper and the Puca: A Reimagined Irish Folktale
Don’t eat blueberries after Samhain as the Puca spits on them. This week I was reminded of this piece of wisdom from Celtic folklore when my brother-in-law threw his blueberries into the garbage disposal. When I asked what was wrong with them, were they too tart or had they spoiled, he replied. “No. I don’t know. They just don’t taste good.” Since this past Monday, November 1st was Samhain, I chuckled inwardly and thought, The Puca must have spit on them.
But there is so much more to this trickster faerie of Celtic folklore than his annually ruining the blueberries. He’s a shapeshifter who can be helpful to humans he likes and downright nasty to those he doesn’t, but mostly he’s a mischievous prankster. The Puca shows up in Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folklore. This week, I came across a folktale, collected by W. B. Yeats, involving a piper who encounters a Puca on his way home. It’s a fun story so I thought I’d share it in this week’s post. This is my version, and since folktales always change in the retelling, I’ve felt free to take liberties with the details. Please note the town names are fictional. I hope you enjoy the story.
Seamus Maguire wasn’t good at much but he could play the pipes. Not well, mind, but well enough to work nights at the Harp and Whistle in Innisbridge. He didn’t have more than three songs by memory but, with Rory on fiddle, Aidan on whistle, and Johnny on bodhran, he could blend in and fake it. The money wasn’t much, just barely enough for him and his mother to get by, but the tips were good as they were paid mostly in pints of the brown stuff and an occasional dram of whiskey.
One misty night, Seamus was making his way home to Ballybeg, half-full of the uisce beatha and stumbling a bit with the weight of his pipes, when he felt a presence come alongside him. A chill wind wrapped around him as he took a quick glance to his left. There, keeping pace with him, was a black goat the size of a calf, with the moonlight sparkling on his curled horns.
“What are you doing then?” Seamus asked. “All right, Mr. Goat, off you go. I don’t need a walking companion.”
“And who are you, Seamus Maguire, to be sending me on my way?”
Seamus dropped his pipes at the sound of the goat’s voice, stopped in his tracks, and stared at the beast.
“Pick up your pipes, Maguire,” the goat told him. “Come along or we’ll be late.”
Quaking a bit, Seamus managed to ask, “Late for what?”
“Bronagh Ag Keena’s party in Kildaerg. You’re the entertainment.”
“Kildaerg? That’s halfway across the county.”
“Then we should get a move on. Get on my back and we’ll be off.”
“But who’s Bronagh Ag Keena?”
“The one they’re throwing the party for,” the goat said, impatience creeping into his tone.
“Now pick up your pipes and let’s go.”
Seamus did as he was instructed and the goat took off. Maguire held onto the animal’s horns for all that was in him and clutched his pipes close. The wind whipped at his face as the countryside whizzed by. When the goat came to an abrupt stop, Seamus fell off and found himself sitting in a muddy puddle.
“Stop sitting on your behind,” the goat said. “Get up and make yourself presentable.”
As Seamus stood, his clothes changed into the smartest suit he’d ever worn. The goat, as well, had transformed into a handsome young man dressed in the finest of clothes. Instead of shoes, though, his legs ended in hooves and the small goat’s beard adorned his chin.
Realizing now the kind of faerie he was dealing with, Seamus addressed him accordingly, “Mr. Puca, sir, it is an honor to be invited to this party but you mentioned me entertaining. I must tell you I am not the best of pipers.”
“You are among the worst of pipers,” the Puca stated. “Lay your pipes here by the door and play these instead.” He handed Seamus a rough-hewn, ancient-looking set of pipes.
Seamus regarded the instrument. “Begging your pardon, sir, but it might be better if I played me own.”
“You’ll sound better with these,” the Puca said, snatching Seamus’ instrument and tossing them aside. “Now, come along. The party can’t start without the music.” With that, the faerie opened the door to the cottage and pushed Seamus inside.
The room flickered with candlelight and was ornamented with ivy and various flowers. The scent of lavender filled the room. At the center was a long table laden with fruits and cakes. Seated around the table were eleven women in long dresses. They varied in age from young women to old hags. All wore grey except one young woman at the head of the table. Dressed in green, she rose and glided towards the Puca and the anxious piper.
She had a river of dark hair and unearthly beauty. Her gray eyes were sad and rimmed with red.
A chill ran through Seamus and he thought, Ah me! Death is upon me for surely she’s a banshee.
A melancholy smile stretched her lips and she said, “I am Bronagh Ag Keena. Welcome to my home, Seamus Maguire. We are all eager to hear your music.”
His voice quaking, Seamus managed to say, “Thank you, Ma’am. I pray I won’t disappoint you.”
The Puca patted him on the back and said, “Give us a tune, Maguire.”
Bronagh put a stool out for him to sit on and Seamus picked up the faerie instrument. His mind had gone numb and he couldn’t think of a tune to play. Suddenly, though, he found his fingers dancing over his chanter and exquisite music sounded from the instrument.
The banshees got up to dance and the Puca did a jig, his hooves clicking on the floorboards. So it went through the night, with Seamus playing piece after piece brilliantly and all having a great time. As dawn approached, each of the banshees gave him a nugget of gold, thanking him for a splendid night.
Exhilarated by the excellent music he’d made, and thinking he wouldn’t have to worry about money any time soon for all the gold, Seamus felt he’d never have a better night if he survived seeing the banshees.
“Time to go, Maguire,” the Puca announced.
Outside, the faerie returned to goat form. As Seamus got on the animal’s back, the Puca said, “Pick up your pipes.”
“Oh, sir,” Seamus replied, “Your instrument is so much better. I’d rather keep it, if I may.”
“Keep it, if you like, but it won’t bring you much joy. Pick up your own pipes. You’ll need them.”
Reluctantly, Seamus scooped up his instrument and mounted the goat. It took quite a bit of maneuvering for him to hold both sets of pipes and the animal’s horns, but finally, he managed.
The goat took off again at breath-taking speed and soon dumped Seamus off at a bridge a short walk from his mother’s cottage.
Seamus thanked the faerie for the marvelous adventure. The Puca wished him well and vanished into the early morning fog.
Reaching home, he opened the door and went in. The aroma of sausage and onions filled the house. Seamus went into the kitchen where his mother stood, making breakfast.
“What time of day is this to be coming home?” she asked without looking up from her work.
“Mammy,” he said, “you’ll never believe the night I’ve had.” He told her the details.
“You’re drunk,” she replied. “Go to bed and see me when you’re sober.”
“I am sober and telling you the god’s honest truth.”
“Oh, get away and sleep it off.”
Shrugging, Seamus went into his bedroom, laid down his instruments, and took the gold from his pockets. Placing the gold on his dresser, he thought, I’ll show her this later and play the faerie’s pipes, then she’ll have to believe me.
By this time, though, drowsiness washed over him and he laid down in the bed. When he awoke, it was almost twilight. Taking the faerie pipes, he strode into the living room to play the instrument and prove the truth of his story to his mother. But when Seamus tried to play it, the instrument wailed like a banshee and refused to play a melodic note. Frustrated, he brought his mother into his room to show her the gold the banshees had given him, but all he found on the top of his dresser was a pile of withered leaves.
Snatching up his old pipes, Seamus left for the pub. Maybe playing a set or two with his friends and having a sip or two of the good stuff would help him forget the bloody Puca adventure.
His friends welcomed him and launched into “Cooley’s Reel.” It was a piece Seamus had never been able to master but he was content with the thought of putting in a note here or there. But his fingers started dancing on the chanter. He found he played better than he had on the faerie instrument at the banshee’s party. He launched into “Trout in the Bath” then did a solo of “Óró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.”
From that day until this, Seamus Maguire has been the best piper in the county.
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Slan go foil!
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