A dark tale for St. Patrick’s Day.
THE DARK MAN
Long ago the Fairies often stole children; they chose the prettiest, and carried them to Fairyland—the Kingdom of Tyrnanoge—leaving hideous changelings instead. In those days no man had call to be ashamed of his offspring, since if a baby was deformed or idiotic, it was known to be a changeling.
It is sixty years now since old Mike Lonergan, who lived in a hovel in Moher village, was robbed of his child. It was his wife who first found out the theft, for she had seen her unborn son in a dream, and he was beautiful; so when she saw the sickly and ugly baby she knew that he was not hers, and the fairies had stolen the child of her dream.
Many advised her to roast the Changeling on the turf-fire, but the White Witch of Moher said it would be safer to leave him alone. So the child Andy grew up as a stranger in his father’s hovel and had a dreary time of it, he got little food and no kindness. The Lonergans gave him neither offence nor welcome, hoping that he might see fit to go home to Fairyland, and yet bear them no grudge. He grew up an odd wizened little wretch, and every one shunned him. The children loathed him because they were afraid of him, so they hooted him from a distance or stoned him from behind walls.
Indeed, at this time his only ally was the pig that lived in one corner of the hovel. The pig was a friendly animal, his front half was a dull white and the other half black, and this gave him a homely look as if he was sitting in his shirt-sleeves. Andy would shrink into a corner, and sit cuddled there with one arm round the pig’s neck. Old Mike Lonergan took to drink, and spent every evening at the shebeen, small blame to him! for how could a man be expected to stay at home with a Changeling sitting in a corner and staring at him? He complained that even at night, when the pig was snoring and the smoky cabin was only lit by the waning turf-fire, he could still see the child’s glowering eyes; for Andy was wakeful and used to wriggle off the shelf that had been fitted as a bed for him (since no one could sleep with a Changeling) and snuggle against the warm flank of his comrade.
When the pig was driven to the Fair at Ennistimon, Andy was left friendless (for the new pig was lean and morose) and then in all winds and weather he was to be found on the Cliffs of Moher. Sometimes he stopped out all night, till hunger would bring him back when the Lonergans were rejoicing at his disappearance. He knew every inch of the Cliffs, and spent half his time lying on the edge of the grey precipice, looking down at the sea, six hundred feet below, or watching the clouds of sea-birds. He found new paths down the cliff-side and clambered like a goat. He knew where the gulls nested, but never robbed them, and the caves where the seals lived, and the seals shouldered their way through the water close by him, looking at him with soft eyes.
When he was about fourteen, the Famine Year came; fever and “The Hunger” swept Clare. The fever took Lonergan and his wife, and they were buried in the dead-pit at Liscannor; it left Andy, but it left him blind. Then the neighbours began to have their doubts whether he was a Changeling after all; for the Fairies are faithful, and who ever heard of a Changeling being left blind and penniless? If he was only mortal he had been cruelly treated; so to make amends they gave him the fiddle that had belonged to the “Dark” Man—that is the blind man—of St. Bridget’s Well, who had lately starved. There was still a feeling that he was unfit for a Holy Well; so he took up a post at the Liscannor Crossroads, and there levied a toll on passers with the professional heart-broken cry:
“Remember the Dark Man! For God’s sake, remember the Dark Man!”
For nearly twenty years Andy haunted the Crossroads; he came to be honoured as one of the institutions of Moher, though the folk considered there was much that was uncanny about him, he was so silent and he hated the smell of whisky. He went to his post every morning with such steadiness that Mary Shaughnessy used to say that the noise of his stick on the road was better than a clock to her. And every one he met gave him a kind and respectful greeting. He spent his evenings alone, lying curled up on his hearth like a dog, staring at the spluttering turf with blind eyes.
This was his best time, yet even then he had a lonesome and hard life. Often in winter he came very near starving, for the passers by the Crossroads had then seldom a halfpenny to spare. He never begged from any one except at the Cross-roads, and his dog Bonaparte would not have taken alms in his tin can anywhere else. But Larry Ronan the blacksmith watched tenderly over him. Larry—who is childless and has a stern wife—needs some to protect, and has made himself guardian of every cripple and witless in County Clare; neglected children look to him for sugarsticks and pelted dogs fly to him for refuge. When the snow sheeted the moors and had like to have soaked Andy’s roof, it was Larry climbed up and cleared the thatch. When the window was broken, it was Larry mended it with an old pair of trousers; “for sure,” said he, “a dark man can see as far through them as through glass.” When the blind man was starving silently, it was Larry stocked the cabin with meal and potatoes that himself could ill spare, but he told me he did it “unbeknownst, for Dark Andy was terrible proud.”
Now those were the times when Cornelius Desmond ruled Moher in the old kindly haphazard way, never troubling penniless tenants. But “Corney” died and the daisies grew over him, and then Madden the Agent speedily evicted Dark Andy. He did not seem to know his misfortune; he spent the day of the eviction, as usual, at the Cross-roads, and came back at night to a ruin. Larry Ronan saw that he took the change as a matter of course, and that after groping in the four corners of the cabin he sat on the window-ledge as if unaware that nothing was left of his home but the walls.
Next day it was rumoured that Bridget McCaura, of Moher Farm, had sheltered Dark Andy. Bridget was a warm woman, a “woman of three cows,” a masterful old maid, who in her time had refused many a pretty fellow, perhaps because she suspected them of hankering after her live stock, her poultry, and her sixty acres of rocks. Then Father Peter Flannery rode over to see her. Bridget was called out of her house to speak to him; he was afraid to dismount. She stood in the narrow gateway in front of her farm, with her arms akimbo, ready to defend her home against all comers. Peter’s heart trembled; he has a great dread of angry women.
“Is it thrue?” he asked—and was so frightened that he looked even sterner than usual—” is it thrue what I’m afther hearing, Bridget McCaura, that ye’ve taken the Dark Man, Lonergan, to live with ye—to live in the Farm?”
“Is it thrue? Tis so,” said Bridget.
“But ye’re not going to keep him, are ye now?”
“Keep him? I am that,” said Bridget.
Peter screwed up his courage and told her warily, that though it was well-meant of her, and “‘Tis you have the kind warm heart, Bridget me dear,” still, that propriety forbade it.
He was afraid to look at her as he spoke. Bridget was purple.
“What! a misfortnit ould omadhaun the likes of that?” she cried.
“I know, I know,” said Peter (this is a pet phrase of his and usually means that he does not know) “I know, I know, but ’tis because ye’re a lone woman, tell me now are ye listening to me? If ye’d been married now, ‘twould have been another thing.”
“Married!” cried Bridget with infinite scorn— “Married! If that’s all, I’ll marry the craythur to-morrow!”
And so Dark Andy was married to the richest woman in Moher. He seemed indifferent; as for Bridget, she had made up her mind to shelter him, and there was an end of it, she took pleasure in astounding her neighbours.
There was never such excitement in Clare as when those banns were read. Every one saw that poor Bridget McCaura—” dacint woman “—had been bewitched. All the old stories about Dark Andy came to life, there was no room for doubt now, and the bravest unbelievers trembled before him. There was many a woman would never hear his name without crossing herself, and he got the credit of every misfortune between Kilkee and Kinvarra, though some doubted whether a blind man could have the Evil Eye. It was felt that he should be asked to give up his post by the Cross-roads, since it was inconvenient for the neighbours to have to climb two stone walls to avoid passing him. However, no one could be found to suggest this to him, so he still sat there daily, for he liked to feel that he was earning his own livelihood. His dog still took coppers because nobody dared withhold them. But I have been told that he made no use of this grudged tribute, and buried the coins under the trees.
One rough afternoon during my first visit to Clare I was caught in a storm of rain, and took refuge at the Liscannor Cross-roads under a thick clump of trees that are stunted and bent eastward by cowering from the sea-wind. As I reached them I heard a shrill cry, “Remember the Dark Man!” Then I saw the blind beggarman sitting huddled in a ragged great-coat so much too big for him that till he stood up I did not see how tiny he was. He had a doleful peaked face, set in a shock of grey hair. By him sat a little brown dog—the queerest of mongrels—with a tin can tied round his neck.
Andy was friendly that day, and talked eagerly in a shrill stammering voice. I found later that he was wretched in still weather, and loved the malicious rush of the rain; he was happiest when the wind rattled in his ears and the rain whipped his face. “Call that rain?” he said, “sure th’ air is flooded, an’ ye might as well swim as walk.”
Many times after that I went out of my way on my long solitary walks to pass the Cross-roads, but as often as not he was glum and silent, and then Bonaparte, sharing his mood, would growl like a small thunderstorm. The seat was well chosen, for the cowering trees are like a shed over it, and there is a pleasant landscape in front (though that mattered little to Andy), a landscape of dim green moors— with brown stains on them where sedge grows and black shadows where bushes huddle in clefts—chequered by a grey net of low walls, dotted with the white gables of cabins, and framed by a wavering line of hills.
Sometimes I found him playing his fiddle to keep himself company, but he stopped when he heard me, and, to tell the truth, I was glad of it, for his playing was uncanny. Sometimes I met him shambling along the brink of the Cliffs—a grotesque little figure, with his old shapeless hat, his huge coat flapping behind him, and the mighty blackthorn he carried—he knew the ground so well he walked as if he could see (indeed, he saw more than I could, for while to me the breakers were only streaks of light, he spoke as if he was close to them on the wet weedy rocks), or I came on him lying by the edge, listening to the squeaks of the gulls and to the grumbling of the breakers, that monotonous chorus.
No one knew more of folk-lore—I think he half believed that he was a Changeling, and found comfort in the thought of that former life when he was one of the merry “Little Good People “—and sure old Mike Lonergan and his wife ought to have known best. He knew the ways of every ghost in the county, and it was well known that he was on speaking terms with the Headless Man who haunted Liscannor. Of course he knew all about Fairies. When the fallen leaves scurried past his feet he knew that the “Little Good People” were playing football; when the wind whispered in the leaves overhead, he heard them chatting; and when it whined in the creaking bare branches, heard the poor little folk crying with cold and bewailing the days when they found shelter by snug firesides and sat there unseen but not unwelcome. Once, before the world grew hard, they gathered in the cabins, and the roughest fare grew pleasanter, the saddest hearts lighter, from their good wishes; but no one cares for them now and they cannot rest in unfriendly houses.
I only once saw him at Moher Farm; it was a fine house with a real chimney—instead of a hole in the thatch to let the smoke out—and boasted three rooms, the two smaller had been made by partitioning off the gable-ends. He was sitting by the open hearth in the big room; it was cosy and one side was fashionably covered with unfashionable crockery and the others were made beautiful by lifelike portraits of leading politicians. In one corner a hen was chuckling hysterically, and near her a pig —stretched at full length—blinked at her with gloomy eyes, as if he suspected that it was at him she was laughing. Though there was a pig-stye and a fowl-house in the yard, they preferred human society. Bridget was broad and determined. She seemed to treat Andy with a stern kindness, but that was one of his black days and it was hard to get a word out of him.
I remember thinking that—like the Fairies—he could only be happy when he was alone or with those who were fond of him, that he would gladly have given the comfort of the Farm for the bare walls and the scanty and crazy furniture of his cabin, and that he could not look back without repining on the time when he was penniless and had no friends. Now he shunned the Village, for if he passed through it the chattering groups and the gossips shouting conversations across the street from their doorways grew suddenly silent, and the children ran frightened into their homes. He had no friend left but Larry Ronan, who is a man of so big and warm a heart that he loves everybody except his own wife. But Larry is fond of so many that few value his affection.
Sometimes I found Larry sitting with Andy under the trees. The grave courtesy of the couple was wonderful; it was “Misther Lonergan, sir,” and “Misther Ronan” between them. For that matter one often sees a fine courtesy among the older peasants in Ireland. Last summer as I was driving along the Lisdoonvarna Road, a scarecrow of an old woman, squatting on a heap of stones by the roadside, hailed my ragged driver. “Askin’ your pardon, sir,” she said, “but did ye happen to meet a loaf on the road? I’m thinkin’ I dropt one as I was comin’.” “A loaf, is it, ma’am?” he answered, most respectfully, taking off his hat with a flourish, “a loaf, is it, ma’am? I’m sorry I did not then.” “Who was she?” I asked him. “Sure, an’ I don’t know then,” he said, “’tis some poor ould body that’s lost her loaf and will be goin’ to bed hungry to-night.”
As Andy grew older, he talked more of the Fairies— and sometimes with a childishness that had been missing from his desolate childhood—grew more moody and restless, could not sit quiet while the wind was up, and spent night after night out of doors. My friend Father Peter Flannery, who, next to Larry Ronan, is my chief authority for this history, told me that often, riding on his sick calls by night in stormy weather, he met Andy staggering along the rough roads.
At last, one November Eve—the night when the Fairies have power, and the dead wake and dance reels with them—the blind beggarman started out from the Farm. An Atlantic gale was shattering seas against the Cliffs; the air was salt with foam, and throbbed with the pulse of the breakers. Bridget tried in vain to stop him; he said the “Little Good People” were calling him. She watched him disappear into the darkness; the whimpering of his fiddle died into the shrieks of the wind. “‘Tis a quare divil, he is,” she said, “God help him!”
Once in the night she thought she heard a snatch of the “Fairies’ Reel”; but Andy never came back. Next morning they found Bonaparte whining on the edge of the Cliffs; there was no sign of his master. He must have gone over the Cliffs in the darkness, but the waves gave no token.
Some folk in Moher believe that the Fairies took back their child, and that the old blind fiddler lives now in the Kingdom of Tyrnanoge, and makes music for their dances in that enchanted country where the old grow young and the blind see. Some say that he still haunts the Cross-roads, and recently Larry Ronan, coming back late from the Ennistimon Fair, saw a black shadowy figure under the black trees, and heard a heart-broken voice cry,'” Remember the Dark Man!” Larry’s surprise accounted for his being found next morning asleep in the ditch. But it is agreed in Moher that Andy left life on November Eve, whether he became the playfellow of the Fairies or the plaything of the waves.
At the Rising of the Moon: Irish Stories and Studies, Frank James Mathew,1893: p. 130-146
If you want something jollier for St. Patrick’s Day, see So an Irishman Walks Into a Medium.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.