Folklore: Twenty Years in the Mythical Realm beyond the West

Some years ago, on a rainy, misty Thursday October night, while having a drink in McSorley’s Old Ale House, I overheard an old man, relate an astonishing story. He told his tale with such conviction, that I believed it be undeniably true. The old man sat close to the coal burning stove, the heart and soul of McSorley’s, and the flickering open coal fire might have reminded him of fireside story traditions from earlier days. This, and maybe a few jars of porter possibly prompted his tale. This is his story as heard by me.

Twenty Years in the Realm of the Fairy Kings

Many years ago when I lived in Ireland, just to the south of Cork City, I had an uncle, who was a baker. God rest his soul, for he is well gone now. He was only about 2 or 3 months married. When he said to his pretty wife, and I heard him say this, that the fortune wasn’t very big, meaning the wife’s dowry wasn’t very big, but it would buy him quite a few good bags of flour. At this time, his bakery was thriving, doing a roaring trade, making scones, apple tarts and soda bread.

With every big order he sold, he had the odd habit of touching a circular dotted mark on his forearm and saying a prayer. He said the prayer in the sort of Gaelic that is only spoken in the far west, and that none us could understand. He had spent most of his life, living in the far west, living in Ardgroom and was very familiar with that tongue. When he received his wife’s small fortune, he also said the prayer in thanksgiving of his great luck.

However, one early morning through the late October drizzle, he set off for the flour mill, near Belgooly with his horse and cart, to bring bags of flour and other little items he needed for bread making.

He did not return that night or the next, nor the next. His wife Laoise and some friends went to Belgooly the next day, but no trace of her husband could be found. I forgot to tell you that on the fourth morning, after he was gone, his wife rose very early after hearing a trundling sound outside the cottage, and there at the door was the horse and cart. The length and breadth of the countryside was searched, up high and down low, but hide nor hair of him could not be found.

Every night at sunset, Laoise would look to the low road hoping and praying for his return. Weeks, months, years and even decades came and went, but he never came home.

Now the wife had a keen eye and learned the Baker’s trade through observing her husband, over the few months of their short-lived marriage. Her skill kept the little baking business going, selling scones and soda bread, and she managed to support herself, and a son, who grew to be a tall strong man, as the local villagers would say, the very picture of his father. He also had the same circular mark on his forearm as his father had.

Now one evening, when the boy was in or abouts twenty years of age, he and his mother were eating their dinner of colcannon and bacon, when in comes a dishevelled man with a long grey beard and shouts, “God save your merry souls!” “And may God save your soul,” says the mother. “Will you eat some colcannon, sir?” says she. He reached for a bowl of colcannon, and in doing so his coat sleeve hitched up around his elbow. The pulled up sleeve revealed a circular mark on his arm and the mother looked at it, knowing that her husband had a similar mark on his forearm.

“Lord have mercy on us!” she said, “are you Fergal Fitzgerald?” – for that was the man’s name. “I am,” said he, “and I am your lost husband, and that’s my son that I have not seen until this very day, but I can’t tell you where I’ve been since I left you. But some time in the future, I might have the power to recall, but not now.”

Well, low and behold, in a week’s time he started to work in the Baker’s shop, and the cakes, scones and bread he made won all the blue ribands at the local fairs, and their delicious taste astounded the whole county. After his return, I believe he lived for nine or ten years, but he never would tell her or anyone where he was. When pressed, he would roll his eyes towards the ancient standing stone, the Stone of Aine, that stood nearby, to give some indication of where he had been. At other times he would mumble to someone in his sleep in the tongue of the west.

Sometimes, he would sleepwalk and dance a jig, holding his arms high in a triangle, in a style of dancing that was reported in the old chronicles, and was thought to have died out thousands of years ago. He would also dance this jig when in company, after taking the odd glass of McCarthy’s Strong Potcheen. During the dance his wild eyes would roll and his arms flail. One man who saw this, said it was the Dance of the Fairy King of Munster. The man then made a sign on his forehead, took off his right shoe and left immediately by climbing out of the open window.

My uncle would never tell anyone where he was, but of all of us knew that he was with the people of the Mythical Realm beyond the West.