Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Soul Cage.

We have just returned from a week in Donegal. One of the places we visited was Glencolmcille Folk Village, a collection of Thatched cottages and artefacts. One of these cottages was a fisherman’s cottage and outside, leaning against the walls were some lobster pots. They put me in mind of an old Irish story from long ago and I thought I would share it with you. Hope you enjoy it.

The Soul Cage.

Jack and his wife lived in a small cottage on the coast. Jack was a fisherman just like his father and his grandfather before him, it was a family tradition and although some would think it was a wild and desolate place to live they were happy and content. They had their own little spot that was well protected from the Atlantic winds where their boat lay nice and snug. As we all know here on the west coast the storms can come on a richly-laden ship and when this happens who can blame a man who finds things like fine bales of cotton, barrels of rum or wine, casks of brandy and even kegs of tobacco washed upon the shore. In some ways Jack had his own little kingdom. To be fair to him, there was many a time he braved the storm in his little boat to rescue a sailor from a sinking vessel so in many ways you could say that these pickings were his reward.

Now many a night Jack heard and saw strange sights and sounds but as you can already tell he was a brave and hardy man and nothing daunted him. In fact, Jack often wished he could meet a Mermaid or a Merrow for he had been reared to believe that luck always came from meeting them. He would often see the Merrows moving along through the water in their magical robes of mist and although he always chased after them he never caught up with them and many a scolding he got from the wife when he arrived home with no fish for the dinner. Little did she know what he was really after? What annoyed him even more was the fact that both his father and grandfather had told him many a story about their dealings with the Merrow.

However, fortune smiled on Jack one day. As he was strolling along the beach looking to see what had been washed up after a storm he saw perched on a rock a little out to sea, what looked like a green man  holding a  hat in his hand. Jack rubbed his eyes and looked again, yes it was still there, unmoving upon the rock, after staring and wondering for a good half hour Jack gave a whistle and shouted to get its attention, when the Merrow (for that’s what it was)heard this he gave a start, put his hat on his head and dived into the sea. Well that was it, Jack’s curiosity was now risen and he returned to the same spot every day but never saw him again. He decided that he must have been dreaming and left it at that. One day however, after another storm he was again walking along the shore when he saw the Merrow swimming and jumping around the same rock as before. He suddenly realised that it was after a storm when he first saw him and he now only had to choose when he wished to meet him.

One extremely windy day, before he got to the point where he had a view of the Merrow's rock, a storm came on so furiously that Jack was had to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast; and there, to his astonishment, he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig's eyes. It had a fish's tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something. Jack, taking his courage in his hands, approached the Merrow and said “Your servant, sir” to which the Merrow replied “Your servant, Jack”. Jack was surprised that the Merrow knew his name and said so.

“Why man, I knew your grandfather long before he was married to Judy Regan, your grandmother! Ah, Jack, Jack, I was fond of that grandfather of yours; he was a mighty worthy man in his time: I never met his match above or below, before or since, for sucking in a shellful of brandy. Although you’re poor father had no head at all for the drink. I hope it’s your grandfather ye take after?”

“Don’t you be worrying about me” said Jack, “I can hold me own”

"Well, I like to hear you talk so manly; you and I must be better acquainted, if it were only for your grandfather's sake."

"I'm sure, said Jack, "since your honour lives down under the water, you must be obliged to drink a power to keep any heat in you in such a cruel, damp, could place. Well, I've often heard of Christians drinking like fishes; and might I be as bold as ask where you get the spirits?"

"Where do you get them yourself, Jack?" said the Merrow, twitching his red nose between his forefinger and thumb.

“You must have a well stocked cellar sir, It would be worth seeing” said Jack.

“Meet me here next Monday at the same time and we will see what we can do” said the Merrow, and with that they parted like long lost friends.

On the Monday Jack was surprised to see the Merrow had two hats with him, on e under each arm. “Why have you two hats with you?” asked Jack. “You will need to wear one so you may come down and dine with me” replied the Merrow. Now Jack was a brave man so he did as he was bid even though he was afraid of drowning and they both left the cave. When they reached the rock the Merrow said “just put this hat on your head, and mind to keep your eyes wide open. Take hold of my tail, and follow after me, and you'll see what you'll see." Into the sea they dived, and, at last, to Jack's great surprise, they got out of the water, and he actually found himself on dry land at the bottom of the sea. They landed just in front of a nice house that was slated very neatly with oyster shells! And the Merrow, turning about to Jack, welcomed him down.

Jack really was hungry, and it gave him no small pleasure to perceive a fine column of smoke rising from the chimney, announcing what was going on within. Into the house he followed the Merrow, and there he saw a good kitchen, right well provided with everything. There was a noble dresser, and plenty of pots and pans, with two young Merrows cooking. His host then led him into the room, which was furnished shabbily enough. Not a table or a chair was there in it; nothing but planks and logs of wood to sit on, and eat off. There was, however, a good fire blazing upon the hearth--a comfortable sight to Jack. “Come in and have a wee drink and I’ll show you the cellar” said the Merrow. Jack ate and drank till he could eat no more: then taking up a shell of brandy, "Here's to your honour's good health, sir," said he; "though, begging you pardon, it's mighty odd that as long as we've been acquainted I don't know your name yet." "That's true, Jack," replied he; "I never thought of it before, but better late than never. My name's Coomara."

At length said he to Jack, "Now, my dear boy, if you follow me, I'll show you my curiosities!" He opened a little door, and led Jack into a large room, where Jack saw a great many odds and ends that Coomara had picked up at one time or another. What chiefly took his attention; however, were things like lobsterpots ranged on the ground along the wall.

"Well, Jack, how do you like my curiosities?" said old Coo. "Upon my life, sir," said Jack, "they're mighty well worth the looking at; but might I make so bold as to ask what these things like lobster-pots are?"

"Oh! the Soul Cages, is it?"

"The what? Sir!"

"These things here that I keep the souls in”.

"Arrah! What souls, sir?" said Jack, in amazement; "sure the fish have no souls in them?"

"Oh! no," replied Coo, quite coolly, "that they have not; but these are the souls of drowned sailors."

"The Lord preserve us from all harm!" muttered Jack, "how in the world did you get them?"

"Easily enough: I've only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?"

Jack did not know what to say so he stood up and said he though it was time for him to return home. Just as you like, Jack," said Coo, "but take a duc an durrus before you go; you've a cold journey before you." Jack took the parting glass and out of the house they went. Coomara placed the hat upon Jack’s head told him to throw it back when he reached the surface and with a great heave launched Jack up into the water.

As time passed, Jack kept thinking of the souls trapped in the lobster pots and he came up with a plan to release them. He would invite Coomara to dinner, get him drunk, take his hat, swim down and release the souls and come back all before Coomara sobered up. Now what to do with the wife? Jack decided to pretend to have become very pious and said to Biddy (his wife, for that was her name) “It would be good for our souls if you were to go and do the stations around the Holy Well, but you’ll have to stay there from dawn till dusk, for you have been awful slow in yer wifely duties” (we won’t say what her reply was). The coast was now clear so away Jack went to the rock and gave the agreed signal to Coomara, which was throwing a big stone into the sea. Up came Coomara, "Good morning, Jack," said he; "what do you want with me?"

“Would you like a bit of dinner and a few drinks with me?”

“I would” said the Merrow, “when do you want me to come?”

“Oh, how does one o’ clock sound, that way it will still be daylight for you to go home by”

"Perfect, sounds good to me" said Coomara.

At the dinner Jack took care to have his own liquor well watered, and to give the strongest brandy he had to Coo. At last says he, "Pray, sir, did you ever drink any poteen?--any real mountain dew?"

"No," says Coo; "what's that, and where does it come from?"

“Oh, that’s a secret, but what I can tell you is that it’s fifty times stronger than any brandy or rum you have ever drank, and as you’re a friend of the family, I have a few bottles to treat you with”

Coo was delighted: he drank and he sung Rum bum boodle boo over and over again; and he laughed and he danced, till he fell on the floor fast asleep. Then Jack, who had taken good care to keep sober, snapped up the cocked hat, ran off to the rock and dived into the sea and soon arrived at Coo's house. All was quiet and in he went, turning up the pots he heard a little sound like a low whistle (for no-one can see a soul) and having set them all free he went outside. Now, how to get back to the surface? All of a sudden ~Jack saw a large cod passing by so he grabbed its tail, the cod in amazement made a dash for the surface taking Jack with him. He got to the rock in no time and without a moment's delay hurried home, rejoicing in the good deed he had done.

Meanwhile, Biddy had returned home from the Holy Well. Entering the house she saw the mess Jack had made (for no man can keep a kitchen clean). All of a sudden she heard a grunt from under the table and looking down she saw Coomara on the floor surrounded by poteen bottles. “Holy mother of God, that pig of a husband of mine has turned into a proper beast” and she rushed out of the house. As she was wondering what to do she heard singing coming up the road and recognised the sound of Jack’s voice. Well she was so pleased that she didn’t have to be married to an auld smelly man-fish, Jack explained to her all he had done and the great thing he had done for the souls of the fishermen.

Coomara never missed the souls, for fishermen and sailors were always getting lost at sea so the lobster pots were always filling up again. Jack and Coomara remained the best of friends and he continued finding excuses to get into the house beneath the sea unknown to Coomara and freeing the newly trapped souls. This went on for many years until one day Coomara never answered the call. Without the hat, Jack could not swim down to see what had become of the Merrow, he believed that the old man-fish, or whatever he was, had either died, or gone to some other part of the sea. Of the souls, no more was heard.

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