Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK
TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
THE BREWERY OF EGG-SHELLS
T. Crofton Croker
Mrs. Sullivan fancied that her
youngest child had been exchanged by "fairies
theft", and certainly appearances warranted such a conclusion; for in one night
her healthy, blue-eyed boy had become shrivelled up into almost nothing, and
never ceased squalling and crying. This naturally made poor Mrs. Sullivan very
unhappy; and all the neighbours, by way of comforting her, said that her own
child was, beyond any kind of doubt, with the good people, and that one of
themselves was put in his place.
Mrs. Sullivan of course could not disbelieve what every one told her, but she
did not wish to hurt the thing; for although its face was so withered, and its
body wasted away to a mere skeleton, it had still a strong resemblance to her
own boy. She, therefore, could not find it in her heart to roast it alive on the
griddle, or to bum its nose off with the red-hot tongs, or to throw it out in
the snow on the road-side, notwithstanding these, and several like proceedings,
were strongly recommended to her for the recovery of her child.
One day who should Mrs. Sullivan meet but a cunning woman, well known about
the country by the name of Ellen Leah (or Grey Ellen). She had the gift, however
she got it, of telling where the dead were, and what was good for the rest of
their souls; and could charm away warts and wens, and do a great many wonderful
things of the same nature.
"You're in grief this morning, Mrs. Sullivan," were the first words of Ellen
Leah to her.
"You may say that, Ellen," said Mrs. Sullivan, "and good cause I have to be
in grief, for there was my own fine child whipped off from me out of his cradle,
without as much as 'by your leave' or 'ask your pardon', and an ugly dony bit of
a shrivelled-up fairy put in his place; no wonder, then, that you see me in
"Small blame to you, Mrs. Sullivan," said Ellen Leah, "but are you sure 'tis
"Sure!" echoed Mrs. Sullivan, "sure enough I am to my sorrow, and can I doubt
my own two eyes? Every mother's soul must feel for me!"
"Will you take an old woman's advice?" said Ellen Leah, fixing her wild and
mysterious gaze upon the unhappy mother; and, after a pause, she added, "but
maybe you'll call it foolish?"
"Can you get me back my child, my own child, Ellen?" said Mrs. Sullivan with
"If you do as I bid you," returned Ellen Leah, "you'll know." Mrs. Sullivan
was silent in expectation, and Ellen continued, "Put down the big pot, full of
water, on the fire, and make it boil like mad; then got a dozen new-laid eggs,
break them, and keep the shells, but throw away the rest; when that is done, put
the shells in the pot of boiling water, and you will soon know whether it is
your own boy or a fairy. If you find that it is a fairy in the cradle, take the
red-hot poker and cram it down his ugly throat, and you will not have much
trouble with him after that I promise you."
Home went Mrs. Sullivan, and did as Ellen Leah desired. She put the pot on
the fire, and plenty of turf under it, and set the water boiling at such a rate,
that if ever water was red-hot, it surely was.
The child was lying, for a wonder, quite easy and quiet in the cradle, every
now and then cocking his eye, that would twinkle as keen as a star in a frosty
night, over at the great fire, and the big pot upon it; and he looked on with
great attention at Mrs. Sullivan breaking the eggs and putting down the
egg-shells to boil. At last he asked, with the voice of a very old man, "What
are you doing mammy?"
Mrs. Sullivan's heart, as she said herself, was up in her mouth ready to
choke her, at hearing the child speak. But she contrived to put the poker in the
fire, and to answer, without making any wonder at the words, "I'm brewing, a
vick" (my son).
"And what are you brewing, mammy?" said the little imp, whose supernatural
gift of speech now proved beyond question that he was a fairy substitute.
"I wish the poker was red," thought Mrs. Sullivan; but it was a large one,
and took a long time heating; so she determined to keep him in talk until the
poker was in a proper state to thrust down his throat, and therefore repeated
"Is it what I'm brewing, a vick," said she, "you want to know?"
"Yes, mammy: what are you brewing?" returned the fairy.
"Egg-shells, a vick," said Mrs. Sullivan.
"Oh!" shrieked the imp, starting up in the cradle, and clapping his hands
together, "I'm fifteen hundred years in the world, and I never saw a brewery of
egg-shells before!" The poker was by this time quite red, and Mrs. Sullivan,
seizing it, ran furiously towards the cradle; but somehow or other her foot
slipped, and she fell flat on the floor, and the poker flew out of her hand to
the other end of the house. However, she got up without much loss of time and
went to the cradle, intending to pitch the wicked thing that was in it into the
pot of boiling water, when there she saw her own child in a sweet sleep, one of
his soft round arms rested upon the pillow--his features were as placid as if
their repose had never been disturbed, save the rosy mouth, which moved with a
gentle and regular breathing.