Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK
TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
THE GIANT'S STAIRS1
T. Crofton Croker
On the road between Passage and
Cork there is an old mansion called Ronayne's
Court. It may be easily known from the stack of chimneys and the gable-ends,
which are to be seen, look at it which way you will. Here it was that Maurice
Ronayne and his wife Margaret Gould kept house, as may be learned to this day
from the great old chimney-piece, on which is carved their arms. They were a
mighty worthy couple, and had but one son, who was called Philip, after no less
a person than the King of Spain.
Immediately on his smelling the cold air of this world the child sneezed,
which was naturally taken to be a good sign of his having a clear head; and the
subsequent rapidity of his learning was truly amazing, for on the very first day
a primer was put into his hands he tore out the A, B, C page and destroyed it,
as a thing quite beneath his notice. No wonder, then, that both father and
mother were proud of their heir, who gave such indisputable proofs of genius,
or, as they called it in that part of the world, "genus".
One morning, however, Master Phil, who was then just seven
years old, was missing, and no one could tell what had become of him:
servants were sent in all directions to seek him, on horseback and on foot, but
they returned without any tidings of the boy, whose disappearance altogether was
most unaccountable. A large reward was offered, but it produced them no
intelligence, and years rolled away without Mr. and Mrs. Ronayne having obtained
any satisfactory account of the fate of their lost child.
There lived at this time, near Carrigaline, one Robert Kelly, a blacksmith by
trade. He was what is termed a handy man, and his abilities were held in much
estimation by the lads and the lasses of the neighbourhood; for independent of
shoeing horses, which he did to great perfection, and making plough-irons, he
interpreted dreams for the young women, sung "Arthur O'Bradley" at their
weddings, and was so good-natured a fellow at a christening, that he was gossip
to half the country round.
Now it happened that Robin had a dream himself, and young Philip Ronayne
appeared to him in it, at the dead hour of the night. Robin thought he saw the
boy mounted upon a beautiful white horse, and that he told him how he was made a
page to the giant Mahon MacMahon, who had carried him off, and who held his
court in the hard heart of the rock. "The seven years--my time of service--are
clean out, Robin," said he, "and if you release me this night I will be the
making of you for ever after."
"And how will I know," said Robin-cunning enough, even in his sleep--"but
this is all a dream?"
'Take that," said the boy, "for a token"--and at the word the white horse
struck out with one of his hind legs, and gave poor Robin such a kick in the
forehead that, thinking he was a dead man, he roared as loud as he could after
his brains, and woke up, calling a thousand murders. He found himself in bed,
but he had the mark of the blow, the regular print of a horse-shoe, upon his
forehead as red as blood; and Robin Kelly, who never before found himself
puzzled at the dream of any other person, did not know what to think of his
Robin was well acquainted with the Giant's Stairs--as, indeed, who is not
that knows the harbour? They consist of great masses of rock, which, piled one
above another, rise like a flight of steps from very deep water, against the
bold cliff of Carrigmahon. Nor are they badly suited for stairs to those who
have legs of sufficient length to stride over a moderate-sized house, or to
enable them to clear the space of a mile in a hop, step, and jump. Both these
feats the giant MacMahon was said to have performed in the days of Finnian
glory; and the common tradition of the country placed his dwelling within the
cliff up whose side the stairs led.
Such was the impression which the dream made on Robin, that he determined to
put its truth to the test. It occurred to him, however, before setting out on
his adventure, that a plough-iron may be no bad companion, as, from experience,
he knew that it was an excellent knock-down argument, having on more occasions
than one settled a little disagreement very quietly: so, putting one on his
shoulder, off he marched, in the cool of the evening, through Glaun a Thowk (the
Hawk's Glen) to Monkstown. Here an old gossip of his (Tom Clancey by name)
lived, who on hearing Robin's dream, promised him the use of his skiff, and
moreover, offered to assist in rowing it to the Giant's Stairs.
After supper, which was of the best, they embarked. It was a beautiful still
night, and the little boat glided swiftly along. The regular dip of the oars,
the distant song of the sailor, and sometimes the voice of a belated traveller
at the ferry of Carrigaloe, alone broke the quietness of the land and sea and
sky. The tide was in their favour, and in a few minutes Robin and his gossip
rested on their oars under the dark shadow of the Giant's Stairs. Robin looked
anxiously for the entrance to the Giant's palace, which, it was said, may be
found by any one seeking it at midnight; but no such entrance could he see. His
impatience had hurried him there before that time, and after waiting a
considerable space in a state of suspense not to be described, Robin,
with pure vexation, could not help exclaiming to his companion, "'Tis
a pair of fools we are, Tom Clancey, for coming here at all on the strength of a
"And whose doing is it," said Tom, "but your own?"
At the moment he spoke they perceived a faint glimmering of light to proceed
from the cliff, which gradually increased until a porch big enough for a king's
palace unfolded itself almost on a level with the water. They pulled the skiff
towards the opening, and Robin Kelly, seizing his plough-iron, boldly entered
with a strong hand and a stout heart. Wild and strange was that entrance, the
whole of which appeared formed of grim and grotesque faces, blending so
strangely each with the other that it was impossible to define any: the chin of
one formed the nose of another; what appeared to be a fixed and stem eye, if
dwelt upon, changed to a gaping mouth; and the lines of the lofty forehead grew
into a majestic and flowing beard. The more Robin allowed himself to contemplate
the forms around him, the more terrific they became; and the stony expression of
this crowd of faces assumed a savage ferocity as his imagination converted
feature after feature into a different shape and character. Losing the twilight
in which these indefinite forms were visible, he advanced through a dark and
devious passage, whilst a deep and rumbling noise sounded as if the rock was
about to close upon him, and swallow him up alive for ever. Now, indeed, poor
Robin felt afraid.
"Robin, Robin," said he, "if you were a fool for coming here, what in the
name of fortune are you now?" But, as before, he had scarcely spoken, when he
saw a small light twinkling through the darkness of the distance, like a star in
the midnight sky. To retreat was out of the question; for so many turnings and
windings were in the passage, that he considered he had but little chance of
making his way back. He, therefore, proceeded towards the bit of light, and came
at last into a spacious chamber, from the roof of which hung the solitary lamp
that had guided him. Emerging from such profound gloom the single lamp afforded
Robin abundant light to discover several gigantic figures seated round a massive
stone table, as if in serious deliberation, but no word disturbed the breathless
silence which prevailed. At the head of this table sat Mahon MacMahon himself,
whose majestic beard had taken root, and in the course of ages grown into the
stone slab. He was the first who perceived Robin; and instantly starting up,
drew his long beard from out the huge piece of rock in such haste and with so
sudden a jerk that it was shattered into a thousand pieces.
"What seek you?" he demanded in a voice of thunder.
"I come," answered Robin, with as much boldness as he could put on, for his
heart was almost fainting within him; "I come," said he, "to claim Philip
Ronayne, whose time of service is out this night."
"And who sent you here?" said the giant.
"'Twas of my own accord I came," said Robin.
"Then you must single him out from among my pages," said the giant; "and if
you fix on the wrong one, your life is forfeit. Follow me." He led Robin into a
hall of vast extent and fined with lights; along either side of which were rows
of beautiful children, all apparently seven years old, and none beyond that age,
dressed in green, and every one exactly dressed alike.
"Here," said Mahon, "you are free to take Philip Ronayne, if you will; but,
remember, I give you but one choice."
Robin was sadly perplexed; for there were hundreds upon hundreds of children;
and he had no very clear recollection of the boy he sought. But he walked along
the hall, by the side of Mahon, as if nothing was the matter, although his great
iron dress clanked fearfully at every step, sounding louder than Robin's own
sledge battering on his anvil.
They had nearly reached the end without speaking, when Robin, seeing that the
only means he had was to make friends with the giant, determined to try what
effect a few soft words might have.
"'Tis a fine wholesome appearance the poor children carry," remarked Robin,
"although they have been here so long shut out from the fresh air and the
blessed light of heaven. 'Tis tenderly your honour must have reared them!"'
"Ay," said the giant, "that is true for you; so give me your hand; for you
are, I believe, a very honest fellow for a blacksmith."
Robin at the first look did not much like the huge size of the hand, and,
therefore, presented his plough-iron, which the giant seizing, twisted in his
grasp round and round again as if it had been a potato stalk. On seeing this all
the children set up a shout of laughter. In the midst of their mirth Robin
thought he heard his name called; and all ear and eye, he put his hand on the
boy who he fancied had spoken, crying out at the same time, "Let me live or die
for it, but this is young Phil Ronayne."
"It is Philip Ronayne--happy Philip Ronayne," said his young companions; and
in an instant the hall became dark. Crashing noises were heard, and all was in
strange confusion; but Robin held fast his prize, and found himself lying in the
grey dawn of the morning at the head of the Giant's Stairs with the boy clasped
in his arms.
Robin had plenty of gossips to spread the story of his wonderful adventure:
Passage, Monkstown, Carrigaline--the whole barony of Kerricurrihy rung with
"Are you quite sure, Robin, it is young Phil Ronayne you have brought back
with you?" was the regular question; for although the boy had been seven years
away, his appearance now was just the same as on the day he was missed. He had
neither grown taller nor older in look, and he spoke of things which had
happened before he was carried off as one awakened from sleep, or as if they had
"Am I sure? Well, that's a queer question," was Robin's reply; "Seeing the
boy has the blue eye of the mother, with the foxy hair of the father; to say
nothing of the purty wart on the right side of his little nose."
However Robin Kelly may have been questioned, the worthy couple of Ronayne's
Court doubted not that he was the deliverer of their child from the power of the
giant MacMahon; and the reward they bestowed on him equalled their
Philip Ronayne lived to be an old man; and he was remarkable to the day of
his death for his skill in working brass and iron, which it was believed he had
learned during his seven years' apprenticeship to the giant Mahon MacMahon.
1. Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland.