Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK
TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
MASTER AND MAN
T. Crofton Croker
Billy Mac Daniel was once as
likely a young man as ever shook his brogue at a
patron,1 emptied a quart, or handled a shillelagh; fearing for
nothing but the want of drink; caring for nothing but who should pay for it; and
thinking of nothing but how to make fun over it; drunk or sober, a word and a
blow was ever the way with Billy Mac Daniel; and a mighty easy way it is of
either getting into or of ending a dispute. More is the pity that, through the
means of his thinking, and fearing, and caring for nothing, this same Billy Mac
Daniel fell into bad company; for surely the good people are the worst of all
company any one could come across.
It so happened that Billy was going home one clear frosty night not long
after Christmas; the moon was round and bright; but although it was as fine a
night as heart could wish for. he felt pinched with cold. "By my word,"
chattered Billy, "a drop of good liquor would be no bad thing to keep a man's
soul from freezing in him; and I wish I had a full measure of the best."
"Never wish it twice, Billy," said a little man in a three-cornered hat,
bound all about with gold lace, and with great silver buckles in his shoes, so
big that it was a wonder how he could carry them, and he held out a glass as big
as himself, filled with as good liquor as over eye looked on or lip tasted.
"Success, my little fellow," said Billy Mac Daniel, nothing daunted, though
well he knew the little man to belong to the good people; "here's your
health, any way, and thank you kindly; no matter who pays for the drink;" and he
took the glass and drained it to the very bottom without ever taking a second
breath to it.
"Success," said the little man; "and you're heartily welcome, Billy; but
don't think to cheat me as you have done others,--out with your purse and pay me
like a gentleman."
"Is it I pay you?" said Billy; "could I not just take you up and put you in
my pocket as easily as a blackberry?"
"Billy Mac Daniel," said the little man, getting very angry, "you shall be my
servant for seven years and a day, and that is the way I will be paid; so make
ready to follow me."
When Billy heard this he began to be very sorry for having used such bold
words towards the little man; and he felt himself, yet could not tell how,
obliged to follow the little man the live-long night about the country, up and
down, and over hedge and ditch, and through bog and brake, without any rest.
When morning began to dawn the little man turned round to him and said, "You
may now go home, Billy, but on your peril don't fail to meet me in the
Fort-field tonight; or if you do it may be the worse for you in the long run. If
I find you a good servant, you will find me an indulgent master."
Home went Billy Mac Daniel; and though he was tired and weary enough, never a
wink of sleep could he bet for thinking of the little man; but he was afraid not
to do his bidding, so up he got in the evening, and away he went to the
Fort-field. He was not long there before the little man came towards him and
said, "Billy, I want to go a long journey tonight; so saddle one of my horses,
and you may saddle another for yourself, as you are to go along with me, and may
be tired after your walk last night."
Billy thought this very considerate of his master, and thanked him
accordingly: "But," said he, "if I may be so bold, sir, I would ask which is the
way to your stable, for never a thing do I see but the fort here, and the old
thorn tree in the comer of the field, and the stream running at the bottom of
the hill, with the bit of bog over against us."
"Ask no questions, Billy," said the little man, "but go
over to that bit of a bog, and bring me two of the strongest rushes you can
Billy did accordingly, wondering what the little man would be at; and he
picked two of the stoutest rushes he could find, with a little bunch of brown
blossom stuck at the side of each, and brought them back to his master.
"Get up, Billy," said the little man, taking one of the rushes from him and
striding across it.
"Where shall I get up, please your honour?" said Billy.
"Why, upon horseback, like me, to be sure," said the little man.
"Is it after making a fool of me you'd be," said Billy, "bidding me get a
horseback upon that bit of rush? May be you want to persuade me that the rush I
pulled but a while ago out of the bog over there is a horse?"
"Up! up! and no words," said the little man, looking very angry; "the best
horse you ever rode was but a fool to it." So Billy, thinking all this was in
joke, and fearing to vex his master, straddled across the rush. "Borram! Borram!
Borram!" cried the little man three times (which, in English, means to become
great), and Billy did the same after him; presently the rushes swelled up into
fine horses, and away they went full speed; but Billy, who had put the rush
between his legs, without much minding how he did it, found himself sitting on
horseback the wrong way, which was rather awkward, with his face to the horse's
tail; and so quickly had his steed started off with him that he had no power to
turn round, and there was therefore nothing for it but to hold on by the
At last they came to their journey's end, and stopped at the gate of a fine
house. "Now, Billy," said the little man, "do as you see me do, and follow me
close; but as you did not know your horse's head from his tail, mind that your
own head does not spin round until you can't tell whether you are standing on it
or on your heels: for remember that old liquor, though able to make a cat speak,
can make a man dumb."
The little man then said some queer kind of words, out of which Billy could
make no meaning; but he contrived to say them after him for all that; and in
they both went through the keyhole of the door, and through one key-hole after
another, until they got into the wine-cellar, which was well stored with all
kinds of wine.
The little man fell to drinking as hard as he could, and Billy, noway
disliking the example, did the same. "The best of masters are you surely," said
Billy to him; "no matter who is the next; and well pleased will I be with your
service if you continue to give me plenty to drink."
"I have made no bargain with you," said the little man, "and will make none;
but up and follow me." Away they went, through key-hole after key-hole; and each
mounting upon the rush which he left at the hall door, scampered off, kicking
the clouds before them like snow-balls, as soon as the words, "Borram, Borram,
Borram", had passed their lips.
When they came back to the Fort-field the little man dismissed Billy, bidding
him to be there the next night at the same hour. Thus did they go on, night
after night, shaping their course one night here, and another night there;
sometimes north, and sometimes east, and sometimes south, until there was not a
gentleman's wine-cellar in all Ireland they had not visited, and could tell the
flavour of every wine in it as well, ay, better than the butler himself.
One night when Billy Mac Daniel met the little man as usual in the
Fort-field, and was going to the bog to fetch the horses for their journey, his
master said to him, "Billy, I shall want another horse tonight, for may be we
may bring back more company than we take." So Billy, who now knew better than to
question any order given to him by his master, brought a third rush, much
wondering who it might be that would travel back in their company, and whether
he was about to have a fellow-servant. "If I have," thought Billy, "he shall go
and fetch the horses from the bog every night; for I don't see why I am not,
every inch of me, as good a gentleman as my master."
Well, away they went, Billy leading the third horse, and never stopped until
they came to a snug farmer's house, in the county Limerick, close under the old
castle of Carrigogunniel, that was built, they say, by the great Brian Boru.
Within the house there was great carousing going forward, and the little man
stopped outside for some time to listen; then turning round all of a sudden,
said, "Billy, I will be a thousand years old tomorrow!"
"God bless us, sir," said Billy; "will you?"
"Don't say these words again, Billy," said the little old man, "or you will
be my ruin for ever. Now Billy, as I will be a thousand years in the world
tomorrow, I think it is full time for me to get married."
"I think so too, without any kind of doubt at all," said Billy, "if ever you
mean to marry."
"And to that purpose," said the little man, "have I come all the way to
Carrigogunniel; for in this house, this very night, is young Darby Riley going
to be married to Bridget Rooney; and as she is a tall and comely girl, and has
come of decent people, I think of marrying her myself, and taking her off with
"And what will Darby Riley say to that?" said Billy.
"Silence!" said the little man, putting on a mighty severe look; "I did not
bring you here with me to ask questions;" and without holding further argument,
he began saying the queer words which had the power of passing him through the
keyhole as free as air, and which Billy thought himself mighty clever to be able
to say after him.
In they both went; and for the better viewing the company, the little man
perched himself up as nimbly as a cocksparrow upon one of the big beams which
went across the house over all their heads, and Billy did the same upon another
facing him; but not being much accustomed to roosting in such a place, his legs
hung down as untidy as may be, and it was quite clear he had not taken pattern
after the way in which the little man had bundled himself up together. If the
little man had been a tailor all his life he could not have sat more contentedly upon his haunches.
There they were, both master and man, looking down upon the fun that was
going forward; and under them were the priest and piper, and the father of Darby
Riley, with Darby's two brothers and his uncle's son; and there were both the
father and the mother of Bridget Rooney, and proud enough the old couple were
that night of their daughter, as good right they had; and her four sisters, with
bran new ribbons in their caps, and her three brothers all looking as clean and
as clever as any three boys in Munster, and there were uncles and aunts, and
gossips and cousins enough besides to make a full house of it; and plenty was
there to eat and drink on the table for every one of them, if they had been
double the number.
Now it happened, just as Mrs. Rooney had helped his reverence to the first
cut of the pig's head which was placed before her, beautifully bolstered up with
white savoys, that the bride gave a sneeze, which made every one at table start,
but not a soul said "God bless us". All thinking that the priest would have done
so, as he ought if he had done his duty, no one wished to take the word out of
his mouth, which, unfortunately, was preoccupied with pig's head and greens. And
after a moment's pause the fun and merriment of the bridal feast went on without
the pious benediction.
Of this circumstance both Billy and his master were no inattentive spectators
from their exalted stations. "Ha!" exclaimed the little man, throwing one leg
from under him with a joyous flourish, and his eye twinkled with a strange
light, whilst his eyebrows became elevated into the curvature of Gothic arches;
"Ha!" said he, leering down at the bride, and then up at Billy, "I have half of
her now, surely. Let her sneeze but twice more, and she is mine, in spite of
priest, mass-book, and Darby Riley."
Again the fair Bridget sneezed; but it was so gently, and she blushed so
much, that few except the little man took, or seemed to take, any notice; and no
one thought of saying "God bless us".
Billy all this time regarded the poor girl with a most rueful expression of
countenance; for he could not help thinking what a terrible thing it was for a
nice young girl of nineteen, with large blue eyes, transparent skin, and dimpled
checks, suffused with health and joy, to be obliged to marry an ugly little bit
of a man, who was a thousand years old, barring a day.
At this critical moment the bride gave a third sneeze, and Billy roared out
with all his might, "God save us!" Whether this exclamation resulted from his
soliloquy, or from the mere force of habit, he never could tell exactly himself;
but no sooner was it uttered than the little man, his face glowing with rage and
disappointment, sprung from the beam on which he had perched himself, and
shrieking out in the shrill voice of a cracked bagpipe, "I discharge you from my
service, Billy Mac Daniel--take that for your wages," gave poor Billy a
most furious kick in the back, which sent his unfortunate servant sprawling upon
his face and hands right in the middle of the supper-table.
If Billy was astonished, how much more so was every one of the company into
which he was thrown with so little ceremony. But when they heard his story,
Father Cooney laid down his knife and fork, and married the young couple out of
hand with all speed; and Billy Mac Daniel danced the Rinka at their wedding, and
plenty he did drink at it too, which was what he thought more of than
festival held in honour of some patron saint.