Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK
TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
THE PRIEST'S SOUL1
In former days there were great
schools in Ireland, where every sort of
learning was taught to the people, and even the poorest had more knowledge at
that time than many a gentleman has now. But as to the priests, their learning
was above all, so that the fame of Ireland went over the whole world, and many
kings from foreign lands used to send their sons all the way to Ireland to be
brought up in the Irish schools.
Now, at this time there was a little boy learning at one of them who was a
wonder to everyone for his cleverness. His parents were only labouring people,
and of course poor; but young as he was, and as poor as he was, no king's or
lord's son could come up to him in learning. Even the masters were put to shame;
for when they were trying to teach him he would tell them something they never
heard of before, and show them their ignorance. One of his great triumphs was in
argument; and he would go on till he proved to you that black was white, and
then when you gave in, for no one could beat him in talk, he would turn round
and show you that white was black, or maybe that there was no colour at all in
the world. When he grew up his poor father and mother were so proud of him that
they resolved to make him a priest, which they did at last, though they nearly
starved themselves to get the money. Well, such another learned man was not in
Ireland, and he was as great in argument as ever, so that no one could stand
before him. Even the bishops tried to talk to him. but he showed them at once
they knew nothing at all.
Now. there were no schoolmasters in those times, but it was the priests
taught the people; and as this man was the cleverest in Ireland, all the foreign
kings sent their sons to him, as long as he had house-room to give them. So
he grew very proud, and began to forget how low he had been, and worst of all,
even to forget God, who had made him what he was. And the pride of arguing got
hold of him, so that from one thing to another he went on to prove that there
was no Purgatory, and then no Hell, and then no Heaven, and then no God; and at
last that men had no souls, but were no more than a dog or a cow, and when they
died there was an end of them. "Whoever saw a soul?" he would say. "I you can
show me one, I will believe." No one could make any answer to this; and at last
they all came to believe that as there was no other world, everyone might do
what they liked in this; the priest setting the example, for he took a beautiful
young girl to wife. But as no priest or bishop in the whole land could be got to
marry them, he was obliged to read the service for himself. It was a great
scandal, yet no one dared to say a word, for all the king's sons were on his
side, and would have slaughtered anyone who tried to prevent his wicked
goings-on. Poor boys; they all believed in him, and thought every word he said
was the truth. In this way his notions began to spread about, and the whole
world was going to the bad, when one night an angel came down from Heaven, and
told the priest he had but twenty-four hours to live. He began to tremble, and
asked for a little more time.
But the angel was stiff, and told him that could not be.
"What do you want time for, you sinner?" he asked.
"Oh sir, have pity on my poor soul!" urged the priest.
"Oh no! You have a soul then," said the angel. "Pray, how did you find that
"It has been fluttering in me ever since you appeared," answered the priest.
"What a fool I was not to think of it before."
"A fool, indeed," said the angel. "What good was all your learning, when it
could not tell you that you had a soul?"
"Ah, my lord," said the priest, "I am to die, tell me how soon I may be in
"Never," replied the angel. "You denied there was a Heaven."
"Then, my lord, may I go to Purgatory?"
"You denied Purgatory also; you must go straight to Hell," said the
"But, my lord, I denied Hell also," answered the priest, "so you can't send
me there either."
The angel was a little puzzled.
"Well," said he, "I'll tell you what I can do for you. You may either live
now on earth for a hundred years, enjoying every pleasure, and then be cast into
Hell for ever; or you may die in twenty-four hours in the most horrible
torments, and pass through Purgatory, there to remain till the Day of Judgment,
if only you can find some one person that believes, and through his belief mercy
will be vouchsafed to you, and your soul will be saved."
The priest did not take five minutes to make up his mind.
"I will have death in the twenty-four hours," he said, "so that my soul may
be saved at last."
On this the angel gave him directions as to what he was to do, and left
Then immediately the priest entered the large room where all the scholars and
the kings' sons were seated, and called out to them--
"Now, tell me the truth, and let none fear to contradict me; tell me what is
your belief--have men souls?"
"Master," they answered, "once we believed that men had souls; but thanks to
your teaching, we believe so no longer. There is no Hell, and no Heaven, and no
God. This is our belief, for it is thus you taught us."
Then the priest grew pale with fear, and cried out--
"Listen! I taught you a lie. There is a God, and man has an immortal soul. I
believe now all I denied before."
But the shouts of laughter that rose up drowned the priest's voice, for they
thought he was only trying them for argument.
"Prove it, master," they cried. "Prove it. Who has ever seen God? Who has
ever seen the soul?"
And the room was stirred with their laughter.
The priest stood up to answer them, but no word could he utter. All his
eloquence, all his powers of argument had gone from him; and he could do nothing
but wring his hands and cry out, "There is a God! there is a God! Lord have
mercy on my soul!"
And they all began to mock him! and repeat his own words that he had taught
"Show him to us; show us your God." And he fled from them, groaning with
agony, for he saw that none believed; and how, then could his soul be saved?
But he thought next of his wife "She will believe," he said to himself;
"women never give up God."
And he went to her; but she told him that she believed only what he taught
her, and that a good wife should believe in her husband first and before and
above all things in Heaven or earth.
Then despair came on him, and he rushed from the house, and began to ask
every one he met if they believed. But the same answer came from one and
all--"We believe only what you have taught us", for his doctrine had spread far
and wide through the country.
Then he grew half mad with fear, for the hours were passing, and he flung
himself down on the ground in a lonesome spot, and wept and groaned in terror,
for the time was coming fast when he must die.
Just then a little child came by. "God save you kindly," said the child to
The priest started up.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked.
"I have come from a far country to learn about him," said the child. "Will
your honour direct me to the best school they have in these parts?"
"The best school and the best teacher is close by," said the priest, and he
"Oh, not to that man," answered the child, "for I am told he denies God, and
Heaven, and Hell, and even that man has a soul, because he cannot see it; but
I would soon put him down."
The priest looked at him earnestly. "How?" he inquired.
"Why," said the child, "I would ask him if he believed he had life to show me
"But he could not do that, my child," said the priest. "Life cannot be seen;
we have it, but it is invisible."
"Then if we have life, though we cannot see it, we may also have a soul,
though it is invisible," answered the child.
When the priest heard him speak these words, he fell down on his knees before
him, weeping for joy, for now he know his soul was safe; he had met one at last
that believed. And he told the child his whole story--all his wickedness, and
pride, and blasphemy against the great God; and how the angel had come to him,
and told him of the only way in which he could be saved, through the faith and
prayers of someone that believed.
"Now, then," he said to the child, "take this penknife and strike it into my
breast, and go on stabbing the flesh until you see the paleness of death on my
face. Then watch--for a living thing will soar from my body as I die, and you
will then know that my soul has ascended to the presence of God. And when you
see this thing, make haste and run to my school, and call on all my scholars to
come and see that the soul of their master has left the body, and that all he
taught them was a lie, for that there is a God who punishes sin, and a Heaven
and a Hell, and that man has an immortal soul destined for eternal happiness or
"I will pray," said the child, "to have courage to do this work."
And he kneeled down and prayed. Then when he rose up he took the penknife and
struck it into the priest's heart, and struck and struck again till all the
flesh was lacerated; but still the priest lived, though the agony was horrible,
for he could not die until the twenty-four hours had expired.
At last the agony seemed to cease, and the stillness of
death settled on his face. Then the child, who was watching, saw a beautiful
living creature, with four snow-white wings, mount from. the dead man's body
into the air and go fluttering round his head.
So he ran to bring the scholars; and when they saw it, they all knew it was
the soul of their master; and they watched with wonder and awe until it passed
from sight into the clouds.
And this was the first butterfly that was ever seen in Ireland; and now all
men know that the butterflies are the souls of the dead, waiting for the moment
when they may enter Purgatory, and so pass through torture to purification and
But the schools of Ireland were quite deserted after that time, for people
said, What is the use of going so far to learn, when the wisest man in all
Ireland did not know if he had a soul till he was near losing it, and was only
saved at last through the simple belief of a little child.
1. Ancient Legends of Ireland.
Notes: FATHER JOHN O'HART
Father O'Rorke is the priest of the parishes of Ballysadare and
it is from his learnedly and faithfully and sympathetically written history of
these parishes that I have taken the story of Father John, who had been priest
of these parishes, dying in the year 1739. Coloony is a village in Kilvamet.
Some sayings of Father John's have come down. Once when he was sorrowing
greatly for the death of his brother, the people said to him, "Why do you sorrow
so for your brother, when you forbid us to keen?" "Nature," he answered, "forces
me, but ye force nature." His memory and influence survives, in the fact that to
the present day there has been no keening in Coloony.
He was a friend of the celebrated poet and musician,
SHONEEN AND SLEIVEEN
Shoneen is the diminutive of shone [Ir. SeÃ³n]. There are
two Irish names for John--one is Shone, the other is Shawn [Ir.
SeÃ¡ghan]. Shone is the "grandest" of the two, and is applied to the
gentry. Hence Shoneen means "a little gentry John", and is applied to
upstarts and "big" farmers, who ape the rank of gentleman.
Sleiveen, not to be found in the dictionaries, is a comical Irish word
(at least in Connaught) for a rogue. It probably comes from sliabh, a
mountain, meaning primarily a mountaineer, and in a secondary sense, on the
principle that mountaineers are worse than anybody else, a rogue. I am indebted
to Mr. Douglas Hyde for these details, as for many others.