Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK
TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
THE WITCHES' EXCURSION1
Shemus Rua2 (Red
James) awakened from his sleep one night by noises in
his kitchen. Stealing to the door, he saw half-a-dozen old women sitting round
the fire, jesting and laughing, his old housekeeper, Madge, quite frisky and
gay, helping her sister crones to cheering glasses of punch. He began to admire
the impudence and imprudence of Madge, displayed in the invitation and the riot,
but recollected on the instant her officiousness in urging him to take a
comfortable posset, which she had brought to his bedside just before he fell
asleep. Had he drunk it, he would have been just now deaf to the witches' glee.
He heard and saw them drink his health in such a mocking style as nearly to
tempt him to charge them, besom. in hand, but he restrained himself.
The jug being emptied, one of them cried out, "Is it time to be gone?" and at
the same moment, putting on a red cap, she added--
"By yarrow and rue,
Making use of a twig which she held in her hand as a steed, she gracefully soared up the chimney, and
was rapidly followed by the rest. But when it came to the house-keeper, Shemus
interposed. "By your leave, ma'am," said he, snatching twig and cap. "Ah, you
desateful ould crocodile! If I find you here on my return, there'll be wigs on
And my red cap too,
over to England."
'By yarrow and rue,
The words were not out
of his mouth when he was soaring above the ridge pole, and swiftly ploughing the
air. He was careful to speak no word (being somewhat conversant with
witch-lore), as the result would be a tumble, and the immediate return of the
And my red cap too,
Hie over to
In a very short time they had crossed the Wicklow hills, the Irish Sea, and
the Welsh mountains, and were charging, at whirlwind speed, the hall door of a
castle. Shemus, only for the company in which he found himself, would have cried
out for pardon, expecting to be mummy against the hard oak door in a
moment; but, all bewildered, he found himself passing through the keyhole, along
a passage, down a flight of steps, and through a cellar-door key-hole before he
could form any clear idea of his situation.
Waking to the full consciousness of his position, he found himself sitting on
a stillion, plenty of lights glimmering round, and he and his companions, with
full tumblers of frothing wine in hand, hob-nobbing and drinking healths as
jovially and recklessly as if the liquor was honestly come by, and they were
sitting in Shemus's own kitchen. The red birredh3
has assimilated Shemus's nature for the time being to
that of his unholy companions. The heady liquors soon got into their brains, and
a period of unconsciousness succeeded the ecstasy, the head-ache, the turning
round of the barrels, and the "scattered sight" of poor Shemus. He woke up under
the impression of being roughly seized, and shaken, and dragged upstairs, and
subjected to a disagreeable examination by the lord of the castle, in his state
parlour. There was much derision among the whole company, gentle and simple,
on hearing Shemus's explanation, and, as the thing occurred in
the dark ages, the unlucky Leinster man was sentenced to be hung as soon as the
gallows could be prepared for the occasion.
The poor Hibernian was in the cart proceeding on his last journey, with a
label on his back, and another on his breast, announcing him as the remorseless
villain who for the last month had been draining the casks in my lord's vault
every night, He was surprised to hear himself addressed by his name, and in his
native tongue, by an old woman in the crowd. "Ach, Shemus, alanna! is it going
to die you are in a strange place without your cappen d'yarrag?"4
These words infused hope and courage into the poor victim's
heart. He turned to the lord and humbly asked leave to die in his red cap, which
he supposed had dropped from his head in the vault. A servant was sent for the
head-piece, and Shemus felt lively hope warming his heart while placing it on
his head. On the platform he was graciously allowed to address the spectators,
which he proceeded to do in the usual formula composed for the benefit of flying
stationers--"Good people all, a warning take by me;" but when he had finished
the line, "My parents reared me tenderly," he unexpectedly added--"By yarrow and
rue," etc., and the disappointed spectators saw him shoot up obliquely through
the air in the style of a sky-rocket that had missed its aim. It is said that
the lord took the circumstance much to heart, and never afterwards hung a man
for twenty-four hours after his offence.
1. Fictions of the Irish Celts.
2. Irish, SĂumus Ruadh. The Celtic organs are unable to pronounce the letter
j, hence they make Shon or Shawn of John, or Shamus of James, etc.
Birreud--i.e., a cap.
4. Irish, caipĂn dearg--i.e., red cap.