As part of my folklore program, a professional storyteller visited my class today, spending two hours regaling us with traditional Irish tales. He told us at least fifteen different stories, ranging from romantic to vulgar, and I chose to record a few of my favorites, doing my best to recapture his characters and plot lines and present them below. He provided such a unique and interesting view into Ireland’s past in his role as a seanchaí, which is the Gaelic word for storyteller and means “a bearer of old lore.”
The first story I have chosen to share, The Clever Daughter, was one of my favorites. I will share more stories soon, but many of them are too long to crowd them into a single post.
The Clever Daughter
There is an age-old question: Who is more clever – the fellas or the girls? Here’s a story that may help you to answer that question.
Long ago in Ireland, there was a king who owned a great deal of land. There was also a man and his daughter, who had no land. The man and his daughter approached the king, asking, “Please, sir, will you give us some land?”
The king considered the matter and said, “I might, and then I might not.” Perplexed, the man asked what the king could possibly mean. “Well, I love riddles,” the king said. “If you can answer this riddle, I shall give you a bit of land.”
“I’m hopeless at riddles,” the man said, “but go on, and I’ll do my best.”
The king recited: “What’s higher than high? What’s lower than low? What’s greater than God, and worse than the Devil? It’s what the Devil eats, and if we eat it, we die.”
The man hadn’t a clue, but his daughter stepped in with a simple answer: “Nothing.”
“Correct!” said the king, and then he gave them a bit of land.
Some time later, the man and his daughter were working their land when the shovel hit something hard buried in the ground. Digging further, the man discovered a golden cup, perfect in form. “I shall give this to the king as a gift!” he announced proudly.
Thinking the matter through, his daughter warned him not to do any such thing. “If you give that to the king, you’ll find nothing but trouble. For if you give him a golden cup, he’ll ask for the golden saucer.”
“But I haven’t found a golden saucer,” her father proclaimed, confused.
“I know that, and you know that,” she said patiently. “But the king does not, and it will surely bring trouble.”
As is the manner of a stubborn father, the man chose not to heed his daughter’s advice, delivering the cup to the king. “This is lovely, but where is the saucer?” the king asked, offended at being offered only half a gift.
“There is none, sir. I found only the cup.” The man was anxious now, seeing his daughter’s prediction take form, and he soon found himself in the dungeon, where he underwent much torture in the search for the golden saucer.
A short bit later, the guard assigned to torture the man presented himself before the king. “I can’t go on,” he said, “for every time I prod the man, he says, ‘Why did I not listen to my daughter?’”
Curious, the king had the man brought up from the dungeon, inquiring into this nonsense about his daughter.
“Well, my king, when I found the cup, my daughter said it would bring nothing but trouble, for you’d ask for the saucer, but I did not listen to her. Now here I am, and there you are, asking for the saucer, and I have none to give.”
Impressed, the king summoned the man’s daughter, but with specific instructions. “She must come to me in three day’s time,” he said, “neither by day nor by night, neither clothed nor naked, neither riding nor walking, neither with a gift nor without one.”
Distraught, the man relayed the instructions to his daughter, who thought hard on the matter and asked her father to buy her three items: a fishing net, a goat and a dove. Rather confused, but willing nonetheless, the man acquired these items and handed them over to his daughter.
Now ready, the daughter took off her clothing, wrapping herself instead in the fishing net – neither clothed nor naked. She set off just before the dawn, but after the moon had already gone – neither by day nor by night. She traveled with one leg on the goat and one on the ground – neither riding nor walking. And she entered the castle with a dove in her hands, which flew away when she released it – neither with a gift nor without one.
“Aren’t you clever!” the king said, delighted. “And you aren’t bad-looking either,” he added thoughtfully.
It wasn’t long before the king decided this woman would make a fine wife for him. He proposed, and she accepted, as the king was quite a nice man, barring his previous torture of her father.
After they wed, the king made one request of his wife. “Please, my queen, I ask only that you never disagree with me in public. Can you keep that promise?” She assured him she would, and they went on living together happily for some time, ruling the kingdom in a just manner.
Years later, though, a dispute arose between two farmers. Late in the night, the first farmer’s cow bore a calf, which happened to wander into the neighboring farmer’s field and settle itself between two horses.
The following morning, the second farmer promptly announced the calf was his, since it chose to be in his field with his horses. Enraged, the first farmer summoned the king, who settled such matters.
The king, perhaps not thinking the matter through all the way, ruled in favor of the second farmer, granting him ownership of the calf. The first farmer – the true owner of the newborn – was devastated, but one simply did not argue with the king.
Walking down the road with a rather forlorn look upon his face, the farmer crossed paths with none other than the queen, who inquired after his sour mood. Upon explaining the situation, the farmer was delighted to receive a bit of advice from the queen, which he hurried to follow.
The king, meanwhile, was making his way home, when he encountered that same farmer in the grassy field outside his castle, casting his fishing rod to and fro.
“Dear man, what are you doing?” the king exclaimed, quite confused. “You have no chance of catching a fish in this field!”
Quite innocently, the farmer replied: “Well, my king, I have the same odds of catching a fish here as a calf does of being born of two horses.”
Rather put off, the king acknowledged the cleverness of this remark and returned ownership of the calf to the farmer. “But you did not think of such a clever thing yourself,” he said to the farmer. “Who told you that?”
“Why, it was your queen,” the farmer said.
Outraged, the king returned to his castle, where he confronted his wife.
“The only thing I asked of you was to never disagree with me in public!” he shouted. “Now you have embarrassed me in front of my people and made a fool of me. For this, you must leave this castle and be my queen no more.”
The queen was heartbroken, and he could see it in her face. “I have loved you truly,” he told her, “and so, to honor that love, you may take any one item from the castle upon your departure, as a gift of that which is most precious to you.”
The queen thought it over and formulated a plan, which began with an offer to cook the king one last meal before she left.
“Alright, alright,” he conceded, never one to turn down a fine feast.
The queen then prepared a glorious meal, which she complemented with bottle upon bottle of red wine. It was not long before the king was fast asleep, filled to the brim with the stock of his own cellar.
When he awoke, he found himself far from his castle, in a small cottage. As he woke fully, he realized he was in the home of his queen’s father, on the land he had granted them so long ago.
“What do you mean by this?” he asked the clever woman with as much dignity as he could muster.
“Well, my king, you told me I could take one item from the castle – that which was most precious to me. I have taken you, because you are most dear to me of all things.”
Softened by her words, and with his temper long cooled, the king forgave his wife and welcomed her and her father back into his castle. From then on, whenever an important issue arose, the king was sure to consult his wife, for she always knew the best solution.
And so, lads, perhaps if we listened to women a bit more, we’d live in a better world than we do today.