O’Donnell’s Kern—A Sixteenth-Century Campfire Tale
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Introduction (Spoiler Alert!)—
O’Donnell’s Kern, or the Kern in the Narrow Stripes,
i.e., Cetharnach Caoilriabhach, pron. Caherna Qweelreevukh
This text is chiefly from Standish Hayes O’Grady in Silva Gadelica, 1892, where it’s translated alongside the original Irish—(with some abbreviations as suggested by Lady Gregory in Irish Myths and Legends, 1910). The best version was put in writing by Silvester M’Gibney in 1847, and his MS. was translated by O’Grady, who notes; “Two very abraded versions of this tale survive orally in the Highlands, wither it must at once have been carried by the Islesmen who in thousands took mercenary service with the great Irish chiefs during the 16th century: with O’Donnell and O’Neill especially.” The Aodh Dubh (Black Hugh) O’Donnell mentioned succeeded his father in 1504 and fought the battle of Knockavoe in 1522, defeating O’Neill with a loss of 900 men. Also, Shane mac an iarla was besieged in 1516 in the castle of Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, by earl Maruice’s son James and a number of MacCarthys, eventually being relieved by his wife’s kin, the O’Briens of Thomond. Based on these and other historic characters, O’Grady supposed the tale was composed, if not in Aodh Dubh’s lifetime, then shortly after his death in 1537.
The three classes of 16th-century Irish soldiery—horseman, galloglass and kern—all make their appearance, as well as the porter of the chief’s household. And we learn small details of contemporary life such as the wine for drinking and the water for foot washing offered to the weary traveler, as well as the kern’s meal of a mether of bonnyclabber and a dish of crab-apples.
The tale displays an easy familiarity with the pre-Christian gods and heroes, here in the person of the trickster god Manannán. This aspect of 16th century Gaelic Irish society is attested to by Fr. William Good, an English Jesuit who taught at Limerick in the 1560's, and who writes: “They suppose the souls of such as are deceased go into the company of certain men, famous in those places, touching whom they retain still fables and songs, as of giants, Fin-Mac-Huyle, Oscar-Mac-Oshin. And they say that by illusion they oftentimes do see such.” In Scotland, Dean Carswell, Protestant Bishop of the Isles and editor of a Gaelic Book of Common Prayer, made a similar observation of the Highlanders in 1567, saying: “They were more desirous to compose vain, lying, tempting, worldly histories of the Tuatha de Dannan, and concerning warriors and champions, and Fingal the son of Cumhal, with his heroes, than to teach and maintain the faithful works of God.”
Remarkably, this story includes the westernmost appearance of the classic Indian Rope Trick, otherwise confined to India and China. (Does this represent an ancient Indo-European survival on Europe’s periphery?) The classic Rope Trick is described by Arab chroniclers in the 9th century, and was much inquired after by curious westerners in 19th century India. Our version includes the thread magically anchored in the sky, the boy who ascends, out-of-sight tumult, and the boy’s dismemberment and reassembly.
One day O’Donnell (Aodh Dubh, son of Aodh Ruadh, son of Niall Garbh, son of Turlough of the Wine) feasted at Ballyshannon with his country’s great nobles [móruaisle a thíre], laying on what was new of all foods and what was old of all drink. When all were in good humor and satisfied, a galloglass of O’Donnell’s people said: “by God’s grace [dar slán dé], from here to the wall of the king of Greece’s house there is no better house than this, nor twenty-two musicians better than the twenty-two here—as Red Conan O’Rafferty, Dermot O’Gilligan, Cormac O’Kieragan and Teigue O’Crugadan, and the rest.”
As they spoke, they saw walking towards them a kern in narrow stripes, the puddle-water splashing in his brogues, his ears through the old mantle that was over his head, half his sword’s length sticking out naked at his rear, and in his right hand three soft javelins of holly wood charred [i.e., fire-hardened in place of iron-headed].
“Dia duit [God be with you], O’Donnell,” said he.
“God be with you also,” said O’Donnell: “Whence come ye?”
“I slept last night at Dun Monaidhe, of the King of Alban; I am a day in Islay, a day in Cantyre, a day in Man, a day in Rathlin, and a day in the Watchman’s Seat in Slieve Fuad; a pleasant, rambling man I am, and it is with you I am now, O’Donnell,” he said.
“Summon me the porter [dóirseoir],” said O’Donnell. The porter came and he asked was it he let this man in, and the porter said he did not, and that he never saw him before. “Let him off, O’Donnell,” said the stranger, “for it was as easy for me to come in, as it will be for me to go out again whenever I wish.”
“Sit down,” said O’Donnell.
“I’ll sit or I won’t sit,” said the kern, “for I do nothing but what I myself wish to.” O’Donnell made no answer but wondered what manner of man could enter the dun without the porter seeing him at the door.
And the kern hailed O’Donnell’s musicians—Red Conan O’Rafferty, Dermot O’Gilligan, Cormac O’Kieragan and Teigue O’Crugadan—and they played very sweet tunes on their harps. But the strange man called out: “By God’s three graces [dar trí slánaib dé] O’Donnell, there was never a noise of hammers beating on iron in lower-most Hell was so bad to listen to as this noise your people are making.”
With that he took a harp, and he made music that would put women in their labour and wounded men after a battle into a sweet sleep, and it is what O’Donnell said: “Since I first heard talk of the music of the Sidhe that is played in the hills and under the earth below us, I never heard music better than your own. And it is a very sweet player you are,” he said. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” said the kern.
Then O’Donnell bade his people to bring him up to sit near himself. “I have no mind to do that,” he said; “I would sooner be as I am, an ugly rascal making sport for gentlemen.” Then O’Donnell had the man of service [fer fritheolta] bring him clothes; a jerkin, a hat, a striped shirt and a mantle [inar ocus atán ocus léine riabach ocus matal], but he would not have them. “I have no mind,” he said, “to let high-up people be making a boast of giving them to me.”
They were afraid then he might go from them, and they put twenty armoured horsemen [marcach] and twenty galloglasses to hold him back from leaving the house, and as many more outside at the gate, for they knew him not to be a man of this world. “What are these men for?” said he. “They are to keep you here,” said O’Donnell. “By God’s three graces, it is not with you I will be eating my supper to-morrow,” he said, “but at Knockany, where Shane mac an iarla is, in Desmond.” “By God’s grace,” said a galloglass, “If I find you giving one stir between this and morning, I’ll take my axe and knock you into a round lump there on the ground.”
But at that the stranger took up the harp again, and he made the same sweet music as before. And when they were all listening to him, he called to the men outside: “Galloglasses where are ye? Here I’m out to you, and watch me now or I’m clean gone away.” When the men that were watching the gate heard that, they lifted up their axes to strike at him, but in their haste, it was at one another they struck, till they were all lying stretched in blood. Then the kern said to the porter: “Let you ask twenty cows and a cartron of free land of O’Donnell as a fee for bringing his people back to life. And take this herb,” he said, “and rub it in the gums of each man of them, and he will rise up whole and well again.” So the porter did that, and he got the cows and the land from O’Donnell, and he brought all the people to life again.
Now at that time Shane mac an iarla was holding a gathering on the green in front of his dun, and he saw walking towards him a kern in narrow stripes, the puddle-water splashing in his brogues, his ears through the old mantle that was over his head, half his sword’s length sticking out naked at his rear, and in his right hand three soft javelins of holly wood charred. But when Shane asked who was he, he gave himself the name of a very learned man, Duartane O’Duartane, and he said it was in O’Donnell’s mansion of Ballyshannon he slept last night, and the night before in Dun Monaidhe, of the King of Alban, “till I came to yourself.” So they brought him into the house and gave him wine for drinking and water for washing his feet, and he slept till the rising of the sun on the morrow. And at that time, Shane mac an iarla came to visit him, and he said: “It is a long sleep you had, and there is no wonder in that, and your journey so long yesterday. But I often heard of your learning in books and of your skill on the harp, and I would like to hear you this morning,” he said. “I am good in those arts indeed,” said the stranger. So they brought him a book, but he could not read a word of it, and then they brought him a harp, and he could not play any tune. “It is likely your reading and your music are gone from you,” said Shane; and he made a little rann on him, saying it was a strange thing Duartane O’Duartane that had such a great name not to be able to read a line of a book, or even to remember one. But when the stranger heard how he was being mocked at, he took up the book, and read from the top to the bottom of the page very well and in a sweet-sounding voice. And after that he took the harp and played and sang the same way he did at O’Donnell’s house the day before. “It is a very sweet man of learning you are,” said Shane. “One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” said the stranger.
They walked out together then on Knockany, but while they were talking there, the stranger was gone all of a minute, and Shane mac an iarla could not tell into which of the four airts he was gone from him.
And after that he went on, and he reached Sligach [pron. Slee-gukh, i.e., Sligo, the place of shells] just as O’Conor-Sligo was setting out with the men of Connacht to avenge the Connacht hag’s basket, or cléibín [pron. cleeveen] on the hag of Munster. And this time he gave himself the name of the Gilla Decair [pron. dacker], the Difficult Servant. And he joined with the men of Connacht, and they went over the Shannon westward into Munster, and there they made three day’s incursion, sweeping every creature that could be made travel, cattle and horses and flocks into one place, till they got the hornless bull of the Munster hag and her two speckled cows, and O’Conor-Sligo brought them away to give to the Connacht hag in satisfaction for her basket.
But the men of Munster made an attack on them as they were going back; and the Gilla Decair asked O’Conor-Sligo would he sooner have the cows driven, or have the Munster men checked, and he said he would sooner have the Munster men checked. So the Gilla Decair turned on them, and with his bow and twenty-four arrows he kept them back till O’Conor-Sligo and his people were safe out of their reach in Connacht.
But he took some offense then, on account of O’Conor-Sligo taking the first drink himself when they came to his house, and not giving it to him, that had done so much, and he took his leave and went from them on the moment.
At this same juncture Teigue O’Kelly held a general gathering and muster at his dwelling, when he saw come towards him a kern in narrow stripes, the puddle-water splashing in his brogues, his ears through the old mantle that was over his head, half his sword’s length sticking out naked at his rear, and in his right hand three soft javelins of holly wood charred. And when he asked him what art he had, he said: “I am good at tricks. And if you will give me five marks I will show you a trick.” “I will give you that,” said Teigue.
With that the stranger put three rushes on the palm of his hand. “I will blow away the middle rush now,” he said, “and the other two will stay as they are.” So they told him to do that, and he put the tips of his two fingers on the two outside rushes, and blew the middle one away. “There is a trick now for you, Teigue O’Kelly,” he said then. “By God’s grace, that is not a bad trick,” said O’Kelly. But a kern of his following said: “May there be no luck with him that did it. And give me the half of that money now, Teigue,” he said, “and I will do the same trick for you myself.” “I will give you the half of what I got if you will do it,” said the stranger. So the other put the rushes on his hand, but if he did, when he tried to do the trick, his two finger-tips went through the palm of his hand. “Ob-Ob-Ob!” said the stranger, “that is not the way I did the trick. But as you have lost the money,” he said, “I will heal you again.”
“For five marks more I could do you another trick,” said the stranger; “I could wag the ear on one side of my head and the ear on the other side would stay still.” “Do it then,” said O’Kelly. So the man of tricks took hold of one of his ears and wagged it up and down. “That is a good trick indeed,” said O’Kelly. “Never thank thee,” O’Kelly’s kern cried again: “for if I have any luck at all, I’ll do that bit of jugglery myself!” The stranger said: “Now that other trick was too much for thee, do this one.” With that, the soldier put his hand to his ear to make it wag, but if he did, it came clean away from the side of his head. “Teigue,” said the man of tricks, “this is a clumsy kern of yours, for that is not the way I did the trick. Yet I’ll heal him, and for five marks more, I’ll do you still another.”
With that he took from his bag a thread of silk, and gave a cast of it up into the air, that it was made fast to a cloud. And then he took a hare out of the same bag, and it ran up the thread; and then took out a little dog and laid it on after the hare, and it followed yelping on its track; and after that again he brought out a little serving-boy and bade him follow dog and hare up the thread. Then out of another bag he had with him he brought out a beautiful, well-dressed young woman, and bade her to follow after the hound and the boy, and to take care not to let the hare be torn by the dog. She went up then quickly after them, and it was a delight to Teigue O’Kelly to be looking at them and to be listening to the sound of the hunt going on in the air.
All was quiet then for a long time, and then the man of tricks said: “I am afraid there is some bad work going on up there.” “What is that?” said O’Kelly. “I am thinking,” said he, “the hound might be eating the hare, and the servant-boy courting the girl.” “It is likely enough they are,” said O’Kelly. With that the stranger drew in the thread, and it is what he found, the boy making love to the girl and the hound chewing the bones of the hare. There was great anger on the man of tricks when he saw that, and he took his sword and struck the head off the boy. “I do not like a thing of that sort to be done in my presence,” said Teigue O’Kelly. “If it did not please you, I can set it all right again,” said the stranger. And with that he took up the head and made a cast of it at the body, and it joined to it, and the young man stood up, but if he did his face was turned backwards. “It would be better for him to be dead than to be living like that,” said O’Kelly. When the man of tricks heard that, he took hold of the boy and twisted his head straight, and he was as well as before.
And with that the man of tricks vanished, and no one saw where he was gone.
And no one could keep him in any one place, and if he was put on a gallows itself, he would be found safe in the house after, and some other man on the gallows in his place. But he did no harm, and those that would be put to death by him, he would bring them to life again with a herb out of his bag. And all the food he would use would be a mether of bonnyclabber and a dish of crab-apples. And there never was any music sweeter than the music he used to be playing.
So there you have the Circuit of Manannán mac Lir of the tuatha dé danann, who used to be going round Ireland, doing tricks and wonders, until now at last he is vanished from among us. Likewise, the Fianna, and all classes of people that since that date have appeared or for all time shall appear, and in the long run, ourselves along with them.