Fergus O'Mara and the Demons [1]

Patrick Weston Joyce

OF all the different kinds of goblins that haunted the lonely places of Ireland in days of old, air-demons were most dreaded by the people. They lived among clouds and mists and rocks, and they hated the human race with the utmost malignity. In those times lived in the north of Desmond (the present county of Cork) a man named Fergus O'Mara. His farm lay on the southern slope of the Ballyhoura Mountains, along which ran the open road that led to his house. This road was not shut in by walls or fences; but on both sides there were scattered trees and bushes that sheltered it in winter, and made it dark and gloomy when you approached the house at night. Beside the road, a little way off from the house, there was a spot that had an evil name all over the country, a little hill covered closely with copsewood, with a great craggy rock on top, from which, on stormy nights, strange and fearful sounds had often been heard—shrill voices and screams mingled with loud fiendish laughter; and the people believed that it was the haunt of air-demons.

In some way it had become known that these demons had an eye on Fergus, and watched for every opportunity to get him into their power. He had himself been warned of this many years before, by an old monk from the neighbouring monastery of Buttevant, who told him moreover that so long as he led a blameless upright life he need have no fear of the demons; but that if ever he yielded to temptation or fell into any great sin, then would come the opportunity for which they were watching day and night. He never forgot this warning, and he was very careful to keep himself straight, both because he was naturally a good man, and for fear of the air-demons.

Some time before the occurrence about to be related, one of Fergus's children, a sweet little girl about seven years of age, fell ill and died. The little thing gradually wasted away, but suffered no pain; and as she grew weaker she became more loving and gentle than ever, and talked in a wonderful way, quite beyond her years, of the bright land she was going to. One thing she was particularly anxious about, that when she was dying they should let her hold a blessed candle in her hand.[2] They thought it very strange that she should be so continually thinking and talking of this; and over and over again she made her father and mother promise that it should be done. And with the blessed candle in her hand she died so calmly and sweetly that those round her bed could not tell the exact moment.

About a year after this, on a bright Sunday morning in October, Fergus set out for Mass. The place was about three miles away, and it was not a chapel, but a lonely old fort, called to this day Lissanaffrin, the fort of the Mass. A rude stone altar stood at one side near the mound of the fort, under a little shed that sheltered the priest also; and the congregation worshipped in the open air on the green plot in the centre. For in those days there were many places that had no chapels, as the Penal Laws prohibited the celebration of Mass; and the people flocked to those open-air Masses as faithfully as we do now to our comfortable stately chapels. The family had gone on before, the men walking and the women and children riding; and Fergus set out to walk alone.

Just as he approached the Demons' Rock, he was greatly surprised to hear the eager yelping of dogs; and in a moment a great deer bounded from the covert beside the rock, with three hounds after her in full chase. No man in the whole country round loved a good chase better than Fergus, or had a swifter foot to follow, and without a moment's hesitation he started in pursuit. But in a few minutes he stopped up short; for he bethought him of the Mass, and he knew there was little time for delay. While he stood wavering, the deer seemed to slacken her pace, and the hounds gained on her, and in a moment Fergus dashed off at full speed, forgetting Mass and everything else in his eagerness for the sport. But it turned out a long and weary chase. Sometimes they slackened, and he was almost at the hounds' tails, but the next moment both deer and hounds started forward and left him far behind. Sometimes they were full in view, and again they were out of sight in thickets and deep glens, so that he could guide himself only by the cry of the hounds. In this way he was decoyed across hills and glens, but instead of gaining ground he found himself rather falling behind.


[1] Reprinted from "Good and Pleasant Reading": Dublin, M. H. Gill & Son: 1886. This is an expansion by me of a very pretty legend current in Limerick seventy or eighty years ago.

[2] It was a usual practice to place a candle that had been blessed by the priest in the light hand of a dying person, and to help the poor hand to hold it when the grasp was relaxing in death. When I was a boy I saw a near relation of mine dying in this manner, which awed and frightened me beyond measure.