In Iveragh, not very far from the town of Cahirciveen, there lived a farmer named James Shea with his wife and three children, two sons and a daughter. The man was peaceable, honest, and very charitable to the poor, but his wife was hard-hearted, never giving even a drink of milk to a needy person. Her younger son was as bad in every way as herself, and whatever the mother did he always agreed with her and was on her side.
This was before the roads and cars were in the Kerry Mountains. The only way of travelling in those days, when a man didn't walk, was to ride sitting on a straw saddle, and the only way to take anything to market was on horseback in creels.
It happened, at any rate, that James Shea was going in the beginning of November to Cork with two firkins of butter, and what troubled him most was the fear that he'd not be home on Saint Martin's night to do honour to the saint. For never had he let that night pass without drawing blood in honour of the saint. To make sure, he called the elder son and said, "if I am not at the house on Saint Martin's night, kill the big sheep that is running with the cows.
Shea went away to Cork with the butter, but could not be home in time. The elder son went out on Saint Martin's eve, when he saw that his father was not coming, and drove the sheep into the house.
"What are you doing, you fool, with that sheep?" asked the mother.
"Sure, I'm going to kill it. Didn't you hear my father tell me that there was never a Saint Martin's night but he drew blood, and do you want to have the house disgraced?"
At this the mother made sport of him and said: "Drive out the sheep and I'll give you something else to kill by and by." So the boy let the sheep out, thinking the mother would kill a goose.
He sat down and waited for the mother to give him whatever she had to kill. It wasn't long till she came in, bringing a big tomcat they had, and the same cat was in the house nine or ten years.
"Here," said she, "you can kill this beast and draw its blood. We'll have it cooked when your father comes home."
The boy was very angry and spoke up to the mother: "Sure the house is disgraced for ever," said he, "and it will not be easy for you to satisfy my father when he comes."
He didn't kill the cat, you may be sure; and neither he nor his sister ate a bite of supper, and they were crying and fretting over the disgrace all the evening.
That very night the house caught fire and burned down, nothing was left but the four walls. The mother and younger son were burned to death, but the elder son and his sister escaped by some miracle. They went to a neighbour's house, and were there till the father came on the following evening. When he found the house destroyed and the wife and younger son dead he mourned and lamented. But when the other son told him what the mother did on Saint Martin's eve, he cried out:
"Ah, it was the wrath of God that fell on my house; if I had stopped at home till after Saint Martin's night, all would be safe and well with me now."
James Shea went to the priest on the following morning, and asked would it be good or lucky for him to rebuild the house.
"Indeed," said the priest, "there is no harm in putting a roof on the walls and repairing them if you will have Mass celebrated in the house before you go to live in it. If you do that all will be well with you."
[Shea spoke to the priest because people are opposed to repairing or rebuilding a burnt house, and especially if any person has been burned in it.]
Well, James Shea put a roof on the house, repaired it, and had Mass celebrated inside. That evening as Shea was sitting down to supper what should he see but his wife coming in the door to him. He thought she wasn't dead at all. "Ah, Mary," said he, "'tis not so bad as they told me. Sure, I thought it is dead you were. Oh, then you are welcome home; come and sit down here; the supper is just ready."
She didn't answer a word, but looked him straight in the face and walked on to the room at the other end of the house. He jumped up, thinking it's sick the woman was, and followed her to the room to help her. He shut the door after him. As he was not coming back for a long time the son thought at last that he'd go and ask the father why he wasn't eating his supper. When he went into the room he saw no sign of his mother, saw nothing in the place but two legs from the knees down. He screamed out for his sister and she came.
"Oh, merciful God!" screamed the sister.
"Those are my father's legs!" cried the brother, "and Mary, don't you know the stockings, sure you knitted them yourself, and don't I know the brogues very well?"
They called in the neighbours, and, to the terror of them all, they saw nothing but the two legs and feet of James Shea.
There was a wake over the remains that night, and the next day they buried the two legs. Some people advised the boy and girl never to sleep a night in the house, that their mother's soul was lost, and that was why she came and ate up the father, and she would eat themselves as well.
The two now started to walk the world, not caring much where they were going if only they escaped the mother. They stopped the first night at a farmer's house not far from Killarney. After supper a bed was made down for them by the fire, in the corner, and they lay there. About the middle of the night a great noise was heard outside, and the woman of the house called to her boys and servants to get up and go to the cow-house to know why the cows were striving to kill one another. Her own son rose first. When he and the two servant boys went out they saw the ghost of a woman, and she in chains. She made at them, and wasn't long killing the three.
Not seeing the boys come in, the farmer and his wife rose up sprinkled holy water around the house, blessed themselves and went out, and there they saw the ghost in blue blazes and chains around her. In a coop outside by himself was a March cock.* He flew down from his perch and crowed twelve times. That moment the ghost disappeared.
Now the neighbours were roused, and the news flew around that the three boys were killed. The brother and sister didn't say a word to any one, but, rising up early, started on their journey, begging God's protection as they went. They never stopped nor stayed till they came to Rathmore, near Cork, and, going to a farmhouse, the boy asked for lodgings in God's name.
"I will give you lodgings in His name," said the farmer's wife.
She brought warm water for the two to wash their hands and feet, for they were tired and dusty. After supper a bed was put down for them, and about the same hour as the night before there was a great noise outside.
"Rise up and go out," said the farmer's wife; "some of the cows must be untied."
"I'll not go out at this hour of the night, if they are untied itself," said the man, "I'll stay where I am, if they kill one another, for it isn't safe to go out till the cock crows; after cock-crow I'll go out."
"That's true for you," said the farmer's wife, "and, upon my word, before coming to bed, I forgot to sprinkle holy water in the room, and to bless myself."
* A cock hatched in March from a cock and hen hatched in March.
So taking the bottle hanging near the bed, she sprinkled the water around the room and toward the threshold, and made the sign of the cross. The man didn't go out until cock-crow. The brother and sister went away early, and travelled all day. Coming evening they met a pleasant-looking man who stood before them in the road.
"You seem to be strangers," said he, "and where are you going? "
"We are strangers," said the boy, "and we don't know where to go."
"You need go no farther. I know you well, your home is in Iveragh. I am Saint Martin, sent from the Lord to protect you and your sister. You were going to draw the blood of a sheep in my honour, but your mother and brother made sport of you, and your mother wouldn't let you do what your father told you. You see what has come to them; they are lost for ever, both of them. Your father is saved in heaven, for he was a good man. Your mother will be here soon, and I'll put her in the way that she'll never trouble you again."
Taking a rod from his bosom and dipping it in a vial of holy water he drew a circle around the brother and sister. Soon they heard their mother coming, and then they saw her with chains on her, and the rattling was terrible, and flames were rising from her. She came to where they stood, and said: "Bad luck to you both for being the cause of my misery."
"God forbid that," said Saint Martin. "It isn't they are the cause, but yourself, for you were always bad. You would not honour me, and now you must suffer for it."
He pulled out a book and began to read, and after he read a few minutes he told her to depart and not be seen in Ireland again till the day of judgment. She rose in the air in flames of fire, and with such a noise that you'd think all the thunders of heaven were roaring and all the houses and walls in the kingdom were tumbling to the ground.
The brother and sister went on their knees and thanked Saint Martin. He blessed them and told them to rise, and taking a little table-cloth out of his bosom he said to the brother: "Take this cloth with you and keep it in secret. Let no one know that you have it. If you or your sister are in need go to your room, close the door behind you and bolt it. Spread out the cloth then, and plenty of everything to eat and drink will come to you. Keep the cloth with you always; it belongs to both of you. Now go home and live in the house that your father built, and let the priest come and celebrate Monday Mass in it, and live the life that your father lived before you."
The two came home, and brother and sister lived a good life. They married, and when either was in need that one had the cloth to fall back on, and their grandchildren are living yet in Iveragh. And this is truth, every word of it, and it's often I heard my poor grandmother tell this story, the Almighty God rest her soul, and she was the woman that wouldn't tell a lie. She knew James Shea and his wife very well.