★ Fergus O’mara And The Air-demons Story :
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 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. 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; and the people flocked to these open-air Masses as faithfully as we do now to our stately comfortable chapels. The family had gone on before, the men walking and the women and children riding; and Fergus set out to walk alone.
[Footnote 6: A fort is the same as a rath (see p. 70); a few are fenced in with unmortared stone walls instead of clay ditches.]
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 in full 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.
Mass was all over and the people dispersed to their homes, and all wondered that they did not see Fergus; for no one could remember that he was ever absent before. His wife returned, expecting to find him at home; but when she arrived there was trouble in her heart, for there were no tidings of him, and no one had seen him since he had set out for Mass in the morning.
Meantime Fergus followed up the chase till he was wearied out; and at last, just on the edge of a wild moor, both deer and hounds disappeared behind a shoulder of rock, and he lost them altogether. At the same moment the cry of the hounds became changed to frightful shrieks and laughter, such as he had heard more than once from the Demons’ Rock. And now, sitting down on a bank to rest, he had full time to reflect on what he had done, and he was overwhelmed with remorse and shame. Moreover, his heart sank within him, thinking of the last sounds he had heard; for he believed that he had been allured from Mass by the cunning wiles of the demons, and he feared that the dangerous time had come foretold by the monk.
He started up and set out for his home, hoping to reach it before night. But before he had got half-way night fell and a storm came on, great wind and rain and bursts of thunder and lightning. Fergus was strong and active, however, and knew every turn of the mountain, and he made his way through the storm till he approached the Demons’ Rock.
Suddenly there burst on his ears the very same sounds that he had heard on losing sight of the chase–shouts and shrieks and laughter. A great black ragged cloud, whirling round and round with furious gusts of wind, burst from the rock and came sweeping and tearing towards him. Crossing himself in terror and uttering a short prayer, he rushed for home. But the whirlwind swept nearer, till at last, in a sort of dim, shadowy light, he saw the black cloud full of frightful faces, all glaring straight at him and coming closer and closer. At this moment a bright light dropped down from the sky and rested in front of the cloud; and when he looked up, he saw his little child floating in the air between him and the demons, holding a lighted candle in her hand. And although the storm was raging and roaring all round, she was quite calm–not a breath of air stirred her long yellow hair–and the candle burned quietly.
Even in the midst of all his terror he could observe her pale gentle face and blue eyes just as when she was alive, not showing traces of sickness or sadness now, but lighted up with joy. The demons seemed to start back from the light, and with great uproar rushed round to the other side of Fergus, the black cloud still moving with them and wrapping them up in its ragged folds; but the little angel floated softly round, still keeping between them and her father. Fergus ran on for home, and the cloud of demons still kept furiously whirling round and round him, bringing with them a whirlwind that roared among the trees and bushes and tore them from the roots; but still the child, always holding the candle towards them, kept floating calmly round and shielded him.
At length he arrived at his house; the door lay half-open, for the family were inside expecting him home, listening with wonder and affright to the approaching noises; and he bounded in through the doorway and fell flat on his face. That instant the door–though no one was near–was shut violently, and the bolts were shot home. They hurried anxiously round him to lift him up, but found him in a death-like swoon.
Meantime the uproar outside became greater than ever; round and round the house it tore, a roaring whirlwind with shouts and yells of rage, and great trampling, as if there was a whole company of horsemen. At length, however, the noises seemed to move away farther and farther off from the house, and gradually died away in the distance. At the same time the storm ceased, and the night became calm and beautiful.
The daylight was shining in through the windows when Fergus recovered from his swoon, and then he told his fearful story; but many days passed over before he had quite recovered from the horrors of that night. When the family came forth in the morning there was fearful waste all round and near the house, trees and bushes torn from the roots, and the ground all trampled and torn up. After this the revelry of the demons was never again heard from the rock; and it was believed that they had left it and betaken themselves to some other haunt.
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