The Princess who fooled Pirates with Feathers

The Princess who fooled Pirates with Feathers

Once a very long time ago foreign pirates sailed the coast of Ireland .  They rowed from their great ships in long boats and snatched children and young people to be carried away and sold as slaves.    The deep seas around Dalkey and Killiney were a favourite spot for the pirates to raid and the people who lived there kept a constant watch for their ships.  They lived in fear and tried to make sure their children were kept safely out of sight when pirates were spotted on the ocean.

An important lookout point was on top of Killiney Hill and one very hot day the young man appointed as the lookout found himself growing drowsy.  His eyes scanned the bright blue waters, swept along the horizon over and over again until the light made his head ache and eyes started to close.  Several times he jumped up and stamped up and down in an effort to stay awake but he couldn’t help himself.  His eyelids dropped and stayed shut.  His head nodded and he fell into a deep sleep.

And while the slept, the pirates’ ship slid into view.   The longboat was launched and a troop of armed pirates rowed for the shore, ran through fields and homes, brandishing their weapons and rounded up nearly thirty children.  They were bundled onto the boat and rowed away before the wailing of their parents and families rent the air.

The pirates landed their captors on Dalkey Island where they had set up camp.  They mounted armed guards, tied up the children and plotted their next raid.   Mad with grief, the families rushed to their Clan Chief and begged him to do something to get their children back.  The Chief was an old man and very feeble.   He needed the help of his only child and daughter to walk out of his house and into the meeting area in front.

First the young lookout who had fallen asleep and failed to alert the people was brought forward for judgment.   He trembled with fear and shame as the angry crowd forced him to his knees.   Seamus admitted his sin immediately.   He had fallen asleep in the hot sun and he could make no excuse for his weakness which had cost the families so dear.

‘Throw him off the cliff’ demanded one father.   ‘Give him to the pirates’, shouted another.   There was no forgiveness for him.

The Chief nodded wearily.   ‘He deserves to pay with his life’, he agreed.  ‘And he will pay, but the most urgent business is how to rescue the children.’  His weak old eyes blinked.  ‘How many men and weapons can we raise.’  The crowd murmured and muttered.  One man stepped forward.

‘We have spades and pitchforks’ he said, his voice thick with despair.  The pirates have spears and swords’.  We are farmer and fishermen, they are fighters and cutthroats, we stand no chance against them. They will blast us out of the water before we get to the island and anyone who makes it will be hacked down like an animal.’

The fathers groaned and the mother wept.   The old chief shook his head clasped his trembling hands beneath his cloak.   ‘I am too old for this’ he muttered.   ‘They need someone strong and brave to lead them’

Then his daughter stepped forward.   Her mother had been a princess from another tribe in the west of the country and she inherited the title.  She was tall and fair and she could run like a deer and swim like a dolphin.  Her name was Princess Ailbhe.

‘I am strong for a woman’ she announced.   ‘But strength alone cannot do what cunning must.   We will not get our children back by fighting the pirates.  But we can steal them back with courage and guile.’  She pointed to the trembling prisoner.  ‘Give him to me.  If he is to sacrifice his life for his crime he may as well do it by helping restore them.’   Seamus looked up in gratitude and announced he would willingly do anything asked of him.

The crowd were impressed by the confidence and courage the young princess showed.  Her father agreed at once and Ailbhe strode off followed by Seamus.  They set off up Killiney Hill, following a well trodden path until they reached the summit and then branching off to a small clearing overlooking the sea.  The great stone chair faced the water and only the back of a white haired man was visible at first, the sweet pungent scent of tobacco drifting towards them.

‘Come forward’, a deep voice commanded and the pair approached and sat on the ground at the Ceann Ceallmhar’s feet.   ‘I’ve been expecting you Ailbhe’, the tall man told her.  He tapped his pipe on the stone seat of the chair and folded his hands. ‘

‘I have need of your wisdom and trickery as never before’, she begged him.  ‘Our children are penned up on the island, like cattle to the slaughter.  Once the pirate ship sails they will never see their family or their homeland again.  With your help I will bring them home and keep them safe.  

The Ceann Ceallmhor stroked his beard and pulled on his pipe.  He closed his eyes and after a time Ailbhe was afraid he had fallen asleep.  But eventually he spoke.  ‘Very well’ he said.  I will tell you what you need and then it is up to you.  You will need courage and luck and a good deal of help and then you will need the wing feathers of 30 birds, eagles, seagulls, hawks, crows, every variety of bird that flies in these parts.  You will need ten lengths of stout rope and three tubs of goosefat blackened with soot.  You will need the stomachs of 30 cows and the strongest potion the Woman in the Woods can brew.  You will need the help of the Seal Woman and most of all you will need to hurry.  Soon the weather will change and the pirates will sail away taking away any chance of bringing our children home.

Princess Ailbhe nodded  and the Ceall Ciallmhor told her how she must proceed once she had acquired everything on his list.

Back down on the coast the whole community was set to work.  The fishermen were tasked with plaiting thick lengths of rope, the women rounded up every jar of goose fat stored up for the winter and the old men set about scraping the soot from chimneys and mixing it into great tubs of fat.   The younger men combed the fields and hedges, trapping every variety of bird and removing a few feathers from each before releasing them.  Every farmer and butcher for miles was ordered to deliver as many cows stomachs, emptied and cleaned, to the harbour.  Ailbhe and Seamus set off to find the Woman in the Woods,

As luck would have it she was sitting in the sun outside the door of her tiny cottage in a clearing in the woods.   She was busy picking the leaves off from a basketful of twigs at her feet and narrowed her eyes suspiciously as they approached.

‘Princess Ailbbhe ‘I do believe’,  sniggered.  ‘To what do I owe the honour?  Is a love potion you’re after or something to spoil the pretty looks of a rival.  Do you want to make a young girl’s golden hair fall out or grow boils on the face of a fellow who’s done you wrong’.   She cackled with laugher and stamped her foot on the dusty ground.

Ailbhe shook her head and fell to her knees before the grey haired old woman.  ‘The pirates have stolen our children and without your help they will be lost for ever.  Only you can give me what I need to get them back.  Only you have the power to save them.’   The woman’s face hardened at these words.   ‘What care I for stolen childen when I have none of my own?  She demanded harshly.   What care I for the wailing and tears of the men and women who shun me when they see me walking the road but sneak here to the woods in dead of night to buy my potions with their heads covered and their voices lowered to a whisper.’

Ailbhe raised her eyes to look directly into hers. ‘ I come here without shame or pride to plead for your help.  I come in the full knowledge of our whole clan and I will order that every child born for the next ten years takes your name as part of theirs so that we never forget what we owe you.  In future no one will come to you in the night but in the full light of day and when you walk among us we will greet you by name and with respect.’ There was a long moment’s silence then the woman slowly nodded.  

What is it you need’ she asked and Ailbhe told her what the Ceann Ceallmhor had ordered.   The old woman frowned and scratched some marks on the dusty ground with a twig.  I have nothing like that in stock, she muttered.  It will take time to gather the ingredients,  days perhaps and then time to brew the potion.  You must give me a week, maybe longer.  

Ailbhe shook her head impatiently.   There is no time, it must be done tonight.  Seamus will gather what you need,  he can climb trees, move rocks, find the tiniest of herbs and plants and insects.   I will return in the morning. ‘ With that, she strode away leaving  Seamus behind and set off for a rocky headland further up the coast.

The sun was high overhead and the Seal Woman was stretched out on a rock,  waves lapping at the edge,her long sleek hair gathered around her like a cloak.  Her ears pricked up long before Ailbhe approached and she rolled over to stare at her from great brown  eyes.  Three large seals basking on another rock nearby moved towards, forming a protective circle as Ailbhe drew near.

‘Have you heard about the children?’ she asked at once.  ‘Will you help us take them back and bring them home where they belong? ‘ The Seal  Woman rolled onto her back and raised her arms above her head and laughed.   ‘That’s thirty less mouths to eat the fish my people need’,  she sneered.    ‘ Your fishermen give no heed to our hunger,  they fish further and deeper each year and sometimes their nets even catch our young and they never come home.   The pirates are welcome to steal their broods and drive their families inland and leave the coast to us.’

At these words Ailbhe cried out in protest and moved towards the Seal Woman who rolled into a ball and turned away..  The seals growled a threat and slapped their flippers loudly against the rock.

‘Very well,’ Ailbhe cried.  You can name your price but I must have your help and that of your  people.  Tell me what you want and it is yours.’

The Seal Woman spring to her feet and gestured towards the sea.  Her fingers were long and narrow with a thin web of skin between each finger.   Her teeth were sharp and pointed and her ears lay flat against her head.   ‘From the island to the headland is ours’ she demanded.  ‘No fishermen will venture here and no seals will be captured or harmed. ‘  Agreed’ Ailbhe responded at once.

‘Wait,’  the Seal Woman raised her hand.  ‘That’s not all.  The tiger shark that comes  to these waters each Spring must be killed, he preys upon our young and takes even more fish than your people. ‘You have my word,’  Ailbhe agreed.  ‘Our best fishermen will hunt him down and your people will be safe.   Now this is what I need from you. ‘ She sank down on the rocks and they talked for nearly an hour, then Ailbhe looked at the sky and asked one final question.

‘The morning after tomorrow,’ the Seal Woman told her. ‘ The storm will come from the south and move round to the east.  It will come quickly and with little warning.  If they have any sense your pirates will sail as soon as they see the signs and keep a steady course to home. ‘

Ailbhe turned to go. ‘ Then tomorrow night it is,’she announced.  ‘We will gather at the harbour at sunset.’

Back along the coast the clan had been hard at work.  Great coils of rope laid neatly stacked by the harbour wall,  goosefat, black and sooty as night was packed into lightweight pots and tied at the neck with string. Men and women were taking turns at blowing into the opening of the thirty cow stomachs until they grew round and filled with air and then they fastened them securely with string and sealed the tie with tar.  Ailbhe gathered everyone around and told them what she had agreed with the Woman of the Woods and the Seal Woman.  The fishermen muttered among themselves and the women pulled their shawls tightly around them.  Then a woman at the back stood  up.  She turned to look at the island and all eyes followed hers.  Darkness was falling and the light of a campfire glowed red in the distance.  Sounds of talking and shouting drifted over the water and dark shapes could  be seen moving in front of the fire.  

Her voice was low and raw from crying and her hair was wild and loose.   ‘I am a widow these three years’, she wailed, ‘and my two young sons are all I have in the world and I am all they have.  Those devils snatched them from my very arms and have them penned up like animals.   I would throw myself into the sea this very moment to save them,  I would burn my house to the ground and everything I own if it would bring them back.  There is not a child’s life on that island that is not worth all the fish in the sea and anything that is in our power to do to bring them back.  Let no one here dare raise a protest against what our Chieftan’s daughter has proposed or let them live in shame and exile for the rest of their days.’  There was a low murmur of agreement among the assembly and the widow sat down and cried with relief while Ailbhe raised her hand for attention.  ‘Then we go’, she declared.  ‘Tomorrow night, Seamus and I will bring your children home or die in the trying.’

The following night was clear and cold.  Too clear for Ailbhe’s liking,  the moon cast a pale steady light over sea and land.  Ailbhe and Seamus made their final preparations down at the shoreline.  First they smeared themselves thickly from head to toe with blackened goosefat as protection against the cold water and to render them invisible to the pirate lookout.   Ailbhe secured the potion brewed by the Woman of the Woods around her neck.  Seamus fastened a padded oilskin bag containing 30 feathers on her back and then she waded into the sea.  Seamus followed nervously.  He was by no means such a strong swimmer as her and the sight of the dark stretch of sea between him and the island, broken by choppy waves, made him feel dizzy.  Suddenly the Seal Woman’s head popped up in front of him followed by the bulky shapes of a group of seals diving and ducking through the swell.

Between them,  Ailbhe and Seamus hauled on the length of rope stretched on the foreshore, pulling it into the water where the Seal Woman took one end and secured it firmly in the mouth of the big seal that swam up to her.   He swam away and another seal moved in to take the rope in his teeth.  Every few feet  the inflated cow’s stomachs had been attached to the rope and, as seal after seal moved in to take up the rope the stomachs bobbed just below the surface keeping the rope suspended above the water.

Ailbhe swam on ahead with the Seal Woman moving through the choppy waves with ease while Seamus clung to the rope being dragged by the seal for dear life.   A bank of cloud moved across the moon bringing utter darkness to the scene.  It was only as his head bobbed up occasionally and he gulped in air that he could see a bright speck of the pirates campfire on the island that seemed never to be getting any closer.  Again and again the cold waves slapped him in the face,  his hands were rubbed raw from clinging to the rough rope and he was beginning to despair when Ailbhe swam close to him and whispered that they had nearing the island.  The shoreline was rough and stony , cutting and bruising his bare feet as he staggered ashore.   The Seal Woman and her seals moved back out to sea leaving them alone on land.   The blackened goosefat had survived the swim well but they scooped out more handfuls from the big container the Seal Woman had tied to one of the cows’s stomachs and and smeared their faces and hair anew.

Seamus and Ailbhe had gone over their plan many times so without a word, Seamus took the flask of potion and started up the slope towards the Pirate’s encampment, keeping as close to the ground as possible, crawling on his belly like a snake.    Closer and closer he drew to the camp.  Everything depended on his being able to get to the Pirates’s store of wine before they began their evening session of eating and drinking.  He crept as near as he could to the campfire hardly daring to breath.  Suddenly a shout went up from the Sentry on the highest point of the island and the pirates jumped to their feet and looked in the direction he was pointing. A bright light pierced the darkness, a leaping flame out at sea.   It could only be a small boat, set on fire, and heading for the pirate ship moored off the island.  

With muttered oaths and curses the pirates headed for the shore, ready to jump into their longboats and head off the burning vessel threatening their ship.  At soon as they left Seamus crawled over to the camp fire and found the storage area,  three great wineskins with cork stoppers.   With a shaking hand he unstopped the vial Alibhe had entrusted to him and poured a measure into each wineskin until the vial was empty.  Then he scurried away from the campfire as quickly as he could.

Meanwhile out at sea the burning boat had disappeared from view, the flames extinguished like a light going out, to the astonishment of the pirates who were preparing to set off to intercept it.   The Seal Woman and her seals, having dragged the boat under the waves to extinguish the flames, surfaced again and headed back to the island.

Ailbhe and Seamus withdrew a safe distance from the encampment and found a patch of higher ground where they could keep an eye on events.   The pirates sat around the campfire,eating and drinking freely from the wine skins,  still puzzled by the burning boat that had appeared and disappeared so mysteriously.   As they were due to set sail the next day they were determined to finish their store of wine as there was no drinking allowed on board ship.

Great shouts of laughing and shouting floated over the cold night air to Seamus and Ailbhe in their hiding place, then a chorus of lively singing that grew noisier and noisier as the wine went down.   Eventually, at long last, one by one, the pirates slumped forward and fell sound asleep, sprawled on the ground and dead to the world.

The children were huddled together, securely bound with rope at the hands and wrists and shivering with fear and cold.   The sight of Ailbhe and Seamus approaching, their faces and hair thick with blackened flat made them cry out with fright and it was only the familiar sound of their native tongue whispering reassuringly to them that calmed them.   Seamus’s sharp knife quickly sliced through the knots of string and Ailbhe put the youngest and smallest in the care of the older children, leading them away from the campfire down to the shore, urging them to silence.   Meanwhile Seamus arranged the severed knots and loops of rope in a neat line and in each knot he placed a feather, from crow, sparrow, seagull, hawk and eagle, one feather for each child had been captive.  Then he scrambled after Ailbhe and the children and met with them at the shore.

She had already started to grease their bodies and hair with the blackened goose fat and he joined in,  getting the bigger ones to help too.  It was only when she explained to them that they would have to get into the cold dark sea stretched out before them that they sobbed and whimpered in terror and shook their heads.  In vain Seamus and Ailbhe tried to persuade them by telling them that their parents were waiting for them on the other side of the water, that the grease would protect them from the cold and that the ropes and cows stomachs full of air would keep them afloat.  But it seemed nothing could persuade them and overcome their dread of the dark, cold water that lapped at their feet and Ailbhe began to despair that her plan would work.

Then a dark sleek head bobbed up out of the waves and the Seal Woman emerged from the waist up.  She began to sing.  A wordless song,  rising and falling like the waves themselves, low and sweet, calming and soothing, rich and soft  as midnight velvet.  Ailbhe waded into the waves and held out her arms and one by one the children ventured in after her.  The Seal Woman secured each child to the rope with a tough strand of seaweed and, at her signal, one of the seals tugged it forward until all the children were moving across the stretch of sea towards the shore.    Ailbhe and Seamus went last, Ailbhe swimming up and down the line of children with reassuring words while Seamus clung on to the very end of the rope.    The moon sailed behind a thick bank of cloud and the sentry on the highest point of the Island saw nothing to alert his suspicions, his eyes focused on the land alert for any signs of the mysterious burning boat.

To Seamus it seemed as if the ordeal would never end.  Only the sound of the Seal Woman’s song, rising above the slap of the waves keep him going. Just when he felt his grip on the rope weakening and feared he was about to slip down into the depths, he heard a faint cry up ahead and raising his head, saw the outline of land, darker than the sea.  Then his feet felt stoney ground beneath him and he staggered ashore.

Though blackened with grease and soot each child’s parents knew them at once and hauled them into their arms, weak with relief and joy.  Within minutes the families had melted into the darkness, going home to hot soup and warm fires.  The widow held her young sons so tightly they could hardly breathe.  The Seal Woman and her seals had vanished beneath the waves and it was left to some of the old fishermen to gather in the rope and cow stomachs and hide them away.   Ailbhe led an exhausted Seamus back to her house  where he sank in front of the fire and slept like the dead.

Dawn broke over Dalkey Island a few hours later as a sullen red sun inched over the horizon, soon obscured by ragged dark clouds thickening above the sea.   The shock of a sudden sharp shower flinging icy spears of rain at the still sleeping pirates had them mumbling and cursing  as they staggered to their feet, rubbing their eyes and shaking their heads to throw off the fumes of wine and sleep.   All night long their dreams had been invaded by the beating wings and raucous cries of birds, their great talons and sharp beaks coming towards them.   Some beat the air around them to ward off the birds of their dreams.

A loud cry from the lookout above them drew their eyes in the direction he was pointing as a   gloomy grey light revealed empty ground where their captives had huddled the night before.

With a huge bellow of rage the Pirate captain staggered forward,  followed by the his crew, their jaws open in astonishment.   At that moment a huge flock of birds, dark and menacing,  wheeled , above them diving and dipping on the rising wind, their hoarse cries  like a mocking chorus overhead.  One of pirates bent down and picked up the empty coil of rope in one hand, holding aloft the large tail feather of an eagle in the other.   He shivered in fear and made the sign of protection against the evil eye.   The other pirates backed away, muttering to each other.  ‘This island is cursed’ one of them shouted.   Those children have turned into birds and flown away, and now they have come back  to  hunt us down.’  The Captain span around around grabbed him by the throat, flinging him to the ground with a mighty roar.Then the lookout called again and pointed towards their ship.  It was rocking wildly on its moorings, as the storm gathered force from the South.   Overhead the circling flock of birds grew bigger and louder,  swooping and falling, rising and  wheeling, cawing and calling, loud piercing shrieks above the moaning of the rising wind.

As of one mind the crew of pirates set off for the shore and their longboat , abandoning their camp and all their possessions.    Back on the land, the Clan saw them rowing desperately to the ship and clamber up the rope ladders to the deck.   The Captain bellowed orders and soon the sails were unfurled and the great pirate ship was heading out to sea.   When they did eventually reach their homeland the stories they told of a cursed island and magic spells that turned children into hunting birds spread far and wide and no pirates dared sail near Dalkey Island again.

High on the hill the Ceann Ceallmhoir watched the pirate ship flee the storm and as the great flock of birds turned back to land and flew low above him he raised in a hand in silent acknowledgment of their help.  Then he settled back in his stone chair and lit his pipe.