• Leslie Hudson

When lobsters catch a thief they don't let go

Magical animal companions. 5/30

The magical lobster in this little Irish folktale is unique, as far as I know. I have read of crabs with lit candles affixed to their backs who crawl about the floor at night, convincing onlookers from far off that houses may indeed be haunted or devilishly occupied. But I have never encountered a rescue lobster, nor have I met one who stands guard.

I absolutely adore the concept of a rescued guard lobster. What thief would expect one? What kind of mind would choose to employ one? Such wonderful, natural, devious practicality, just what I'd expect from the Cailleach.

There is a story that was collected in 1933 from school children in Dún Chaoin (Dunquin), (near Dingle on the west coast of Ireland) that concerns the Cailleach Bhéara. There are dozens upon dozens of tales about cailleachs in Irish and Scottish folklore and mythology. Stone monuments dating back to the megalithic era all over Ireland, not to mention mountains, bear her name. She is commonly associated with stone, the building of things with stone (like mountains), and shaping the landscape.

This incarnation of the Cailleach lives near the sea and gets her sustenance from it, so it makes sense she would ally herself with a lobster. Her animal companion (not familiar) is happy to oblige by standing guard over her treasure in return for the saving of his life,

As this tale is so short, I'll quote it in its entirety. It is one of my absolute favourite folktales of all time, in part because the subject is so dear to my heart, in part because it was collected from children so it has a directness and morbid humour I adore.

Cailleach Bhéara

"There is much telling of this cailleach from Béarra in the folklore of the older people on the Gealtacht. It is said that she lived on the summit of Cnoc an tSídhe. By all accounts that's where she had her cabin even though you would think she would be blown away from there, out to Carraig na hIngeanach, in Inbhear Scéine, with the wind and the bad weather.

What she had to eat was:

Real, pure madhbhán from Whiddy

Duileasg from the harbours of Cape Clear.

Fish from above in the Laune

And wild garlic from Bealach Bhéimis.

It's little wonder she lived so long, if the stories that are told of her are true.

She had the reputation of great wealth also and people were anxious to steal it from her, since there were people that time who wouldn't be long doing just that. She understood that herself as much as anyone and what did she do, this day, but go down to Scéic in Cuan Leitid and steal a lobster out of a pot that was there. She brought it home alive in her apron and she put it into the box where her money was.

The following day, when she was away collecting food from the different places, a thief went up the hillside and stole in through the window of the cailleach's house. He wasn't able to locate the money, high or low, until he noticed the box in under the old bed. He dragged it out. It wasn't too big but there was great weight in it. 'It's full up with gold, of course', said the thief to himself. He noticed that there was a sizeable hole in the side of the box. 'Isn't it a pity, you filthy old cailleach', says he, 'that you didn't think to mend that hole -- but 'tis an ill wind that doesn't blow for someone's benefit.'

With that he thrust his hand into the hole and he started to grope around inside in the box looking for the gold. What did the lobster do but seize the hand in between his two claws and squeeze hard on it. No matter how the thief turned and twisted he couldn't break the grip or pull out his hand. When the sun was setting that evening the cailleach arrived home. 'You did well, lobster', said she and she killed the thief with an axe."

"Cailleach Bheara" from Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003; 2004), pp. 111-12.

Old As The Stone

On my album, The Wanderlings Volume Two, there is a song inspired by this story called "Old As The Stone" -- for more on the inspiration behind the writing of it, and the lyrics in full, follow the link and take a listen on Bandcamp. The chorus describes the places she plays:

Oh, the wind it is a buffet

And it beats back the waves

Where she wanders and wonders and plays

As old as the stone

Of her limestone caves

No, it’s nary a wonder she stays

It’s nary a wonder she stays

On the way out to the Skelligs, Iveragh Peninsula, Ireland

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