Irish Folk Tales: The Tailor of Rathkeale

There was a little tailor once upon a time in the town of Rathkeale, a small weak little man like a lot of the tailors of his time. He was working away at his trade, but he was never satisfied with it and always saying to himself what a great fellow he would be if he only got a chance. And the neighbours used to joke him about it. Well, it happened one day when he sat down to his dinner, to a big bowl of porridge, that there was a great cloud of flies and midges flying around his head and perching on the table and on the porridge. And the tailor – his name was Jack – hated flies and midges, and he made a slash with the wooden spoon that he had eating the stirabout and he hit a whole lot of flies and midges. The next thing he did was to start counting how many of them he had killed, and he made out that he had seventy of them dead. ‘That is three score and ten,’ says Jack, ‘and it is the great man that would kill three score and ten at one blow!’

Well, he started boasting about it among the neighbours, and before long the prime boys were all praising him up to the moon for his great deed, so that his head was turned by all the flattery. What did he do but go to the blacksmith and tell him to make a sword. And when it was made, the blacksmith was told to write along the blade: ‘Three score and ten at every blow.’ And away with Jack, sword and all, to seek his fortune.

He was travelling before him a very long distance until finally he came to a great big castle. He asked who lived there, and they told him it was the King of Ireland, and that this King had great need of brave fighting men. And nothing would do the tailor but to face up to the gate of the castle with the sword in his hand so that everybody could read what was written on it. And the soldiers at the gate were half afraid of the little man with the big sword. And when they read what was written on the blade of the sword, they sent word in to the King to come out and see this great warrior. And the King invited Jack to come in to the castle and sit down to the table alongside him to eat his dinner. And after a while of talking about the weather and the crops, the King drew down the question of the sword. ‘You seem to be a brave fighting man,’ says the King. ‘Ah, no!’ says Jack, ‘but one of the worst men that ever left the town of Rathkeale.’ And the King began to tell all his troubles to Jack. He was building a new castle, and the builders could make no progress, for what they built during the day was always thrown down the same night. And he put soldiers to guard it, but when he came in the morning some of the soldiers were dead and the rest of them after running away, and he did not know what was doing the damage. ‘And, maybe,’ says he to Jack, ‘you would stay up a night at the castle, you are such a brave man. And maybe you won’t be able to beat whatever it is that is knocking my castle, but – at least you will be able to tell me what kind of a monster is doing the damage.’ They made a bargain. Jack would watch the castle for the night, and when he brought the word to the King in the morning he would get fifty pounds.

Well Jack, being a small little man, was able to hide himself in a place where no ordinary man would fit. And where he hid himself was up in the fork of a tree. Out in the night he heard this great noise coming, and what was it but three big giants with sledgehammers. ‘It is built again tonight,’ says one of them, ‘and it is spoiling the view on us and on our mother. Come on, Lads, and we’ll knock it.’ ‘Easy with that sledge,’ says the second giant, ‘and take care not to hit me with it like you did last night, or you’ll earn it!’ ‘Hold your tongues,’ says the third one, ‘you are doing nothing but talking. Go on now, and knock it.’ And one of them made a swing of the sledge, and with that Jack aimed with a paving stone and hit the second one. ‘Didn’t I tell you not to hit me”. says he. ‘And I won’t warn you again.’ It was no good for the first fellow to be denying it; he wouldn’t listen to any reason. Finally, they turned to the castle again and if they did, Jack met the second fellow with another paving stone. He did nothing but swing the sledge on his brother and stretch him dead on the ground. The third giant was inclined to argue, but the second giant roared at him that that is what would happen to him as well as to the brother if he did not leave him alone. And away home with them, quarrelling and arguing. Jack came down and after a lot of slashing and sawing with the sword he got the head off of the giant and dragged it along with him, he was not able to lift it, to the King’s door. The King was greatly pleased, and praised Jack to the skies, and it was not fifty pounds he gave him but a hundred. ‘And maybe,’ says the King, ‘that you will stay up and mind the castle again tonight.’ And they made the bargain, for a hundred pounds this night.

So Jack was up in the tree again by the fall of dark, and a good supply of paving stones in a bag by him. And it was not long until the giants came and began to level the castle. Jack aimed a stone, the same as the night before. And the row started between the giants, and you can be sure that Jack helped it on as well as he could. ‘Stop your annoying me now,’ says one of the giants, ‘and let you remember what happened to the other fellow last night, because I would do for you as quick as I did for him.’ With that, Jack met the other giant with a big stone., ‘Who is starting the trouble now?’ says the giant that was hit, ‘or who is hitting who!” With that the row rose in earnest between them, and before it was over one of them was stretched dead on the ground, and his head split with a hedgehammer. Away home with the giant who was still living, and down with Jack out of the tree, and he cut off the giant’s head and away with him back to the king’s castle, dragging the head after him, and I can tell you he had enough to do to bring it. Of course the king was delighted.. ‘Oh Jack,’ says he, “What is written on your sword isn’t a word of a lie. And maybe you would go the third night and finish off the third giant, as you are about” And it was not a hundred pounds he gave him for the second night’s work, but two hundred. And he promised him the same amount for the third night.

Off with Jack at the fall of night, and up on the tree the same as before. And when the giant came, Jack met him with a big rock in the side of the head. ‘Are the two of you there again, up to your old tricks?’ says the giant, thinking it was the two brothers. ‘Indeed it is not the two of them, but me,’ says Jack. ‘And who might you be, little man?’ says the giant. ‘Don’t mind your ‘little man’ to me,’ says Jack, ‘but go over there behind the castle, and you’ll see what happened to your two brothers when they got cheeky with me!’ The giant was a simple sort of a poor fellow, and over he went and looked at the corpses of the two brothers, and no heads on them. ‘Where are their heads, little man?’ says he. ‘Don’t mind your ‘little man’ to me!’ says Jack, ‘but look at my sword and you will see what kind of a man I am.’ The giant read what was on the sword, and he got very much in dread. ‘Oh, sir, do not kill me, but come home with me and explain to my mother what happened to the two brothers, for she is blaming me for it,’ says he. Well and good, Jack consented to come home with him. And when they came to the giant’s house, inside in a big wood, and the mother was there, a frightful looking old hag; she had two big long teeth sticking down out of her jaw like the handles of two sweeping brushes, and, by the same token, not another tooth in her head, but every time she talked her nose and her chin were hitting off each other, making a noise like a bodhrán.

So Jack told her that it was himself that killed the two giants. But would she believe him? ‘A little caistín of a man like you to kill my two big sons!’ says she, ‘It is tricks, that is what it is!’ But the third son would not believe her; he was greatly in dread of Jack all the time.

She started to make the supper. ‘Son,’ says she to, giant, ‘there isn’t a bit of meat in the house. Will you get a bit somewhere for the supper.’ Off with the giant and Jack along with him, to the king’s fields, where there was a big herd of fine bullocks. The giant caught one of them and twisted his neck. ‘You do the same now, Jack, and we will have enough for this evening,’ says he. But Jack drove all the bullocks into the corner of the field. ‘What I am going to do,’ says he, ‘is to take them all, and we won’t have to be coming back every day for them.’ ‘Oh, no, Jack,’ says the giant, ‘the meat would go bad on us. Two of them is plenty,’ and he picked up the second bullock and off home with them. The giant was boasting to his mother what a great man Jack was, how he was going to kill the whole heard of bullocks, but the mother was trying to persuade him that Jack was only making a fool of him. ‘But, look here,’ says she, ‘there isn’t a bit of firing in the house to boil the supper. Let you go out and gather a handful of brosna for me.’

Off with the two of them out into the wood, and the giant pulled up a big dead tree by the roots. ‘Let you pull another one, and we have enough, Jack,’ says he. But that wouldn’t satisfy Jack. He got a bit rope and started to run through the wood with it. ‘I’ll tear up the whole wood,’ says he, ‘and then we will not have to be gathering twigs for the fire every day.’ ‘Oh, no, Jack,’ says the giant, ‘for if you tear up the whole wood, everyone will see where our house is, and I want to keep it hidden: And with that he pulled up the second tree and away home with them. The giant boasted greatly about what a strong man Jack was, but the old hag would not believe a word of it.

She started to make the supper in a big pot. “Will you have enough in the two bullocks men?” says she. “And sure we will,” says Jack, “one bullock apiece is not bad feeding.” The giant was getting more in dread than ever, when he heard the big appetite the small man had, and he hardly able to finish one bullock for his supper of an evening. “Let you go out the two of you, and have sport for yourselves while the supper is boiling” says the old hag. Out with them into the yard. There was a black-smith’s anvil lying in the yard, a lot bigger than the anvil you would see at the forge. The giant picked it up in one hand. ‘This is a little game that my brothers and myself used to play,’ says he. And he tossed the anvil over the top of the house, the same as you might toss your cap in the air. And he ran around the house and caught the anvil before it touched the ground. ‘Now, Jack, it is your turn, says he. Jack took off his coat and trussed up his sleeves. ‘Stand back, and give me a run at it,’ says he, ‘and I’ll fling it from here to County Limerick. It will come in handy for my poor old mother, to iron the clothes with. It is the stone of a mill she was using when I left home, and it was getting a bit heavy for her, the creature.’ But when the giant heard that he wouldn’t have it at all; he did not want to lose the anvil. And he had great boasting to the mother about how strong Jack was. But she was saying all the time that Jack was making a fool of him.

Well, the supper was ready, and the mother put a boiled bullock up before each of them. And Jack made some excuse to go out for a minute, and what did he do but to fold the skin of one of the bullocks like a bag, and put it inside his shirt. And it was into the skin that he put the most of the meat, until he had the table cleared in front of him. And he would not be satisfied until the giant gave him a quarter of his own bullock, and into the bag with that too. ‘And now, my brave giant,’ says Jack, ‘I must show you the way to cure yourself of a surfeit of boiled meat,’ says he, and with that he picked up the carving knife and ripped up the skin, and out with all the meat around the floor. And before the mother could stop him, the giant had himself split up the middle, trying to he as good as Jack. And down with him in a heap on the floor, stone dead. And the old hag let out a screech out of her that nearly split the roof, and away with her running mad through the country and was never heard of again.

But Jack cut the head off the giant, and dragged it away back to the king and told him that the danger was over for good and all. And the king was so delighted that he gave Jack a thousand pounds this time, all gold, in a bag, and a horse to carry himself and all the wealth home to his old mother in the town of Rathkeale. And he minded his money, and never had a day’s want for the rest of his life.

Story from Mrs. Mary Moylan to Kevin Danaher.
Published in ‘Folktales of the Irish Countryside’
published by Mercier Press SBN 85342 056 4