The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 1/Irish Folk-tales (pp. 316-24)


By James Britten, F.L.S.

tHE following story was taken down by John Hannen, aged 12, at the dictation of his father, John Hannen, a native of Kildorrery, co. Cork.

V.—The Story of Grey Norris from Warland.

Now there once was a king’s son named John, and this John was very fond of playing ball in the ball-alley. One day he was playing as usual when an old man with a long grey beard on him challenged the king's son to play a game. John was quite willing, but he says to the old man, "What shall we play for?" "Oh," says the old man, "if you win you can ask whatever you like of me, and if I win I can ask anything I like of you." "Agreed," says John; and away they pecked at it hard and fast. Well, the first day, John, the king's son, won; so he asked that as soon as the sun rose in the morning every room in his father's palace would be filled with gold. In the morning every one in the palace, from the king to the pageboy, were near smothered in their bed with bright shining gold. " Ah, John, my boy," the old king said, "some day or other you'll be sorry for the ball-alley." "Never you mind, father, I'll take care of myself," said the lad. The next day John won again; so he asked that all his father's lawns and meadows might be filled with the finest cattle: and in the morning the great big estate of the king was covered with the finest head of cattle that was ever seen. But the old king still said that John would be sorry for the ball-alley: John told him however to put his fears in his pocket, and think no more about them as that he was all right. Now on the third day the old man won, and says he to John, "I'm old Grey Norris from Warland, and what I want you to do is by no means an easy job, for I want you to find out the place where I live, by the end of the year." So saying, the old man jogged off. Now after this John didn't give much way to sorrow, for even in the days of old Grey Norris there was a whiskey bottle, and John gave many a good hard pull at the mouth of that same; but, as the time drew nearer, John was at his wit's end for how to find out Grey Norris, and he was pining away day by day, for the old man said that he was going to put him to death if he couldn't find out. It so happened that in the service of the king there was a very old cook; this cook also had noticed the pining away of Prince John, so she says to him one day, "What is the matter, master John, that you have been so down in the mouth for the last month or so?" "Nothing, nothing at all," says John. "Ah, but I know that there is something," says she. Well, by degrees the whole story came out. "Pooh," said she, "if that is all, sir, I'll soon doctor your complaint." Now this old cook a hundred years ago had had a child and she had kept the breast-milk of this child up to the time that she was speaking with John the king's son. So she took John into the kitchen and made a cake with meal and this breast-milk. "Now," said she, giving him the cake and a dreoght[1] reel of cotton, "take this reel and cast it out before you on the road, when it will lead you to my brother the giant's dominions; and mind when you see him to fling the third part of this cake into his mouth or he will eat you, and when he tastes my breast-milk he will welcome you and help you to find out this dhalheen[2] Grey Norris."

So John started off, hopping and skipping behind his reel of cotton with a light heart. After a while he arrived at the palace of the giant, and when he got to the gates the sentinel told him to be very careful as his master was a very fierce man; but John told him never to fear.

Out came the old giant snorting and snuffing, puffing and blowing; and with his breath he nearly sucked him down his belly. But John was too quick for him, and he threw the piece of cake in his mouth; and as soon as he tasted his sister's breast-milk he said, "Welcome, John, the king's son; what do you want of me?" So John told him all about Grey Norris, and the giant told him be comforted, as he'd do the business for him.

Well that night was spent in rejoicing and feasting; and in the morning the giant looked over all his books, but he could not find the whereabouts of old Grey Norris. "Well," said he, after he had looked over a book about twelve feet by four feet in size, "Well, John, I am sorry, but I can't find him out; so if you want to find him out very badly, as you say, you had better go to my brother, but be very careful, for he is a hundred years older than me, and horrid fierce." John thanked the giant for his advice, and off he went hopping and skipping away behind his reel of cotton. When he came to the giant's house he went inside. The old giant came out snorting so that it made the earth shake; and with his breath he drew John right up to him, and would have sucked him down his stomach had he not, like common men, been forced to breathe outside, which made; John go flying back to the farthest end of the palace. When he breathed inside (drew his breath in) again, he was dragging John to him again, when John threw the third part of the cake into his mouth. As soon as he tasted his sister's breast-milk he welcomed him more warmly than even his brother had done, and promised to do everything that lay in his power to find out Grey Norris.

That night was spent in rejoicing and drinking, and in the morning he looked at his books but couldn't find out the old wizard. "Now," says he unto the king's son, "go to my brother and I am sure he will find out what you're looking for, but be very careful as he is a hundred years older than me." So John set off hopping and skipping behind his reel, and after a while got to the house of the giant. After some parley with the guards at the gates he got inside, and his pluckiness almost failed him when he was sucked by the breath of the giant fair into his mouth. But he was soon spit out again, and as the giant was grabbing hold of him he managed to throw what was left of the cake into his mouth. As soon as the giant tasted his sister's breast-milk he made a great fuss with John, and said he was bound to find Grey Norris out. They drank and feasted all that night and in the morning the giant looked over his books. When he told his guest that he could not find Grey Norris out, he was very downcast. "Never mind, come out into the valley with me," said the giant, John went out with him, and the giant sounded his trumpet fiercely. He then told John to look and see if anything was coming; which he did, and answered "No." The giant then sounded his trumpet again, so that it made the trees and plants for miles around to shake. John again answered "No" to the question if anything was coming. The third time the trumpet was sounded it made the earth quiver, and John said he saw something black in the sky about as big as a man's hand, and that it was getting bigger by degrees. Presently up came a big, big eagle with its feathers all rumpled. "Where were you when I blew my trumpet the first time?" asked the giant sternly." I was freeing myself from the chains with which I was chained by old Grey Norris," said the eagle. "And where were you the second time?" "I was making my way across the burning mountains; see! my feathers are all scorched," said the eagle. "And the third time?" said the giant. "I was flying with all speed towards you," replied the eagle. "Very well," said the giant; "now what I want you to do is to take this young man right into Grey Norris's kingdom." "Right you are," the eagle replied. Then the giant killed a large bullock and put it on the eagle's back, and John atop of it, with a big carving-knife in his hand. "Whenever the eagle turns his head back to you, cut a piece of meat and ram it down his throat, or else he'll eat you," said the giant.

Off the eagle flew, and every now and then turned his head back to John, who did as the giant had told him to do. But as the eagle was landing in Grey Norris's dominions, he turned his head back again, and John to his sorrow found that there not a scrap of meat left, but remembering that the eagle would eat him if he didn't look sharp, he whipped a piece of flesh from his own side with the carving-knife. And here, poor fellow, he was at last with a grievous slash on his side in Grey Norris's dominions. "Now, as you've done something for me, I'll do something for you," says the eagle, "and I'll give you this bit of advice. You see that bit of a lake overright us; well, presently three women will come down to bathe as swans; then take the youngest one's clothes, for she is Grey Norris's daughter. Of course she will be ashamed to come out of the water in her right form; keep her clothes until she promises to do you a good turn when you are in want of one, then throw down the clothes and go behind those trees up into the palace." And before John could thank him he was gone. Every thing happened just as the eagle said, and John followed his instructions to the letter. When, however, he got inside the palace Grey Norris received him coolly, showed him a place to sleep in for the night, and did not seem at all pleased.

In the morning he called John and said, "I am going to give you a few tasks, which if you can't do I will put you to death. You must first go and find the fine needle that is in the litter of the stable yonder." He then took him to a place where there were all kinds of beautiful forks; but says the princess to the king's son, "Don't you take any of the beautiful forks he'll show you, John; but take the rusty old one that stands in the corner by itself, or else we'll never do the job." So when Grey Norris showed John the splendid forks John refused all of them. "So," says Grey Norris, "you won't take these fine forks, John, you'll never do it with that one." "Oh," says John, "I'm used to this sort of work." He went to the stable and found that there was just enough room for him to stand, for the stable was chock full of litter. John set to work, but found that for every forkful he threw out nine came in; and he was very soon nigh smothered in dung. So the poor fellow sat down and cried over his hard lot. At dinner-time the princess came with his dinner and said, "Ah, John! you're there, are you? but eat your dinner, and I'll help you." So she took the fork from him while he was eating and threw out one forkful; and with that all the rest went out and left the needle in the middle of the stable. "Take that needle to my father." He took the needle to Grey Norris who was very surprised and said, "Now, come and get a gun and shoot some birds, and with their feathers build me a bridge over that stream of running water." After he said this he took him to a lot of fine guns; but the princess told John to take none of the new ones, but the old one. So John took the old one in spite of all Grey Norris's coaxings. When he came to the river he lifted up his gun and shot a bird, and threw the feathers of it into the river, but as soon as they touched the water they were whipped away by the tide. When John saw this he begun to cry and wail. "The princess can't do this," he said, "and I will be put to death by to-night." He went on like this till dinner-time came. When the princess brought his dinner, "Puzzled again, John," she said, "but eat your dinner, I'll do it for you." She took the gun and shot a bird, and as she threw three feathers into the water a beautiful bridge rose right over the stream.

When the old man came down at night-time he was greatly surprised to see a bridge of feathers. "Now," said he, "come and get an axe and before night you must have all that forest made into cups and dishes or I'll put you to death." John followed the princess's advice, and took the old axe; but when he came to chop one of the trees three trees grew up and wedged him in so that he could not move. So he said, "Well, it's a certain thing the princess can't help me this time." But when the princess came at twelve o'clock she laughed to see him helpless; and said she would do the work for him. And at the first chop she made at the tree John was free and all the big forest in plates and dishes. Grey Norris was ever so astonished at this; but at last he said, "Get a halter and bring to me the bull that is in yonder field." John as usual took the oldest halter and went to where the bull was; but as soon as the bull saw him he began bucking at him and John had to climb on to the wall which was round the field. The bull then began bucking the wall down, and poor John had to cut like mad round the top of it, the bull bucking down all the way.

When the princess came with his dinner, John was in a sad fix; but as before the princess said she would help him; and as she spoke she drew a whistle from her pocket and whistled, and as soon as the bull heard it he came running toward them, and put his head into the halter. "There, take him to my father." The old schemer seemed surprised, and for a time looked a bit down in the mouth; then his face brightened up, and he said: "Now, John, you must tell me a long tale, and at the same time you must be telling a tale to the top of my head, my nose, my ears, my mouth, and all my different parts."

John didn't know what to do now, but the princess whispered "Get a little bit of cowdung and put a little at the top of his head, and other parts of his body." This he did, and then she took him on one side and said, "Now is the time, John, for you and me to run away; go and bridle and saddle two of the quickest horses in my father's stable."

John did what he was told, and they rode away quickly. After John put the cowdung to Grey Norris it began telling tales to his different parts, and the last tale that was telling to the soles of his feet was, "Long ago last night they went away: long ago last night they went away." Old Grey Norris jumped up and sent an old big bitch after them. Now when the princess and John started they took the old bitch's three pups: so when she came up they threw her one of them, which she took home in her mouth. Grey Norris sent her out again after them; and they threw her the second pup: again she was sent after them, and returned with the third pup in her mouth; but when she was told to go out again she would not for fear she would lose her pups. So Grey Norris and his wife set out after them. After a while the princess said to John, "Look back and see if body is coming." "Well," he said, "I can see two specks as if it was a long way off." "Very well then, throw a few drops out of this bottle." John did so, and a great sea was made behind them. When old Grey Norris came up to it he said to his wife, "Go and fetch the cup that is at home. Have you been?" "Yes, and come back again," she said, "here is the cup." He took the cup, and in a moment the sea was dry. The princess and John rode on together for some time, and then the princess asked if any one was coming; he said he saw two specks again coming along. "Then throw this needle over your shoulder," she said. Immediately a forest of iron sprung up behind them. When Grey Norris came up he said to his wife, "Go home and fetch the axe. Have you been?" "Yes," said she, and come back again." Grey Norris took the axe, and very soon the forest was cut down. The princess again told John to look behind, but he could not see anything: so very soon they reached John's father's house. "Now," said the princess at parting "don't let anybody kiss you, or you'll forget all about me." "All right," said he. So when they all wanted to kiss him he would not let them, but his favourite little lapdog jumped up and kissed him; so he forgot all about her. The poor princess stood outside waiting; and at last she said, "He must have let somebody kiss him," and then she climbed up a tree over a well. After a while out came a weaver's daughter with an earthern vessel in her hands to get water. When she looked down into the well she saw the face of the princess reflected. She said, "Well now, isn't it a great shame that I, such a beautiful girl, should be living with an old weaver!" and with that she dashed down the pitcher and walked away. By-and-by the weaver's wife wondered why the daughter did not come in; so she went out with another vessel. When she looked into the well she wondered how it could be that such a beautiful woman as her should be the wife of a weaver, and down she dashed her vessel and went off. The old weaver all this time was wondering why his wife and daughter did not return; and he took a tin can and went to the well. When he saw the face in the well he looked up in the tree, and—"Hullo! my lady, it's you is it, that made me lose my wife and daughter: will you housekeep for me instead?" "Yes," she said. So the beautiful princess house-keeped for the old weaver. In about twelve months' time the prince was courting and about to marry one of the ladies of the king's court. On the wedding-day the princess went into the court, and before the marriage asked if the company would like a little play. They said "Yes;" and the princess then put up a tight-rope and danced on it beautifully. The bride said she could dance as good as that, and up she got on the tight-rope, and fell down and broke her leg, so the wedding had to be put off for another year.

When the time came round again the princess went to the court and asked if they would like a little game. They said "Yes," but they'd have no tight-rope. So she pulled out a cock and hen and put them on the table; then she threw a grain of wheat to the hen, and the cock gave the hen a peck and ate the wheat himself. The princess then said, "Ah, my little cock! it wasn't thus I did for you when I cleaned out the stable and found the needle for you." She then kept throwing grains to the hen, and the cock took it from her, and at every throw she said something she had done for John. At last Prince John remembered the princess, and jumped over the table and caught hold of her as his true wife. Then they were married, and live still, if they are not dead, in the parish of Warland.

  1. Magic.
  2. Blackguard.