Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2023 Tinker of Tamlacht – Part One

A Visitor

We are making ourselves comfortable in the study after celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day with a feast. For the menu, Melissa and Thalia had settled on corned beef and cabbage, colcannon, leek soup, and soda bread. Now, Melissa and I cradle glasses of Guinness in our hands, while the girls have warm cider.

Yes, girls. Jini is with us, having been sworn to secrecy. She and Thalia decided best friends cannot have secrets from one another.

We have given her the somewhat overstuffed Queen Anne’s chair. To her delight and my surprise, Johannes has jumped into her lap and curled up. She pets him gently as her eyes try to penetrate the dark corners of the room where the brownies are scuttling about.

I watch her closely. Sure enough, as I hear the fairy fluttering through the study’s archway, her eyes go anime.

“Ah, she can see our fairy. I don’t think everyone can.”

Thalia hardly notices the fairy alight on her shoulder as she opens her book, Hibernian Nights, and announces the story, The Tinker of Tamlacht.

There lived in Donegal, in the village of Tamlacht, a poor tinker, who one day finds himself in a bog after trying to take a shortcut. He declares, “May the devil take me if I ever come this way again.”

When he gets back on the proper road, three beggars meet him in turn, to whom he gives what little money he has. The three beggars turn out to be an angel, and the angel gives him three wishes. 

First, the tinker wishes for a full meal chest; second, that what goes into his workbag stays there until he lets or takes it out; and third, those who take the apples from his tree will stick there until he releases them.

Sometime after that, he again tries the bog shortcut and meets the devil, who reminds the tinker of the vow he made. Fortunately for the tinker, the road to hell leads through Tamlacht. The tinker convinces the unpopular devil to hide inside the workbag while they go through the village.

The poor, unsuspecting devil ends up being placed upon an anvil and beaten with hammers until he disappears in a column of fire.

The tinker returns home from that adventure to find his wife has had a baby. He goes out to find a godfather. He rejects the landlord, who takes advantage of the poor; he rejects God, who lets the landlord get away with his greed; but accepts Death as the godfather because he treats everyone equally.

Death rewards the tinker with a bottle of “The Ointment of Health,” which can cure anyone, providing that Death is not standing at the head of the bed but rather at the foot. By this device, the tinker became a wealthy doctor, curing many of the sick.

One day, in a moment of softheartedness, he tricks Death by having the bed turned around, putting Death at the foot of the bed. Death now taps the tinker on the shoulder and tells him to follow. The road, again, takes them through Tamlacht. The tinker asks Death to pick him an apple from his tree as a memento. The moment Death touches the apple he is stuck.

The tinker leaves Death there for a hundred years—during which no one dies—before taking pity on him. Death agrees to leave the tinker alone for another hundred years, which was well since Death had a lot of catching up to do.

However, when the tinker’s allotment comes due, he asks for the time it would take his burning candle stub to gutter out to make his will. Death agrees and the tinker blows out the candle so that it will never gutter out.

It takes Death another hundred years to find the candle, relight it, and watch it gutter out. Once more, the tinker asks for time to utter a pater-and-ave. This Death grants and the tinker refuses to say one.

A hundred years pass until Death in the disguise of a lost soul, tricks the tinker into saying a pater-and-ave for him. Death takes the tinker to heaven, but God will not allow him in for having refused him as godfather. The devil will not let him into hell, saying the tinker will make it too hot for him.

Death and the tinker settle on Death turning him into a salmon in the river Erne, where, to this day, he taunts and eludes sports fishermen.

“Ha! Clever,” says Johannes.

Jini, whose stare had been fixed on the fairy, now peers down, wide-eyed, at the cat curled in her lap.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2023 Tinker of Tamlacht – Part Two

Image courtesy of oldbailyonline.org

More Guinness

I put another log on the hearth fire, then return to my second glass of Guinness. The girls have gone off to Thalia’s bedroom—a young girl’s inner sanctum—with the fairy perched atop Thalia’s head and Johannes nestled in Jini’s arms. I can’t get over Johannes glomming onto Jini as he has.

“Thalia picked an appropriate tale for the evening,” Melissa comments, raising her glass. “Very Irish.”

“Long for one thing,” I say.

“And full of trickery.” Melissa swirled the stout in her glass. “At the start, the tinker tricks the devil. In the next part, he chooses Death as a godfather after insulting God. He soon proceeds to trick Death for hundreds of years. Death finally gets his bony hands on the tinker only to find he can’t get rid of him.”

I take a sip of my Guinness before answering. “It feels rather like more than one story stuck together except that the end is set up during the story. Death can’t get rid of the tinker because of what the tinker did earlier in the tale. It all holds together very well. Maybe a little too well. Might there be some literary influence by the editor?”

Melissa roots around in her purse for her cell phone. “If I recall the biography of Seamus MacManus, that is an arguable point.” Her fingers scan her phone. “It says he was an Irish dramatist, a poet, a prolific writer of popular stories, and important in the rise of Irish national literature.

“It doesn’t say anything about him being a collector or editor. This site goes on to list fifty books by MacManus. Story of the Irish Race seems to be the big one. It also seems that he was deep into the Irish Republican Movement.”

I sip my Guinness while she pokes around on her phone before she continues. “Yes, he married Ethna Carbery, daughter of a well-known leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. She was a poet and writer like himself, whose real name was Anna Bella Johnston. She and a few other women started the Shan Van Vocht, a national monthly on literature, history, and commentary. Very popular. MacManus was a contributor. I’ll guess that is how they met.

“Oh dear,” Melissa gasps, “she died a few months after they got married. How sad. It was MacManus who then published most of her poetry, also very popular. He had at least one play produced and wrote others. Oh! He was also a founding member of Sinn Féin!”

‘”Right,” I say. “You don’t get much deeper into Irish nationalism.”

“However,” Melissa goes on, “it does not look like he was in Ireland for the Easter Rising. In 1908 he is in America lecturing in literature at Notre Dame University, Indiana, getting remarried in 1911 in New York, and getting a doctorate of law conferred on him by the University in 1917.”

“When was the Easter Rising?” I ask.


“Who did he remarry?”

Melissa scrolls backward. “Catalina Violante Páez, a writer and granddaughter of the first president of Venezuela.

“Oh dear!” Melissa’s eyebrows rise.

“Oh dear again?” I say.

“He died in 1960 at the age of 92, falling out of a seventh-story window at a nursing home.”

“Now, that sounds a little suspicious,” I can’t help saying.

“Nonetheless,” Melissa insists, sipping her stout, “back to our original discussion. There is the claim that he was the last of the traditional shanachies but obviously well educated. Can one be well educated and a shanachie at the same time? I always think of the old storytellers as illiterate or semiliterate, not lecturing at a university.”

“Well,” I say, “maybe we should let him defend himself.”

Melissa looks at me blankly for a moment, then says, “Oh, Miss Cox’s garden.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2023 Tinker of Tamlacht – Part Three

Ferguson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Seamus MacManus

Melissa and I have deposited ourselves on a wrought-iron bench with a small wrought-iron table in front of us and another bench on the other side; a new seating arrangement in the garden. The teapot in its cozy awaited us when we entered.

It is not long before a distinguished-looking gentleman enters through the gate, and we rise to greet him. He is trim in build, handsome with a long, pointed beard. Most animated is his expressive face.

I introduce Ms. Serious and myself, and Melissa pours out a round of tea. Seamus’s manner is easy and friendly as if we’ve known each other before this meeting.

“Mr. MacManus . . . “Melissa starts.

“Call me Seamus, please.”

“Mr. Seamus,” Melissa grins with a little deviltry, “I am curious how you came to collect such a large number of Irish tales?”

“Easily answered. By being a boy in old Donegal that hadn’t noticed that the world was changing. I grew up cutting peat bricks out of the bogs, herding sheep, and hearing stories. None of these are the occupations of lads today. It is still the smell of peat burning on the hearth that goes along with the stories in my memory. 

“By a hundred happy hearths on a thousand golden nights, then I, with my fellows, enthroned me under the chimney brace, or in circle, hunkered on the floor in the fire glow, heartening to the recital, and spellbound by the magic of the loved tales so lovingly told by fear-a’tighe (man-of-the-house) or bean-a-tighe (woman-of-the-house). Not many women could be termed shanachie, but she was a poor mother who had not at least a dozen or twenty tales on which to bring up her children.”

Seamus takes a sip of tea under Melissa’s admiring eyes.

“Thus and so, we Donegal children learnt the folk stories and the telling of them. Thus and so it was that we in turn propagated them. Thus and so it was that these fascinating tales through the long, long ages, gave to millions after millions, entertainment, happiness, joy, as well as the awakening and development in them of that beautiful imagination and sense of wonder that lightened, brightened and gilded lives that through near-hunger, hard labor and perpetual struggle with fate might well be expected to leave been sore and sour to bitterness.

“But the circumstances hard or otherwise, storytelling was ever a propagator of joy. The advent of printing and growth of reading it was that began the decline and finally the practical extinction of the hallowed art. Yet no multiplication of books and mushrooming of readers could compensate the world for the sad loss incurred. The read story never did, never will come near the benefiting quality of the told story. Two of the essential good qualities of the latter, the former never can capture. The read story may be said to be a dead story, prone on the printed page, entombed between boards, while the told story is a very much alive story, glowing, appealing, and dancing with energetic vitality—the personality and inspiration that the good storyteller can always command into the tale he tells. While the read story may possess the value of the story alone, the told story carries, superimposed on it, the golden worth of a good storyteller’s captivating art and enhancing personality—trebling in wealth.”

“Well,” says Melissa, “I do believe you may be the last of the shanachies.”

Your thoughts?