Opinion: Steve Lally responds to the drama around the plans to erect a statue to a mystical creature in County Clare, and argues that Ireland's ancients legends and myths should be celebrated, not demonized.

As a professional storyteller, my curiosity was piqued by last month's furore about the Púca of Ennistymon, a public sculpture that has been postponed after some natives of the West Clare village protested both its "sinister" quality and also its relevance.

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I got in touch with the Dublin-based sculptor Aidan Harte and explained that I felt obliged to lend a hand as a Folklorist. The best help, Harte suggested, would be to tell people more about this misunderstood character.

Harte describes the mythical ‘Púca’ or ‘Pooka’ as: "Ireland's shape shifting boogeyman who likes to offer drunken travellers a ride home, on his back – no matter how long your taxi's taking this Christmas, don't even consider it."

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Watch: I'm A Monster on RTÉjr - The Pooka tells his story

But there is a lot more to this deity than this. I first came across this story ‘Pooka’ in William Butler Yeats’ 1888 publication Folk and Fairy Tales of the Irish Peasantry. In Yeats’ collection the story was retold by Patrick Kennedy (1801 -1873) from his own book Legendry Fictions of the Irish Celts (1866).

I have collected the story and published it in my second book Kildare Folk Tales (2014), entitled The Pooka Horse. The story also appears in a book I co-wrote with Paula Flynn entitled Irish Gothic - Fairy Stories from the 32 Counties of Ireland (2018). An image of The Pooka Horse adorns the covers of both Kildare Folk Tales and Irish Gothic.

I have also performed this story hundreds of times for over 15 years. It has been received with great joy and excitement from audiences both young and old all over the world.

The Pooka appears as 'Nick Bottom' (a man with the head of a donkey)
in Shakespeare’s A Midsummers Night Dream

Who and what is ‘The Pooka’?

The Pooka is a solitary, sinister, wise and sometimes generous fairy who has most likely never appeared in human form, although it can take on human form as it is a ‘shape-shifter’.

His shape is usually that of a horse, bull, goat, eagle, snail or cat. But most common as a horse and he takes great delight in throwing an unwary rider on his back and taking them over ditches, rivers and mountains, and shakes them off in the early grey-light of the morning.

According to Yeats, this is how the Pooka described itself:

I am the Pooka Horse

I dwell amongst the Ruins

And the Hill Tops

And I am driven Mad!

By much solitude

And they say...

That I am of the race of The Nightmare...

Although the Pooka may come across as a thing to be feared, it also possesses great wisdom and can often be beneficial to folk.

Yeats referred to a letter he got from Mr. Douglas Hyde (Ireland’s first president, and a great Folklorist) in 1888:

‘We read that 'out of a certain hill in Leinster, there used to emerge as far as his middle, a plump, sleek, terrible steed, and speak in human voice to each person about November-day, and he was accustomed to give intelligent and proper answers to such as consulted him concerning all that would befall them until the November of next year. And the people used to leave gifts and presents at the hill until the coming of Patrick and the holy clergy.' This tradition appears to be a cognate one with that of the Púca."

Why do we need a sculpture like this?

The Irish fairies are both feared and revered, I would often ask when telling stories does anyone know what the word 'banshee' means?’ I explain it means ‘fairy woman’ and it is far removed from any ‘Tinker Bell’.

We have to remember these stories predate the bible and even literature and we should be very proud to be the custodians of such ancient and powerful stories. They should be celebrated and not ridiculed.

It is also a well-known fact that trick or treating came from Ireland when children would dress up as ghosts and demons to disguise themselves among the fairy folk that roam the land on Halloween night. When I was a child growing up in Kildare, we always called trick or treating ‘Going on the Pooka’.

The Pooka is a huge part of Irish folklore and even made an appearance in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and The Little People. He also appears outside of Ireland as ‘Nick Bottom’ (a man with the head of a donkey) in Shakespeare’s A Midsummers Night Dream alongside another Pooka called ‘Robin Goodfellow’ or ‘Puck’. The Pooka even made an appearance in Jimmy Stewarts 1950 film classic Harvey as a giant rabbit.

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It is vitally important that we as a nation celebrate our folklore and its characters. They should be seen as a natural resource not to be frowned upon or dismissed as superstitious nonsense.

Over the last century, our legends and folk tales have been pillaged in order to create many epic franchises. Yet being the source, we never seem to benefit from it or even get a mention.

It is time that we claimed them back, especially during these difficult times with COVID, storytelling has been a wonderful way to connect people over the internet.

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Watch: Pooka - The Irish Prankster

When the sculptor Aidan Harte was commissioned to make a piece reflecting the Village of Ennistymon in Co. Clare. He was asked what the sculpture’s relevance to Ennistymon was and he explained ‘It relates to the Horse Fair there and the Pooka’s many appearances around County Clare generally’.

As a storyteller and folklorist, I can categorically state Ennistymon is rich in folklore and fantastical stories.

It is the home of the great bard Brian Merriman (c.1747 – 27 July 1805) who wrote Cúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche or The Midnight Court in 1780.

The Roscommon Irish version of The Midnight Court
was discovered by dialectologist and sociolinguist Prof Brian Ó Curnáin
(By permission of the Royal Irish Academy © RIA)

This is one of Ireland’s most important literary accomplishments in the Irish language. It is an ‘Aisling’ or ‘dream’ poem describing a mortal man who falls asleep only to find that when he wakes he is being judged by the fairy folk holding ‘The Midnight Court’ near Ennistymon.

The fairies in Merriman’s poem are described as ugly and hideous, very like Harte’s portrayal of the Pooka:

I threw a glance with beglamoured eyes And beheld a hag of hideous guise, Her shape with age and ague shook, The plain she scoured with glowering look,

Her girth was huge, her height was quite Seven yards or more if I reckoned it right, Her cloak's tail trailed a perch's length, She gripped a staff with manful strength,

Her aspect stark with angry stare, Her features tanned by wind and air, Her rheumy eyes were red and blear, Her mouth was stretched from ear to ear,

A plate of brass held fast her bonnet

With bailiff's powers inscribed upon it. She grimly gazed and gruffly spake: -

'You lazy laggard, arise! awake!

This begs the question: why is there a memorial statue of Brian Merriman in Ennistymon? Was it not he who gave life to the Pooka and all its otherworldly brethren in the region?

Yet one of the most prominent characters is not being allowed to be presented as a sculpture, which I am sure Merriman would have been very proud of.

Merriman himself was berated and demonised at the time for his poem. In 1945 writer Frank O’Connor translated The Midnight Court into English, which was in turn banned by the Censorship Board of the Irish State in 1946.

We have to remember these stories predate the bible and even literature and we should be very proud to be the custodians of such ancient and powerful stories. They should be celebrated and not ridiculed.

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It is fitting that ‘The Pooka’ finds a home in Ennistymon, Co. Clare, the same place where the great Brian Merriman hailed from and whose work brought to life ‘the good folk’, better known as ‘the fairies’.

You have to be very careful, for you may be peeping through a keyhole into another world that lies beyond the ethereal wall. You don’t want to miss it…


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ