Maelshaughlinn at the Fair by Padraic Colum

From “My Irish Year.”

It was about horses, women, and music, and, in the mouth of Maelshaughlinn, the narrative had the exuberance of the fair and the colour of a unique exploit. I found Maelshaughlinn alone in the house in the grey dawn succeeding his adventure. “This morning,” he said, “I’m the lonesome poor fellow without father or mother, a girl’s promise, nor my own little horse.” He closed the door against a reproachful sunrise, and, sitting on a little three-legged stool, he told me the story.

Penitentially he began it, but he expanded with the swelling narrative. “This time last week,” said Maelshaughlinn, “I had no thought of parting with my own little horse. The English wanted beasts for a war, and the farmers about here were coining money out of horseflesh. It seemed that the buyers were under a pledge not to refuse anything in the shape of a horse, and so the farmers made horses out of the sweepings of the knackers’ yards, and took horses out of ha’penny lucky-bags and sold them to the English. Yesterday morning I took out my own little beast and faced for Arvach Fair. I met the dealer on the road. He was an Englishman, and above all nations on the face of the earth, the English are the easiest to deal with in regard of horses. I tendered him the price—it was an honest price, but none of our own people would have taken the offer in any reasonable way. An Irishman would have  cursed into his hat, so that he might shake the curses out over my head. The Englishman took on to consider it, and my heart went threshing my ribs. Then he gave me my price, paid me in hard weighty, golden sovereigns and went away, taking the little horse with him.

“I sat down on the side of a ditch to take a breath. Now you’ll say that I ought to have gone back to the work, and I’ll say that I agree with you. But no man can be wise at all times. Anyway, I was sitting on a ditch, with a lark singing over every foot of ground, and nothing before me but the glory of the day. A girl came along the road, and, on my soul, I never saw a girl walking so finely. ‘She’ll be a head above every girl in the fair,’ said I, ‘and may God keep the brightness on her head.’ ‘God save you, Maelshaughlinn,’ said the girl. ‘God save you, my jewel,’ said I. I stood up to look after her, for a fine woman, walking finely, is above all the sights that man ever saw. Then a few lads passed, whistling and swinging their sticks. ‘God give you a good day,’ said the lads. ‘God give you luck boys,’ said I. And there was I, swinging my stick after the lads, and heading for the fair.

“‘Never go into a fair where you’ve no business.’ That’s an oul’ saying and a wise saying, but never forget that neither man nor immortal can be wise at all times. Satan fell from heaven, Adam was cast out of Paradise, and even your Uncle broke his pledge.

“When I came into the fair there was a fiddler playing behind a tinker’s cart. I had a shilling to spend in the town, and so I went into Flynn’s and asked for a cordial. A few most respectable men came in then, and I asked them to take a treat from me. Well, one drank, and another drank, and then Rose Heffernan  came into the shop with her brother. Young Heffernan sent the glasses round, and then I asked Rose to take a glass of wine, and I put down a sovereign on the counter. The fiddler was coming down the street, and I sent a young lad out to him with silver. I stood for a while talking with Rose, and I heard the word go round the shop concerning myself. It was soon settled that I had got a legacy. The people there never heard of any legacies except American legacies, and so they put my fortune down to an uncle who had died, they thought, in the States. Now, I didn’t want Rose to think that my money was a common legacy out of the States, so by half-words I gave them to understand that I had got my fortune out of Mexico. Mind you, I wasn’t far out when I spoke of Mexico, for I had a grand-uncle who went out there, and his picture is in the house this present minute.

“Well, after the talk of a Mexican legacy went round, I couldn’t take any treats from the people, and I asked everyone to drink again. I think the crowds of the world stood before Flynn’s counter. A big Connachtman held up a Mexican dollar, and I took it out of his hand and gave it to Rose Heffernan. I paid him for it, too, and it comes into my mind now, that I paid him for it twice.

“There’s not, on the track of the sun, a place to come near Arvach on the day of a fair. A man came along leading a black horse, and the size of the horse and the eyes of the horse would terrify you. There was a drift of sheep going by, and the fleece of each was worth gold. There were tinkers with their carts of shining tins, as ugly and quarrelsome fellows as ever beat each other to death in a ditch, and there were the powerful men,  with the tight mouths, and the eyes that could judge a beast, and the dark, handsome women from the mountains. To crown all, a piper came into the town by the other end, and his music was enough to put the blood like a mill-race through your heart. The music of the piper, I think, would have made the beasts walk out of the fair on their hind legs, if the music of the fiddler didn’t charm them to be still. Grace Kennedy and Sheela Molloy were on the road, and Rose Heffernan was talking to them. Grace Kennedy has the best wit and the best discourse of any woman within the four seas, and she said to the other girls as I came up, ‘Faith, girls, the good of the Mission will be gone from us since Maelshaughlinn came into the fair, for the young women must be talking about his coming home from the sermon.’ Sheela Molloy has the softest hair and the softest eyes of anything you ever saw. She’s a growing girl, with the spice of the devil in her. ‘It’s not the best manners,’ said I, ‘to treat girls to a glass across the counter, but come into a shop,’ said I, ‘and let me pay for your fancy.’ Well, I persuaded them to come into a shop, and I got the girls to make Sheela ask for a net for her hair. They don’t sell these nets less than by the dozen, so I bought a dozen nets for Sheela’s hair. I bought ear-rings and brooches, dream-books and fortune books, buckles, and combs, and I thought I had spent no more money than I’d thank you for picking up off the floor. A tinker woman came in and offered to tell the girls their fortunes, and I had to cross her hand with silver.

“I came out on the street after that, and took a few turns through the fair. The noise and the crowd were getting on my mind, and I couldn’t think, with any  satisfaction, so I went into Mrs. Molloy’s, and sat for a while in the snug. I had peace and quiet there, and I began to plan out what I would do with my money. I had a notion of going into Clooney on Tuesday, and buying a few sheep to put on my little fields, and of taking a good craftsman home from the fair, a man who could put the fine thatch on my little house. I made up my mind to have the doors and windows shining with paint, to plant a few trees before the door, and to have a growing calf going before the house. In a while, I thought, I could have another little horse to be my comfort and consolation. I wasn’t drinking anything heavier than ginger ale, so I thought the whole thing out quietly. After a while I got up, bid good-bye to Mrs. Molloy, and stood at the door to watch the fair.

“There was a man just before me with a pea and thimble, and I never saw a trick-of-the-loop with less sense of the game. He was winning money right and left, but that was because the young fellows were before him like motherless calves. Just to expose the man I put down a few pence on the board. In a short time I had fleeced my showman. He took up his board and went away, leaving me shillings the winner.

“I stood on the edge of the pavement wondering what I could do that would be the beating of the things I had done already. By this time the fiddler and the piper were drawing nigh to each other, and there was a musician to the right of me and a musician to the left of me. I sent silver to each, and told them to cease playing as I had something to say. I got up on a cart and shook my hat to get silence. I said, ‘I’m going to bid the musicians play in the market square, and the man who gets the best worth out of his instrument will get  a prize from me.’ The words were no sooner out of my mouth than men, women and children made for the market square like two-year-olds let loose.

“You’d like the looks of the fiddler, but the piper was a black-avis’d fellow that kept a troop of tinkers about him. It was the piper who said, ‘Master, what’s the prize to be?’ Before I had time to think, the fiddler was up and talking. ‘He’s of the oul’ ancient race,’ said the fiddler, ‘and he’ll give the prizes that the Irish nobility gave to the musicians—a calf, the finest calf in the fair, a white calf, with skin as soft as the fine mist on the ground, a calf that gentle that the smoothest field under him would look as rough as a bog.’ And the fiddler was that lifted out of himself that he nearly lept over a cart. Somebody pushed in a young calf, and then I sat down on a stone, for there was no use in saying anything or trying to hear anything after that. The fiddler played first, and I was nearly taken out of my trouble when I heard him, for he was a real man of art, and he played as if he were playing before a king, with the light of heaven on his face. The piper was spending his silver on the tinkers, and they were all deep in drink when he began to play. At the first sound of the pipes an old tinker-woman fell into a trance. It was powerful, but the men had to tie him up with a straw rope, else the horses would have kicked the slates off the market-house roof. Nobody was quiet after that. There were a thousand men before me offering to sell me ten thousand calves, each calf whiter than the one before. There was one party round the fiddler and another party round the piper. I think it was the fiddler that won; anyway, he had the strongest backing, for they hoisted the calf on to a cart, and they put the  fiddler beside it, and the two of them would have got out of the crowd, only the tinkers cut the traces of the yoke. I was saved by a few hardy men, who carried me through the market-house and into Flynn’s by a back way, and there I paid for the calf.

“When I came out of Flynn’s the people were going home quiet enough. I got a lift on Fardorrougha’s yoke, and everybody, I think, wanted me to come to Clooney on Tuesday next. I think I’d have got out of Arvach with safety, only a dead-drunk tinker wakened up and knew me, and he gave a yell that brought the piper hot-foot after me. First of all, the piper cursed me. He had a bad tongue, and he put on me the blackest, bitterest curses you ever heard in your life. Then he lifted up the pipes, and he gave a blast that went through me like a spear of ice.

“The man that sold me the calf gave me a luck-penny back, and that’s all the money I brought out of Arvach fair.

“Never go into the fair where you have no business.”