The púca is one Ireland’s most famous and sinister mythological creatures. This article appeared in the North Clare Local in July…
After our sojourn to the lakes of Ireland last month, let’s return to dry land and one of the darkest creatures of Irish legend, the púca.
The main issue with the púca is no-one is sure what it is meant to look like. It’s a shapeshifter, and its appearance varies depending on geography and mood. A simple Google image search reveals jet black horses with golden eyes, giant rabbits, goat-headed men and other such oddities.
Two cult films, 1950’s Harvey starring James Stewart and 2001’s much darker Donnie Darko, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, feature ‘pookas’. Both are in rabbit form. While society had a problem with Harvey, rather than the other way round, Donnie’s pooka Frank was a silent and malign presence.
The contrast between Frank and Harvey captures the púca’s ambiguous nature perfectly. Up until the early 20th century, the púca was feared greatly. It is one of the few fairies that has not been rehabilitated by Disney or Pixar. Irish people who walked alone late at night dreaded coming across a púca. In his equine form, he could carry people away on his back and bring them on long, terrifying rides around the countryside. A clever man in Co Wicklow wore silver spurs to stop such a thing happening. The silver burned the púca and the man was left alone. This was believed to have occurred in Pollaphuca (hole of the púca), hence the name.
Further north, the púca took the form of a goblin, deformed and wizened, who demanded a share of the harvest. Co Down farmers left a bit of their crop aside to keep him satisfied. Laois púcas are the things of nightmare; wild, eerie boogeymen. I remember reading a fairy story set in the midlands as a child and being deeply disturbed by the púca for a long time afterwards.
The púca is an eagle-like creature in the south-east and in Roscommon he is a goat. Still elsewhere, he is a giant dog. But whatever his form or motivation, he is a creature to respect and fear. The only man who could ever tame the púca was the last Irish High King, Brian Boru. He roped the púca with three hairs from its own tail, and made it promise to never attack a Christian or an Irishman, unless the person concerned was drunk or out with evil intent. The púca soon forgot its promise however, and remained a danger to innocent late-night wanderers.
The púca held grudges and was not satisfied until it had settled any perceived slights. If it felt a person had insulted its honour, it would stand in the person’s yard and call on him or her to come on one of its petrifying midnight rides. To ignore the púca’s call was to condemn the house and farmstead to total destruction.
But the púca wasn’t all bad. It had the power of human speech and could give advice and warn of danger. A young man was once warned by the púca that a fairy host was approaching. The man took cover with the púca until the danger passed.
Lady Wilde told the story of a young farmer’s son called Padráig, to whom a púca took a shine. An extraordinary man, he sensed the invisible presence of the púca and offered him a coat. The púca returned that night and ground the farm’s wheat into flour. In return for this labour, Padraig offered the púca a fine silk suit. The púca, so delighted with his finery, decided he would travel the world. However, with his fortune greatly improved, Padráig went to college. At his wedding several years later, the púca presented him and his bride a golden cup of lucky potion.
Being a creature not of this world, the púca was dreaded during Halloween. It could only be relied on to behave properly on November 1 and travellers were safe from its ministrations. However, like the devil, it had a habit of spitting on berries and fruits, making them unsafe to eat after November.
Another story, recounted by the first president Douglas Hyde, recalls a púca who came out of a Leinster hillside on November 1 and gave the assembled crowd sagacious and pertinent advice on their year ahead.
The púca is not wholly unique to Ireland. It appears in Welsh folklore as the pwka and in Cornish belief as the bucca, but neither of those beasts enjoy the sheer malevolence that characterises the Irish creature’s worst excesses. The name itself is thought to be of Norse origin, making the Púca quite ancient and distinguished indeed. The Anglicisation of the name, Puck, lends its name to a mischievous English hobgoblin, who will always be remembered as the star of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
To think the humble púca has reached such heights!