Black Stairs on Fire

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

The following piece of diablerie is probably unknown out of Ireland. At least, we do not recollect having found it in the collections of Grimm or Dasent. It bears the usual marks of pagan origin. In the system of natural magic of a celebrated living writer, the adept, availing himself of the chemical and magnetic virtues inherent in some substances, and even those belonging to mere figures, such as the pentacle, can not only subject intelligent and sensitive beings to his will, but even insensible chairs and stools. When his critics twit him with the unsoundness of his theory, and its unsuitableness to the present state of physical and social science, he may appeal to its antiquity. The pagan magicians handed it to their quasi-Christian successors, and when these worthies departed to some world more worthy of them, their system exploded in fragments, and fell under the wise control of our story-tellers.


On the top of the hill of Cnoc-na-Cro' (Gallows Hill) in Bantry, just in full view of the White Mountain, Cahir Rua's Den, and Black Stairs, there lived a poor widow, with a grandchild, about fifteen years old. It was All-Holland Eve, and the two were about going to bed when they heard four taps at the door, and a screaming voice crying out. "Where are you, feet-water?" and the feet-water answered, "Here in the tub." "Where are you, band of the spinning wheel?" and it answered, "Here, fast round the rim, as if it was spinning." "Besom, where are you?" "Here, with my handle in the ash-pit." "Turf-coal, where are you?" "Here, blazing over the ashes." Then the voice screamed louder, "Feet-water, wheel-band, besom, and turf-coal, let us in, let us in:" and they all made to the door.

Open it flew, and in rushed frightful old hags, wicked, shameless young ones, and the old boy himself, with red horns and a green tail. They began to tear and tatter round the house, and to curse and swear, and roar and bawl, and say such things as almost made the poor women sink through the hearthstone. They had strength enough however, to make the sign of the cross, and call on the Holy Trinity, and then all the witches and their master yowled with pain. After a little the girl strove to creep over to the holy water croft that was hanging at the bed's head, but the whole bilin' of the wicked creatures kep' in a crowd between her and it. The poor grandmother fell in a faint, but the little girl kep' her senses.

The old fellow made frightful music for the rest, stretching out his nose and playing the horriblest noise on it you ever heard, just as if it was a German flute. "Oh!" says the poor child, "if Granny should die or lose her senses what'll I do? and if they can stay till cockcrow, she'll never see another day." So after about half an hour, when the hullabullo was worse than ever, she stole out without being noticed or stopped, and then she gave a great scream, and ran in, and shouted, "Granny, granny! come out, come out, Black Stairs is a-fire!" Out pelted both the devil and the witches, some by the windows, some by the door; and the moment the last of them was out, she clapped the handle of the besom where the door-bolt ought to be, turned the button in the window, spilled the feet-water into the channel under the door, loosed the band of the spinning-wheel, and raked up the blazing coal under the ashes.

Well, the poor woman was now come to herself, and both heard the most frightful roar out in the bawn, where all the company were standing very lewd [1] of themselves for being so easily taken in. The noise fell immediately, and the same voice was heard. "Feet-water, let me in." "I can't," says feet-water; "I am here under your feet." "Wheel-band, let me in." "I can't—I am lying loose on the wheel-seat." "Besom let me in." "I can't—I am put here to bolt the door." "Turf-coal, let me in." I can't—my head is under the greeshach." "Then let yourselves and them that owns you have our curse for ever and a day." The poor women were now on their knees, and cared little for their curses. But every Holy Eve during their lives they threw the water out as soon as their feet were washed, unhanded the wheel, swept up the house, and covered the big coal to have the seed of the fire next morning.

End of this Story


[1] "Regretful, ashamed," the root being leiden, to suffer. Many words and expressions among our folk of the Pale are looked on as abuses or perversions, when they are in truth but old forms still carefully preserved.