A walking-man, it was, come into my father’s house out of the Joyce Country, that told us this story by the fireside one wild winter’s night. The wind was wailing round the house, like women keening the dead, while he spoke, and he would make his voice rise or fall according as the wind’s voice would rise or fall. A tall man he was, with wild eyes, and his share of clothes almost in tatters. There was a sort of fear on me of him when he came in, and his story didn’t lessen my fear.

The three most blessed beasts in the world, says the walking-man, are the haddock, the robin redbreast, and God’s cow. And the three most cursed beasts in the world are the viper, the wren, and the dearg-daol (‘black chafer’). And it’s the dearg-daol is the most cursed of them. ‘Tis I that know that. Woman of the house, if a man would murder his son, don’t call him the dearg-daol. If a woman would come between yourself and the husband of your bed, don’t put her in comparison with the dearg-daol.

‘God save us,’ says my mother.

‘Amen, Lord,’ says the walking-man.

He didn’t speak again for a spell. We all listened, for we knew he was going to tell a story. It wasn’t long before he began.

When I was a lad, says the walking-man, there was a woman of our people that everybody was afraid of. In a little, lonely cabin in a gap of a mountain, it was, she lived. No one would go near her house. She, herself, wouldn’t come next or near any other body’s house. Nobody would speak to her when they met her on the road. She wouldn’t put word nor wisdom on anybody at all. You’d think a pity to see the creature and she going the road alone.

‘Who is she,’ I would say to my mother, ‘or why wouldn’t they speak to her?’

‘Whisht, boy,’ my mother would say to me. ‘That’s the Dearg-Daol. ‘Tis a cursed woman she is.’

‘What did she do, or who put the curse on her?’, I would say.

‘A priest of God that put the curse on her,’ my mother would say. ‘No one in life knew what she did.’

And that’s all the knowledge I got of her until I was a grown chap. And indeed to you, neighbours, I never heard anything about her but that she committed some dreadful sin at the start of her life, and that the priest put his curse on her before the people on account of that sin. One Sunday, when the people were gathered at Mass, the priest turned round on them, and says he: –

‘There is a woman here,’ says he, ‘that will merit eternal damnation for herself and for every person that makes familiar with her. And I say to that woman,’ says he, ‘that she is a cursed woman, and I say to you, let you not have intercourse or neighbourliness with that woman but as much as you’d have with a dearg-daol. Rise up now, Dearg-Daol,’ says he, ‘and avoid the company of decent people henceforth.’

The poor woman got up, and went out the chapel door. There was no name on her from that out but the Dearg-Daol. Her own name and surname were put out of mind. ‘Twas said that she had the evil eye. If she’d look on a calf or a sheep that wasn’t her own, the animal would die. The women were afraid to let their children out on the street if the Dearg-Daol was going the road.

I married a comely girl when I was of the age of one-and-twenty. We had a little slip of a girl, and we had hopes of another child. One day when I was cutting turf in the bog, my wife was feeding the fowl on the street, when she saw – God between us and harm – the Dearg-Daol making on her up the bohereen, and she with the little, soft pataire of a child in her arms. An arm of the child was about the woman’s neck, and her shawl covering her. Speech left my wife.

The Dearg-Daol laid the little girl in her mother’s breast. My woman took notice that her clothes were wet.

‘What happened the child?’, says she.

‘Falling into Lochán na Luachra (the Pool of the Rushes), she did it,’ says the Dearg-Daol. ‘Looking for water-lilies she was. I was crossing the road, and I heard her scream. In over the dyke with me. It was only by dint of trouble I caught her.’

‘May God reward you,’ says my wife. The other woman went off before she had time to say more. My wife fetched the little wee thing inside, she dried her, and put her to sleep. When I came in from the bog she told me the story. The two of us prayed our blessing on the Dearg-Daol that night.

The day after, the little girl began prattling about the woman that saved her. ‘The water was in my mouth, and in my eyes, and in my ears,’ says she. ‘I saw shining sparks, and I heard a great noise; I was slipping and slipping,’ says she; ‘and then,’ says she, ‘I felt a hand about me, and she lifted me up and she kissed me. I thought it was at home, I was, when I was in her arms and her shawl about me,’ says she.

A couple of days after that my wife noticed the little thing away from her. We sought her for the length of two hours. When she came home she told us that she was after paying a visit to the woman that saved her. ‘She made a cake for me,’ says she. ‘She has ne’er a one in the house at all but herself, and she said to me I should go visiting her every evening.’

Neither I nor my wife was able to say a word against her. The Dearg-Daol was after saving our girl’s life, and it wouldn’t be natural to hinder the child going into her house. From that day out the little girl would go up the hill to her every day.

The neighbours said to us that it wasn’t right. There was a sort of suspicion on ourselves that it wasn’t right, but how could we help it?

Would you believe me, people? From the day the Dearg-Daol laid eyes on the little girl, she began dwindling and dwindling, like a fire that wouldn’t be mended. She lost her appetite and her activity. After a quarter she was only a shadow. After another month she was in the churchyard.

The Dearg-Daol came down the mountain the day she was buried. She wouldn’t be let into the graveyard. She went her road up the mountain again alone. My heart bled for the creature, for I knew that our trouble was no heavier than her trouble. I myself went up the hill the morning of the next day. I meant to say to her that neither my wife nor myself had any upbraiding for her. I knocked at the door, I didn’t get any answer. I went into the house. The ashes were red on the hearth. There was no one at all to be seen. I noticed a bed in the corner. I went over to the bed. The Dearg-Daol was lying there, and she cold dead.

There wasn’t any luck on me or on my household from that day out. My wife died a month after that, and she in child-birth. The child didn’t live. There fell a murrain on my cattle the winter following. The landlord put me out of my holding. I am a walking man, and the roads of Connacht before me, from that day to this.