October 27 is the feast of Saint Colman of Seanbotha. He is associated with a miraculous flock of ducks and a holy well which fed a lake where the ducks continued to thrive for centuries after his death. The story was told that the ducks could not be harmed and were impossible to use as a food source, although that didn't stop the foolish, the ignorant or the profane from trying! I have already looked at the account of P.W. Joyce from 1911 here, but below is another telling of the legend of Saint Colman's ducks, this time from a 1920s newspaper. Here the story has been updated and repackaged for an Irish expatriate audience to feature an old wise woman called Brigid (what else?) and presented in the best Hiberno-English dialect:
ST. COLMAN'S DUCKS.
Old Brigid Heffernan lived in a little cabin that stood among the ruins of the old abbey on the edge of the lake. There was a hole in the thatch of her roof, and yellow ragwort and house leeks growing round it, and there was not a neighbour to be heard or seen within an ass's bawl; but Brigid was not lonely. She was such a wise adviser that people would travel for miles to buy charms from her for the toothache, or to make the butter come, so that she always had something in her pocket. As for company, after her customers had gone, she had the black Kerry cow, the chickens, and, choicest of all, a wild duck, a tiny teal, which had its nest among the rushes which fringed the dark crystal waters of the lake. When she called it it would come flying from far away, to follow her like a child.
Brigid had a greater regard for the creature than she would tell, for hundreds of years ago the old hermit St. Colman used to live in the abbey, and he had flocks of teal which he tamed and blessed, and wonderful stories were told of them. "Who can tell whether my little pet is not a great-great-descendant of the Saint's blessed ducks?" Brigid used to say.
One night very late someone came tapping at Brigid's door, and who would it be but a red-coated soldier. "I was told you were the most knowledgeable Wise Woman in the Four Provinces," said he, "and our regiment has need of your services. We have pitched our camp by the other end of the lake, and the curse which St. Patrick laid upon the kettles of the heathen seems to be on ours too. Our fires won't burn and our pots won't boil. "Or maybe it's a fairy spell which is set upon them. Anyway, if you would come and bring them back to their duty it's yourself that would be welcome, and rewarded too." "I will come, but so will Christmas," said Brigid, shaking her head. "It's too old and lame I am to be shortening the way to the camp with you at this time of night." "Sure, it is not to be expected, said the soldier. "To-morrow I shall come with a side-car and the Captain's mare, and be driving you in style."
At break of day he was there, still black with contending with the fires and the kettles. Before Brigid took the lead into the car she looked round and saw that the clear, glassy surface of the lake was muddy and a mist rising from it, and that the wild duck's nest in the reeds was empty.
When they drew rein at the camp they took Brigid to the only fire they had got to burn. A big covered cauldron was swinging over it. "Do you see that pot?" asked the soldiers. "It has been hanging over the fire for an hour, and never a bubble has it let out of itself." "Take the cauldron from the fire," said Brigid. She lifted up the lid, and there in the midst of the cauldron floated a little yellow water-lily and the little teal. The flower was not faded and the bird was alive and well, for the water was as ice-cold as when the soldiers dipped the cauldron into the lake in the dark, taking in as well, unbeknown to themselves, the little teal asleep on the ripple and the water-lily, folded in sleep, underneath. Brigid picked up the teal and held It between her hands, while it looked at her with jewels of eyes, keeping up a tender twittering.
"Sleepy head, to be caught napping like that I" said the Wise. Woman. "Your lake is troubled for the want of its guardian spirit. Away with you now to where you belong, St. Colman's blessed duck, and let the decent soldier boys' kettles come to the boil!" And she set it free.
With a clapping of wings, as if a child were laughing, the little teal, so the old legend says, rose in the air and flew away.
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