Since time before mind women have had to survive by wit and will. This is a fun story that I found in the book “Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales” edited by Kathleen Ragan. Ragan credits Jeremiah Curtin the author of “Tales of Fairies and the Ghost World.” Clearly it is an old Irish tale – a bit longer than most that I post here, but worth the read for sure. If you don’t have time for the full five pages, jump to the end for the last few paragraphs! They are my favorite part for sure.
As the story goes, in the county Cork, a mile and a half from Fermoy, there lived three brothers. The three lived in one house for some years and never thought of marrying. On a certain day theywent to a fair in the town of Fermoy. There was a platform on the fair ground for dancing and a fiddler on the platform to give music to the dancers. Three sisters from the neighbourhood, handsome girls, lively and full of jokes, made over to the three brothers and asked would they dance. The youngest and middle brother wouldn’t think of dancing, but the eldest said, “We mustn’t refuse; it wouldn’t be good manners.” The three brothers danced with the girls, and after the dance took them to a public-house for refreshments.
After a white the second brother spoke up and said, “Here are three sisters, good wives for three brothers; why shouldn’t we marry? Let the eldest brother of us take the eldest sister; I will take the second; the youngest brother can have the youngest sister.”
It was settled then and there that the three couples were satisfied if the girls’ parents were. Next day the brothers went to the girls’ parents and got their consent. In a week’s time they were married.
Each of the three brothers had a good farm, and each went now to live on his own place. They lived well and happily for about ten years, when one market-day the eldest sister came to the second and asked her to go to Fermoy with her.
In those days women used to carry baskets made of willow twigs, in which they took eggs and butter to market. The second sister said she hadn’t thought of going, but she would go, and they would ask the youngest sister for her company.
All three started off, each with a basket of eggs. After they had their eggs sold in the market they lingered about for some time looking at people, as is usual with farmers’ wives. In the evening, when thinking of home, they dropped into a public-house to have a drop of drink before going. The public-house was full of people, chatting, talking, and drinking. The three sisters did not like to be seen at the bar, so they went to a room up stairs, and the eldest called for three pints of porter, which was brought without delay.
It is common for a farmer or his wife who has a ten-shilling piece or a pound, and does not wish to break it, to say, “I will pay the next time I come to town”; so the eldest sister said now. The second sister called for three pints, and then the third followed her example.
‘Tis said that women are very noisy when they’ve taken a glass or two, but whether that is true or not, these three were noisy, and their talk was so loud that Lord Fermoy, who was above in a room finishing some business with the keeper of the public-house, could not hear a thing for their chat, so he sent the landlord to tell the women to leave the room. The landlord went, and finding that they had not paid their reckoning yet, told them it was time they were paying their reckoning and moving towards home.
One of the sisters looked up and said, “The man above* will pay all. He is good for the reckoning.”
The man of the house, thinking that it was Lord Fermoy she was speaking of, was satisfied, and went up stairs.
“Have they gone?” asked Lord Fermoy.
“They have not, and they say that you will pay the reckoning.”
“Why should I pay when I don’t know them? We’ll go down and see who they are and what they mean.”
The two went down, and Lord Fermoy saw that they were tenants of his; he knew them quite well, for they lived near his own castle. He liked the sisters, they were so sharp-witted.
“I’ll pay the reckoning, and do you bring each of these women a glass of punch,” said he to the man of the house.
The punch was brought without delay.
“Here is a half sovereign for each of you,” said Lord Fermoy. “Now go home, and meet me in this place a week from to-day. Whichever one of you during that time makes the biggest fool of her husband will get ten pounds in gold and ten years rent free.”
“We’ll do our best,” said the sisters.
Each woman of them was anxious, of course, to do the best she could. They parted at the door of the public-house, each going her own way, and each thinking of what could be done to win the ten pounds and ten years’ rent.
It had happened that the eldest sister’s husband became very phthisicky and sickly a couple of years after his marriage and fell into a decline. On the way home the wife made up her mind what to do. She bought pipes, tobacco, candles, and other articles needed at a wake. She was in no hurry home, so ’twas late enough when she came to the house. When she looked in at the window she saw her husband sitting by the fire with his hand on his chin and the children asleep around him. A pot of potatoes, boiled and strained, was waiting for her.
She opened the door. The husband looked at her and asked, “Why are you so late?”
“Why are you off the table, and where are the sheets that were over you?” asked she as if in a fright; “or the shirt that I put on you? I left you laid out on the table.”
“Sure I am not dead at all. I know very well when you started to go to the market, I wasn’t dead then, and I didn’t die since you left the house.”
Then she began to abuse him, and said that all his friends were coming to the wake, and he had no right to be off the table tormenting and abusing herself and the children, and went on in such a way that at last he believed himself dead and asked her in God’s name to give him a smoke and he would go up again on the table and never come down till he was carried from it.
She gave him the pipe, but didn’t let him smoke long. Then she made him ready, put him on the table, and spread a sheet over him. Now two poles were stretched overhead above the body and sheets hung over and down on the sides, as is customary. She put beads between his two thumbs and a Prayer-book in his hands. “You are not to open your eyes,” said she, “no matter what comes or happens.” She unlocked the door then and raised a terrible wailing over the corpse. A woman living opposite heard the wailing, and said to her husband:
“Oh, it is Jack that is dead, and it is a shame for you not to go to him.”
“I was with him this evening,” said the husband, “and what could kill him since?”
The wife hurried over to Jack’s house, found the corpse in it, and began to cry. Soon there was a crowd gathered, and all crying.
The second sister going past to her own home by a short cut, heard the keening and lamenting. “This is my sister’s trick to get the £10 and ten years’ rent,” thought she, and began to wail also. When inside she pinched the dead man, and pulled at him to know would he stir; but it was no use, he never stirred.
The second sister went home then, and she was very late. Her husband was a strong, able-bodied man, and when she wasn’t there to milk the cows he walked up and down the path watching for her, and he very angry. At last he milked the cows himself, drove them out, and then sat down in the house. When the wife came he jumped up and asked, “What kept you out till this hour? ‘Twas fitter for you to be at home long ago than to be strolling about, and the Lord knows where you were.”
“How could I be here, when I stopped at the wake where you ought to be?”
“Your brother’s wake. Jack is dead, poor man.”
“What the devil was to kill Jack? Sure I saw him this evening, and he’s not dead.”
He wouldn’t believe, and to convince him she said, “Come to the field and you’ll see the lights, and maybe you’ll hear the keening.”
She took him over the ditch into the field, and seeing the lights he said, “Sure my poor brother is dead!” and began to cry.
“Didn’t I tell you, you stump of a fool, that your brother was dead, and why don’t you go to his wake and go in morning? A respectable person goes in mourning for a relative and gets credit for it ever after.”
“What is mourning?” asked the husband.
“Tis well I know,” said she, “what mourning is, for didn’t my mother teach me, and I will show you.”
She brought him to the house and told him to throw off all his clothes and put on a pair of tight-fitting black knee breeches. He did so; she took a wet brush then, and reaching it up in the chimney, got plenty of soot and blacked him all over from head to foot, and he naked except the black breeches. When she had him well blackened she put a black stick in his hand. “Now,” said she, “go to the wake, and what you are doing will be a credit to the family for seven generations.”
He started off wailing and crying. Whenever a wake house is full, benches and seats are put outside, men and women sit on these benches till some of those inside go home, then those outside go in. It is common also for boys to go to wakes and get pipes and tobacco, for every one gets a pipe, from a child of three to old men and women. Some of the boys at Jack’s wake, after getting their pipes and tobacco, ran off to the field to smoke, where their parents couldn’t see them. Seeing the black man coming, the boys dropped their pipes and ran back to the wake house, screaming to the people who were sitting outside that the devil was coming to carry the corpse with him. One of the men who stood near was sharper-sighted than others, and looking in the direction pointed out, said:
“Sure the devil is coming! And people thought that Jack was a fine, decent man, but now it turns out that he was different. I’ll not be waiting here!” He took himself off as fast as his legs could carry him, and others after him.
Soon the report went into the wake house, and the corpse heard that the devil was coming to take him, but for all that he hadn’t courage to stir. A man put his head out of the house, and, seeing the black man, screamed, “I declare to God that the devil is coming!” With that he ran off, and his wife hurried after him.
That moment everybody crowded so much to get out of the house that they fell one over another, screeching and screaming. The woman of the house ran away with the others. The dead man was left alone. He opened one eye right away, and seeing the last woman hurrying off he said:
“I declare to the Lord I’ll not stay here and wait for the devil to take me!” With that he sprang from the table, and wrapped the sheet round his body, and away with him then as fast as ever his legs could carry him.
His brother, the black man, saw him springing through the door, and, thinking it was Death that had lifted his brother and was running away with him to deprive the corpse of wake and Christian burial, he ran after him to save him. When the corpse screamed the black man screamed, and so they ran, and the people in terror fell into holes and ditches, trying to escape from Death and the devil.
The third sister was later than the other two in coming home from Fermoy. She knew her husband was a great sleeper, and she could do anything with him when he was drowsy. She looked into the house through a window that opened on hinges. She saw him sitting by the fire asleep; the children were sleeping near him. A pot of potatoes was standing by the fire. She knew that she could get in at the window if she took off some of her clothes. She did so and crawled in. The husband had long hair. She cut the hair off close to his head, threw it in the fire and burned it; then she went out through the window, and, taking a large stone, pounded on the door and roused her husband at last. He opened the door, began to scold her for being out so late, and blamed her greatly.
“Tis a shame for you,” said he. “The children are sleeping on the floor, and the potatoes boiled for the last five hours.”
“Bad luck to you, you fool!” said the woman. “Who are you to be ordering me? Isn’t it enough for my own husband to be doing that?”
“Are you out of your mind or drunk that you don’t know me?” said the man. “Sure, I am your husband.”
“Indeed you are not,” said she.
“And why not?”
“Because you are not; you don’t look like him. My husband has fine long, curly hair. Not so with you; you look like a shorn wether.”
He put his hands to his head, and, finding no hair on it, cried out, “I declare to the Lord that I am your husband, but I must have lost my hair while shearing the sheep this evening. I’m your husband.”
“Be off out of this!” screamed the woman. “When my husband comes he’ll not leave you long in the house, if you are here before him.”
In those days the people used bog pine for torches and lighting fires. The man, having a bundle of bog pine cut in pieces, took some fire and went towards the field, where he’d been shearing sheep. He went out to know could he find his hair and convince the wife. When he reached the right place he set fire to a couple of pine sticks, and they made a fine blaze. He went on his knees and was searching for the hair. He searched the four corners of the field, crawling hither and over, but if he did not a lock of hair could he find. He went next to the middle of the field, dropped on his knees, and began to crawl around to know could he find his hair. While doing this he heard a terrible noise of men, and they running towards him, puffing and panting. Who were they but the dead man and the devil? The dead man was losing his breath and was making for the first light before him. He was in such terror that he didn’t see how near he was to the light, and tumbled over the man who was searching for his hair.
“Oh, God help me!” cried the corpse. “I’m done for now!”
Hearing his brother’s voice, the black man, who was there, recognised him. The man looking for the hair rose up, and seeing his brothers, knew them; then each told the others everything, and they saw right away that the whole affair was planned by their wives.
The husbands went home well fooled, shame-faced, and angry. On the following day the women went to get the prize. When the whole story was told it was a great question who was to have the money. Lord Fermoy could not settle it himself, and called a council of the gentry to decide, but they could not decide who was the cleverest woman. What the council agreed on was this: To make up a purse of sixty pounds, and give twenty pounds and twenty years’ rent to each of the three, if they all solved the problem that would be put to them. If two solved it they would get thirty pounds apiece and thirty years’ rent; if only one, she would get the whole purse of sixty pounds and rent free for sixty years.
“This is the riddle,” said the council to the sisters: “There are four rooms in a row here; this is the first one. We will put a pile of apples in the fourth room; there will be a man of us in the third, second, and first room. You are to go to the fourth room, take as many apples as you like, and when you come to the third room you are to give the man in it half of what apples you’ll bring, and half an apple without cuffing it. When you come to the second room you are to do the same with what apples you will have left. In the first room you will do the same as in the third and second. Now we will go to put the apples in the fourth room, and we’ll give each of you one hour to work out the problem.”
“It’s the devil to give half an apple without cutting it,” said the elder sister.
When the men had gone the youngest sister said, “I can do it and I can get the sixty pounds, but as we are three sisters I’ll be liberal and divide with you. I’ll go first, and let each come an hour after the other. Each will take fifteen apples, and when she comes to the man in the third room she will ask him how much is one-half of fifteen; he will say seven and a half. She will give him eight apples then and say: “This is half of what I have and half an apple uncut for you.” With the seven apples she will go to the second room and ask the man there what is one-half of seven; he wilt say three and a half. She will give him four apples and say, “Here are three apples and a half and the half of an uncut apple for you.” With three apples left she will go to the man in the first room and ask what is the half of three. He will answer, “One and a half.” “Here are two apples for you,” she will say then; “one apple and a half and the half of an uncut apple.”
The eldest and second sister did as the youngest told them. Each received twenty pounds and twenty years’ rent.