Volume 2 Issue 53 | March 14, 2009 |


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Jack O'Lantern

THERE was once a tinker of Ballingarry, down in County Limerick in Ireland. As you are bound to know, all tinkers are as poor as field mice. So it was with Jack the tinker. Though, 'tis true, he was not as poor as he was humble, for he had a cottage to himself without a landlord, and small garden behind with a fine apple tree therein. For a good part of the year Jack travelled the country, leaving his wife to mind the cottage and the garden.

One day while on his travels, Jack encountered a wayfarer and hailed him politely.

The wayfarer took a liking to the happy tinker and said to him, 'I can grant you three wishes. Do the best you can with them, for such a chance will never come your way again.'

Jack set to thinking hard and said, 'Now that you mention it, for sure I've an old armchair back home. Every visitor I have sits down in that armchair and makes me stand. So I wish that whoever sits in that chair shall stick there till I give the word.'

'Granted,' said the stranger. 'Now let's hear your second wishes, and I'd have you know to ask for something useful this time.'

Jack fell to thinking once again, then said, 'I've a tree in my garden that bears fine apples. But all the scalliwags for miles around steal every apple off that tree. So I wish that whoever goes to steal an apple will stick to that tree until I give the word.'

'Granted,' said the stranger. 'Now, listen well, this is your last chance. Think of something really useful and say our piece.'

Jack thought and thought, then smiled and said, 'I know. My wife has a leather woolbag in which she keeps all her scraps of wool, and odds and ends besides. But little hooligans come to my house and tip all the wool upon the floor. I wish everything in that bag would stay there till I give the word.'

'Granted,' said the man. 'But, my dear fellow, you've done not a scrap of good by yourself.'

With that he went on his way shaking his head, while Jack the tinker turned for home as poor and carefree as before.

Some time after Jack's return, he slipped and fell and broke his leg, so he had to lie at home in bed the whole year through, unable to earn a living. His poor family were near starvation's door when a stranger chanced to pass by their cottage and entered unannounced.

'I observe,' the stranger said to Jack, 'that your family's in great need. You are all striving, that's clear enough. Now I'm willing to strike a bargain with you: come to me at the end of seven years and I'll see you live in comfort until then.'

'But who are you?' Jack enquird.

'Who am I?' echoed the stranger. I'll tell you straight enough---I'm the Devil!'

'What matter?' murmured Jack, looking at this starving children. I'll take your offer soon enough.' And Jack gave his word to be ready at the end of seven years.

The Devil went on his way, leaving Jack as prosperous as a tinker ever has been. Henceforth there was never any lack of food within the house. No more did Jack go tinkering from place to place, or even if he did, it was more for pleasure's sake. Nor did his wife need to go woolpicking for her neighbours; she stayed at home, and all went well for the tinker and his wife, to the amazement of all the folks from round about.

In no time at all, the Devil went clean out of Jack's busy mind. Seven years passed by in bliss and comfort, but when the last day of the last year came round, Jack had a visitor.

'Your seven years are up,' the Devil said. 'I've kept my side of the bargain, now you keep yours.'

'Sure enough,' said Jack. 'It's off I'll be with you in just a jiffy. Give me a moment to say farewell to my dear wife. In the meantime, just your sit here in my armchair and wait for me. I'll not be long.'

The Devil sat himself down in Jack's armchair and waited. Since Jack had known his wife for going on twenty years, it didn't take him long to say goodbye. So he was soon back before the Devil.

'Come on,' he said, 'let's be going.'
The Devil made to rise but, pull and jerk as he might, he could not budge from out the chair. He let out a string of curses that were heard across three townlands, and struggled fiecely. But it was no use. Seeing that he was stuck fast, he appealed to Jack.

'I'll grant you another seven years and twice as many riches if you will let me go.'
'That's fair enough,' said Jack. 'Up and be away with you--back to where you belong.'

The Devil was gone like a flash of lightning. Now Jack the tinker was doubly wealthy and his family lived in peace and comfort. But the seven years seemed to go twice as fast as before, for now Jack had twice as much to spend. Soon his time was up again and the Devil was at his door.

'I'll have none of your shenanigans this time, my lad,' said the Devil. 'Come on, let's go straightaway.'
Jack made ready quickly, but said, as he left the house, 'Let's make our way through my garden. Since I won't see it again, I'd like a last look at my apple tree.'

The Devil consented, and they walked together to the bottom of the garden and stood beneath the apple tree, now overloaded with juicy apples.

'The day is warm,' said Jack, 'Shall we not take some apples with us to eat on the way? You are taller than I am- be so good as to pick us a couple of big ones.'

'I will do that same,' the Devil said. And springing up he caught a large red apple, yet could not pull it off, nor let go of it. He stuck there swinging to and fro. He tugged and pulled, but it was no use.

Letting fly a curse that this time was heard from Galway down to Killarney, he shouted at Jack, 'I'll grant you another seven years and thrice the wealth you had at first. Just let me down from out this tree.'

Jack freed the Devil and off he raced without delay. Now Jack and his family lived in wealth and plenty for seven more years. But just as autumn follows summer, and bad luck good, so at last the time was up and the Devil stood once more before him.

'To be sure now I'll stand none of your hanky-panky. And when I get you down in hell I'll make you pay for what you've done to me,' he said to Jack.

Jack bid farewell to his wife, took down the leather woolbag from the wall and went off with the Devil.

They walked some way in silence, and then Jack said, 'Do you know I had some fun when I was still a lad. I used to jump in and out of this old woolbag. Mind you, I was quick and nimble then.'

'Any fool could do that,' said the Devil with a grin. 'Go on, I bet you couldn't do it,' retorted Jack. 'You're too big and clumsy.'

Jack held the woolbag open, and the Devil sprang right in. In an instant the bag was shut with the Devil firmly trapped inside. How that Devil howled and screamed! But Jack would not listen. He marched over the hills with his bag on one shoulder until he came to a cornfield. There he saw three strong men threshing grain with wooden flails.

'Hey, boyoes,' shouted Jack, 'I've a bag here that's stiff and heavy. Will you give it a thrashing for me, to limber it up like?'

The men gladly walloped the bag, but so heavy was it that it broke their flails.

'Be off with you and that bag of yours,' they cried 'The Devil himself must be in it.'

'Oh, maybe it's himself that's in it, right enough,' said Jack with a chuckle.

He walked on with the bag over his shoulder until he came to a water mill.

Going up to the miller, he said, I want to soften this bag a little. Will you let it go through your mill"'

The man agreed and Jack threw his bag into the mill. The miller was a mite surprised to hear a cracking and a smashing coming from the bag. He was even more astonished, and not a little cross, when his mill broke down.

'Get away with you,' he shouted. 'What's that you've got in your bag, the Devil begorrah?'

'Sure and maybe it's the truth you're telling,' said Jack, picking up his bag and walking off with it.

Presently, Jack came to a blacksmith's forge where six sturdy men were hammering at a piece of iron.

'Top of the morning to you, boys,' called Jack. 'What do you say to giving this old bag of mine a few hard whacks? It's that stiff and weighty!'

'Why now should we not?' said they.

The six men took their hammers and laid about the bag. With each blow it flew up in the air; this so enraged the men that they hammered even harder until they were tired and panting.

'Phew, the Devil himself must be in that bag,' they railed at Jack.

One strong smith then lost his temper, seized a red hot iron from the fire and thrust it through the bag, catching the Devil unawares, so that he could not sit down for a whole year afterwards!

The Devil howled and screamed, 'Let me out. Let me out. I'll leave you in peace for good and give you riches four times over. Just leave me be.'

At last Jack opened up the woolbag and let the Devil out. Away he shot as fast as his battered legs would carry him. Jack went back home and lived in plenty with his family for many a long year. But when he was very, very old, he felt just about ready to make his weary way to the other world. So off he went and stood before the gates of the good place. He knocked politely.

'Go away,' came a voice. 'Go back to the one you have worked for all your life. You can't come in here.'

So Jack the tinker went and knocked on the gates of the bad place.

'Who's there?' came a voice.
'Jack the tinker from Ballingarry,' Jack said.
'Don't let him in!' screamed a frightened voice. 'He beat me black and blue and scorched my seat so badly I couldn't sit down for a month of Sundays!'

They would not let him in the bad place so back Jack went to the other place. They would not let him into heaven, so Jack was condemned to travel the world, always in the dark, and carrying only a small lantern.

He was to have no rest, but wander over bogs, swamps, moors and lonely places, leading folk astray. So Jack the tinker roams still, forever travelling the road until the Day of Judgement.

Folk know him now as Jack O'Lantern.

The End
(Retold by James Riordan)

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