The story I’m going to tell you is not to be met every day. I heard little Tom Kennedy, the great schoolmaster of Rossard, say that he read it in the history of Ireland, and that it happened before the people were Christian. It is about a king who had his hair cut only once a year. He lived in some old city on the borders of Carlow and Kilkenny, and his name was a queer one: Lora Lonshach it was.
So, as I said, he got his hair cut only once a year, and afterward nothing more was ever heard of the barber who did it. This happened to about seven unlucky fellows, and then no barber would come close the castle for love or money. So the king proclaimed that all the barbers in the country were to draw lots, and if the one who got the short straw would dare to refuse, he would be put to death.
The short straw was drawn by a poor widow’s son named Thigueen. Fearing that she would never again see her son, the mother ran to the castle and beseeched the king to spare him the fate of the previous barbers.
“You’ll get your boy back safe and sound,” promised the king.
The next day the frightened barber reported for duty.
“My good fellow,” said the king, “you’ll be at liberty to go wherever you please after cutting my hair, but you must swear Dar lamh an Righ (by the king’s hand) that you’ll never tell anything that has ears and tongue what you see here today.”
The king sat down on his throne and took off his hood, revealing two brown horse’s ears, quite as long as those of an ass.
“Pick up your scissors and do your job!” he ordered.
The poor lad did as best he could, taking special care not to nick the king’s ears.
When the job was finished, the king paid him, saying, “Now, my lad, if I ever hear word of this, I’ll make you wish that you had never been born.”
The boy returned to his mother, only to fall into bed, deathly ill. She asked him what ailed him, but he gave no answer.
Two days later the doctor came.
“I have a secret,” said poor Thigueen. If I cannot tell it, I’ll die, and if I do tell it, I’ll not be allowed to live.”
When the doctor heard that the secret was not to be told to anyone with a tongue or ears, he said, “Go into the woods, make a split in the bark of one of the trees, tell your secret into the cut.”
The doctor was hardly out of the house when Thigueen got up and went into the woods, not stopping until he reached the middle, a place where two paths crossed one another. At this spot he found a healthy tree, cut a gash in its bark, and then whispered into it, “Da Chluais Chapail ar Labhradh Loingseach,” which means, “The two ears of a horse has Lora Lonshach.”
The poor fellow had hardly whispered these words when he felt as if a mountain had been lifted off his back.
Before a year passed, when again it would be time for the king’s haircut, a great harp-playing match was announced, a contest between Craftine, the king’s harper, and anyone who dared play against him. The other four kings of Ireland were invited, as well as all the lords and ladies who chose to travel so far. One week before the appointed day, Craftine found a crack in his harp, so he went into the forest to look for wood for a new one.
Where should bad luck send him but to the very tree that Thigueen had told his secret to! Craftine cut it down and fashioned it into the finest harp you have ever seen, and when he tried it, he himself was enchanted with its beautiful music.
The great day came at last, and the big hall in the palace was crammed. The king was on his high throne, with the four other kings before him. On either side were all the great lords and ladies, around the open place in the center where the harpers were sitting.
Craftine began. He first played so mournfully that all who heard him were grief-stricken. Then he played a merry jig, and because there was no room to dance, everyone shouted out for joy. Next came a war-like march, and everyone who had room drew his sword and waved it over his head, each one crying out the war-cry of his own chief or king. Finally he played a beautiful heavenly tune, and they all closed their eyes, hoping that the beautiful music would never come to an end.
When Craftine finally ceased playing, gold and silver were thrown in showers to him. Then the harpers of Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster tried their hands, and, sure enough, they played very well, but not nearly as well as Craftine.
When they were finished, the king said to Craftine, “Give us one more tune to finish decently, and put all that we invited in good humor for their dinner.”
“I am afraid of my harp,” answered Craftine. “It wasn’t my fingers that struck out the music, but the music that stirred my fingers. There is magic in that harp, and I fear it will play us some trick.”
“Trick be hanged!” said the king. “Play away!”
The harper had to obey his king, and he took up his harp, but he had hardly touched the strings, when a loud voice came from them, shouting, “Da Chluais Chapail ar Labhradh Loingseach!”
The startled king put his hands to his head, not knowing what he was doing, and in his fumbling he loosened the bands of his hood, revealing the two long hairy ears. What a roar came from the crowd! King Lora was not able to stand it, and in a trance he fell down from his throne. In a few minutes he had the hall to himself, except for his harper and some of his old servants.
They say that when he came to himself, he was very sorry for all the poor barbers that he had put out of the way, and that he pensioned their wives and mothers. From then on Thigueen was no more concerned about giving the king a haircut than he would have been about giving one to you or to me.