Throughout Europe and probably the world, every country has its own version of the Púca (also known as Pooka, Phouka and Phuca). In Ireland it is of the faery realm, a creature that changes appearance and a most feared and esteemed part of Celtic folklore. Púca translates as ghost or spirit, a good description of an evasive yet terrifying dark being who materialises at night throughout the country.
Mostly this shape-shifter will appear in rural areas, particularly on mountains and hills. Seen as many things including a rabbit, in County Down it is seen as a hideous goblin, demanding a share of the harvest. In County Laois it is seen as giant hairy bogeyman and in Waterford and Wexford it is seen as an enormous eagle. In Roscommon people see the Púca as a black goat with large horns, but most will say it is a Black Stallion with a wild flowing mane and yellow eyes that burn like sulphur.
The Púca is synonymous with the Gaelic festival of Samhain, to mark the bringing in of the harvest and the start of winter. In fact November 1st, the traditional start of this festival is also known as ‘Púca Day’. It is said that fruit must not be eaten after this day as it has been spat on by the Púca, thus bewitching it and making it inedible. After harvesting anything left in the field is considered to be ‘puka’ or faery-blasted, meaning it is spoiled and must not be touched. This is left and known as Púca’s Share.
The 1st of November is believed to be the one day the Púca is supposed to be civil. Indeed it was thought if you treated it with reverence you could find it in good humour, giving you warnings or prophecies or even saving you from the malevolent fairies who roam abroad at this time of year. Oscar Wilde’s own mother Jane, a poet in her own right and a prolific collector of Irish Fairy Tales believed them to come to the aid of farmers in need. Ask anyone who has encountered the Púca however, and they will have a very different story.
The Púca in its guise as a Dark Horse will roam the landscape, ochre eyes blazing, tearing down fences and destroying farms. It tramples crops and makes cattle stampede. Its stare will cause cows to stop producing milk and hens to stop laying eggs. The Púca has the ability to converse with humans and before its nightly run will call to a house for company. If that company is refused then the property will be razed to the ground.
Lonely travellers walking country roads have been swept up and thrown onto the back of the wild stallion and taken on a nightlong terrifying ride through the countryside, to be shaken off in the grey light of morning, traumatised, no memory of the ride yet changed forever.
One man, weary of having been taken twice was believed to have tricked the Púca on the third time by wearing silver spurs and causing it much pain. In return for his dismount the Púca agreed to leave him alone.
Only one has succeeded in catching and taming the Púca, the High King Brian Boru. He brought the creature to bear by making a bridle using three strands of its mane. In return for its freedom the Púca was made to promise not to harm an Irishman again, unless he was intoxicated or partaking in evil deeds. After some years the notoriously untrustworthy and untruthful tormentor reverted to old tricks, forgetting the promise it had made.
The story of the Púca remains very much alive in modern times, being referenced in the poems of W.B Yeats and more recently in the films Harvey and Donnie Darko. Until a short time ago, in South Fermanagh locals would gather in high places to await a speaking horse on Bilberry Sunday. If you were to go looking for one now, you should start in Wicklow, in Poulaphuca, which translates as ‘The Púca’s Hole’.
So if you were drunk last night and have woken up the worse for wear, mysterious injuries and no memory of events, you might well have been under the spell of the Púca – you may have been taken on the ride of your life.