The Witch Hare
by A Student
About the commencement of the last century there lived in the
vicinity of the once famous village of Aghavoe a wealthy farmer, named
Bryan Costigan. This man kept an extensive dairy and a great many milch
cows and every year made considerable sums by the sale of milk and
butter. The luxuriance of the pasture lands in this neighborhood has
always been proverbial; and, consequently, Bryan's cows were the finest
and most productive in the country, and his milk and butter the richest
and sweetest, and brought the highest price at every market at which he
ordered these articles for sale.
Things continued to go on thus prosperously with Bryan Costigan,
when, one season all at once, he found his cattle declining in
appearance, and his dairy almost entirely profitless. Bryan, at first,
attributed this change to the weather, or some such cause, but soon
found or fancied reasons to assign it to a far different source. The
cows, without any visible disorder, daily declined, and were scarcely
able to crawl about on their pasture; many of them, instead of milk,
gave nothing but blood; and the scanty quantity of milk which some of
them continued to supply was so bitter that even the pigs would not
drink it; while the butter which it produced was of such a bad quality,
and stunk so horribly, that the very dogs would not eat it. Bryan
applied for remedies to all the quacks and “fairy-women” in the
country—but in vain. Many of the imposters declared that the
mysterious malady in his cattle went beyond their skill; while
others, although they found no difficulty in tracing it to superhuman
agency, declared that they had no control in the matter, as the charm
under the influence of which his property was made away with, was too
powerful to be dissolved by anything less than the special
interposition of Divine Providence. The poor farmer became almost
distracted; he saw ruin staring him in the face; yet what was he to do?
Sell his cattle and purchase others! No; that was out of the question,
as they looked so miserable and emaciated that no one would even take
them as a present, while it was also impossible to sell to a butcher,
as the flesh of one which he killed for his own family was as black as
a coal, and stunk like any putrid carrion.
The unfortunate man was thus completely bewildered. He knew not what
to do; he became moody and stupid; his sleep forsook him by night, and
all day he wandered about the fields, among his “fairy-stricken” cattle
like a maniac.
Affairs continued in this plight, when one very sultry evening in the
latter days of July, Bryan Costigan's wife was sitting at her own door,
spinning at her wheel, in a very gloomy and agitated state of mind.
Happening to look down the narrow green lane which led from the high
road to her cabin, she espied a little old woman barefoot, and
enveloped in an old scarlet cloak, approaching slowly, with the aid of
a crutch which she carried in one hand, and a cane or walking-stick in
the other. The farmer's wife felt glad at seeing the odd-looking
stranger; she smiled, and yet she knew not why, as she neared the
house. A vague and indefinable feeling of pleasure crowded on her
imagination; and, as the old woman gained the threshold, she bade her
“welcome” with a warmth which plainly told that her lips gave utterance
but to the genuine feelings of her heart.
“God bless this good house and all belonging to it,” said the
stranger as she entered.
“God save you kindly, and you are welcome, whoever you are,” replied
“Hem, I thought so,” said the old woman with a significant grin. “I
thought so, or I wouldn't trouble you.”
The farmer's wife ran, and placed a chair near the fire for the
stranger, but she refused, and sat on the ground near where Mrs.
Costigan had been spinning. Mrs. Costigan had now time to survey the
old hag's person minutely. She appeared of great age; her countenance
was extremely ugly and repulsive; her skin was rough and deeply
embrowned as if from long exposure to the effects of some tropical
climate; her forehead was low, narrow, and indented with a thousand
wrinkles; her long gray hair fell in matted elf-locks from beneath a
white linen skull cap; her eyes were bleared, bloodsotten, and
obliquely set in their sockets, and her voice was croaking, tremulous,
and, at times, partially inarticulate. As she squatted on the floor,
she looked round the house with an inquisitive gaze; she peered
pryingly from corner to corner, with an earnestness of look, as if she
had the faculty, like the Argonaut of old, to see through the very
depths of the earth, while Mrs. C. kept watching her motions with
mingled feelings of curiosity, awe, and pleasure.
“Mrs.,” said the old woman, at length breaking silence, “I am dry
with the heat of the day; can you give me a drink?”
“Alas!” replied the farmer's wife, “I have no drink to offer you
except water, else you would have no occasion to ask me for it.”
“Are you not the owner of the cattle I see yonder?” said the old hag,
with a tone of voice and manner of gesticulation which plainly
indicated her foreknowledge of the fact.
Mrs. Costigan replied in the affirmative, and briefly related to her
every circumstance connected with the affair, while the old woman still
remained silent, but shook her gray head repeatedly and still continued
gazing round the house with an air of importance and self- sufficiency.
When Mrs. C. had ended, the old hag remained a while as if in a deep
reverie; at length she said:
“Have you any of the milk in the house?”
“I have,” replied the other.
“Show me some of it.”
She filled a jug from a vessel and handed it to the old sybil, who
smelled it, then tasted it, and spat out what she had taken on the
“Where is your husband?” she asked.
“Out in the fields,” was the reply.
“I must see him.”
A messenger was despatched for Bryan, who shortly after made his
appearance. “Neighbor,” said the stranger, “your wife informs me that
your cattle are going against you this season.”
“She informs you right,” said Bryan. “And why have you not sought a
“A cure!” re-echoed the man; “why, woman, I have sought cures until I
was heartbroken, and all in vain; they get worse every day.”
“What will you give me if I cure them for you?”
“Anything in our power,” replied Bryan and his wife, both speaking
joyfully, and with a breath.
“All I will ask from you is a silver sixpence, and that you will do
everything which I will bid you,” said she.
The farmer and his wife seemed astonished at the moderation of her
demand. They offered her a large sum of money.
“No,” said she, “I don't want your money; I am no cheat, and I would
not even take sixpence, but that I can do nothing till I handle some of
The sixpence was immediately given her, and the most implicit
obedience promised to her injunctions by both Bryan and his wife, who
already began to regard the old beldame as their tutelary angel.
The hag pulled off a black silk ribbon or filet which encircled her
head inside her cap, and gave it to Bryan, saying:
“Go, now, and the first cow you touch with this ribbon, turn her into
the yard, but be sure you don't touch the second, nor speak a word
until you return; be also careful not to let the ribbon touch the
ground, for, if you do, all is over.
Bryan took the talismanic ribbon and soon returned, driving a red cow
before him. The old hag went out, and, approaching the cow, commenced
pulling hairs out of her tail, at the same time singing some verse in
the Irish language, in a low, wild, and unconnected strain. The cow
appeared restive and uneasy, but the old witch still continued her
mysterious chant until she had the ninth hair extracted. She then
ordered the cow to be drove back to her pasture, and again entered the
“Go, now,” said she to the woman, “and bring me some milk from every
cow in your possession.”
She went, and soon returned with a large pail filled with a
frightful-looking mixture of milk, blood, and corrupt matter. The old
woman got it into the churn, and made preparations for churning.
“Now,” she said, “you both must churn, make fast the door and
windows, and let there be no light but from the fire; do not open your
lips until I desire you, and by observing my direction, I make no doubt
but, ere the sun goes down, we will find out the infernal villain who
is robbing you.”
Bryan secured the doors and windows, and commenced churning. The old
sorceress sat down by a blazing fire which had been specially lighted
for the occasion, and commenced singing the same wild song which she
had sung at the pulling of the cow hairs, and after a little time she
cast one of the nine hairs into the fire, still singing her mysterious
strain, and watching, with intense interest, the witching process.
A loud cry, as if from a female in distress, was now heard
approaching the house; the old witch discontinued her incantations, and
listened attentively. The crying voice approached the door.
“Open the door quickly,” shouted the charmer.
Bryan unbarred the door, and all three rushed out the yard, when they
heard the same cry down the boreheen, but could see nothing.
“It is all over,” shouted the old witch; “something has gone amiss,
and our charm for the present is ineffectual.”
They now turned back quite crestfallen, when, as they were entering
the door, the sybil cast her eyes downward, and perceiving a piece of
horseshoe nailed on the threshold, she vociferated:
“Here I have it; no wonder our charm was abortive. The person that
was crying abroad is the villain who has your cattle bewitched; I
brought her to the house, but she was not able to come to the door on
account of that horseshoe. Remove it instantly, and we will try our
Bryan removed the horseshoe from the doorway, and by the hag's
directions placed it on the floor under the churn, having previously
reddened it in the fire.
They again resumed their manual operations. Bryan and his wife began
to churn, and the witch again to sing her strange verses, and casting
her cow hairs into the fire until she had them all nearly exhausted.
Her countenance now began to exhibit evident traces of vexation and
disappointment. She got quite pale, her teeth gnashed, her hand
trembled, and as she cast the ninth and last hair into the fire, her
person exhibited more the appearance of a female demon than of a human
Once more the cry was heard, and an aged red-haired woman was seen
approaching the house quickly.
“Ho, ho!” roared the sorceress, “I knew it would be so; my charm has
succeeded; my expectations are realized, and here she comes, the
villain who has destroyed you.”
“What are we to do now?” asked Bryan.
“Say nothing to her,” said the hag; “give her whatever she demands,
and leave the rest to me. The woman advanced screeching vehemently, and
Bryan went out to meet her. She was a neighbor, and she said that one
of her best cows was drowning in a pool of water—that there was no one
at home but herself, and she implored Bryan to go rescue the cow from
Bryan accompanied her without hesitation; and having rescued the cow
from her perilous situation, was back again in a quarter of an hour.
It was now sunset, and Mrs. Costigan set about preparing supper.
During supper they reverted to the singular transactions of the day.
The old witch uttered many a fiendish laugh at the success of her
incantations, and inquired who was the woman whom they had so curiously
Bryan satisfied her in every particular. She was the wife of a
neighboring fanner; her name was Rachel Higgins; and she had been long
suspected to be on familiar terms with the spirit of darkness. She had
five or six cows; but it was observed by her sapient neighbors that she
sold more butter every year than other farmers' wives who had twenty.
Bryan had, from the commencement of the decline in his cattle,
suspected her for being the aggressor, but as he had no proof, he held
“Well,” said the old beldame, with a grim smile, “it is not enough
that we have merely discovered the robber; all is in vain if we do not
take steps to punish her for the past, as well as to prevent her
inroads for the future.”
“And how will that be done?” said Bryan.
“I will tell you; as soon as the hour of twelve o'clock arrives
tonight, do you go to the pasture, and take a couple of swift-running
dogs with you; conceal yourself in some place convenient to the cattle;
watch them carefully; and if you see anything, whether man or beast,
approach the cows, set on the dogs, and if possible make them draw the
blood of the intruder; then all will be accomplished. If nothing
approaches before sunrise, you may return, and we will try something
Convenient there lived the cowherd of a neighboring squire. He was a
hardy, courageous young man, and always kept a pair of very ferocious
bulldogs. To him Bryan applied for assistance, and he cheerfully agreed
to accompany him, and, moreover, proposed to fetch a couple of his
master's best grayhounds, as his own dogs, although extremely fierce
and bloodthirsty, could not be relied on for swiftness. He promised
Bryan to be with him before twelve o'clock, and they parted.
Bryan did not seek sleep that night; he sat up anxiously awaiting the
midnight hour. It arrived at last, and his friend, the herdsman, true
to his promise, came at the time appointed. After some further
admonitions from the Collough, they departed. Having arrived at
the field, they consulted
as to the best position they could choose for concealment. At last
they pitched on a small brake of fern, situated at the extremity of the
field, adjacent to the boundary ditch, which was thickly studded with
large, old white-thorn bushes. Here they crouched themselves, and made
the dogs, four in number, lie down beside them, eagerly expecting the
appearance of their as yet unknown and mysterious visitor.
Here Bryan and his comrade continued a considerable time in nervous
anxiety, still nothing approached, and it became manifest that morning
was at hand; they were beginning to grow impatient, and were talking of
returning home, when on a sudden they heard a rushing sound behind
them, as if proceeding from something endeavoring to force a passage
through the thick hedge in their rear. They looked in that direction,
and judge of their astonishment, when they perceived a large hare in
the act of springing from the ditch, and leaping on the ground quite
near them. They were now convinced that this was the object which they
had so impatiently expected, and they were resolved to watch her
After arriving to the ground, she remained motionless for a few
moments, looking around her sharply. She then began to skip and jump in
a playful manner, now advancing at a smart pace toward the cows and
again retreating precipitately, but still drawing nearer and nearer at
each sally. At length she advanced up to the next cow, and sucked her
for a moment; then on to the next, and so respectively to every cow on
the field—the cows all the time lowing loudly, and appearing extremely
frightened and agitated. Bryan, from the moment the hare commenced
sucking the first, was with difficulty restrained from attacking her;
but his more sagacious companion suggested to him that it was better to
wait until she would have done, as she would then be much heavier, and
more unable to effect her escape than at present. And so the issue
proved; for being now done sucking them all, her belly appeared
enormously distended, and she made her exit slowly and apparently with
difficulty. She advanced toward the hedge where she had entered, and as
she arrived just at the clump of ferns where her foes were couched,
they started up with a fierce yell, and hallooed the dogs upon her
The hare started off at a brisk pace, squirting up the milk she had
sucked from her mouth and nostrils, and the dogs making after her
rapidly. Rachel Higgins's cabin appeared, through the gray of the
morning twilight, at a little distance; and it was evident that puss
seemed bent on gaining it, although she made a considerable circuit
through the fields in the rear. Bryan and his comrade, however, had
their thoughts, and made toward the cabin by the shortest route, and
had just arrived as the hare came up panting and almost exhausted, and
the dogs at her very scut. She ran round the house, evidently confused
and disappointed at the presence of the men, but at length made for the
door. In the bottom of the door was a small, semi-circular aperture,
resembling those cut in fowl-house doors for the ingress and egress of
poultry. To gain this hole, puss now made a last and desperate effort,
and had succeeded in forcing her head and shoulders through it, when
the foremost of the dogs made a spring and seized her violently by the
haunch. She uttered a loud and piercing scream, and struggled
desperately to free herself from his grip, and at last succeded, but
not until she left a piece of her rump in his teeth. The men now burst
open the door; a bright turf fire blazed on the hearth, and the whole
floor was streaming with blood. No hare, however, could be found, and
the men were more than ever convinced that it was old Rachel, who had,
by the assistance of some demon, assumed the form of the hare, and they
now determined to have her if she were over the earth. They entered the
bedroom, and heard some smothered groaning, as if proceeding from
someone in extreme agony. They went to the corner of the room from
whence the moans proceeded, and there, beneath a bundle of freshly-cut
rushes, found the form of Rachel Higgins, writhing in the most
excruciating agony, and almost smothered in a pool of blood. The men
were astounded; they addressed the wretched old woman, but she either
could not, or would not, answer them. Her wound still bled copiously;
her tortures appeared to increase, and it was evident that she was
dying. The aroused family thronged around her with cries and
lamentations; she did not seem to heed them, she got worse and worse,
and her piercing yells fell awfully on the ears of the bystanders. At
length she expired, and her corpse exhibited a most appalling
spectacle, even before the spirit had well departed.
Bryan and his friend returned home. The old hag had been previously
aware of the fate of Rachel Higgins, but it was not known by what means
she acquired her supernatural knowledge. She was delighted at the issue
of her mysterious operations. Bryan pressed her much to accept of some
remuneration for her services, but she utterly rejected such proposals.
She remained a few days at his house, and at length took her leave and
departed, no one knew whither.
Old Rachel's remains were interred that night in the neighboring
churchyard. Her fate soon became generally known, and her family,
ashamed to remain in their native village, disposed of their property,
and quitted the country forever. The story, however, is still fresh in
the memory of the surrounding villagers; and often, it is said, amid
the gray haze of a summer twilight, may the ghost of Rachel Higgins, in
the form of a hare, be seen scudding over her favorite and well-remembered haunts.