The Irish Cinderella 

Buachaill Bo Beag

Oh he was an odd one, Buachaill Bo Beag. He was shorter than all the other boys, and not a bit of handsome.  His red hair stood up around his head like a wild forest fire and he had a lopsided smile and huge ungainly feet, like a clumsy puppy. 

Some said he was a boy that only a mother could love, for it was surely true that his mother loved him beyond the beyond.

But he was smart and funny, with a quick wit that made everyone in the tribe laugh.  Never mind that he was the son of the King and Queen of the tuath; he put on no airs a t’all and all the tribe loved him for that as well.

His best friend was a magical bull that had once belonged to his mother the Queen.  Bo Beag called the great beast Corcaigh and the two were inseparable, wandering the fields of Ireland, the boy telling stories and singing songs, the bull watching him like a great horned grandfather.

Oh it made everyone happy to see them together.

And then, as will happen in life, sorrow came calling. The mother of Bo Beag grew very ill, and she knew that she was not long for this world. She called her husband to her.

“Hear me now, King of Corc,” she whispered.  “You must never part Corcaigh and  Buacaill Bo Beag, for each protects the other.  When I am gone, my boy will need his bull to hold his happiness.”

And he King promised solemnly, with tears in his eyes.

But not long after the Queen had died, the King grew lonely for a new companion.  And so he married a fancy woman with fancy airs and two fancy daughters with very persnickety ways of their own. 

Everyone agreed that they were three awful women altogether.

And everyone agreed that it was awful indeed the way they treated the Buachaill Bo Beag.

The sisters called him Bo-Bo the Big Foot and the stepmother put him out into the fields like a common cowherd and him the son of the King of Ireland.  The only one who did not mind was Bo Beag himself.  He liked the windy hills and the fresh air and the constant company of Corcaigh the Bull.  In fact, he was so cheerful and so beloved of the people of his tribe, that he managed to irritate the new Queen even more than before, until at last she decided that both he and his bull had to go.

So she visited the Dark Woman, the Bain Dubh, who lived under the trees in the deep part of the forest.

“What will you give me,” the Bain Dubh whispered, “if I rid you of this troublesome boy and his bull?”

They whispered together of the price the new Queen was willing to pay.  “I need two girls to train up in the dark ways,” said the Bain Dubh and when the new queen had agreed to that awful price, the Bain Dubh gave the Stepmother a potion and told her to drink it.

“It will make you pale and tired,” she whispered in her low, throaty voice,  “and when you have taken to your bed, tell the King your husband  that the only thing that will make you well again is to drink the blood of the Bo Beag’s Bull.

So the Queen took to her bed and called her husband to her and said that the only thing that would make her well was to kill the bull. 

“No!”  cried the King.   “I cannot!  For I promised the mother of the boy that I would keep them together forever.”

But the stepmother grew more pale and more tired and when she called him to her again, the King was frightened by her pallor.

“Well,” he said at last, “it is just a bull, and you are my wife.”

Outside the door of the chamber, those who were listening told the Buachaill Bo Beag, who told the bull Corcaigh that the King had decided to kill him.

“No fear,” said the Great Bull to Bo Beag.  “But on the day of sacrifice, do all that I say.”

The day came and the Buachaill Bo Beag led Corcaigh the bull into the center of the rath with tears in his eyes.

But just before the warriors were sent forward with their knives, the bull called to Buachaill Bo Beag, “Jump on my back and hold fast to my horns.”

Bo Beag did exactly that and the great beast leaped into the air,  striking the wan Queen with his hooves before he cleared the stone wall of the rath, and coming to rest in the fields far below, with Bo Beag clinging to his horns. Behind them, the crowd roared at death of the stepmother, though whether the roar was one of joy or sorrow was never clear a t’all.

And Bo Beag and Corcaigh thundered away across Eire, out to the sea cliffs and over the high hills until at last they found an empty green field where they came to a stop, hungry and tired.

“We need a feast,” said Corcaigh. 

“There’s plenty of grass for you old friend,” said Bo Beag, “though I think that I will be hungry a while longer.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Corcaigh, “for I have magic in my left ear.”

And sure enough, when Bo Beag reached into the great bull’s ear, he withdrew a fine linen tablecloth.  No sooner had he spread it on the ground than it was covered with fine ham and boiled potatoes, buttery biscuits and sweet honey cakes and Bo Beag ate until he could hold no more.  Then he shook it out again and it provided a blanket and a pillow for the Bo Beag to sleep.

By now it was nearly dusk, and they were a full and sleepy pair indeed, but just when Bo Beag had curled into Corcaigh’s side and was drifting into dreams, they heard a deep bellow from the forest at the edge of the field.

The Buachaill Bo Beag sat up, wide awake.

“Now what do you suppose that is?” he asked Corcaigh.

Corcaigh gave him a strange answer.  “You know that I am magic,” he said.

“Of course I know,” said the Buachaill Bo Beag.  “What other bull could speak and fly and pull great feasts from his own left ear?”

“That one can,” said Corcaigh.

“That bellowing one?”

“Just that one.  This is his magical field and I am on it.”

“What will we do?” asked Bo Beag, but Corcaigh had already stood and lowered his head.

“I will fight him of course,” said Corcaigh. “No fear now, lad.”

And then the great bull charged from the forest, its bellow louder than anything Bo Beag had ever heard because he had three heads.  Still, he was no match for the magic Corcaigh, who defeated him soundly and slept more soundly still.

In the morning, they were awakened by a bellowing more terrible than before.

“I was afraid of this,” said Corcaigh.  “This will be the father of the one I defeated.”

And sure enough it was, a bull with six great heads and a bellow that could be heard out to sea.

But Corcaigh defeated him handily, then bid Bo Beag to draw out the linen cloth and the two of them had a feast for a king and a good long nap in the spring sunshine.

Near dusk, there was a bellowing so fierce that the ground beneath them shook.

“Alas,” said Corcaigh, “this is the grandfather come for me,”

“Well,” said Bo Beag, “no fear.  You’ll defeat this one as well.”

“No fear at all,” said Corcaigh, “but I have gifts to give you. The napkin, of course, is yours, for I would never want you to be hungry or cold.  Now reach into my right ear.”

Bo Beag did as he was told and there withdrew a long stick, covered with twined carvings of birds and fish and leaping deer.

“Swing it around your head three times,” Corcaigh commanded.

Bo Beag did this.  The great stick whistled around his head and then began to whine and then to sing.  When Bo Beag looked up, in his hand was a great silver sword, shimmering with light, covered with  carvings of birds and fish and leaping deer, and on its hilt, the figure of a great, horned bull.

“And now the last,” said Corcaigh.   “For when I am gone, you will take my tail and wear it as your belt and it will protect you always.”

“That will be when I’m old and gray,” said Bo.

“Not so,” said Corcaigh, “for this one will defeat me.  But my gifts are always with you.  And the love of my great heart.”

And before Bo  Beag could protest, a great magical bull with twelve heads came charging from the forest and locked horns with Corcaigh.  The battle raged for three days and three nights, but when it was ended, Corcaigh lay dead on the field. The twelve-headed bull turned its baleful eyes toward Bo Beag, but he swung his walking stick three times around his head, and killed the bull with a single swipe of the silver sword. Then the Buachaill Bo Beag leaned against the still form of Corcaigh and cried for three days and three nights until he was empty of tears.

Then he did as Corcaigh had told him to do, tied the tail around his waist and wandered down the hill to the hut of the boaire, the cattle man. and knocked on his door.

The boaire took one look at the short boy in the big boots, with the queer walking stick, the cowtail belt and the cloak that looked like a tablecloth and hired him on the  spot to herd his cows.

And so in secret and in sorrow, the lonely son of the King of Corc became a cowherd.

Three years passed without incident, but then one day when Bo Beag was in the field with his cattle, he heard a thundering voice,  “Are you the one who slew my bull?” it cried. “For I see you wear the tail.”

“No, that bull was my brother,” Bo Beag answered and even as he said so, a three-headed giant launched himself from the forest toward the little cattle boy.  But Bo swung the stick with its strange markings three times around his head.  Before he had even stopped spinning, the sword whistled off the head of that giant.

And so it went for three days in a row as the three-headed giant was followed by the six-headed companion and then the twelve.

And when those days were finished, the Buachaill Bo Beag had become a warrior and was ready to venture into the wide green world.

That very day, the boaire returned from the market with a strange story indeed. 

“Hear this,” he said to the Bo Beag, who had become like a son to him. “A giant sea-dragon has been burning down the palace of the King every year and the people have decided to use their young princess as bait to catch the dragon.  They say she’s not much to look at, a little plain, with curly hair that frizzes in the rain.  And stubborn as a bull.  But still.  To tie her up as dragon meat?  They say that champions from far and wide competed for the chance to defend her.  I, for one, plan to go back to the rath to see the spectacle.”

“Not I,” said the Buachaill Bo Beag. “For I have cattle to mind.”

But all night long he couldn’t stop thinking about the frizzy-haired girl who was stubborn as a bull.  He decided that he didn’t think much of a tuath who would offer their dear one to a dragon.  So when the boaire left for the rath of the King, Bo Beag followed him.

From the cliff above the sea, he watched as they fastened the waist of the princess to a great rock.  He was unimpressed with her first champion, a golden-haired handsome young man who wandered back and forth along the beach swinging his sword in the air and smoothing his braided hair.  He was even less impressed when the mincing prince ran away as soon as the great green dragon began to lift its head from the sea.

“Don’t leave me!” cried the Princess.  “You skinny bag of bones!  At least throw me your sword so that I stand a fighting chance!”

But the champion had vanished and the great green dragon lowered its long scaly head toward the helpless girl.

Just then, from the headland above the shore, came the whipping sound of a bull-belt lasso.  Riding it down to the dragon’s back was a wild red-headed boy with huge, booted feet and a cloak that looked like a tablecloth. He swung onto the back of the dragon and when the great beast tried to dislodge him, he laughed aloud with delight.

“I’ve ridden Corcaigh, the Great Bull of Corc!  Do ye think ye’re any match for me?”

Then he swung his strange stick over his head three times and plunged  a silver sword into the eye of the dragon.

With a howl, the dragon swooped down toward the Princess, but the Buachaill Bo Beag simply used the ride to cut her loose.

“Hello there darlin girl,” he said as he swooped by.  “Fancy meeting you here.”  

The Princess laughed aloud.

The dragon reared up into the air, spewing fire and howling in pain.  In a swift arc, it plunged toward the sea, throwing the Buachaill Bo Beag high into the air. He held tight to his sword and his bull tail lasso, but as Bo Beag approached the high cliffs one of his boots flew off and landed in the sand below. 

The Princess rushed to scoop it up.

At the top of the cliff, the Buachaill Bo Beag tied his bull belt around his waist, shook his sword back into stick form, and on one booted foot, limped back to his cattle fields.

But the Princess knew that she had met her match.  Funny and fearless, stubborn and quirky, she had fallen in love with the big footed boy who owned the boot.  When her father and all the tuath protested that no one knew him, or that he was not a handsome boy at all, she answered simply, “He saved my life and made me laugh all at the same time.  I will marry no one but the man whose foot will fit this boot.”

She announced throughout the land that she would hold a great feis with feasting and racing and dancing and that she would try the boot on the foot of every man in the kingdom.

Now the Buachaill Bo Beag had not been able to stop thinking about the princess who had laughed aloud while she was tied to a rock and face to face with a fire-breathing dragon.

So off he went to the feis, barefoot and dressed in his cattle clothes, his bull-tail belt tied around his waist, in his cloak that looked like a tablecloth, leaning on his odd stick with it twined carvings.

At the great rath of the King, he stood in line with all the princes in their fancy cloaks and tunics and said nothing at all when they hooted that no princess “would ever marry a barefooted cattle boy in a tablecloth.”

When he came to the head of the line, he put out his great foot, the one and only foot that fit the boot.

On the dais high above him, the princess laughed aloud.  “Hello darlin’ boy,” she called.  “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Fancy indeed,” said the Buachaill Bo Beag, and the two of them laughed at their own joke.

“You cannot marry a cattle boy,” the King protested.

“Cattle boy or King, I can and will,” said the Princess.  “For he saved my life and made me laugh aloud.”

“He is the ugliest boy I have ever seen,” said the King.  “Why would you ever marry such a one?”

At this, the Princess’ eyes grew wide.

“Ugly?” she said.  “Look again father.  For surely, here is the handsomest warrior in all of Ireland.”

At her words, the Buachaill Bo Beag shook out his tablecloth cloak.  Not only did it spread a feast between them, but it dressed him in the seven colors of a King.  He swung his great stick in the air and when his carved silver sword was in his hand, he called aloud,

“I am the son of the King of Corc and the brother of Corcaigh the magical bull.”

“No matter,” said the Princess.  “King or Cattle Boy, you are mine.”

And so they were married and they took care of each other and made each other laugh for all the years of their long and happy life together.