John McCullagh April 22, 2004
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I’ve told you about Geordie-Look-Up and about Jonny-Go-Slap.  One of these days I’ll tell you about Johnny-The-Go.  But today’s story is about Willie The Wisp.

Now these new-fangled scientists would tell you of a marsh phenomenon known as Will O’ The Wisp where decaying matter gives off methane gas that occasionally catches fire to emit an eerie light.  Never listen!  It happened this way. 


Willy was a blacksmith renowned for his skill.  From miles around every farmer took their trade to him.  He was a kind-hearted, hard-working man then.  The increasing trade however made him conceited and independent, and Willy often left his forge full of men and horses while he went to drink in shebeens and pubs.  The craving for drink increased, and as it did, his customers naturally decreased for Willy’s work was showing signs of carelessness and neglect.

Willy went on drinking until all his savings were gone.  The publicans then refused to serve him.  In furious despair and crazed by his lust for drink Willy sold himself to the Devil.  An old woman who was versed in the ‘Black Art’ told him what to do.  He was to go on Hallow Eve to a four-pointed cross-roads where ferns grew.  On this night the fern blossoms, then seeds and falls, they say.  He was to take nine paces from the ferns, making a circle at each pace and placing a lead ball or plate in each.  He was to say that ‘he adored Satan’.  At ten minutes to twelve he was to take a pace each minute, lifting the leaden article at each step.  The last would be the hardest.  Here he would find the fern seeds – while the Devil appeared to watch.  He was to keep these seeds always with him.

Willy screwed up enough courage to perform the evil rite.  But he was told that in seven years the Devil would return to claim him, body and soul.  However Willy amazed his friends by his sudden wealth and began to drink more wildly than ever.  But the seven years went by and one snowy day about a week before the period was to expire, Willy was brooding sadly over his fate while sitting in his empty, cold forge.  Suddenly an old man tottered in out of the storm and collapsed on the floor.

Willy’s heart was still too good to allow the old man to die like that.  He lit up the fire, tended and nursed the old man and gave him a meal.  Finally the old man was strong enough to realize where he was.  The kindness of Willy moved him.

‘You are kind-hearted,’ he whispered in an ancient voice, ‘and for your kindness I will grant you three wishes.  I have the power’.

More to please and to humour the old man Willy agreed to name his three wishes.  ‘I wish that whoever I ask to sit in my armchair must stay there till I bid him to rise’.  ‘Granted.  Your next one?’  ‘I wish that whoever takes up this sledgehammer at my request must strike the anvil till I bid them to let go’.  ‘Granted.  And last?’  ‘I wish that whatever money I put in my check purse must stay there, no matter what happens, till I take it out’. 

‘Your three wishes are granted,’ said the old man, and from the door as he prepared to leave he added, ‘And in all your three wishes, you did not wish for Heaven.’  Next moment he was gone. 

Willy forgot the old man.  Then the Devil arrived in a gloating mood to claim Willy. 

‘Sit down there in the armchair a while,’ said Willy, ’till I finish this horseshoe.’  The Devil did so and at once Willy began to pound him with the sledge.  The Devil yelled and shrieked but was unable to escape from the chair.  At length he agreed to concede another seven years grace to Willy on earth if he would release him from the chair.  This Willy agreed to.

But that period of time passed too.  When the Devil came again he carefully avoided the armchair.  But Willy induced him to strike with the sledge for a few minutes.  Once the Devil started striking Willy let him go on.  For hours he let him strike until he cried out that he would grant another seven years if released from the sledge, for his assumed body ached and pained.  Willy agreed.

Next time the Devil came he stood carefully at the door.  Willy said he would go willingly if he could only buy one last drink.  But he had no money.  Eager to have such a cunning creature in his Pit, the Devil changed himself into a sovereign so that Willy could buy a drink.  Willy quickly slipped the coin into his check purse, put it on the anvil and then pounded heavily on both with his sledge.  In terror and fury the Devil roared out for release again, saying that he would in turn release Willy from his bond and would never come back.  Willy joyfully agreed and the Devil fled.

But the time came when Willy died a natural death.  He was refused admittance to Heaven and Purgatory.  Worn out and weary he went, as a last resort, to the gates of hell hoping to get a resting place there.  The shrieks of the damned and the roar and blast of the eternal fires stiffened him with fright.  But he asked to be let in.

‘Who’s there?’ cried the Devil.  ‘Ah,’ began Willy, rattling the bars, ‘It’s your old friend Willy.  Let me in.’

‘Let you in?’ cried the Devil, rushing up to put another bar on the gates. ‘If I let you in, you’d kill all the devils in hell.  There’s a wisp of light for you.  Go back to where you came from.’

Willy pleaded in vain for admission.  So back he came to the earth with his wisp of light, doomed to travel the bogs forever as ‘Willy the Wisp’ till Tibb’s Eve.

So now you have the right way of it, if anybody cares to ask you about the Will O’ the Wisp. 

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