Not so long ago, near Tipperary, there lived a family of farm labourers - the Muldoons. The parents were decent, kind and hardworking and were blessed with four sons. The first three sons were tall and strong, healthy and as handsome as you have ever seen. They had thick flaxen hair that waved like corn, honest natures and even tempers. But the fourth child was different. He was the most miserable, ill tempered brat that God ever made.
He had shaggy, matted, raven black hair, greenish skin and two small eyes like burning coals, that constantly flickered around the room. His hands were like claws and his legs were thin and crooked. The child never walked or left his cradle.
But, before he was a year old, he already had a full set of teeth and scoffed more food than his three brothers put together. But the worst, the very worst thing of all, was the noise; for, day after day and night after night, he screeched, he yelped, he whinged and he yowled.
However, his mother loved him and would place him in his cradle near the fire, to keep him snug and warm; but if anyone ever talked of the church, he would sit up and bellow as if the devil was in him.
The neighbours all suspected that he had been changed by the good people (fairy people). For it was well known in those parts that babies, not yet baptised, had to be carefully watched or the fairy people would snatch them away and, in their place, leave one of their own kind. Such changelings were ill-tempered, mischievous and demanded constant attention. They did not grow or learn to walk as other children.
One day, in desperation, his mother asked her neighbours for help, for she did not know how best to care for the child. The neighbours knew that, if you treat a changeling child with cruelty, the good folk would swap them back. At this time, people could be very cruel indeed, and they suggested doing some truly terrible things that we would never do today.
So, some advised putting him out on a shovel and ignoring his cries. Others said that holding him in a fast flowing river would break the spell. And one old lady, who was considered very knowing in fairy matters, recommended squeezing his nose with tongs. "That," she said, "beyond all doubt, will make him tell you what he is, and where he came from".
The young wife was horrified. No child in her care would be put on a shovel and flung out like a dead kitten, or near drowned, or pinched with tongs. She knew in her heart this was not the beautiful child to which she had given birth, but she would hear no more. The neighbours shook their heads. She was too soft-hearted, and too fond of the imp, they thought, but it's hard to blame a mother.
Then they suggested sending for the priest, who was a very holy and wise man. The young woman did not object to this, but every time she tried to do so, some disaster in the home always prevented it. So the brat remained, yelping and yowling and eating and playing all kinds of mischievous tricks.
One day, a blind piper called at the house. The young woman invited him in to warm himself by the fire. Then, as the piper began to play a few notes, the young fellow, who had been whingeing in his cradle, sat up. A grin spread across his ugly face, he swung his long thin arms and kicked his crooked legs in glee.
Nothing would please him until he had the pipes. The piper, who liked children, readily agreed and the mother placed them in the child's hands. To the amazement of all, he began to play a merry jig, working the pipes as if he had been playing for many a year. The poor woman crossed herself.
The blind piper could not believe a little child not five years old was playing. He offered to take him, if she would part with him, for he was a born piper, a natural. With a little time and a little good teaching, there would no match for him in the whole country. The poor woman was overjoyed to hear this, but refused his offer. She had been very worried about how her dear child would ever earn a living, now she was satisfied.
When her husband came home from his work, she told him all that had happened and he, too, was very pleased to hear it. The next day, he took a pig to the fair and, with the money from the sale, brought a brand new set of pipes. The moment the little chap laid eyes on them, he squealed with delight in his cradle and, in no time, he was playing a merry tune.
News spread far and wide, for there was not a piper anywhere who could match him. He was always ready to play and many a merry dance was held in his father's cabin. When he played the boys and girls said it was if their feet were quicksilver. Never had any piper made them dance so lightly.
However, besides the fine Irish music that he played, he had one strange tune of his own, the oddest thing that was ever heard. The moment it was played, everything in the house seemed to dance; pans rattled and furniture shook. The young people could not handle their feet and would jostle together in a frightful manner until they landed in a heap on the floor.
The older the little chap grew, the more mischievous he became. There was no end to the tricks that he played with his strange music. But, then, bad luck began to plague the farm where his father worked. Cattle and sheep took ill and cows grew bad-tempered and kicked over the milk-pails. The farmer believed that the Muldoon's odd child was the cause and asked the father to look for work elsewhere. "You're a good man," he said, "and I know you'll find work."
The next Sunday at chapel, a farmer, who lived a couple of miles off and who wanted a ploughman, offered them a house and work. The husband readily agreed. The farmer sent a cart to collect their few belongings and the family set off. The mother rode in the cart with the child and his pipes. The cow was driven before them and the dog followed. The other children walked beside the cart picking blackberries as they went, for it was a fine autumn day.
To reach the farm, they had to cross a river, between two high banks. The little chap was lying pretty quiet in his cradle, till they came to the bridgehead. On hearing the roaring of the water (for the river was in flood), he sat up and looked around. When he saw they were going to cross, how he bellowed and squealed. "Sure it's only a bridge we're crossing," his mother said. Suddenly the child spoke, "What a pretty trick you've played, mammy, to bring me here!"
The further onto the bridge they went, the more he yelled. Finally, in desperation, his father flipped the whip at him. "You little brat!" he said "Will you never stop bawling?" The moment he felt the whip, he leaped up in the cradle, clapped the pipes under his arm, gave a wicked grin and jumped clean into the water.
"My child, my child!" shouted the mother. The father, upset at what he had done, ran to the other side of the bridge. Looking over, he saw the little chap coming out from under the arch. He was sitting cross-legged on the top of a white-headed wave, playing his pipes as merrily and rapidly as the river ran. So quickly was he was swept along that, although they all ran speedily along the bank, they could not catch him. Soon he was out of sight.
In great distress, they continued their journey to their new home. When they got there, they found, on the steps of the house, a young child with flaxen hair. He stretched out his arms towards them. The mother scooped him up, for he clearly needed mothering. As she held him close she knew this was her own, true child returned from the good folk.
As she glanced down, she saw a note written on the strangest of paper like cobwebs, with writing that glistened like dew. The mother could not read, so she passed it to her oldest child. The note read: 'Exactly as you have treated my child, so I have treated yours'.
So relieved, then, was the mother that she had shown nothing but kindness to the all the children in her care.
At first the boy, her true son, said little but slowly he gained in confidence.
As for the other little chap, they were never to see him again. It was thought that he went back to his own relations, the good people, to make music for them. Whatever the truth, the mother never forgot the strange little child.
The boy they found on the steps grew into a strong, tall, handsome young man. He was kind to his mother and hardworking. He had so many talents, but there was one thing he just couldn't master - he never could play the pipes.