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The Rival Kempers


Source: Irish Fairy Tales


In the north of Ireland there are spinning meetings of unmarried
females frequently held at the houses of farmers, called kemps.
Every young woman who has got the reputation of being a quick and
expert spinner attends where the kemp is to be held, at an hour
usually before daylight, and on these occasions she is accompanied by
her sweetheart or some male relative, who carries her wheel, and
conducts her safely across the fields or along the road, as the case
may be. A kemp is, indeed, an animated and joyous scene, and one,
besides, which is calculated to promote industry and decent pride.
Scarcely anything can be more cheering and agreeable than to hear at a
distance, breaking the silence of morning, the light-hearted voices of
many girls either in mirth or song, the humming sound of the busy
wheels--jarred upon a little, it is true, by the stridulous noise and
checkings of the reels, and the voices of the reelers, as they call
aloud the checks, together with the name of the girl and the quantity
she has spun up to that period; for the contest is generally commenced
two or three hours before daybreak. This mirthful spirit is also
sustained by the prospect of a dance--with which, by the way, every
kemp closes; and when the fair victor is declared, she is to be looked
upon as the queen of the meeting, and treated with the necessary

But to our tale. Every one knew Shaun Buie M'Gaveran to be the
cleanest, best-conducted boy, and the most industrious too, in the
whole parish of Faugh-a-ballagh. Hard was it to find a young fellow
who could handle a flail, spade, or reaping-hook in better style, or
who could go through his day's work in a more creditable or
workmanlike manner. In addition to this, he was a fine, well-built,
handsome young man as you could meet in a fair; and so, sign was on
it, maybe the pretty girls weren't likely to pull each other's caps
about him. Shaun, however, was as prudent as he was good-looking; and
although he wanted a wife, yet the sorrow one of him but preferred
taking a well-handed, smart girl, who was known to be well-behaved and
industrious, like himself. Here, however, was where the puzzle lay on
him; for instead of one girl of that kind, there were in the
neighbourhood no less than a dozen of them--all equally fit and
willing to become his wife, and all equally good-looking. There were
two, however, whom he thought a trifle above the rest; but so nicely
balanced were Biddy Corrigan and Sally Gorman, that for the life of
him he could not make up his mind to decide between them. Each of them
had won her kemp; and it was currently said by them who ought to know,
that neither of them could over-match the other. No two girls in the
parish were better respected, or deserved to be so; and the
consequence was, they had every one's good word and good wish. Now it
so happened that Shaun had been pulling a cord with each; and as he
knew not how to decide between, he thought he would allow them to do
that themselves if they could. He accordingly gave out to the
neighbours that he would hold a kemp on that day week, and he told
Biddy and Sally especially that he had made up his mind to marry
whichever of them won the kemp, for he knew right well, as did all
the parish, that one of them must. The girls agreed to this very
good-humouredly, Biddy telling Sally that she (Sally) would surely win
it; and Sally, not to be outdone in civility, telling the same thing
to her.

Well, the week was nearly past, there being but two days till that of
the kemp, when, about three o'clock, there walks into the house of old
Paddy Corrigan a little woman dressed in high-heeled shoes and a short
red cloak. There was no one in the house but Biddy at the time, who
rose up and placed a chair near the fire, and asked the little red
woman to sit down and rest herself. She accordingly did so, and in a
short time a lively chat commenced between them.

'So,' said the strange woman, 'there's to be a great kemp in Shaun
Buie M'Gaveran's?'

'Indeed there is that, good woman,' replied Biddy, smiling and
blushing to back of that again, because she knew her own fate
depended on it.

'And,' continued the little woman, 'whoever wins the kemp wins a

'Ay, so it seems.'

'Well, whoever gets Shaun will be a happy woman, for he's the moral of
a good boy.'

'That's nothing but the truth, anyhow,' replied Biddy, sighing, for
fear, you may be sure, that she herself might lose him; and indeed a
young woman might sigh from many a worse reason. 'But,' said she,
changing the subject, 'you appear to be tired, honest woman, an' I
think you had better eat a bit, an' take a good drink of buinnhe
ramwher (thick milk) to help you on your journey.'

'Thank you kindly, a colleen,' said the woman; 'I'll take a bit, if
you plase, hopin', at the same time, that you won't be the poorer of
it this day twelve months.'

'Sure,' said the girl, 'you know that what we give from kindness ever
an' always leaves a blessing behind it.'

'Yes, acushla, when it is given from kindness.'

She accordingly helped herself to the food that Biddy placed before
her, and appeared, after eating, to be very much refreshed.

'Now,' said she, rising up, 'you're a very good girl, an' if you are
able to find out my name before Tuesday morning, the kemp-day, I tell
you that you'll win it, and gain the husband.'

'Why,' said Biddy, 'I never saw you before. I don't know who you are,
nor where you live; how then can I ever find out your name?'

'You never saw me before, sure enough,' said the old woman, 'an' I
tell you that you never will see me again but once; an' yet if you
have not my name for me at the close of the kemp, you'll lose all, an'
that will leave you a sore heart, for well I know you love Shaun

So saying, she went away, and left poor Biddy quite cast down at what
she had said, for, to tell the truth, she loved Shaun very much, and
had no hopes of being able to find out the name of the little woman,
on which, it appeared, so much to her depended.

It was very near the same hour of the same day that Sally Gorman was
sitting alone in her father's house, thinking of the kemp, when who
should walk in to her but our friend the little red woman.

'God save you, honest woman,' said Sally, 'this is a fine day that's
in it, the Lord be praised!'

'It is,' said the woman, 'as fine a day as one could wish for: indeed
it is.'

'Have you no news on your travels?' asked Sally.

'The only news in the neighbourhood,' replied the other, 'is this
great kemp that's to take place at Shaun Buie M'Gaveran's. They say
you're either to win him or lose him then,' she added, looking
closely at Sally as she spoke.

'I'm not very much afraid of that,' said Sally, with confidence; 'but
even if I do lose him, I may get as good.'

'It's not easy gettin' as good,' rejoined the old woman, 'an' you
ought to be very glad to win him, if you can.'

'Let me alone for that,' said Sally. 'Biddy's a good girl, I allow;
but as for spinnin', she never saw the day she could leave me behind
her. Won't you sit an' rest you?' she added; 'maybe you're tired.'

'It's time for you to think of it,' thought the woman, but she spoke
nothing: 'but,' she added to herself on reflection, 'it's better late
than never--I'll sit awhile, till I see a little closer what she's
made of.'

She accordingly sat down and chatted upon several subjects, such as
young women like to talk about, for about half an hour; after which
she arose, and taking her little staff in hand, she bade Sally
good-bye, and went her way. After passing a little from the house she
looked back, and could not help speaking to herself as follows:

'She's smooth and smart,
But she wants the heart;
She's tight and neat,
But she gave no meat.'

Poor Biddy now made all possible inquiries about the old woman, but to
no purpose. Not a soul she spoke to about her had ever seen or heard
of such a woman. She felt very dispirited, and began to lose heart,
for there is no doubt that if she missed Shaun it would have cost her
many a sorrowful day. She knew she would never get his equal, or at
least any one that she loved so well. At last the kemp day came, and
with it all the pretty girls of the neighbourhood to Shaun Buie's.
Among the rest, the two that were to decide their right to him were
doubtless the handsomest pair by far, and every one admired them. To
be sure, it was a blythe and merry place, and many a light laugh and
sweet song rang out from pretty lips that day. Biddy and Sally, as
every one expected, were far ahead of the rest, but so even in their
spinning that the reelers could not for the life of them declare which
was the better. It was neck-and-neck and head-and-head between the
pretty creatures, and all who were at the kemp felt themselves wound
up to the highest pitch of interest and curiosity to know which of
them would be successful.

The day was now more than half gone, and no difference was between
them, when, to the surprise and sorrow of every one present, Biddy
Corrigan's heck broke in two, and so to all appearance ended the
contest in favour of her rival; and what added to her mortification,
she was as ignorant of the red little woman's name as ever. What was
to be done? All that could be done was done. Her brother, a boy of
about fourteen years of age, happened to be present when the accident
took place, having been sent by his father and mother to bring them
word how the match went on between the rival spinsters. Johnny
Corrigan was accordingly despatched with all speed to Donnel
M'Cusker's, the wheelwright, in order to get the heck mended, that
being Biddy's last but hopeless chance. Johnny's anxiety that his
sister should win was of course very great, and in order to lose as
little time as possible he struck across the country, passing through,
or rather close by, Kilrudden forth, a place celebrated as a resort of
the fairies. What was his astonishment, however, as he passed a
White-thorn tree, to hear a female voice singing, in accompaniment to
the sound of a spinning-wheel, the following words:

'There's a girl in this town doesn't know my name;
But my name's Even Trot--Even Trot.'

'There's a girl in this town,' said the lad, 'who's in great distress,
for she has broken her heck, and lost a husband. I'm now goin' to
Donnel M'Cusker's to get it mended.'

'What's her name?' said the little red woman.

'Biddy Corrigan.'

The little woman immediately whipped out the heck from her own wheel,
and giving it to the boy, desired him to take it to his sister, and
never mind Donnel M'Cusker.

'You have little time to lose,' she added, 'so go back and give her
this; but don't tell her how you got it, nor, above all things, that
it was Even Trot that gave it to you.'

The lad returned, and after giving the heck to his sister, as a matter
of course told her that it was a little red woman called Even Trot
that sent it to her, a circumstance which made tears of delight start
to Biddy's eyes, for she knew now that Even Trot was the name of the
old woman, and having known that, she felt that something good would
happen to her. She now resumed her spinning, and never did human
fingers let down the thread so rapidly. The whole kemp were amazed at
the quantity which from time to time filled her pirn. The hearts of
her friends began to rise, and those of Sally's party to sink, as hour
after hour she was fast approaching her rival, who now spun if
possible with double speed on finding Biddy coming up with her. At
length they were again even, and just at that moment in came her
friend the little red woman, and asked aloud, 'Is there any one in
this kemp that knows my name?' This question she asked three times
before Biddy could pluck up courage to answer her. She at last said,

'There's a girl in this town does know your name--
Your name is Even Trot--Even Trot.'

'Ay,' said the old woman, 'and so it is; and let that name be your
guide and your husband's through life. Go steadily along, but let your
step be even; stop little; keep always advancing; and you'll never
have cause to rue the day that you first saw Even Trot.'

We need scarcely add that Biddy won the kemp and the husband, and that
she and Shaun lived long and happily together; and I have only now to
wish, kind reader, that you and I may live longer and more happily

Next: The Young Piper

Previous: The Fairies' Dancing-place

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