Ireland’s little people, Leprechauns, are widely known and accepted as delightful but untrustworthy characters in Irish folk tales. But there’s another set of tales around Ireland’s giants that are equally engaging. The giant Charles Byrne, fictionalized as the Giant O’Brien, and Mahon McMahon, the giant of Cork, feature prominently in Irish lore. Byrne was real; McMahon’s character was – no pun intended – larger than life and his story, more intriguing.
The story of Mahon McMahon is complex and my summary here leaves out a few of its twists and turns. But the gist is that McMahon steals children – boys in particular – and enslaves them in his seaside palace where they must pledge loyalty to the race of giants and care for their needs. The slave boys live in the caverns that comprise the palace McMahon has fashioned inside a jutting reek at the top of a stone staircase, accessible only by boat. The stairs are tall and deep, suited for McMahon’s enormous feet so that mere humans must scale them like cliff faces.
In the story of The Giant Stairs, Phillip Ronayne disappears at the age of seven and despite his parents’ offer of a sizeable reward, cannot be found. Years later a blacksmith named Robert Kelly dreams a dream of the young Ronayne and believes he has the key to the boy’s whereabouts in the dark shadows of the rocky palace atop the Giant’s Stairs.
Kelly finds a boat and oarsman to take him to the inlet where he spies the Giant’s Stairs. He enters the expansive catacombs that comprise the palace and is soon found out by none other than McMahon. The giant is as formidable as his reputation with legs so long and feet so large that he can cross a mile with a hop, skip and a jump. His face is grotesque and his mouth gaping, as if he could swallow a man in a single bite. He sports a flowing red beard that falls across his broad chest and, when he speaks, his voice echoes like crashing waves through the stone rooms.
McMahon demands to know what Kelly is doing in his palace and Kelly tells him the truth – that he has come to liberate young Ronayne. The giant offers this bargain, that if Kelly can identify the boy on his first guess he can take him home to his parents. But when Kelly is led to the chambers where the hundreds of slave boys are kept, they all look identical – seven years of age, wholesomely fed and clothed, but having not aged a day since their capture. And here’s the rub; if Kelly guesses wrong, McMahon will eat him. Kelly only knows Phillip from the dream so he sets about to make the children cry out in hopes that he will recognize Phillip’s voice. He plays a trick on McMahon, jumping into the giant’s hand as if it were a hammock, and as the children laugh and call to one another, he hears Phillip’s voice and points him out. The other children confirm – it’s Phillip all right!
Kelly returns to Cork, reuniting the boy with his grateful parents. He accepts his reward and dismisses questions about the boy’s unchanged appearance despite the passing of the years, saying, “He has the mother’s blue eyes and the father’s foxy hair.” The Ronaynes do not doubt their good fortune at the return of their precious Phillip.
The tale of the Giant’s Stairs has intrigued me since I first read it last year. I want to fill in more details – the psychologist in me wants to understand why the boys are stolen at age seven and what their servitude was meant to represent in Irish lore. Seems there’s a place for trickery in so many of the Irish folk tales, whether Leprechauns or Giants are involved.