This is a version of a well-known story about the Cailleach, which can be found in many different forms. In some versions of the tale it is not a friar or priest who visits with the Cailleach, but St. Patrick himself. In the south-west of Ireland, it is often a local saint such as Gobnait who is the visitor, however. Either way, the end result is the same; the Cailleach is so old that it is impossible to count all of the bones.
This version is from Douglas Hyde’s “Legends of Saints and Sinners.”
There was an old woman in it, and long ago it was, and if we had been there that time we would not be here. Now; we would have a new story or an old story, and that would not be more likely than to be without any story at all.
The hag was very old, and she herself did not know her own age, nor did anybody else. There was a friar and his boy journeying one day, and they came in to the house of the Old Woman of Beare.
“God save you,” said the friar.
“The same man save yourself,” said the hag; “you’re welcome, sit down at the fire and warm yourself.”
The friar sat down, and when he had well finished warming himself he began to talk and discourse with the old hag.
“If it’s no harm of me to ask it of you, I’d like to know your age, because I know you are very old.” [said the friar]
“It is no harm at all to ask me,” said the hag; “I’ll answer you as well as I can. There is never a year since I came to age that I used not to kill a beef, and throw the bones of the beef up on the loft which is above your head. If you wish to know my age you can send your boy up on the loft and count the bones.
True was the tale. The friar sent the boy up on the loft and the boy began counting the bones, and with all the bones that were on the loft he had no room on the loft itself to count them, and he told the friar that he would have to throw the bones down on the floor — that there was no room on the loft.
“Down with them,” said the friar, “and I’ll keep count of them from below.”
The boy began throwing them down from above and the friar began writing down [the number], until he was about tired out, and he asked the boy had he them nearly counted, and the boy answered the friar down from the loft that he had not even one corner of the loft emptied yet.
“If that’s the way of it, come down out of the loft and throw the bones up again,” said the friar.
The boy came down, and he threw up the bones, and [so] the friar was [just] as wise coming in as he was going out.
“Though I don’t know your age,” said the friar to the hag, “I know that you haven’t lived up to this time without seeing marvellous things in the course of your life, and the greatest marvel that you ever saw — tell it to me, if you please.”
“I saw one marvel which made me wonder greatly,” said the hag.
“Recount it to me,” said the Friar, “if you please.”
“I myself and my girl were out one day, milking the cows, and it was a fine, lovely day, and I was just after milking one of the cows, and when I raised my head I looked round towards my left hand, and I saw a great blackness coming over my head in the air. “Make haste,” says myself to the girl, “until we milk the cows smartly, or we’ll be wet and drowned before we reach home, with the rain.” I was on the pinch of my life and so was my girl, to have the cows milked before we’d get the shower, for I thought myself that it was a shower that was coming, but on my raising my head again I looked round me and beheld a woman coming as white as the swan that is on the brink of the waves. She went past me like a blast of wind, and the wind that was before her she was overtaking it, and the wind that was behind her, it could not come up with her. It was not long till I saw after the woman two mastiffs, and two yards of their tongue twisted round their necks, and balls of fire out of their mouths, and I wondered greatly at that. And after the dogs I beheld a black coach and a team of horses drawing it, and there were balls of fire on every side out of the coach, and as the coach was going past me the beasts stood and something that was in the coach uttered from it an unmeaning sound, and I was terrified, and faintness came over me, and when I came back out of the faint I heard the voice in the coach again, asking me had I seen anything going past me since I came there; and I told him as I am telling you, and I asked him who he was himself, or what was the meaning of the woman and the mastiffs which went by me.
“I am the Devil, and those are two mastiffs which I sent after that soul.”
“And is it any harm for me to ask,” says I, “what is the crime the woman did when she was in the world?”
“That is a woman,” said the Devil, “who brought scandal upon a priest, and she died in a state of deadly sin, and she did not repent of it, and unless the mastiffs come up with her before she comes to the gates of Heaven the glorious Virgin will come and will ask a request of her only Son to grant the woman forgiveness for her sins, and the Virgin will obtain pardon for her, and I’ll be out of her. But if the mastiffs come up with her before she goes to Heaven she is mine.”
The great Devil drove on his beasts, and went out of my sight, and myself and my girl came home, and I was heavy, and tired and sad at remembering the vision which I saw, and I was greatly astonished at that wonder, and I lay in my bed for three days, and the fourth day I arose very done up and feeble, and not without cause, since any woman who would see the wonder that I saw, she would be grey a hundred years before her term of life was expired.
“Did you ever see any other marvel in your time?” says the friar to the hag.
“A week after leaving my bed I got a letter telling me that one of my friends was dead, and that I would have to go to the funeral. I proceeded to the funeral, and on my going into the corpse-house the body was in the coffin, and the coffin was laid down on the bier, and four men went under the bier that they might carry the coffin, and they weren’t able to even stir the bier off the ground. And another four men came, and they were not able to move it off the ground. They were coming, man after man, until twelve came, and went under the bier, and they weren’t able to lift it.
“I spoke myself, and I asked the people who were at the funeral what sort of trade had this man when he was in the world, and it was told me that it was a herd he was. And I asked of the people who were there was there any other herd at the funeral. Then there came four men that nobody at all who was at the funeral had any knowledge or recognition of, and they told me that they were four herds, and they went under the bier and they lifted it as you would lift a handful of chaff, and off they went as quick and sharp as ever they could lift a foot. Good powers of walking they had, and a fine long step I had myself, and I cut out after them, and not a mother’s son knew what the place was to which they were departing with the body, and we were going and ever going until the night and the day were parting from one another, until the night was coming black dark dreadful, until the grey horse was going under the shadow of the docking and until the docking was going fleeing before him.
The roots going under the ground,
The leaves going into the air,
The grey horse a-neeing apace,
And I left lonely there.
“On looking round me, there wasn’t one of all the funeral behind me, except two others. The other people were done up, and they were not able to come half way, some of them fainted and some of them died. Going forward two steps more in front of me I was within in a dark wood wet and cold, and the ground opened, and I was swallowed down into a black dark hole without a Mother’s son or a father’s daughter next nor near me, without a man to be had to keen me or to lay me out; so that I threw myself on my two knees, and I was there throughout four days sending my prayer up to God to take me out of that speedily and quickly. And with the fourth day there came a little hole like the eye of a needle on one corner of the abode where I was; and I was a-praying always and the hole, was a-growing in size day by day, and on the seventh day it increased to such a size that I got out through it. I took to my heels then when I got my feet with me on the outside [of the hole] going home. The distance which I walked in one single day following the coffin, I spent five weeks coming back the same road, and don’t you see yourself now that I got cause to be withered, old, aged, grey, and my life to be shortening through those two perils in which I was.”
“You’re a fine, hardy old woman all the time,” said the friar.
 Literally, “He (i.e., God) is your life”; the equivalent of “Hail!” “welcome.”
 Literally, “the boiling of the angles-between-the-fingers was on me.”
 Literally, “before her age being spent.”
 Literally, “give it wind.”
 The fairies ride their little grey horse, and stable them at night under the leaves of the copóg or dock-leaf, or docking. But if they arrive too late and night has fallen, then the copóg has folded her leaves and will not shelter them.
 Literally, “man’s daughter.”
 Literally, “I gave to the soles.” Many people still say in speaking English, “I gave to the butts.” The Irish word means butt as well as sole.