Irish Faerie Tale: The Red Etin

Irish Faerie Tale: The Red Etin

There were once two widows living next door to each other. One had two sons, the other had one and the three lads grew up together as the best of friends. Then one day, the oldest of the two brothers decided it was time for him to leave home and go on an adventure. He was determined to make something of himself!

His mother said she would make him a cake for his journey and sent him off with a bucket to fetch some water. He didn’t realise that there was a wee hole in this bucket, so by the time he got back home it was only half full. Not to worry said his mother, the cake will just be a wee bit smaller.
Once it was ready, she said to her son: “You have to make a choice now. You can either take half the cake along with my blessing or you can take the whole thing but be cursed”.
The boy though about it. As much as he wanted his mother’s blessing, he didn’t know how long this journey was going to take and the cake wasn’t big. Better be on the safe side and take the full cake. He couldn’t leave his wee brother behind with nothing though, so he gave him a beautiful hunting knife. As long as the blade was bright and shiny, he was safe. If it ever became dark and rusty then he would know his brother had befallen some kind of evil.
On that cheery note, the boy set out on his journey. After hiking for miles and miles, he came across an old man herding a flock of magnificent sheep. This was the first person he had seen for days so he asked the old man, who do the sheep belong to?
His reply wasn’t quite what he was expecting:
“The Red Etin of Ireland, Once lived in Ballygan, and stole King Malcolm’s daughter, the King of fair Scotland. He beats her and he binds her, he lays her on a band, and every day he dings her, with a bright silver wand. Like Julian the Roman, He’s one that fears no man.
It’s said there’s one predestinate, to be his mortal foe, But that man is yet unborn, and lang may it be so.”
With the strange poem ringing in his ears, the boy marched on hoping he wouldn’t bump into this Red Etin. Next, he came across a man looking after a passel of hogs. With the same curiosity he asked who these pigs belonged to, and he got exactly the same answer in return.
After the pigs came a man herding goats and again, he told the boy that they were owned by the Red Etin. This time however, he gave a word of warning. These farmed animals have all been harmless but the next lot you’ll come across, they’re a wee bit different.
With even more dread now, the boy carried on. Sure enough, the monsters that he witnessed would make your blood turn cold. Each beast had two heads and each head had four horns. Those heads were all snapping and snarling, and the boy legged it as fast as he could. Every time he thought he was in the clear, he looked over his shoulder and saw them hot on his heels.
An enormous castle loomed up in front of him, built on a big hill so he made a beeline for the front door. Without even stopping to knock, he slipped inside and paused to catch his breath. The place seemed deserted, so he wandered the halls until he came to the kitchen and there, he found an old woman sitting by a fire. 
“I’m so sorry to just barge in like this but I was trying to escape those beasts roaming around. Is there any chance I could just stay for the night?”
“Well,” the old woman replied “It’s no skin off my nose if you stay here, but this is the home of something far more terrifying than those creatures outside. This is the castle of the Red Etin, a powerful giant, with three heads and a cruel, unforgiving nature.”
The boy realised he was out of the frying pan and into the fire but when he looked outside it was getting dark. He might avoid the monsters in the daylight but at night he didn’t stand a chance. With the old woman’s permission, he hid in a wee cupboard under some stairs and settled down to sleep.
It wasn’t long before he was shaken awake by the thunderous roar of the Red Etin. He had returned home and was stomping around clearly looking for something. Actually…he seemed to be sniffing for something.
“Seek but and Seek ben, I smell the smell of an earthly man, be he living or be he dead, his heart this night shall join my bread.”
With that he tore open the cupboard and dragged the boy out. The Red Etin offered his captive a chance to win his freedom by asking him three riddles, but the poor lad was stumped. Unable to answer, the giant tapped him with a wand and turned the boy to stone.
The next morning, his younger brother, safely back at home checked the knife he had been given for probably the hundredth time. It had lost its shine and was starting to go rusty. He knew that something had befallen his older sibling and it was up to him to go save him.
Telling his mother what he was planning, she sighed and agreed to make him a cake for the journey.
Everything played out just as it had before. There was a hole in the bucket, the cake was too small, he took the whole thing, met the animals, hid in the castle and was eventually turned to a pillar of stone alongside his brother. Some rescue attempt that was.

Back at home, the other widow and her son were sitting down for supper one night when they had a strange visitor. A woman, dressed all in green, knocked on their door and was invited in to join them. By the fire, she told them that the two boys had been captured by the terrifying Red Etin. If only somebody was brave enough to save them…

They might not be his blood, but those two boys were like the boy’s brothers. His mother knew that he was going to try a rescue no matter what she said, so she sent him to the well to get water for a cake using their neighbour’s bucket. Just before he started to walk home, a raven flew overhead and called to the boy that the water was leaking out. He had some wits about him so picking up a lump of clay, the boy plugged the hole and returned with a full pail of water.

His mother gave him the same offer as the other two boys had. Half the cake with her blessing or the full cake with a curse. The boy replied, “Well it’s a pretty large cake so I might not need all of it. Anyway, there could be plenty of other cakes ahead, but I won’t come across another blessing like yours.”


Off he set and after some time travelling, he pulled out his half cake, hungry enough to eat the whole thing. Out of nowhere, a tired and ragged old woman appeared. She was starving and asked him for just a wee bite to eat. He took one look at her and knew she needed this more than him.


As soon as he handed over a large portion, the woman transformed into the strange visitor who had told him about his friends.

“Between your mother’s blessing and your kindness to me, you’ve earned more than you can imagine.” Then she handed over a magic wand and warned him of everything that was to come and more importantly, how to win.

It wasn’t long before the boy came to the shepherd and asked him who the sheep belonged to.

He replied:

“The Red Etin of Ireland, Once lived in Ballygan, and stole King Malcolm’s daughter, the King of fair Scotland. He beats her and he binds her, he lays her on a band, and every day he dings her, with a bright silver wand. Like Julian the Roman, He’s one that fears no man. But now I fear his end is near, and destiny at hand. And you’re to be, I plainly see, the heir of all his land”

He met the pigs and the goats as before but this time when he came to the monsters, he didn’t panic. For any that attacked, out came the magic wand and BOOF, down went the creature. Then into the Red Etin’s castle he walked.


The old woman was there again, and she warned him not to come in. “Two have come before you and they both stand as stone pillars now. The same will happen to you!”


The boy gave a little smile. Don’t worry about me, I know much that they don’t. And so, when the Red Etin stormed in, sniffing around with his three heads the boy was ready and waiting to meet him.

Laughing at how easy his prey was, the giant asked him the same three riddles as before. But the fairy woman had told this lad how to answer.


With every riddle answered, the Red Etin seemed to shrink. By the end, his power was gone, and the boy simply plucked an axe off the wall and chopped off the heads. The ferocious Red Etin was finished.

The old lady was shocked but with the giant dead she showed the boy all the treasures of the castle and that included King Malcolm’s daughter. She was beautiful and fierce but even her soft voice wasn’t enough to distract the boy from his real mission. He followed the old lady down to the dungeon to find his two friends, standing like perfect statues.

With a simple tap from the fairy’s magic wand, the statues slowly turned back to two boys. Together, they all escorted the Princess back to her father King Malcolm. He was delighted to have his daughter back, almost more pleased that the menacing giant was finally done for. In thanks, he rewarded the boy with all the lands that the Red Etin had taken for himself, as well as the princess’s hand in marriage.


Source: Scotlands Stories by Graeme

Image: Three-Headed-Giant-by-Dean-Vigyikan

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