Many years ago, a group of children listened spellbound as a storyteller told us how he met a man who walked upon the Hungry Grass.
Of course, we knew already about this dangerous thing. In Irish lore, someone who stumbles into a certain patch of grass is beset by an intense and unquenchable hunger.
This wasn’t as scary to young minds as you might think. We knew that if you stepped quickly out of the afflicted area, the hunger would leave you. Even if the gnawing at your guts had you on your knees, all you had to do was nibble on breadcrumbs or a bit of biscuit fished out of a pocket. And if you didn’t even have such a small morsel, then chewing on your shoelaces would give you the strength to walk until you met a passerby who could help you.
Oh yes, there were scarier things fora child to worry about.
Yet the room hung on every word, as the story-teller recounted how he and his friends were out hill-walking when they caught sight of a man lying on the ground a little away from the main path.
“Don’t come near me,” the prone man warned them in a faint voice, as they hurried to help him. “It’s the fear ocrach that has me, the hungry grass.”
The friends stopped dead at a safe distance, and searched their backpacks for a crust of a sandwich, but they were near the end of their walk and had eaten every scrap of food they packed that morning.
One of the young men set off at a run down the hill to find the nearest house with the nearest loaf of bread.
“Crawl to us,” the others pleaded, arms stretched out. The man clutched his stomach and writhed in agony. “I haven’t the strength to crawl,” he whispered. “I’m surely done for this world.”
“Untie your shoelaces,” the friends urged him. “Bite down on them until help comes.”
We children nodded. We were fascinated, but not terrified. A bite of a shoelace was all that was needed.
“But do ye know what?” asked the story-teller. “We looked a little closer at the poor man’s feet. He was wearing sandals.”
Our mouths opened. Our hands pressed together. I myself found it hard to breathe.
“So Johnny took off his shoe and threw it. He landed it right by the man’s head. But despite us roaring and shouting at him, the man had grown too weak even to move his hands and reach for the laces.”
“Did he die?” The shocked voice was Declan’s. The rest of us were silent, eyes fixed on the story-teller.
“I took off my coat,” he told us. “I flung it onto the cursed land. My friends did the same, each a little further than the other. Then Johnny and I jumped from coat to coat, one after the other, until we reached the fella. Johnny hoisted him on my back and it was as if the hunger had already made him light as a feather. We jumped back to safe ground, and laid the poor man on the road.”
“Was he dead?” whispered Declan.
“It wasn’t a dead man who sat up and thanked us.”
A room of children sighed with relief, and gazed upon a hero.