(an Irish tale)
The Goban Saor was a master builder who lived in Ireland in the early Christian era. He had a talent beyond all imagining and more wit than most. It has been many centuries since he was alive, though people still speak of his work. He might be the man who built the Castle of Ferns, with walls thick enough to be built by a master mason like a Goban.
There are castles all over the land that he may have built, for he could build like no one else, fashioning spear-heads with three strokes of his hammer, driving nails into giant beams hundreds of feet above the ground by pitching them into place and flinging his hammer at their heads. Boom, just like that, those nails were nailed right in. And as the hammer fell back to the ground, the Goban Saor caught it in midair.
One day the King of Munster called upon the Goban Saor to build him a castle. The Goban knew that many an architect had built many a fine building, and yet afterward the king ordered them killed. In this way a king could make sure that no one would build a finer castle than his.
So the Goban Saor decided he would prepare himself. He set out for the palace where the King of Munster kept court — somewhere deep in County Clare, they say — but he took along his red-haired son, Owen. And before he left, he told his wife the tale of those other builders.
“You must come back to me,” his wife told him.
“And so I will, but I may need your help.”
His wife assured him that she would always stand by him.
Owen and the Goban set off, and before long they came upon a poor man trying to put a flat roof atop his round cabin. He had only three joists and all were too short. He was having a terrible time, heaving and huffing and puffing and cursing.
The Goban stopped to help, and sure enough, in no time at all, he showed the man how to fit them together to make a three-cornered figure. Within an hour the mud-walled cabin was standing fine and fit, with a nice flat roof and a floor as strong as any in all of Ireland.
The poor man blessed the Goban and his son, and on they traveled.
Finally they came to the court of the King of Munster, and the work began.
The Goban worked from sunup to sunset, building a castle so fine that people came from everywhere to watch and gasp and admire the work. Then one day, nearing the end, the Goban was standing on scaffolding setting some stones when one of his carpenters leaned close and whispered, “Better watch or you could fall from this scaffolding and die.”
“What can you mean?” the Goban asked in surprise.
The carpenter whispered still more softly, “I hear tales, and though the king would surely weep some crocodile tears, there would never be another castle so fine as this one.”
The Goban cursed under his breath, but he knew what to do. So the next morning he said to the king, “I’m nearly finished with my work, sir, and Christmas is coming. I’d like to be home with my wife to celebrate this holy occasion, but in order to finish the last wall-plate and make sure it’s strong, I need my special tool.”
“So use that tool,” the king said.
“There’s one little problem …” the Goban said.
“What’s that?” the king asked.
“The tool I need is home with my wife. I meant to send my son home to fetch it, but he’s lying in bed with a fever too high. He cannot travel, not for a long, long time. I’ll have to go myself.”
“No, no,” the king stammered, for he did not want to let the Goban out of his sight. The carpenter was right. He did have plans.
“Well, my wife won’t trust a soul but myself or my son,” the Goban said, “or,” he hesitated slyly, “a man of royal blood. Like the prince.”
“The prince it is!” the king said, and so he sent his one and only son to the Goban’s house to fetch the forgotten tool.
“It’s called a cabhair triobloid imni,” the Goban said, or some other mix of Irish words meaning trouble and fix and worry. He knew his wife would understand, for she was wise to the Goban’s ways and woes. The moment she heard the words, she’d know there was trouble and how to fix it.
“It’s near my pillow,” the Goban continued. “Tell my wife this. I would come for it myself, if only I could …”
The prince set off. Some time passed with no sign of him, and the king began to worry. After one long week had passed, the prince’s attendants returned, galloping as fast as they could, bringing some news.
They bowed before the king. “Your son is eating well and drinking and playing chess and dancing and singing — doing anything a prince could wish to do.”
“But why does he not return?” the king asked, puzzled.
“The Goban’s wife won’t let him leave her home until her husband has returned,” said the first attendant.
“Safe and sound, she says,” the second attendant added.
The king was furious. “What kind of woman is that?” he roared. “This can’t be so! What can she be thinking?” he raged and stormed. But at long last he understood. He could live without his palace being finished, but he could never live without his son. That boy was his beloved prince, his only child, his heir.
The Goban was not a mean man, and so, when he learned that the king would set him free, he went back to work.
For two more days he toiled, adding the finishing touches. When he was finished, he and Owen returned home. Before long they were sitting by their fireside, eating Christmas pudding, telling the Goban’s wife tales of the magnificent castle that might just be the finest in all the land.
And in the new castle, the king and his son celebrated the Yuletide with a grand feast and a relatively clear conscience!