The Crock of Gold

by James Stephens
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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

The Crock of Gold is divided into six short books containing two central plot lines. The first focuses on the Philosopher and his wife, the Thin Woman, who live in the center of a dark pine wood in a fairy land. Initially, there are two philosophers married to two women, but one Philosopher decides he has attained all the wisdom he can bear and dies. His wife soon follows, and the Philosopher and the Thin Woman are left with two children, Brigid Beg and Seamus.

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A neighbor named Meehawl MacMurrachu comes to the Philosopher for advice on where his washboard may have disappeared, and the Philosopher deduces that the leprechauns of Gort na Cloca Mora took it. He advises Meehawl to go to a hole under a tree in a nearby field. When Meehawl does so, he finds instead a little crock of gold. The leprechauns try to get the crock back, consider the Philosopher their enemy, and kidnap his two children.

Meanwhile, in the second plot, Caitlin, the beautiful daughter of Meehawl MacMurrachu, is lured by the song of the great god Pan. She goes off with him “because he was naked and unashamed.” Meehawl goes again to the Philosopher for advice. The Philosopher promises to help get Caitlin back. When the leprechauns return Brigid Beg and Seamus, the Philosopher sends the children in search of Pan. The god gives them no satisfactory answer, so the Philosopher sets out to meet with the Celtic god Angus Og to seek his help in recovering Caitlin. He has a series of adventures on his journey. In book 3, Angus Og appears in the cave where Pan and Caitlin live, the two gods debate her love, and she goes off with Angus “because his need of her was very great.”

Meanwhile, the leprechauns, still angry with the Philosopher because of their lost crock of gold, tell the police that two dead bodies (actually the second Philosopher and his wife) can be found under the hearthstone of the Philosopher’s cottage. When the Philosopher returns from his successful trip to Angus Og, four policemen arrest him. They attempt to escort the Philosopher back to their barracks, but the leprechauns are able to rescue him in the dark night woods. The Philosopher is reunited with his wife, who arranged his release, but he claims he must give himself up to the police again. His wife goes off to Angus Og for advice, and the Philosopher goes on to the barracks. He is thrown into a dungeon with two criminals, each of whom tells a long story during the night. The next morning, he is taken to the City “in order that he might be put on his trial and hanged. It was the custom.”

In the final book of The Crock of Gold, the Thin Woman and her children journey to Angus Og and Caitlin to ask for the release of the Philosopher. The Thin Woman visits all the fairy forts, and the fairy clans come together in a great celebration. Angus and Caitlin sweep into the City to free the Philosopher.

Places Discussed

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*Ireland. Island nation west of Britain that was united under British rule in 1912—the same year James Stephens published The Crock of Gold. (In 1922, Ireland was partitioned into the Republic of Eire and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom). The Ireland depicted in the novel, however, is an Ireland of the imagination, carefully repopulated with all the lost idols of local mythology (and one visitor from overseas, the Greek nature-God Pan). Like William Butler Yeats and other champions of the so-called Celtic Twilight, Stephens believed that the soul of the Irish people was contained within its myths, and the territory mapped by his novel is a figurative internal landscape rather than a mere figment of geography.

Coilla Doraca

Coilla Doraca. Pine wood, in whose heart stands the small house in which two Philosophers live with their ambivalent wives, the Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath. Except for one small clearing a short distance from the house, the wood is a very dark and still place, because neither the sun’s light nor the wind can penetrate the close-set branches. The hearthstone of the house eventually becomes the tombstone of one of the Philosophers and his wife, the Grey Woman of Dun Gortin.

Gort na Cloca Mora

Gort na Cloca Mora. Rocky field where a crock of gold is buried, having been hidden there by the Leprechauns (Leprecauns in the novel), one of six clans of fairies in the neighborhood of Coilla Doraca. The tree under which the crock was hidden sits atop an underground chamber, which becomes the temporary hiding-place of the kidnapped children of the two Philosophers. A neighboring field, which extends toward the top of a mountain, has a similar covert: the cave to which Pan takes Caitlin Ni Murrachu, where the Celtic god Angus Og comes to see her.

Cloca Mora was transformed into Glockamorra by E. Y. Harburg in the Stephens-inspired musical comedy Finian’s Rainbow (1947; film version, 1968); the song “How Are Things in Glockamorra?” has convinced many an American tourist that there really is a place of that name, but it has not yet appeared on maps of the real Ireland.

Cave of the Sleepers of Erinn

Cave of the Sleepers of Erinn. Resting-place of the gods of Ireland, located on a mountain, to which the Philosopher goes in search of Angus Og. When he leaves it again, he bears messages for Mac Cul and MacCulhain—the legendary heroes more usually known as Finn McCool and Cuchulainn.

Police station

Police station. Station to which the Philosopher goes in order to surrender, rather than hiding in the Leprechauns’ lair, resembles a military barracks. It has a walled garden, used as an exercise yard, but little can grow there save for creepers because the surrounding walls are so high. The cell in which he is confined is a subterranean cellar with a bench running around its walls, whose only window is a ground-level iron grating admitting a meager light. The cell’s only means of access is a wooden ladder extended from a hole in the ceiling.


*Kilmasheogue (kihl-ma-SHOHG). Hill south of Dublin that is transformed within the story into a mountain decked with fairy forts. On its heights the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath gathers a host of the Shee, representing every part of Ireland. (Shee is a phonetic spelling of Sidhe, the Gaelic word for the residual spirits of the ancient Irish dead.) The assembled host greets Angus Og and Caitlin before the entire company sets off on a delirious journey into bright and boundless space, seizing the Philosopher from his prison as they go—thus, symbolically, liberating human intellect from all the cruel jailers who stand guard over the realm of the mundane.


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Bramsback, Birgit. James Stephens: A Literary and Biographical Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Has a good chapter on Stephens that may be useful as a short overview of his life and work.

Finneran, Richard J. The Olympian and the Leprechaun: W. B. Yeats and James Stephens. Dublin, Ireland: Dolmen Press, 1978. Has many quotes and insights from Yeats on Stephens and his place in Irish literature.

McFate, Patricia. The Writings of James Stephens: Variations on a Theme of Love. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. Good at placing Stephens in historical and literary context.

Martin, Augustine. James Stephens: A Critical Study. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1977. Strong in critical analysis and debating themes.

Pyle, Hilary. James Stephens: His Work and an Account of His Life. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1965. Groundbreaking work in separating fact from fiction in Stephens’ life. A sympathetic account traces his origins, motivations, and influence.

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Critical Essays