Throughout Ireland, there are many hills, and all are of varying sizes. Some are covered in forest, some covered in gorse and heather, some covered in grass, and some others with rock and shale. Each and every hill has its own story in local folklore, but there are some which are particularly renowned. One particular hill stands out from the others and still haunts the people who live on or around its slopes. The hill has a peak that time has eroded into a smooth shape and, over one hundred years ago, the owner of the land built a small summerhouse there for his children. His daughters were often to be seen at the summerhouse, where they would picnic while admiring the beautiful scenery that surrounded them. But, just as Ireland changed over the subsequent years so did this small summerhouse, and it soon fell into ruin. Before the summerhouse was built, however, the hill was largely used as pasturage for cattle. In those times the herdsman would spend most of his days and nights on that peak.
It must be told, at this stage of the story, that the man who owned the land on and around the hill was not a popular character in the district. He was seen as one of the new, modern farmers who wanted to squeeze every last ounce of profit out of the land, neglecting any and all of the traditions of the local people. They had always considered the peak to be the home of the “Good People,” who blessed the entire district with their presence. Understandably, since the purchase of the land by the new owner, the “Good People” had grown restless and angry that their special place should be trampled over by the hooves of bulls, cows and sheep. Under normal circumstances tradition called for the “Good People” to be given both food and drink in return for their permission to work upon their special land. The new landowner had done nothing but show the “Good People” his disdain by choosing not to believe in their existence.
To the ears of the “Good People” the lowing of the cattle and the crying of the sheep were sad sounds that hurt them and made them melancholy. They turned to their queen and pleaded with her to do something to relieve their plight and the plight of the animals. The queen loved her people, of course, and listened with patience to their pleas for her assistance. At length she told her people that she would do something to drive away the animals from these places, along with those who cared for them. It was her decision to wait until the arrival of the harvest nights came, when cloudless skies would allow the moon to shine its silver light brightly upon the hill. On those peaceful nights the cattle and sheep would lie down to rest while the herdsmen also settled themselves to sleep beneath the bright, twinkling stars that filled the night sky. It was the the queen would come to them and make her appearance before them. She would dance, changing shapes from one ugly, frightening thing to another, threatening them by circling like a huge spider ready to strike with its deadly fangs.
In her first appearance the queen showed herself as a great horse, with the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a dragon. She came to them spitting fire and roaring so loudly that the ground trembled. Then she would change to a limping man with the head of a bull, over which a flame moved lightly and flickered softly in the darkness of the night. She would follow this by forming herself into a variety of hideous, monstrous shapes, that terrified those who saw her. She reared, hissed, bellowed and howled loudly, making those who saw her believe that the very doors of hell had been opened to allow all its demons into the world. Screaming in absolute terror the herdsmen pulled their great coats over their eyes, believing if they could not see the demon, then the demon could not see them. Shaking in their terror the herdsmen whimpered every prayer they could think of, to all the saints in heaven that they would come and rescue them. The Fairy Queen would blow up a strong breeze that removed the greatcoats that covered their eyes, despite the great efforts they made to keep them in place. Worse still, the saints to whom they offered such earnest pleas did not come and rescue them from the horror. They could not move in their fear and the hair on their heads stood up, turning grey because of the terror they felt. Even as they prayed their teeth chattered so much, as they shook with fear, that they were certain they would fall out of their mouths. Meanwhile, their herds were scampering here, there, and everywhere. Some animals called out loudly and bolted wildly, as if they had been driven mad by a huge swarm of biting flies. Frozen to the spot in their terror the herdsmen could do nothing for them.
The horrors of that first night only ended when the first rays of dawn’s sun shone upon the hill from the east. All around the herdsmen the cattle and sheep had been scattered everywhere. Many had fallen to the ground too exhausted to stand or graze upon the rich green grass. Others staggered about, walking into trees, bushes, and hedges. Some of the animals, because they had been so badly frightened, had stampeded into a pit, or ditch, maiming themselves beyond healing. These would have to be disposed of but, in the fast, flowing river that flowed by the base of the hill, many more were already dead. During the night they had been drawn down hill in their terror and carelessly ploughed into the fast, flowing stream.
Each and every night for the following two weeks the same events occurred until, finally there was hardly a man in the county who would dare take the job of herdsman on that hill. The stoutest and hardiest men had been recruited to the job and promised good rewards, but none stayed after they had been visited by the Fairy Queen. The once great herd of cattle and sheep had thinned rapidly and no amount of money or any other reward would convince a man to endure the horror of facing the demons that lived upon that hill. He who owned the herd was at a loss as to what he could do about the problem, while the fairies began to return to their former abode in greater numbers. Once again, the evenings were filled with fairy music and dancing, drinking and feasting, sports and challenges, all of which pleased the Fairy Queen.
The great landowner had continued to see his livestock become smaller in number and, with such losses, his income became seriously depleted. The man’s family worried about him as they watched the normal sparkle of life that he had possessed leave him. They were worried for his welfare because he had become so depressed. Moreover, they wondered what the future held for him and what would happen to them. But, in the local village of Ardee there lived a man known as “Fingers” Kelly. He would not have been anyone’s first choice as a potential saviour because he was better known for his drinking habits and for being a master of the “Uileann Pipes”. It was indeed true that Fingers enjoyed a good glass of whisky and a few glasses of porter. But it was also known that with a drink on him Fingers had the heart of a lion that feared no man or creature. He was not the type of man, drunk or sober, who would seek out trouble, but neither would he walk away from trouble if it sought him.
Fingers liked nothing more than taking a stroll into the countryside, where he could sit and play his pipes in peace. One evening as Fingers sat upon a large, black rock the landowner happened to pass by. Regularly the landowner would walk alongside the river that ran along the foot of the hill and consider what could be done. As he approached Fingers on his rocky perch the piper spoke to him. “Jimmy McCann, why do you have a face on you that would trip a train?” he asked.
“Fingers my man,” the landowner replied, “sure I find myself in a desperate way.”
“Dear God, Jimmy, what has happened?”
“It’s the fairies on the hill that have me destroyed,”
“Fairies?” asked Fingers.
Jimmy McCann sat down on the large rock with Fingers. “Aye. The fairies have took a great dislike to me and mine!” Jimmy told him. “I’m losing cattle left, right and centre, and every herdsman in the county has been scared off.”
Fingers put his pipes down on the rock, jumped down to the pathway and faced Jimmy. “Quit your worrying, Jimmy, sure I’ll help you,” he told him.
“Of course, I will. Sure, what sort of trouble could they give you? I can sort them out. After all they are much smaller than us,” laughed Fingers.
“Be careful what you say Fingers,” Jimmy warned him. “You don’t know who or what could be listening to you.”
Almost in unison they moved their heads to and fro trying to make sure they were alone and that no one could hear them speak. “If you will help me and take care of my cattle for one week on top of this hill, I will make sure you never want for anything,” he told Fingers quietly.
“That’s no problem, Jimmy” smiled Fingers, offering his hand to shake agreement on their deal.
Jimmy took his hand eagerly, shaking it strongly. There was a great sense of relief that came over him and he asked, “Start tonight?”
“Why not?” answered Fingers and the two men sauntered off, shoulder to shoulder, toward Jimmy’s house. In the big farmhouse Fingers was well fed, and well supplied with whisky, which would help him keep him warm in the cold air of night. After he had eaten well Fingers put on a heavy coat and, with his pipes over his shoulder, he walked to the top of the hill, just as the bright harvest moon rose into the cloudless night sky. What was left of Jimmy’s cattle and sheep were quietly grazing as he reached the summit, where he found a big stone in the hollow of a small hillock. The stone, he decided, would give him ample shelter from the cool night breezes and he began to settle down, unfurling his pipes to play a pleasant, quiet tune.
Fingers had just begun to play, completing only a couple of bars of his tune before hearing sweet voices from the shadows. He recognised them immediately as the voices of the fairy folk singing softly and comfortingly. As he strained his ears, however, he could also hear some of his visitors muttering and, occasionally, laughing. “It is another of those cattle watchers,” he heard one of them say. Go and report it to the Queen. He will be a sorry man that he ever dared set foot on this hill.” There was nothing more said, and Fingers could not see them leave with the darkness of the night. But, for some reason or other, he turned his head upward and looked at the top of the hollow in which he sat. There, above him, silhouetted against the bright, silver moon he saw the massive figure of a black cat. The back of the cat was raised as if ready to pounce, and the hairs along its spinal ridge were standing up. The creature’s huge claws looked like great spears ready to grab and pull apart its victim. As it looked down on Fingers with blood-red eyes the monster cat gave a strange, frightening noise and began to swell rapidly into yet another creature, much larger than the cat. As it made its metamorphosis the gigantic creature fell to the ground not far from where Fingers was sitting. The piper didn’t move, even as the creature rose up from the ground, and took the shape huge, savage Bear.
“Come to dance to the music of my pipes?” Fingers asked the creature calmly. There was no immediate reply to his question, but he continued, nonetheless. “Just you begin your dance and I will join in with the pipes.” The Fairy Queen remained silent while she changed her shape, taking on a variety of terrible and monstrous characters. Fingers, however, laughed loudly at her efforts to frighten him and he continued to play the pipes until the queen finally lost patience with her puzzling and stubborn opponent. If fear had no effect on this man, she thought, then she would try a different means of forcing him away from fairy lands. The queen instantly changed into a milk-white coloured calf and began to gently moo at the piper. Step by step she brought herself closer to Fingers and hoped to take him by surprise. She planned that by demonstrating a female gentility towards the man it might be enough to put him off his guard. Perhaps it would give her a much better opportunity to rid herself and her fairy folk of this human presence. Fingers, however, was no fool and could not be so easily deceived by such trickery. In her disguise as a milk-white calf the Queen came closer with a motion that showed him no sign of danger or threat. Suddenly, Fingers dropped his pipes to the ground and in one jump leaped upon the back of the calf.
It was the fairy queen who was caught completely by surprise when Fingers jumped on her back, but she reacted quickly to rid herself once of this burden. She immediately began to buck and leap in the moonlight that lit up the night sky. But no matter how hard she tried the queen could do nothing to loosen the grip that Finger’s had on her. In her frustration the Fairy Queen summoned all her strength and took a huge leap from the steepest side of the Hill. With one enormous bound her flight took her across the wide and fast flowing river that coursed by the base of the hill. Then, as she landed on the far bank of the river, she kicked up her heels once again, loosening the man’s grip and causing him to fall from her back on to the soft turf. After catching his breath Fingers lifted himself up on one elbow and he looked the queen directly in the eyes. “That was a big leap for such a small calf”, he laughed aloud.
In an instant the queen returned to her own shape and stood over the man lying on the ground. “You mean it was some leap to be made with you upon my back,” she said. “Would you like to go back the same way you came?”
Fingers was quite undisturbed by the apparent threat and replied, “Why not?” Then, as the queen returned to the shape of a calf once more, Fingers jumped upon her back. He had hardly got himself settled before she took one huge bound that brought them back to the summit of the hill.
The queen resumed her natural shape and again came to stand before Fingers. “You have shown great courage in standing to face all the horrors that I have brought upon you. You stayed upon my back as I leaped from this great hill and back again,” the queen smiled at him. “I will honour the courage you have shown, and I will tell you now that while you keep the herds on this hill you never shall be molested by me or my people!”
Fingers was happy with what he had heard and thanked the queen graciously. “Look to the east now,” she said. “The morning sun is about to rise and you should go immediately to farmer McCann and tell him of my promise to you. Be assured that if ever there should be any service that I can do for you, ask and you shall have it.” With these words the Fairy Queen disappeared from Fingers’ sight
It has been many years since the events in this story, but the fairy queen kept her word and never again visited the hill during the remainder of Fingers Kelly’s life. In like manner Kelly never troubled the queen nor her people with any requests. For many years he continued to play his pipes on the hill while he attended the cattle and never again had he to pay for a drink out of his own pocket. In fact, Fingers Kelly never wanted for anything ever again, living his life to the full and in comfort. When Fingers eventually passed away, he was buried at the foot of the hill, on the Riverbank and near the big stone on which he played his pipes. There are those who will tell you that on peaceful summer evenings, if you walk on the hill, you can still hear the melodious refrains of the “Uillean Pipes” wafted upon the breezes that blow across the summit. They also say that if you can keep your approach quiet you will have every opportunity to see the Fairy Queen and her folk dancing to the music that the spirit of Fingers Kelly plays for them.
“On the hill at Ardee
They say you can see
The Dancing Queen and her Fairies.
Then comes the sunrise
and the sun shines in your eyes.You’ll see no more than the daisies.”