Ask most people what they think of when they think of Ireland, you would probably be answered with “Shamrocks, Harps, and Thatched Cottages”, and probably in that order. But, sadly that iconic symbol of Ireland, the Thatched Cottage, have been disappearing from the Irish landscape for generations. The plague of emigration has struck many parts of the island and hundreds of these one-time homes have been left to ruination. The thatched roofs have been allowed to rot and disintegrate, the rain to wash the mortar out from between the stones and leaving only house-shaped piles of dry stones. It is these that have become such a familiar sight in Ireland’s rural landscape. Those old cottages that have not been allowed to fall to wreck and ruin have been given a modern conversion for the roofing, such as corrugated-iron, slate, and tile.
Nowadays, there are less than 1,500 traditionally thatched cottages left in the whole of Ireland, which make it more vital than ever that we preserve them. Although they have proved themselves, over the generations, to be durable and environmentally friendly, in our modern technical age they are seen to be obsolete products of Irish history and tradition.
Though in some places, people are restoring old cottages or thatching new cottages built in the style of the old, less than 1 in 100 of the population live in them. It is quite a difference from the days of 19th century Ireland when over 50% of the population slept under the security of a thatched roof.
Thatching is one of the greatest symbols of our traditional building in Ireland and it has been around since prehistoric times. A thatched roof was the key part of any traditional building for it was the thatched roof that provided the family with shelter and protection at a very cheap cost. These buildings were usually constructed by local tradesmen, who used locally sourced materials to complete the work. These men were plentiful in number in years gone by and their trade had been handed down from father to son. The buildings themselves were, however, usually small in size (traditionally one room), simple in their design (usually rectangular in shape) and were built from local materials such as mud or rocks for the walls and thatch for the roof.
The availability of these building materials in sufficient quantities was vital to the creation of the cottages. The idea of bringing in materials from other areas could not be considered, especially before the introduction of modern transport such as railways, lorries, or canals. The transportation of large, heavy loads was impossible also because of affordability. Even if adequate transport systems had been in operation it was beyond the means of the ordinary Irishman and peasant to pay for the materials, their transportation, and the employment of skilled builders to construct the cottage.
Naturally, the materials used in the building of rural cottages varied across the years, and from region to region. The materials employed would depend on the financial resources of the family, and also on what was available locally. The walls of the building were the most important parts of the construction but could prove to be the most expensive. Poorer families, for the most part, used mud that was tempered with strengthening agents such as straw, reeds or animal matter. Lime mortar, however, was the most desirable material for walls but it was the most expensive.
For many hundreds of years, the most indispensable material in creating the roofs of Irish cottages was thatch. In normal circumstances these roofs began with overlapping layers of sod were placed on the timbers. Then, on top of this layer, the straw thatch was laid. This thatch was derived from a variety of natural materials such as wheat and flax, which was carefully cut and threaded by the Thatcher until every part of the roof was covered and protected from the elements. In most cases, it would take the thatcher to place over 5,000 handfuls of straw to complete the work on the roof. This craft was a skilled trade and was passed down through the generations from father to son, and for the thatcher, the work was regular, since the thatched roof, depending on the material and its condition, would require replacing anywhere from five to twenty years.
Thatch had been the main roofing material for centuries in Ireland, but this began to change after Ireland won its independence from Britain. The new ‘Free State’ government, when it was established in Dublin, began to offer grants to the people for home improvements. Thatch now began to fall out of favour as Ireland’s homeowners took advantage of the funding to replace thatch with slates or tiles, which did not need to be repaired or replaced as often. The side-effect of all this was the virtual disappearance of the Thatcher’s craft, that had been handed down from one generation to the next. Lack of work in their trade saw the Thatcher move from rural Ireland into the towns or emigrate to other countries. Becoming a rarity in Ireland, where it was once so common, gradually made thatched roofs an expensive option for homeowners and the exorbitant cost of repairing thatch caused many cottages to be abandoned to decay or used to house livestock. Sadly, in our more modern times the decline in the popularity of thatched cottages, thatching has become rare as a family trade. But it has not totally disappeared, and several groups and individuals are continuing the craft throughout Ireland by helping to restore existing cottages and to assist in building new ones.
From various records and research, the thatched roof in nineteenth-century Ireland was a sign of poverty. The grand houses of the Landlords had slated or tiled roofs while the peasantry occupied the thatched, mud-walled cottages. Perhaps it was the stigma of poverty that was attached to thatched roofs in Ireland that helped in its demise when materials such as tiles and slated became more available. As new slated roofs sprang up throughout the country many people may have become ashamed of their poor-looking homes, so when the time came and modern materials became more easily available and affordable, they had no hesitation in abandoning their thatched roofs.
In my various readings and studies of Irish Traditions and Folklore I have picked up many useful notes on how best to behave. These notes refer to an ‘Irish Wake’, which is very solemn occasion, but also full of celebration that the soul of the dead person has gone to a much better place.
Consider these points:
Never use a short cut to bring a body home to the house of the church.
Stop the clocks in the ‘wake house’.
When fires go out, do not remove any ashes from the ‘wake house’.
Do not light a candle from the flame of another at a wake. If you cannot find a match or lighter, then light it at the fire.
Refuse no person a smoke at a wake, let them take at least a couple of draws.
Refuse no person a drink or a bite to eat but give out both liberally.
Don’t silence laughter, because it may be caused by humorous stories concerning the actions of the deceased.
Put a cloth over all mirrors in the house.
Besides the above there are several useful helpful tips and warnings about things that might just happen
A cock crowing at an unusual hour at night is a sign of trouble or death, while a hen crowing at any time is a much surer sign.
A dog crying round a house is also a sign of death in that house.
You should not look not in a looking-glass at night, and if you break a looking-glass, you’ll have no luck for seven years.
You should never brush a floor in the direction of the door, because if you do you sweep away all the luck that’s in the house.
Finally, other than something borrowed and something blue, a girl who is getting married should wear, on her wedding day, something that belongs to a married woman.
There is great luxuriance about Irish mythology, filled with Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Spirits and fantastic creatures of all sorts. This is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the history and characteristics of the ‘Fairy Folk’, more commonly known in Ireland as ‘The Good People.’ As with most mythological characters the origins of these people are confused and the subject of widespread debate. One popular belief concerning the origins of ‘The Fairy Folk’ suggests their beginnings are linked to a group of invaders known as the ‘Tuatha de Danann,’ which means “the people of the goddess Danu”, who were revered as gods by the native Irish. Over time, however, the ‘Tuatha de Danann’ succumbed to fresh invaders, who banished these so-called gods to the underground portion of Ireland. It is from this that people came to believe that fairies lived under the ground, and they came to be called ‘The Sidhe’ (pronounced: Shee).
Another popular belief, that may arise from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, suggests that the ‘Fairy Folk’ were once angels and were so numerous that they formed a large part of the population in heaven. When Satan turned against God and gathered a host of angels around him in open rebellion, there were some who did not want to join in the war that followed. They were fearful of the consequences that might be visited upon them by the victor and, therefore, preferred to see who won the battle before taking sides. Then, when the rebellious angels were defeated and expelled from heaven, those angels who had stood aside and did nothing were also banished. The offence of these neutral angels was one of omission rather than rebellion and they were not consigned to an eternity in the pit of hell with Satan and his followers. They were, instead, sent to earth where they were to remain, but not without hope that they may receive a pardon on the last day and be re-admitted to heaven. They are, therefore, expected to be on best behaviour, but they do retain the power to do a great amount of harm. It is for this reason that they are feared and only spoken of in quiet among the rural Irish, even today.
Stories about the fairy folk have been heard from all parts of the world, and one of the most interesting and consistent things about them appears to be that they can shape shift and make themselves look like anyone or anything they wish. They are, however, believed to be smaller than humans, averaging a height of between three and four feet. Generally, within Irish folklore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are described as being slightly taller than people and very beautiful, with reports suggesting that some fairies, such as the ‘Irish Sidhe’, were typically of a height of seven feet tall. One report I read says, “Though, by nature, they’re not the length of your finger, they can make themselves the size of a tower when it pleases them, and have that ugliness that you’d faint with the looks of them, as knowing they can strike you dead on the spot, or change you into a dog, or a pig, or a unicorn, or any other dirty beast they please.“
These ‘Good People’ were often seen wearing clothes of red and green that depended upon the tribe to which they belonged and their rank within the tribe. Some were described as having green skin, while other sources describe them as looking much like humans but with a strange, ‘otherworldly’ aura about them. and the appearance of being either very young or very old to help in the perception of mortals to their wisdom. It is said that, generally, the people of the fairy hills were very pale and were usually finely dressed, but otherwise were human-like in their appearance. Stories say that the ‘Fairy Folk’ often appear wearing green, red or grey clothing, and may have blond or brown hair. They could be either male or female and could appear either alone or in groups. But, when it comes to their clothes, the records generally agree that young lady fairies wear pure white robes and usually allow their hair to flow loosely over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the more matronly fairies tie up their tresses in a coil on the top or back of the head and surrounding their temple with a golden band. The young gentlemen fairies wear green jackets, with white breeches and stockings. But, when a fairy of either sex has need of a cap or head-covering, they will use the flower of the foxglove. Within Irish folklore, however, the female fairies are known to appear with messages or warnings, while groups of male fairies would gather to play games of Hurling, for which they needed a single human player in order to have the game.
It has, in the past, been considered irreverent and bad luck to call the ‘Fairy Folk’ by that name, or simply ‘Fairies’, and the rural folk of Ireland became accustomed to creating more genteel substitutes such as ‘The Good People.’ Although this reluctance to use the term ‘Fairies’ seems to be relaxing in these modern days, there is still a widespread preference to use the substitute names instead. In this article we will try to remain with those terms that most people are familiar with, such as the ‘Wee Folk’ or the ‘Little People’. It is likely that such terms were derived as a means of minimising their power and influence, and as a description of their physical stature.
Many in the world have heard of the Irish ‘Leprechaun’ and consider them to be members of the ‘Fairy Folk’, but they are said by some to be unfit associates for the ‘Good People’. Nevertheless, the ‘Good People’ are a sociable community who always live in large societies with each member involved in a plan of work that is to the benefit of all. They own all their property, the kind and value of which is unknown, in common and are united in their desire to achieve any communal objective. But they are, however, divided into groups of evil or good, which are occasionally involved in night-time battles with each other. The male fairies are very familiar with every military role and, like most of Ireland’s population, are divided into various factions. But, unlike other the mortal factions, the objects of contention among the fairy factions is rarely known for definite. There is a report of a great battle among the fairies that occurred many years ago in County Kerry. One party of fairy warriors stood upon a Rath, while the opposing army of fairies stood on an unused and lonely graveyard. The only mortal to witness the encounter was Paddy O’Donoghue, who related what he saw as follows – “Sure, wasn’t I lying beside the road, being on my way home, weak and tired with all the walking I had done? There was a bright moon out that night, and I heard a noise like a million soldiers tramping on the road, so I rose up and looked, and the way ahead was full of little men. These creatures were just the length of my hand, with green coats on, and all stood in rows like one of those army regiments, each man with a pike on his shoulder and a shield on his arm.One was in the front, as if he was the general, walking with his chin up as proud as a peacock. By God, but I was terribly scared, and I prayed faster than ever I had done in my life, for they were far too close to me for comfort or convenience. But they all went by, not a single one of them turning his head to look at me at all, thanks be to God for that, and so, they left me. After they were completely gone, I was curious to see what they were after, so I followed them, a good bit behind them, and ready to jump and run like a hare at the least noise, for I was afraid that if they caught me, they’d make me a pig at once or change me into some kind of a beast. They marched into the field between the graveyard and the Rath, and there was another army there with red coats, from the graveyard, and the two armies had the biggest fight you’ve ever seen, the greens against the reds. After looking on for a bit, I got excited, for the greens were beating the reds badly, and I up and gave a yahoo and called out, ‘At them again! Don’t leave one of those blackguards untouched!’ And with that word, the sight left my eyes and I remember no more until morning, and there I was, lying on the road where I had seen them, as stiff as a crutch.”
They say that fairy bodies are not composed of flesh and bone like we mortals, but of a kind of ethereal substance whose true nature is unknown. They can be clearly seen by some, many reports of which have been recorded, but some observers also tell us that they can also be seen through as if looking through a mist. In Ireland there is a belief that the fairies have a white blood, which is spilled in those occasional night battles between different groups of which the only evidence appears to be the remains of an inexplicable white liquid (Fairy Blood). They have, of course, the power of being able to vanish from the sight of mortals and the fact that the air seems to be filled with their presence causes ordinary mortals to give them respect. There are reports of them being heard without being seen, especially when they travel through the air and are recognised by the humming noise like that made by swarms of bees. It must be said, however, that despite modern artistic interpretations of the ‘Fairy Folk’ there is no evidence as to them possessing wings. A certain Kerry man, called Barney Murphy, thought that they had wings for he had seen several a number of years ago that seemed to have long, semi-transparent pinions, “like them that grows on a dragon-fly,” described them. But Barney’s neighbours, however, contradicted his report by adamantly denying that the ‘Good People’ had wings, suggesting that at the time Barney saw the fairies he was too drunk to distinguish a pair of wings from a pair of legs, and so this evidence of fairy wings must remain in doubt.
Fairy lore allows us to divide the ‘Good People’ into two distinct categories, i.e. ‘Trooping Fairies’ or ‘Solitary Fairies’. The trooping fairies are a matriarchal society and they consider socialisation and status important within their community. Moreover, they can be further divided into those who are known to be good and those who are more disposed to be bad. The ‘Solitary Fairies’ obviously live alone, but they are known to attach themselves to a certain family or house. But, despite what type of fairy is present, it is often recommended that local people leave offerings outside their homes overnight as a means of appeasing them. Even if the food offered is still there the next morning the people believed that it was the fairies would have appreciated the thought at least.
The people had other means and methods to prevent bad things from happening to them, including the keeping of a few charms and talismans handy that might just work against fairy magic. Iron is the most well-known and effective element to ward off the fairy folk, though steel might prove to be a better weapon because it is a much purer form of iron. In Irish folklore it is known that the importance of Iron does not just lie in its ability to ward off the fairies. It is also known as a means of deterring ghosts, witches, and more supernatural beings. The sound of bells and whistling can also keep away fairies and, if you ever found yourself being chased by evil fairies, you could leap to safety by crossing running water. By throwing burning embers at the fairies you could drive them away from entering your house, and some people would sprinkle their clothes with oatmeal while also carrying some in their pockets to guard against the fairies approaching. Four leaf clovers have always been considered lucky and will break any fairy magic, or you could always plant a rowan tree outside your house, or as a last choice you could simply try any blessed religious item. But mortals should always remember that there are many reasons as to why you should not even think of offending the fairies. Stories have described how fairy folk, when they feel themselves offended might lift extremely heavy objects, leave your hair in terrible tangles, or even replace your child with one of their own, or a magical block of wood.
In the mythology of Ireland, we have learned that the ‘Good People’ are derived from ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and are the original inhabitants of the ‘hollow hills’. They are the beings most strongly associated with agriculture and the produce of the land, and those ‘hollow hills’ in which they live are believed to be the entrances to their land of the ‘Fairy Folk’, sometimes called ‘Fairyland’. The ‘Good People’ were just as likely to be connected to mysterious, otherworldly islands that usually appeared in the West to fishermen but could never be reached, as they were to the hills and mounds of Ireland itself. (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In Irish lore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are everywhere. They live in the land, on the sea, and in the air. They are associated with the mounds and stone circles that litter the Irish landscape, as well as the multitude of watery places such as wells, springs, the sea and bogs, caverns, and strange swirls of wind, as well as specific trees, particularly lone Hawthorn trees.
It is also common belief in Ireland that the ‘Fairy Folk’ live in a parallel world to our own, into which mortals can accidentally enter through ‘Fairy Rings’. Although this other world may run in parallel to our own, time does not pass in the same way as it does in our mortal world. Tradition tells us that once a mortal enters this ‘Fairy Land’, there is almost no means of going back to their own world, and many Irish tales abound with stories concerning those people who were kidnapped by the ‘Fairy Folk’. Within these tales we can see that the concept of the ‘Fairy Land’ in Irish minds was just as complex as their beliefs about the ‘Fairy Folk’ that inhabited that land. On every occasion these ‘Fairy Lands’ were always described as being places of great beauty, wealth and peace. It is, therefore, not surprising to read in these stories that many mortals brought to such places did not want to leave until an overwhelming longing overtook them to see their families and homes. But, when these people did leave the ‘Fairy Land’ they would discover that hundreds of years had passed, and they would die and fade into dust as soon as they came in contact with mortality once again.
The ‘Good People’ are not confined just to their own realms, or the area around the entrances into those realms. Many stories reveal that they were able to go out into our world, occasionally appearing in local markets and fairs. Often, they would go unrecognized in such places, unless someone with the second sight saw them or they encountered someone who had previously dealt with them and still retained the ability to see them.
In the fairy lore of the Celts, the ‘Good People’ are described as being ruled by a monarchy and included a working class who were permitted to visit human markets and fairs in disguise, or were able to appear to farmers as people seeking to borrow something from them. When seen they were often riding on fine horses, coloured black, white or grey, and with hounds following. In older tales it is indicated that the deer in the forests are the cattle of the fairies. But it is on the quarter days Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa that the ‘Good People’ are said to be particularly active, moving from one hollow hill to another along long-established fairy roads. At Samhain and Bealtaine fairy influence is at its strongest and all mortals should take great care to avoid upsetting them. Bealtaine was known to be a time when the ‘Good People’ travelled the land, appearing as a stranger at the door of various houses asking for milk, or a coal from the fire. By giving these items to the ‘Good People’ it was said the household would have secured good luck for the year ahead. At Samhain, however, they are known to move from their summer to their winter homes in the hollow hills, and it is said that mortals face great danger if they come across them at night, for they are especially active between twilight and midnight. They travel in large bands and, although their parties are never seen in the daytime, there is little difficulty in following their line of march, for it has been reported that, “sure they make the most terrible little cloud of dust ever raised, and not a bit of wind causing it at all,” so that a fairy migration is sometimes the talk of the entire county.
The most malicious fairy host, an airborne tribe, are known to be most active at night, appearing as a wind that is very much feared by the country people. When this wind comes upon them the people avert their eyes from it and pray for safety, because they sometimes take people. These mortals are often taken great distances, where they may be kept forever, helping the ‘Good People’ as they carry out their mayhem and mischief throughout the country.
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are usually invisible to the eyes of mortal people, unless they wish for themselves to be seen, or the mortal has the gift of ‘second sight’. This ability to seem invisible is due to their power to deceive human senses by making one thing appear like another, such as making a handful of leaves being made to look like gold coins. Nevertheless, their movements along fairy paths and roads can be noticed by other means. The ‘Good People’ are known to ride out in procession, or ‘Fairy Raids’, which could prove to be dangerous to any mortal beings that they came across. As they ride out, they can create sudden whirlwinds or sudden blasts of wind, and they are known to present a threat to new brides, midwives and new-born babies.
The ‘Good People’ have the family relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and although it is said by some that fairy husbands and wives have as many little disagreements as are found in mortal households, “for, sure a woman’s tongue is longer than a man’s patience,” and “a husband is bound to be nagged incessantly day in and day out, for a woman’s jaw is sharpened on the devil’s grindstone,” yet opinions unfavourable to married happiness among the fairies are not generally well received. On the contrary, it is believed that married life in fairy circles is regulated on the basis of the absolute submission of the wife to the husband. This particular point was explained by a Donegal woman in this way, “They’re one, that’s the husband and the wife, but he’s more the one than she is.” Meanwhile, the love of children is one of the most prominent traits of fairy character, but as it manifests itself by stealing beautiful babes, replacing them by young ‘Leprechauns’ as changelings, the fairies are much dreaded by mothers along the west coast of Ireland, and they take many precautions against the ‘Fairy Folk’. Thefts of this kind now rarely occur, but at one time they were common, as “in them old days, you could see ten fairies where there isn’t one now, because they are leaving the country.“
A notable case of baby stealing occurred in the family of Termon MacGrath, who had a castle, now in picturesque ruins, on the shore of Lough Erne, in the County Donegal. The person telling the story was a ‘wise woman’ who lived in what was an apology for a cabin. It was, indeed, a thatched shed that had been placed against the precipitous side of the glen almost beneath the castle. The wretched shelter was nearly concealed from view by the overhanging branches of a large tree and by thick undergrowth, and seemed unfit for a pig-sty, but, though her surroundings were poor beyond description, ‘Old Meg,’ as her neighbour said, “knew a great deal about fairies and witches and could keep them from a baby better than any woman that ever drew breath.” Giving her a bit of tobacco, to enable her to take a draw of the pipe, quickly brought out the story. “It’s many years ago, that Termon MacGrath went, with all his army, to the war in the County of Tyrone, and while he was gone the baby was born and they called her Eva. She was her mother’s first, so she felt mighty uneasy in her mind about her, knowing that the ‘Good People’ always go after the first one that comes, and even more when it’s a girl they try harder to steal than when it’s a boy, because they believe that they’re easier to rear, although it’s me that doesn’t believe that one girl makes more trouble than do ten boys and isn’t as good.So, when the baby was born they sent out for an old witch of a widow who had set herself up as a wise woman, and she knew no more about doctoring than a pig, but they thought she could keep away the fairies, and that’s a job that takes one who tries to have no end of knowledge in the fairy folk. But the poor old woman did the best that she knew how, and so, God be good to her, she wasn’t to be blamed for that. But it’s the likes of her that put shame on them that have great knowledge of such things, for they make people think all wise women as ignorant as she is, herself. So she made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead with ashes, and she told them to bite off its nails and not to cut them until nine weeks had passed, and she held a burning candle before its eyes, so it would do the deeds of light and not of darkness, and mixed sugar and salt and oil, and gave it to her, so that her life would be sweet and long preserved and go smooth, but the old widow forgot one thing. She didn’t put a lucky shamrock, that’s got four leaves, in a gospel and tie it around the baby’s neck with a thread pulled out of her gown, and not remembering to do this, all the rest was no good at all. Nor did she tell the mother not to take her eyes off the child until the ninth day, for after that the fairies couldn’t take her. So the nurse took the baby into the next room and laid it on the bed, and went away for a minute, but thinking that she heard it cry, back she came and there was the baby, bedclothes and all just going through the floor, being dragged away by the fairies.The nurse scratched and caught the clothes and the maid helped her, so that the two of them pulled with all their might and got the bedclothes up again, but while the child was out of sight, the fairies changed it and put a fairy child in its place, but the nurse didn’t know what the fairies had done, nor had the old witch, that shows she was an ignorant woman entirely. But the fairies took Eva away under the lake where they treated her wonderfully. Every night they gave her a dance, with the loveliest music that was ever heard, with big drums and little drums, and fiddles and pipes and trumpets, for such a band the ‘Good People’ do have when they give a dance. So she grew and the queen said she should have a husband among the fairies, but she fell in love with an old Leprechaun, and the queen, to prevent such a thing, let her walk on the shore of the lake where she met Darby O’Hoolighan and loved him and married him with the queen’s consent. The queen told her to tell him if he struck her three blows without a reason, she’d leave him and come back to the fairies. The queen gave her a great number of riches, sheep and pigs without number and more oxen than you could count in a week. So, she and Darby lived together as happy as two doves, and she hadn’t as much care as a blind piper’s dog, moreover, they had two boys as good looking as their mother and as strong as their father.
“One day, after they’d been married seventeen years, she and Darby were going to a wedding, and she was slow, so Darby told her for to hurry and gave her a slap on the shoulder with the palm of his hand, and she began to cry. He asked her what was wrong with her and she told him he’d struck her the first of the three blows. So, he was very sorry and said he’d be careful in the future, but it wasn’t more than a year after, when he was teaching one of the boys to use a stick, that she got behind him and got hit with the shillelagh. That was the second blow, and made her lose her temper, and they had a real quarrel. So, he got mad, saying that neither of the blows ought to be counted, for they were both accidental. So, he flung the stick against the wall, ‘Devil take the stick,’ he said, and went out quick, and the stick fell back from the wall and hit her on the head. ‘That’s the third,’ she said, and she kissed her sons and walked out. Then she called the cows in the field and they left their grazing and followed her; she called the oxen in the stalls and they stopped eating and came out; and she spoke to the calf that was hanging in the yard, that they’d killed that morning and it got down and came along. The lamb that was killed the day before, it came; and the pigs that were salted and hanging up to dry, they came, all after her in a string.Then she called to her things in the house, and the chairs walked out, and the tables, and the chest of drawers, and the boxes, all of them put out legs like beasts and came along, with the pots and pans, and gridiron, and buckets, and noggins, leaving the house as bare as an evicted tenant’s, and all after her to the lake, where they went under and disappeared, and haven’t been seen by man to this blessed day.
“Now, there’s some that say the story isn’t true, because, they say how would a woman do such a thing and go off that a way and take everything she had, just because her husband hit her by accident those three times. But those who say it forget that she was a young woman, even if she did have those boys I was telling you about, and faith, it’s no lie I’m saying, that it’s not in the power of the angels of God to be knowing what a young woman will be doing. After they get old, and losing their teeth, and their beauty goes, then they’re sober and get over those notions; but it takes a long time to make an old one out of a young wan.
“But she didn’t forget the boys she’d left, and once in a while she’d come to the edge of the lake when they were close by the bank and spoke with them, for even, if she was half a fairy, she’d a mother’s heart that the good God put in her bosom; and one time they saw her with little man along with her, that was a Leprechaun, as they knew by the look of him, and that makes me believe that the real reason for her leaving her husband was to get back the old Leprechaun she was in love with before she was married to Darby O’Hoolighan.”
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are known to have produced children with humans and in order to procreate they have a nasty habit of stealing a bride from her wedding to marry one of their own kind instead. At some later date they might even kidnap a midwife to assist the bride to deliver the child of her fairy husband. Their penchant for kidnapping new brides is believed to be a result of their low birth rate and the need to increase their population with human babies and women. There are some who mighty dispute this cause, but what other cause could there be for stealing brides and babies, for which they are famed.
Within Irish folklore there are ample stories concerning kidnapped midwives and musicians who are released back into their own world after an agreed time period. Normally, those mortals taken into the fairy realm can never return if the eat or drink anything while there, but this rule does not hold for those who are taken for a pre-determined time period. There are also stories of those who go to the ‘Good People’ for a single night of dancing and entertainment only to emerge the next morning to find that four, forty, or four hundred years have passed in the mortal world.
The fairies commonly made their homes only in raths and Tumuli of Pagan days in Ireland, and, for this reason, the raths are much dreaded, and after sundown are avoided by the ordinary peasant folk. Attempts have been made to remove some of these raths from the landscape, but the unwillingness of the local people to engage in the work, no matter what inducements may be offered to them, has generally resulted in the work being abandoned. It has been reported that on one of the islands in the Upper Lake of Killarney there is a rath, and the proprietor, finding it occupied too much ground, resolved to have it levelled to increase the arable surface of the field. The work was begun, but one morning, in the early dawn, as the laborers were crossing the lake on their way to the island, they saw a procession of about two hundred persons, dressed like monks, leave the island and proceed to the mainland, followed, as the workmen thought, by a long line of small, shining figures. The phenomenon might have been genuine, but a mirage is by no means an uncommon appearance in some parts of Ireland, nevertheless work on the rath was at once postponed indefinitely. Besides raths, old castles, deserted graveyards, ruined churches, secluded glens in the mountains, springs, lakes, and caves are all homes and resorts to fairies, as is very well known on Ireland’s west coast.
As we know, there are many fairy hills and raths that exist throughout the island of Ireland, and between them run fairy roads and paths which are also invisible to mortal eyes. It is traditional that people refuse to build on such roads and paths, because to do so will inevitably bring the builder bad-luck, and often death. It is not such a good idea to disturb the site of the ‘Good Peoples’’ home, and to dig into a fairy mound, or cut down a fairy tree, will certainly bring the disturber misfortune and, perhaps, death. Even in this modern, technologically advanced society that Ireland has become there is still a very strong belief in such things will participate in protests against many road plans if it interferes with fairy trees, raths or mounds. It is also a fact that heavy fines can be placed upon those people who would destroy or damage fairy mounds, even if they are on private property.
The ‘Good People’ can either bless or harm mortals with whom they come into contact, and their gifts could bring great blessings to those who receive them, or they can be simple illusions that become worthless by dawn. In the same way the ‘Fairy Wind’ can bring illness or cause injury to humans including a sudden cramp, or stitch that tradition says is caused by an invisible ‘shot’ from an arrow fired by a disgruntled fairy. In some cases, this ‘Fairy Shot’ might be used against cattle and would cause them to waste away after they are struck, but it was a power that could be granted to witches that are close to the ‘Good People.’ In fact, it was widely believed in Ireland that witches learned their magic arts, for good or bad, from the ‘Good People’ with whom they were believed to closely associate themselves. Such friends of the ‘Fairy Folk’ were, of course, privy taught special knowledge and things like magic and healing. A favoured musician, a harpist or piper, might be given greater skill or particularly good instrument. The main amusements of the fairies consist of music, dancing, and ball-playing. In music their skill exceeds that of men, while their dancing is perfect, the only drawback being the fact that it blights the grass, “fairy-rings” of dead grass, apparently caused by a peculiar fungous growth, being common in Ireland. Although their musical instruments are few, the fairies can use these few with wonderful skill. It is said that near Colooney, in County Sligo, there was a “Wise Woman,” whose grandmother’s aunt once witnessed a fairy ball, the music for which was furnished by an orchestra which the management had no doubt been at great pains and expense to secure and instruct. She stated, “It was the cutest sight alive. There was a place for them to stand on, and a wonderful big fiddle of the size you could sleep in it, that was played by a monstrous frog, and two little fiddles, that two kittens fiddled on, and two big drums, beaten by cats, and two trumpets, played by fat pigs. All around the fairies were dancing like angels, the fireflies giving them light to see by, and the moonbeams shining on the lake, for it was by the shore it was, and if you don’t believe it, the glen’s still there, that they call the ‘Fairy Glen’ to this day.”
The fairies do much singing, usually in chorus, and their songs were formerly more frequently heard than they are today. Even now a belated peasant, who has been at a wake, or is coming home from a fair, in passing a rath will sometimes hear the soft strains of their voices in the distance, and will hurry away before they discover his presence and be angry at the unwelcome intrusion on their privacy. When in unusually good spirits they will sometimes admit a mortal to their celebrations, but should he speak, the scene at once vanishes, he becomes insensible, and generally finds himself by the roadside the next morning, “with that degree of pains in his arms and legs and back, that if sixteen thousand devils were after him, he couldn’t move a toe to save his own soul, that’s what the fairies do by pinching and punching him for coming on them and speaking out loud.”
As previously stated, they might appear as a stranger seeking to borrow something, needing milk or coal from the fire, or be encountered alone in a field or wood, or on a road. Those mortals brave enough to seek them out might choose to sleep on fairy mounds, or raths, or rings, in the knowledge that it would result in either a blessing or madness.
Thankfully, there are a variety of charms to protect us against the ‘Fairy Folk’, which are far too numerous to get into any depth with here. One example of these is – to keep a new mother and her baby safe from the ‘fairies’ they would be given milk from a cow who had eaten a ‘bog-violet’ (mothan). A charm to force a fairy host into releasing anyone they may have taken is to throw the dust from the road, an iron knife, or your left shoe at them and say, “This is yours; that is mine!” (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In those cases where a person is suffering from a bad fairy spell or curse, a ‘Fairy Doctor’ must be found, who is a person who has special knowledge of the fairies. These ‘Doctors’ are able to diagnose the exact cause and produce the appropriate charm, chant, or herb that will cure the unfortunate victim. Farmers, meanwhile, would tie a red ribbon on their cattle or horses as a means of keeping fairies away. Some would tie a rowan twig on to a cow’s tail, or lightly strike the animals with rowan or hazel switches to achieve the same aim. Just as rowan and red thread is known to protect things from fairies, there are other well-known protections, such as anything that is made of iron.
A means of maintaining good relations with the ‘Fairy Folk’ is to offer the gifts such as milk, butter, and bread left by the doorway, or at the roots of a ‘Fairy Tree’, as well as a small amount of whatever one is drinking poured out onto the ground. In some instances, milk might be thrown in the air for the fairies or butter buried near a bog as an offering to them. On holy days, it was customary for some people to offer a heavy porridge that was poured into a hole in the earth, or bread which could be left out, or tossed over the shoulder. Among other people it was customary, on Beltaine, to bleed live cattle and offer the blood collected to the fairies. These days people still make offerings to the ‘Good People’ in certain parts of Ireland which include milk, cream, bread or other baked goods, honey, and portions of meals, as well as alcohol.
In conclusion, it must be pointed out that there appears to be a long standing and complex association between the ‘Fairy Folk’ and the dead. In fact, the dead often appear among the ranks of the ‘Good People’, especially the newly dead. There is also evidence to suggest that better class of fairies are fond of human society and often act as guardians to those they love. In parts of Donegal and Galway they are believed to receive the souls of the dying and escort them to the gates of heaven although they are not allowed to enter with them. On this account, fairies love graves and graveyards, having often been seen walking to and fro among the grassy mounds. There are, indeed, some accounts of faction fights among the fairy bands at or shortly after a funeral, the question in dispute being whether the soul of the departed belonged to one or the other faction.
There are many stories within Irish folklore that feature someone seeing a person whom they thought to be dead. This is often explained by saying that the person in question had not died but was taken by the ‘Fairy Folk’ and a ‘Changeling’ left behind, which was buried in the person’s name. In many stories a person is believed to have died but appears, often in a dream, to a loved one and explains that they have been taken into ‘Fairy Land’ and can only be rescued in a certain way .This rescue plan usually involves the living person going to a crossroads at midnight when the ‘Fairy Raid’ will pass by and grabbing their loved one from the horse he or she is riding.
Giving honour and offerings to the ‘Fairy Folk’ is an important aspect of an Irish folklore customs and are traditions that we would all do well to continue in our modern, scientifically and technologically advanced world. The more kindly fairies often take great pleasure in assisting those who treat them with proper respect, and as the favours always take a practical form, there is sometimes a business value in the show of reverence for them. There was Barney Noonan, of the County Leitrim, for instance, who was described “And no better boy was in the county than Barney. He’d work as regular as a pump and liked a bit of a diversion as well as anybody when he had time for it. That, wasn’t often, to be sure, but he couldn’t be blamed for that, for he wasn’t rich enough by no manner of means to be celebrating regularly. He’d a great regard for the ‘Good People’, and when he went be the rath beyond his field, he’d pull off his cap and take the clay pipe out of his mouth, as polite as a dancing master, and say, ‘God save you, ladies and gentlemen,’ that the ‘Good People’ always heard though they never showed themselves to him.He had a bit of bog land, that the hay was on, and after cutting it, he left it to dry, and the sun came out beautiful and, in a day or so, the hay was as dry as powder and ready to put away. “So Barney was going to put it up, but, it being the day of the fair, he thought he’d take the calf and sell it, and so he did, and coming up with the boys, he stayed over his time, being hindered with the drinking and dancing and chatting-up the girls, so it was after dark when he got home and the night as black as a crow, the clouds gathering on the tops of the mountains likeevil spirits and creeping down into the glens like angels of destruction, and the wind howling like ten thousand Banshees, but Barney didn’t mind it all, being stupefied with the drink he’d had. So the hay never entered the head of him, but in he went and tumbled in bed and was snoring like a horse in two minutes, for he was a bachelor, God bless him, and had no wife to nag him and ask him where he’d been, and what he’d been at, and make him tell a hundred lies about not getting home before. So, it came on to thunder and lightning like all the evil demons in the universe were fighting with cannons in the sky, and by and by there was a clap loud enough to split your skull and Barney woke up.
“‘Damn it,’ says he to himself, ‘it’s going to rain and me hay on the ground. What will I do?’ says he. “So, he rolled over on the bed and looked out of a crack for to see if it was really raining. And there was the biggest crowd he had ever seen of little men and women. They’d built a row of fires from the cow-house to the bog and were coming in a string like the cows going home, each one with his two arms full of hay. Some were in the cow-house, receiving the hay; some were in the field, raking the hay together; and some were standing with their hands in their pockets as if they were the bosses, telling the rest for to make haste. And so, they did, for every one run like he was going for the doctor, and brought a load and hurried back for more.
“Barney looked through the crack at them, crossing himself every minute with admiration for the speed they had. ‘God be good to me,’ says he to himself, ‘It is not every young man in Leitrim that’s got haymakers like them,’ only he never spoke a word out loud, for he knew very well the ‘Good People’ wouldn’t like it. So, they brought in all the hay and put it in the house and then let the fires go out and made another big fire in front of the door and began to dance round it with the sweetest music Barney had ever heard.
“Now by this time he’d got up and feeling easy in his mind about the hay, began to be very merry. He looked on through the door at them dancing, and by and by they brought out a jug with little tumblers and began to drink something that they poured out of the jug. If Barney had the sense of a herring, he’d have kept still and let them drink their fill without opening the big mouth on him, being that he was as full as a goose himself and needed no more; but when he saw the jug and the tumblers and the fairies drinking away with all their might, he got mad and bellowed out like a bull, ‘A-a-h now, you little skites, is it drinking you are, and never giving a sup to a thirsty mortal that always treats you as well as he knows how,’ and immediately the fairies, and the fire, and the jug all went out of his sight, and he went to bed again in a temper. While he was lying there, he thought he heard talking and a secret revelry going on, but when he peeped out again, not a thing did he see but the black night and the rain coming down and each drop would fill a water glass. So, he went to sleep, contented that the hay was in, but not pleased that the ‘Good People’ would be pigs entirely, to be drinking under his eyes and not offer him a taste, no, not so much as a smell of the jug.
“In the morning up he gets and out to look at the hay and see if the fairies put it in right, for he says, ‘It’s a job they’re not used to.’ So, he looked in the cow-house and thought his eyes would leave him when there wasn’t a straw in the house at all. ‘Holy Moses,’ says he, ‘what have they done with it?’ and he couldn’t conceive what had happened to the hay. So he looked in the field and it was all there; bad luck to the bit of it had the fairies left in the house at all, but when he shouted at them, they got very angry and took all the hay back again to the bog, putting every straw where Barney laid it, and it was as wet as a drowned cat. But it was a lesson to him he never forgot, and I’ll guarantee you that the next time the fairies help him in with his hay he’ll keep still and let them drink themselves to death if they please without saying a word.” We should not forget or turn our backs on the ‘Fairy Realm’ that has existed side by side with our own for so many centuries. Honouring the ‘Fairy Folk’ prevents ill-luck befalling us and can bring us good luck and blessings. More importantly it helps us to create a reciprocal relationship between us and the ‘Fairy Folk’ that is based on respect and friendship. Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to know the signs of fairy trouble and how to protect yourself against them or find a ‘Fairy Doctor’ or Wise Woman to help you.
But we must remember that the fairies are by no means so numerous these days as they used to be. It is said their demise began with the rapid spread of National Schools and Father Mathew’s Temperance movement throughout Ireland, for it is known “they hate learning and wisdom and are lovers of nature.” In a few remote districts, where the schools scarce, the ‘Good People’ are still to be found, and their doings are told to us with a childlike faith in the power of these first inhabitants of Ireland, for it seems to be agreed among many researchers that they were in the country long before the coming either of the Gael, or of the English oppressor. So it is, that we mortals humans have a long and complex relationship with the ‘Fairy Folk’ and we must always remember that they are just as present today as they have ever been.
Wedin, W., The Sí, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works, 1998.
A few years ago, I happened to be spending a long weekend in Donegal when I heard the story of ‘HMS Saldanha’. She was a 36-gun ‘Apollo-class’ frigate of the British Royal Navy, which was launched in 1809 and was commissioned in April 1810 and placed under the command of Captain John Stuart, who remained in command until his death on 19th March 1811. Captain Reuben Mangin took temporary command of the ship during the Spring of 1811. Finally, the ship was assigned to Captain William Pakenham’s and its short career came to an end when it was wrecked on the rocky west coast of Ireland in 1811. Earlier, on 11th October 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ and ‘HMS Fortune’ combined to take the French privateer ‘Vice-Amiral Martin’. The French ship carried 18 guns and a crew of 140 men, and it was on its fourth day out of Bayonne and was yet to encounter a British merchantman. It was reported that the French privateer had superior sailing abilities to most ships of her size, which had in the past helped her to escape pursuing British cruisers. In a subsequent report it was stated that though each of the British ships was doing at least 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph), the enemy privateer would have escaped only for the fact that there were two British vessels involved.
Along the North-western coast of Ireland lies Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that cuts into the Donegal coastline between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It is considered a safe harbour for ships and is famed far and wide for the beauty of its scenery. However, although once inside the lough itself, the anchorage is safe, the entrance to the Lough is considered by many to be a very difficult and dangerous passage. The coast being here is known as being “iron-bound”, with several treacherous reefs of rocks lying near the shore, or partially covered by the sea. The present-day entrance to Lough Swilly has two lighthouses to protect it, with one on Fanad Point, and the other on Dunree Head. The various reefs and shoals in the entrance are well-marked by buoys, which today make the entrance to the Lough a much safer passage than it had been during the days when ‘HMS Saldanha’ was moored there.
In the latter part of 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ under the command of Captain Packenham, was stationed in Lough Swilly as a naval guardship, alongside the sloop-of-war, ‘HMS Talbot’. Their usual anchorage was off the little village of Buncrana, and occasionally the ships would weigh anchor to undertake a short cruise around the coast of the County Donegal for a few days. Their crews had been stationed in the Lough for such a long time that several officers had brought their wives to reside in the village of Buncrana. There were, of course, one or two of the officers and several of the men who had married local ladies, and all of them had gained the friendship and regard of the local gentry and may of the inhabitants of the surrounding area.
Early on the morning of the 30th of November the ‘Saldanha’ and the ‘Talbot’ left their moorings off Buncrana for a three days’ cruise around the coast. However, although the morning was fine and bright, just afternoon the weather became dark and threatening. Before that short November day closed, a great storm had rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean spilling its anger over both sea and land. Local folklore still recalls that terrible storm as the ‘Saldanha Storm,’ and there are many sad stories recounted of hearts that raced with anxiety and strained eyes that tried to peer through blinding spray and rain for the lights of the returning ships.
It was nearer to the mouth of Lough Swilly, on the shore opposite Buncrana, close to Ballymastocker Bay that those lights were seen at last. Along that shoreline the Fanad people gathered in great numbers, knowing that the bay hid a very dangerous reef of rocks, and upon them, the ‘Saldanha’ was Shipwrecked on the night of 4th December 1811. There are no reports any effort was made to save the doomed vessel and, officially there were no survivors out of the estimated 253 crew aboard the ship, with approximately 200 bodies being subsequently washed up on the shoreline at Ballymastocker Bay.
There are stories saying that one of the crew did make it to the shore alive, but the stories also tell of the ‘wild people’ (local wreckers) placing him across a horse, after giving him a draught of whiskey. The stories are unclear as to whether this was done in ignorance or in order to ensure he would die. Many bodies came continued to come ashore from time to time and were buried with great reverence in the old churchyard of Rathmullan, where the grave and a monument can still be seen.
Initial reports on the events in Lough Swilly that stormy night suggested that ‘HMS Talbot’ had also been wrecked, but it transpired that these reports were mistaken. The winter storms that swept through the Lough caused parts of the sunken wreck of the ‘Saldanha’ to come to the surface and be forced on to the yellow sands of Ballymastocker Bay. In the August of the following year, it was said that a servant in a big house some twenty miles from the wreck site shot a bird, which turned out to be a parrot with a collar, on which was engraved “Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.” Then, as the years passed by, further storms would leave fragments of the ship’s planks and various personal items belonging to the crew strewn across the shoreline. On the night of the 6th-7th January 1839, there was another fierce and destructive storm, similar to that which the locals had called ‘The Saldanha Storm.’ On the morning of the 7th January, when the coastguards conducted their patrols of the bay’s shoreline, they recorded that the entire bay was strewn from end to end broken beams, timbers, and chests; All that remained of that doomed ship.
One interesting story from that time tells us that one of the coastguards searching the shore found a small worked case that ladies called a ‘thread-paper’, and he brought it to the wife of his commanding officer. The little case was beautifully made and still contained some loosely coiled and knotted lengths of silken yarn and a few rusty needles. On the back of the ‘thread-paper’ were embroidered three initials, lovingly created by the hand of the woman who had presented it to a member of the ‘Saldanha’ crew.
Over twenty years after the case had been found the lady to whom it had been given, now a widow returned to live in Scotland. While taking a few days holiday in the country-house of some friends in the south of the country, the lady began to converse with a young man who was also a guest at the same house. The lady and young man began to talk about Ireland, Donegal, and the wonderful scenery to be found there. At one stage of the conversation Lough Swilly was mentioned and this sparked the young man’s interest. He asked some questions about the area and then disclosed that his mother had lost a brother in the Lough many years before, having gone down with the wreck of the ‘Saldanha.’ The widow told all that she knew concerning the ‘Saldanha’ incident and revealed to the young man that she had a relic of the ship in her workbox. She took out the ‘thread-paper’ and, asking the name of the young man’s uncle, found that the name agreed with the three initials embroidered on the little case.
When the young gentleman told her that his uncle had been a midshipman on board the ill-fated ‘Saldanha’, and that he was his mother’s favourite brother, the widow woman put the small thread case into his hand. As she did this, the lady explained how she had come into possession of the case and told him, “Take that home to your mother, show it to her, and ask her if she had ever seen it before. If she should recognise it, she is very welcome to keep it. But if it did not belong to her brother you can return it to me.” The young man left the house the next morning and went home. A few days later, however, he wrote to the widowed lady and told her that his mother had immediately recognised the case as being her own work, which she had given to her beloved brother when he had last left home. It was a relic of a person loved and lost and he thanked the lady for restoring it to his mother after fifty long years. Although small and of no intrinsic value, this little case had been kept and returned to its original owner as though it had been some precious family jewel.
Any observer of Irish history must be reminded by the ruins of castles and abbeys, scattered throughout this nation, of the manner in which the poor of this land were continually exploited by their rulers. In his poem, ‘The Holy Wells’ the nationalist poet John de Jean Frazer argues that one thing cannot be stolen from those poor, and that is the water from a spring. He writes –
“And while night, noon, or morning meal no other plenty brings,
No beverage than the water-draught from old, spontaneous springs;
They, sure, may deem them holy wells, that yield from day to day,
One blessing which no tyrant hand can taint, or take away.”
(Hayes, Ballads of Ireland, P6)
He is praising the power of nature that, alone, sustains the poor and calls these springs, ‘Holy Wells’, and, thereby, links them to a popular religious practice by making them cultural objects. In the Ireland of Frazer’s day, the mid nineteenth century, religion, politics and economics are inseparable, since political authority, the historical suppression of Catholicism, and the control of the land were all by-products of Britain’s rule. In those days the ‘Holy Wells’ were not just places of spiritual sustenance, but also acted as sites of political resistance. Because the ‘Holy Wells’ are frequently found in the ruins of religious sites make them a part of Irish history and, therefore, a symbol of native Irish spirituality and their unquenchable spirit of freedom.
These ‘Holy Wells’ are often dedicated to unofficial and territorial ‘saints’ and preside over magical and wondrous landscapes that incorporate prehistoric sites, sacred trees, and stones as ‘stations’ for prayer. The structured visitations by devotees to these ‘stations’, moreover, were usually accompanied by liturgies that were unique to the physical attributes of each site. These visitations are commonly known as “Paying the Rounds” or “Rounding”, and in practice go against the views normally held concerning the process of pilgrimage.
A ‘Holy Well’ is a water source, most usually a spring, which is a site of religious devotion. These devotional sites may also take the form of a pond, or an entire lake, and are dedicated to an Irish saint. The devotees who visit these sacred sites believe that these waters have been blessed by this saint with a cure for a particular ailment such as, tuberculosis, whooping-cough, and sore eyes. ‘Holy Wells’, however, are not peculiar to Ireland since, in our world, the daily human’s need for water has encouraged a worldwide form of idolatry, and ‘Sacred Wells’ and springs can be found in every continent among a wide variety of cultures and faiths. Water, throughout the ages of the world, has been considered to be the source all possible existence and it is no surprise that early man venerated the sources of water. In Irish bogs, coastal wetlands, lakes and rivers there have been discoveries of stone-like material and human remains apparently deposited there as votive offerings to ancestral spirits, or the Gods. Votive offerings dating from the Iron Age in Ireland have been found at various ‘Holy Wells’ in current use, one of which is St. Anne’s Well at Randalstown, County Meath. (Raftery 1994;182f., 213).
The traditions around sacred water sources in Ireland had been in existence for many centuries prior to the arrival of Christianity, which quickly amalgamated these into Christian rituals which were peculiar to the native Irish. Early Christian missionaries encompassed the traditional beliefs of the people into their teachings and used pagan places of pilgrimage, including ‘Holy Wells’ and ‘Sacred Trees’, as centres for the new faith. In this manner the sacredness of sites and the desire of the native people to access their supernatural power through votive gifts continued unchanged. The sacred places retained their strong religious and spiritual qualities, which continued to inspire, while the presiding spirit now became and intercessor with the Christian God. Ireland continues to be unusual in Europe, in that visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ remains a regular part of Catholic parish life. Although this activity is not as common as it was forty years ago, each county in Ireland has ‘Holy Wells’ that continue to be sites of individual devotion and annual ‘Patterns’ (Patron Days), when the local communities gather for a well-side Mass to honour the saint associated with that well. It is also an opportunity for each person to identify with and renew their membership of that local community.
The visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ involves the devotee performing folk liturgies, or ‘Rounds’, which are prayers and other actions that are undertaken in a set order, and from which the pilgrim should not deviate. These practices are accepted by the pilgrims as being effective in obtaining the desired result because generations have repeated them, who would not have done if there was no successful conclusion.Although they may lack official sanction from the religious authorities, these folk liturgies often take place in the open air and are considered as being a means to grace (sacramental). For the most part the folk liturgies are highly structured and are much more focused on ‘magic and mystery’ than the official practices because, in these liturgies the ordinary people are able to express their understanding of venerating the saints and other blessed persons, pilgrimages, shrines, holy days, and religious assistance to the deceased. So, unsurprisingly, almost every organised faith has folk rituals that exist alongside, and occasionally in contravention of, what the official religious practitioners approve. These rituals, however, affirm the faith in the cultural context of a person’s community, family, or life experience. But place-specific ‘Rounding’ traditions at the ‘Holy Wells’ encourages the continued veneration of ‘Saints in the Irish Tradition’ who were never officially canonised, but whose stories and sacred landscapes add to local popular belief in the divine.
A proper visitation may require a devotee to make certain preliminary movements around the ‘Stations’, while reciting a set number of prayers in a prescribed order unique to the site. While individual prayer is usually considered to be non-liturgical, those individual devotees ‘Rounding the Stations’ are performing a folk liturgy. Praying at each ‘station’ and then at the well, or saying one set of prescribed prayers while walking around the well, constitutes one ’round’ in the pilgrimage. A single ’round’ might be sufficient for devotees engaged in meditative prayer, or a daily spiritual exercise, while those who pray for a special intention or specific petition might be required to undertake multiple ’rounds’. ‘Doing the Rounds’, therefore, can take hours to complete, or may be fulfilled in part on successive shorter visits. In these ways a ‘payment’ of prayers can be offered by a devotee to the well’s presiding saint in thanksgiving for interceding on the supplicant’s behalf, or directly to God. After these folk liturgies are completed they usually approach the well and may drink from the water, normally three sips, or dip their fingers in the water and bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, flicking the water around their bodies three times in the name of the Trinity, or anointing an ailing portion of the body. If, after performing the rounds, one sees a fish in the well it is taken as a sign that their request will be answered favourably.
“The Stations and The Pattern”
The ‘Rounding’ process is also known as ‘The Pattern’ and the course that a devotee follows is known in Irish as “An turas” (a journey or a pilgrimage). ‘Stations’ may take a variety of forms and trees are often used as ‘Stations’ because they are traditionally considered ‘sacred’ by the local community since time immemorial. The most common of well-side trees, the ‘Whitethorn’ (Hawthorn), Ash and Holly, are often called ‘Rag Trees’ because they receive rags and ribbons on their branches both as votive offerings and as ‘containers’ for the illness or anxiety that brought the devotee to the sacred site. These trees have come to perform the sacrificial act of bearing the devotees’ concerns, and further enabling the ‘Holy Well’ to offer them grace. To many the well-side tree is considered a ‘Station of Riddance’ in contrast to the giving waters of the well where the devotees linger for a while. Because ribbons or cloths, or other votives, tied or hung to the trees are thought to be the storage places of the angst and disease brought by devotees, and many well visitors are very careful not to touch those of others when they leave their own.
‘Stations’ may also include pre-Christian monuments such as megalithic court tombs, Ogham stones, or unusually formed stones. ‘Bullauns’, which are considered to be stone querns from the ‘Bronze Age’, also serve as ‘stations’ and are often called ‘wells’ themselves because they can hold rainwater and dew. ‘Mass Rocks’ from the ‘Penal Days’ and oddly formed boulders can serve as ‘stations’, which, in conjunction with the well, offer particular cures. Some wells lack any built structures or adornment and associated stations, if any, may be hard to locate without guidance from a local person, or the presence of the votives. Other ‘Holy Wells’, however, are located within large elaborate complexes, complete with signage that offer pilgrims optional directions for full or abbreviated ‘Rounds’.
The Irish Church prior to the Norman invasion and up to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held historical accounts of ‘Rounding’ and ‘Pattern Days’ that emphasised a penitential dimension about them that is much less prevalent today. The ‘Pattern Days’ of old were an annual cleansing with trembling, remorse, and fasting before ‘Rounds’ that were performed on bare knees, but were followed by an evening, or several days, of celebration and flamboyant sinning. Such things are not, of course, so common these days and the demise began with the emancipation of Catholics in 1829, when the focus of the Church fell on restoring the authority of the priest and the importance of Confession. The sites for such acts of devotion moved from the open air and into the church buildings. The ‘Great Famine’ saw the devotion to the official practices of the Church superseded the folk practices. Since those times, however, popular devotion at ‘Holy Wells’ and other sacred sites have regained some popularity, especially over the last few decades since ‘Vatican II’. Pilgrimages today are associated more with thanksgiving rather than with punishment. Many describe ‘Holy Wells’ not as places filled with guilt but as scenes of calming and restoration, where they feel thankful and very much at peace.
For many of those devotees who visit the ‘Holy Wells’ the ‘Rounding of the Stations’ is their offering. Less frequent visitors, or those pilgrims with a particular burden, might offer votives in addition to prayer, or they may a serve as a means of shortening the ‘stations’ by having to recite fewer prayers. The regular visitors might make a grand gesture of leaving a religious statue as a votive offering, or undertake to complete some renovation work on the site, while the less frequent or one-time visitor might leave a less valuable and impromptu gift. In all cases the depositing of the votive offering usually takes place near the end of the visit to the ‘Holy Well’ and is usually accompanied by an additional and personal prayer. As well as rags and ribbons, Rosary beads are common offerings, but a shell, pebble, button, shoelace, or anything that has been in with the visitor’s person is appropriate. Tokens that a specific to certain prayer requests are common, such as lighters from a smoker who is trying to quit the habit. To cope with anxiety sufferers might drive nails or coins into a well-side tree, but this practice can eventually lead to the death of the sacred tree. Those who leave worry and disease-infected offerings on the trees or by the side of the Well already feel that the environment in which they are praying is a ‘giving’ one, in which the natural or divine power within the site is provided to all visitors without condition,
Some estimates suggest the number of ‘Holy Wells’ in Ireland to be at least three-thousand, while others argue that this figure is an under-estimation. But many Wells have been lost and continue to be lost to man’s progress in farming techniques, stock raising, forestry, road-building and widening, and the building boom that began in the five or ten years prior to the new millenium. Destruction of the historic record in Ireland has been generally accelerated by those affluent sections of the community keen on developing rural areas of the country, and the loss of ‘Holy Wells’ has been a subject of contention in many areas. The disappearance of the Wells unless as a result of supernatural provocation, has more usually resulted because of the gradual erosion of local pilgrimage and place-lore. When the devotees stop visiting the site quickly falls into disrepair and the stories about the sacred place and its benevolent gifts disappear, causing the ‘Holy Well’, ‘Sacred Tree’, or ‘Sacred Stone’ to vanish from our memory and the record.
Rites of passage and events within the community become wound up in the stories of the sacred gathering places, and become associated with the presiding saint’s benevolence. Much of the conversation among the people at these Well gatherings tends to revolve around memories of community figures, which ties these sacred places to past generations and the older members of a community. In the last thirty years the social norms that dominated Irish society for generations fell apart with unexpected speed, especially among those devastated by years of investigations into child abuse by individual clerics and institutions run by religious orders. Many have abandoned the Church, or at least its buildings, with greater numbers undertaking regular engagement with the open air folk liturgies. Such has the popularity grown, in fact, that many priests throughout Ireland have renewed well-side gatherings in an effort to attract parishioners back into the congregation.
The Banshee or ‘The White Woman’, famed in Irish folklore is sometimes called the ‘Shee Frogh’, ‘House-Fairy’. She is usually represented as a small, shriveled, old woman. Occasionally, however, she is pictured as being a young, beautiful woman with long, flaxen hair, and it is this long hair that she is often depicted as combing, while she freezes the observer’s blood with her wild and startling wail that sounds every bit a soul-piercing melody.
A Banshee is reputed to herald the immediate death of members of a particular ‘Old Irish’ family. But, she is always to be seen alone at these times, in a melancholy mood, when she is found near the home-place of the doomed person, which may be familiar to her. Some folklorists will inform us that the Banshee is most likely to be the spirit of some person who had suffered a violent death at the hands of an ancestor of the doomed family. Frighteningly unrelenting, the Banshee repeats her vengeful wails from a single place, fulfilling her designated role as the herald announcing the imminent death of at least one of the guilty ancestor’s descendants. In many cases, her cry appears to be coming from a water source, a spring, a river, or a lake, with which the Banshee’s name is connected. In most stories that concern her visitation, it appears to matter little if she is a friendly spirit or an enemy of the people to whom her wails are directed.
The famed, but now ruined, castle of Terryglass and its four circular bastions, which stood proud on the four corners of its once massive walls, overlooks the upper waters of Lough Derg that lies along the course of the River Shannon. The remnants of those walls are still immensely thick, although they are not even one-third of their original height. On a fine and breezy autumn day, the rough waters of the Lough roll along with every sweep of the cool winds, and the wavelets that are created break upon the shore, a short distance from the stout foundations of this once massive fort.
The people who live in this area call the runs ‘Old Court’. The gateway to the castle opens toward the wide Shannon and, near it, one of the corner bastions is open to all who wish to enter. Inside, a broken and winding, but quite wide, circular stone stairway leads the visitor to the upper level of the Terryglass Castle’s walls. Those adventurous visitors who have strong nerves could, possibly, walk above the remaining grass covered tops, especially if no strong winds are blowing. Then, from this height, the visitor can look down upon the ground-plan of the ruined building and see that it is almost quadrangular. They will also see that a thick dividing wall separates the interior of the castle into two almost equal parts. Then, as the visitor makes their way, they will reach each angle of the fortress and may see, in the ruin’s interior, the circular bastions beneath him. These remain ina tolerable condition even after all these years, with old elder or thorny shrubs growing in the lower soil, while the narrow, looped windows on the outside are splayed inward, dimly lighting various compartments.
The entire structure rests upon a limestone rock foundation, around which rich meadow pastures, corn-fields, and tangled thorn fences stretch, or slope gently down to the bright waters of the lough. Around the castle, the lower walls spread near the foundations, and incline inwardly to a certain height, which helps to strengthen their superstructure in what, at one time, must have been an accepted military structural technique. Weather-beaten and worn are these old ruins, and they are choked with briars and shrubs. But traces of their former grandeur and vastness remain, leaving the visitor with enough evidence to show that this was once a lordly fortress in former times, with its parapets raised high in the air and proudly looming over the lough and its surroundings.
In those remote, historical days the halls of the ‘Old Court’ were inhabited by an Irish Chieftain called O’Carroll and his armed retainers. Within those, many centuries before, an evening’s entertainment ended with singing and dancing. But, when the old Harper drew his last tones from the strings of his ‘Clairseach’ (Harp), everyone retired to their beds and the guards went to take up their posts on the highest tower, where they kept watch through the night.
O’Carroll had ordered his men to make his private lake-boat ready for the next morning, along with his forester, Huntsman, and two strong soldiers. After breakfast, he had proposed to have his men row the boat over to the lower shore of Thomond, where he could visit one of the O’Briens. That morning the sun rose bright over the lough and the day was perfectly calm as the boat and its passengers sliced gracefully through the glistening surface of the wide lake. Very quickly the boat became just a speck to those who were watching its departure from the castle, and with the strong, regular strokes of the oarsmen, the boat eventually landed on a distant foreland.
The chieftain was not expected to return until the evening of the next day. But, while the night-watch prepared for their duty on the tower, and before the people in the ‘Old Court’ had gone to bed, a loud, piercing and unearthly wail was heard, and it sounded as if it was coming from the nearby lough. The hearts of those who heard it felt their hearts stop in terror, while the castle’s servants rushed to every loop-hole window in the upper storey and even onto the roof, to determine who was making this frightful lamentation and from where was it coming. In the night sky, the moon had just appeared, spreading its mellow light over the surrounding landscape and illuminated every object of any significance. It did not take the look-outs long to see a beautiful female figure, clad in white, with long flowing locks streaming over her shoulders. She glided slowly over the clear surface of the lake, while the piercing mournful dirge became momentarily more feint until, at last, it died away in the distance.
The shimmering figure finally dissolved as if it too was just one of the passing shadows of the night. These people, who had heard and watched the strange apparition for some time, now looked at one another in silent astonishment or made exclamations of wonder and foreboding. “There is no doubt, it’s O’Carroll’s Banshee,” cried out one of the watchers, “and I am afraid that some sad accident will soon bring an end to our chieftain!”
The next morning everyone’s eyes were anxiously directed across the lake toward the far-off shores of Thomond. A boat had already been sent toward Thomond earlier that morning with news of the strange warning to be taken to the chieftain. Since just before midnight the previous evening an unfortunate misunderstanding had arisen between O’Carroll and men from the O’Brien clan. An insult was alleged to have been directed toward the O’Briens and nothing would satisfy them but to settle the matter by force of arms. Although mutual friends made every effort to persuade the two sides of the argument to put down their arms, it was in vain. Both combatants insisted that their difference could only be decided on the lawn at the front of O’Brien’s castle before the morning dawned. For quite a while the talented and gallant swordsmen wielded their sharp, trusty swords against each other with great vigour. The duel went constantly back and forward, defence and attacks, cut and thrust, with neither man giving any quarter. But, the wary O’Brien seized upon an unguarded moment by his opponent and, without hesitation, he ran his sword through the heart of his adversary. O’Carroll, the Lord of Terryglass Castle fell dead upon the ground which was dampened by the morning dew.
With sorrowful tears in their eyes, O’Carroll’s men carried their chieftain’s remains towards the boat and with deep sadness, in their hearts, they pulled on their oars and rowed back across the lake to their home. Almost as soon as the boat was seen upon the lake many people rushed to line the Terryglass shore and welcome home their chieftain, but they did not know then that he was dead. Their grief and lamentation were loudly and angrily wailed when they saw the lifeless body of O’Carroll and heard the cause of his untimely fate.
The body was taken into the castle, where mourners and the funeral ceremonies were arranged. Finally, the chieftain’s remains were taken with all honours to the neighbouring churchyard of St. Columba MacCruinthannan, where they were consigned to the earth with all honours that were due to him. All the while, an immense crowd of weeping relatives and servants surrounded the grave as the final rites were completed.
This is a genuine portrait of an Irish piper, for the face of the man, and the instrument on which he is playing, are both characteristic of our Nation, genuine Irish. In the well-proportioned oval face you can recognise his years of wisdom, good sense, and gentleness, which is a common trait found among the ordinary people of Ireland, in town or countryside. As for the bagpipes, they are of the most approved Irish kind, beautifully finished, and from which we hear the delicious, relaxing strains traditional Irish music in these modern times of electric guitars and computerised tunes. Pipes such as these have been handed down from generation to generation unto the present time. As a family heirloom they are treated well, taken good care of, and used in a manner that does justice to their powers.
The cause of this apparent deficiency of feeling or talent, many believe, is due to the fact that Paddy, a genuine musical genius, never had the opportunity of hearing any of the great performers of the past and, therefore, had not the chance of improving his considerable talents further. Those whom he did hear he can imitate and outplay very successfully, but in every Irish County there is always one musician of one instrument or another more eminent than the rest, who is recognised as the best in his locality.
In this work we only wish to present a few traits in the character of an individual Irish Piper, which after all relate more to the man than the musician. At the same time, we want let our foreign readers and lovers of Ireland to realise that the true Irish Pipers are not at all like the story of the piper who made his living with only three tunes that he played for the farmers in the land for Paddy could play not three tunes, but three thousand. When he played, they say that your feet could not keep still and your spirit would rise in great joy as the strains of the Irish jig, the reel, and the country dance. This was the way it was in days past, and is slowly becoming so once again, and thank God for it.
But Paddy was more than just an exceptional piper, for he was also a very exceptional man, made even more exceptional when we are told that he had been deprived of his eyesight. He was still a kind and caring person whose path through life was marked by the regard that others felt for him, for he was respected. We had heard enough of the qualities that he had and which had gained him this respect, independently of his musical renown, before we had met with him, to make us want to get to know him better. It was while we were on a visit to Galway with some friends last summer that we tried for two or three days to get him to our hotel for an evening, but in vain. He was away from his playing his music in various locations and could not be found until, on making our way towards Connemara, we met a blind man coming along the road, whom we immediately thought was the ‘Galway Piper’, and discovered we were correct. It was Paddy Connolly himself, who had returned home for a change of clothes, and was on his way back to Galway to spend the evening with a party of gentlemen by whom he had been employed to play during the Regatta. It was not convenient for us to return to the city with him, and so we very wisely decided to carry him off with us. After we seized his pipes from him the rest was easy to do by first taking his pipes, after which we soon had him, a quiet though for a while an upset captive. “Oh! in the name of God, what will Mr Kennedy and the gentlemen think of me at all at all?” exclaimed Paddy.
“Never mind, Paddy,” we told him, “they can hear you often, but we may never have another opportunity of doing so again. So, come along with us, and rest assured that you will be as happy with us as you would have been with those gentlemen at the Regatta.” Only a few minutes later, we had Paddy crooning old Irish songs for us, and pointing out all the objects of any interest or beauty on either side of the road, and this with a correctness and accuracy which perfectly astounded us.
We kept Paddy with us for two weeks before we brought him back safely to Galway. But, during that time, as well as since, we had many opportunities to. But of all his talents, Paddy’s greatest asset was his constant benevolence toward others. There are many examples of this characteristic, which his friends and neighbours will eagerly tell you about his efforts to assist those who are poorer than himself. In his home village, about two miles from Galway, we asked him about the poverty in which his neighbours lived. “Poor? Indeed they are, Sir, very,” he replied, “they have been very badly off this year because of the wet weather, the want of heat, and the high price of potatoes.”
“And how,” I asked, “have they managed to keep body and soul together?”
“Ah, sure, just with the help of those who are a little better off than themselves.”
Paddy never said that he was the person who helped them willingly, but when he was asked was he able to give them any help he confessed that he had, saying he had lent thirty shillings to one family so they could buy seed for their bit of ground, ten shillings to another to buy meal, and so on. “And will they ever pay you back, Paddy?” he was asked.
“Och! they will, to be sure, Sir,” Paddy replied in an unconvincing manner, adding, “if they can, and if they can’t, Sir, why, please God, I’ll get over it. Sure, one couldn’t see the creatures starve!”
Then, we heard that Paddy’s turf had been stolen from him, perhaps by some of the very people whom he had helped and we were curious to ascertain how he took his loss. So, he was asked, “How were you off for turf last winter, Paddy?”
“And how did it happen that you had no turf of your own?”
“Because, Sir, it was all stolen from me, after I had paid two pounds for cutting and drying it.”
“Did you ever,” he was asked, “discover who were the robbers?”
“Oh, yes,” he replied.
“And could you prove the theft against them?”
“I could, to be sure.”
“Did you prosecute them?”
“Sure, what good would that do me?” and Paddy added, in a tone of pity, “the creatures! Sure, they were poor rogues, or they would not have taken every bit away.”
“Well, then, Paddy, did you ever speak to them about it?”
“I did, indeed.”
“And what was their answer?”
“They said, that they wouldn’t have touched it if they had known it was mine.”
“Did they ever return any of it?”
Paddy replied with a laugh, “Oh, no!”
Another story tells that one day, while Paddy was stopping at Mr O’Flaherty’s, who was blind in one eye, was walking two horses, one of which was also similarly disabled, and the other completely blind. A man who was present remarked that here were four animals, two men and two horses, that had but two eyes among them, and he proposed a race, to which Paddy and O’Flaherty agreed. Paddy was placed upon the horse which could see a little, and O’Flaherty got up on the blind one. Off they started with whip and spur, and to his great delight, Paddy won, and he was delighted at having achieved this feat.
Another day, we were standing in the kitchen, listening to Paddy telling his stories to a happy group of young people, when he was spoken to by a middle-aged woman, who, from her lack of English, misunderstood what he was saying, and imagined that he was making a pass at a lovely young girl, representing himself as an unmarried man. Paddy, therefore, was very surprised to hear himself attacked viciously in Irish and broken English, about his terrible conduct. Before the woman had stopped her tirade, Paddy’s face showed that the man would now carry on this joke. So, when he was allowed to reply, he in turn scolded her for being stupid in supposing that she knew him, denied having ever seen her before, and declared that he was not Paddy Connolly at all, and never had heard of or seen such a person. He further added, that “it was a shame for a woman with her two eyes to be so foolish.” The woman could only look at him in mute bewilderment, and actually seemed to doubt her own senses. But she gradually became satisfied as to his identity, and, excited into a virtuous rage, she rushed out of the house, declaring that she would never stop until she told his wife of his misconduct, and she kept her word.
Yes, Paddy was like many others in the county, an ardent lover of field sports. Sitting at breakfast in the local hotel our peace and quiet was suddenly disturbed by a loud din of barking dogs and shouting men. From the main window we could see the road beyond the bridge fore a mile or more and you can imagine our astonishment at seeing Paddy Connolly and Paddy McKee hand in hand and running at top speed, both shouting joyfully and accompanied by a host of greyhounds and terriers barking in chorus, and quickly racing out of sight. Looking at the hotel manager we asked, ” What in the world is the meaning of that?“
“It’s Paddy and McKee going off to course, after borrowing my dogs.”
When all is said and done we must state Paddy was both a temperate and prudent man. He was asked once, “You don’t drink hard, Paddy?”
In conclusion we will admit that Paddy appears to be in comfortable circumstances, farming a bit of ground. His cottage is neat and tidy, and he has a high opinion and decent pride in his own undoubted musical talents. He only plays for the gentry or for the more comfortable farmers. He will not lower his professional standards to play in the pubs for the ordinary folks, except on rare occasions, when he does it for free and for the sole pleasure of making them happy.
Martin continued to be among my best friends and we spent many days and nights in each other’s company throughout our youth. On quite a number of occasions we were joined by both Andy and Des (not their real names), especially on our trips to the cinema, dance halls, and on Sunday afternoon excursions to a popular seaside resort called Omeath. These were the days before night clubs and budget airlines, and even two car families. At this time the pubs were closed in Northern Ireland all day Sunday, though if you really wanted a drink there were certain doors that would be open to a select clientele. In fact almost everything but the churches were closed on a Sunday and we young men never found ourselves on any select list, which left us with a bus ride to Omeath where the pubs were open almost all day Sunday. The only real problem one would encounter was getting through the crowds of people to get a drink at the bar.
Omeath was a typically border seaside resort village. There was a set of “Esso” petrol pumps, a Protestant Church, a Catholic Church, two or three souvenir shops, two or three small grocers’ shops, a butcher shop and over a dozen pubs and hotels. For six days of any week the population of the village was around two hundred citizens. But on a Sunday this population would expand to two or three thousand thirsty souls brought to the place by buses from every major town in the southern half of Northern Ireland. For those northerners who felt they had a reputation to maintain and didn’t want to be associated with visiting Omeath on a Sunday there was always the day trip to Warrenpoint, where no pubs were open. But, from the stone covered beach at Warrenpoint a fleet of small “Red Flag” boats ferried passengers the short distance across Carlingford Lough to enjoy the pleasure palaces of Omeath. There are none who experienced this place on a Sunday who would not agree that it was an experience not to be missed.
It was probably in Omeath in the late 1960s that we, as a group of young men, came to appreciate traditional Irish folk music listening to the various songs and music played by the patrons in the busy bars. Your a feet could not stop tapping to the jigs and reels played by violin, bodhran, guitar, banjo and spoons. You would find it almost impossible to merrily sing along with the well-oiled patrons who eagerly chanted their songs, trying to emulate the great Irish tenors of the past. But, it was also in Omeath that we first encountered a “Fleadh Ceoil” (pronounced “Flah-Key-Oal”), or traditional Irish folk festival. We enjoyed the music and the Craic so much that we decided that we, as a group, would go Clones town to participate in the “Ulster Fleadh”, a major local festival. So when the time came we all set off for Clones, six young men each with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, and a two-man tent that we intended would shelter all of us.
In the market-town of Clones bunting of all colours adorned the streets, strung from every available place to buildings and lampposts. A large field had been set aside for those wishing to camp the whole festival week-end, and the best part was that there was no cost. We pitched our two-man tent, packed away our sleeping bags and set off for the town to enjoy the excitement and music that we had been looking forward to so much. On every street corner there was some form of entertainment and every pub was filled with the sound of song and laughter. The strains of various songs filled the air and were accompanied by all sorts of musical instruments. In the town square there was a lorry trailer and upon this organised concerts and dancing exhibitions took place. All over town there were sessions; ordinary people of all ages and from all walks of life playing their instruments or singing songs on their own or in groups. It was a memory I will never forget.
The music and entertainment went on until dark and we strolled back to the campsite hungry, hoarse, full of good cheer and exhausted. Martin took charge and lit a small camp-fire after sending Andy and I to gather whatever dry wood we could find in the nearby trees, even as the night grew darker and clouds gathered in the moonless sky. Meanwhile, Des and Tommy managed to locate two tins of “Heinz Baked Beans” that could be heated for supper. Life was much simpler then. The difficulty came when we discovered that all we had was a blunt butter knife to attempt opening the tins. All six of us sat around the camp fire in an effort to keep warm in the growing chill of the night. It was Eddie who came up with the bright idea that the cans could be placed into the fire unopened and that the blunt knife would break through the tin easier when it was heated. So we waited and waited as our hunger increased. It was Tommy who first noticed the cans bulging and declared “They’re almost done.” The words had hardly left Tommy’s lips when there was an almighty explosion and into the darkness the two tins of baked beans burst open, showering their contents skyward like an orange rain storm. At the same time burning sticks of all shapes and sizes were flung skyward causing a burst of sparks like a million little red stars glowing in the darkness. Of course what goes up must eventually come down, and down it came with a vengeance. Hot beans and tomato sauce covered us all, hair, clothes, tent, everything. We had tried to move quickly out of the way to avoid the burning sticks, sparks and beans but we were too slow. One large firebrand landed on the tent, set it alight and despite our best efforts it was destroyed as was much of our bedding and clothes. It was a big loss that night for twenty minutes later it began to rain and we made our way back into town. Drenched, cold and still hungry all six of us squeezed into the narrow front door area of a local bank, covered ourselves with what was left of one sleeping bag and tried to get some sleep.
Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.
Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.
At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.
In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”
If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.
There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.
When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.
For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.
A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”
In her second story, she states, “…my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’“
There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?“
The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!“
“What was it?” asked the Count.
“It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.“
An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.“
“The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”
“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.
As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.
It was always the tradition in many Irish homes that the cake of bread intended for the morning breakfast table should be ‘nipped’ before being put it away in the cupboard. In Irish, it is called “a bhara“, and the housewife or housekeeper was always particular about how she carried out the task. She would either break a piece off the cake herself as soon as she took it from the griddle, or else encouraged another family member to do it instead. It is said that when the cake of bread was broken in this manner then nothing ‘bad’ would happen to it through the night, and no hungry spectre or fairy folk would lay a hand or tooth upon it.
“Oh, Mary dear,” an old woman called out to her daughter one night when everyone had just gone to their beds, “sure, didn’t I forget to ‘nip’ the cake. Get up, darling girl, and do it, or else it might all be gone in the morning and your Da will have nothing to eat with his tea before he heads off to Belfast!“
“Ah, now, mother,” replied Mary, from the small back room in which she and her younger sister slept, “would you give my head peace with all your nonsense. Sure, nothing will touch it.“
“There’s no nonsense in it, I tell you,” replied the mother, “and if you don’t get up now then I’ll have to get out of bed myself, and me hardly able to move with the ‘roomytis’ (rheumatism). Oh, Sweet Jaysus, what come ever caused me to forget to do it!“
The mournful tone in which the old mother spoke about her suffering from rheumatism settled the matter, and Mary jumped out of her bed exclaiming, “For goodness sake mother you’re a nuisance with all your superstitions!” and, turning to her sister she added, “Come with me to the kitchen, Bridget, for I won’t go there by myself.”
“Would you ever get into bed and not be paying any attention to her,’ whispered Bridget quietly, hoping that her mother would not hear.
“But she will get up herself if I don’t go, and she would never let us hear the end of it.”
“Sure, she will never think about it again, Mary. So, just come into bed.”
Mary, of course, was willing enough to comply with her sister’s request, but just then her mother called out once again, “Mary, did you get up yet?”
“Aye, aye,” Mary cried out in an angry tone while, speaking quietly to her sister she said, “Do you see, now. She’s not going to forget it, so we might as well get up and do it, or we’ll get no sleep tonight.“
Neither Mary nor Bridget had much confidence in the seemingly ridiculous ritual of “nipping the cake”, to keep it safe from the hungry fairy folk that roamed the land. Nevertheless, they would do just the same themselves when they got married and took charge of household duties. They would, undoubtedly, recall that their own mother They will remember that their own dear mother did it, and what was right for her, could hardly be very wrong for them. It was in such ways that the traditions were handed down through the generations, even to the present day.