Niamh’s Folk – PART I

If you ever chance to go to the County of Armagh in the Northern portion of Ireland, you would be reasonably safe in addressing a man as “Mr. McCann!” If that should fail to gain his attention then you could try Murphy, or Quinn. And if this does not give you a positive result, then there is still the surname of Wilson to fall back upon. But, I would certain that failure in using all these surnames is next to impossible! Niamh, however, did not have any of these names, although she lived with her maternal grandfather, who was called Hughes.

Niamh was one of those beings that the people call a changeling, and any of those people residing in the Parish of Derryhusk would tell you so.  There were one or two people in the area who would smile when they told you this. Her grandmother, Catriona Hughes stated it as fact, and Catriona had been given the second sight, which allowed her to see more than most other people. Nevertheless, she was held in high regard within Derryhusk Parish because of her ability to see beyond that misty veil which mercifully hides the future from ordinary beings. The old woman had long said, almost from the day the child was born, that the girl was a changeling. Her daughter, poor Anna had died when Niamh was born, and her father Robbie O’Neill had been tragically drowned. It was, you can see, that the baby had been surrounded by great tragedy and sorrow from birth, and the ‘good people’ had stolen her away, leaving Isabelle in her stead. At least this was the story that was common among all in Derryhusk.

When growing up, Niamh had always been something of an odd child, Catriona had insisted to her friends and neighbours. She would tell all that Niamh, with her ruddy, tawny locks, and sloe-eyes, elfish and silent, would do the oddest, uncanny, unaccountable things, as her moods swung between bouts of sadness and bouts of happiness. As for Niamh, she grew up in the confines of Derryhusk, and had never displayed any wish to leave, though she had been given opportunities to do so. Instead, she lived with Catriona until she was nineteen, and helped her with her spinning and knitting. It was her duty to milk the cows, and to maintain the home for her grandmother. But, the young girl’s head was filled with her grandmother’s teaching, convincing her to believe in the existence of the fairy folk, although she rarely ever spoke about them. Often, her cousin Dermot would find her seated in the middle of the fairy-ring on the small hillock, that stood above the cottage, picking the green grass absently, and gazing blankly into the distance.

One day, she told herself. she would hear the tapping of fairy feet as they danced upon the stone path, or a tiny voice which would call on her to enter into a magical world that would be so very different from lovely Derryhusk. On several occasions she thought that she was on the brink of meeting the little folk, only for someone to come and interrupted the moment. There was one night as she came home over the moss from Ardee that all was quiet and the only sound she could hear was that of her own footfall. Nearby the narrow stream ran, richly brown with the peat over which it gurgled, and the air was filled with honeyed scents, while distant hills faded into the lovely purple of the night’s embrace. Niamh was sure she heard a voice calling her then, and she had wandered up amongst the furze bushes, her face eager and filled with expectancy. And there above her on the small grassy hillock, appearing to flit between the grey lichen-covered boulders, she was certain that there were tiny white figures, waving her to come forward. In her eagerness she began to run towards the top of the small hillock, but, just as she approached that place, Dermot’s voice called to her from the high road. “What are you doing there?” he asked. “Is it the way home?” Niamh almost burst into tears as she descended the hill once more. For she could see nothing near the boulders at that moment but the waving cotton-grass and furzes amongst the peat bog.

Niamh's ArgumentIt was a lovely September, and the hill-sides were a splendour of tawny colouring, the fading furze and bracken, golden and brown, and orange, and gold, and dusky indescribable grey. The sunset came early, and tingeing and stained the nearby tarn, while the cragged rock known as “The Hound’s Tooth” stood out sharply against a rose gold background caused by a descending sun.  Niamh had gone to fetch fodder for the cows, and the fodder was a great pile of pale yellow bracken, which she bound together and fastened on her back. Carrying this load, she moved along the road, pausing now and then to lean her load on one of the rough trackside banks that bordered the ‘moss’. It was nearing evening, and shadows were creeping over the moss, while the small stream became a dark and sullen-brown now as it began the hoarse song that it sings only in the dark. The deer in a nearby woodland hear and love this river-song and they creep down cautiously, light-footedly, turning startled graceful heads from side to side, and they pause a moment, poised with listening ear, before they bury thirsty soft noses into the cool rushing water. The deer paid no attention to Niamh’s presence for they seemed to know that she posed no danger to them, though it was scarcely dark enough for the deer to make an appearance. There was still light enough in the sky to see a passing tourist from Liscorr, coming from popular Corrig on his way home. Niamh paused to rest and laid the heavy load of bracken on the grassy bank, where the yellow fern made a lovely background for her tawny-coloured hair and dark ebony-coloured eyes. Along the track she suddenly spied two men approaching, and she waited for their arrival with some apprehension until she realised one of the men was Dermot McCann. He was her cousin, short, swarthy, black-browed, with a twinkle of cunning in his grey eyes, and a jolly lilt in his voice. The other person Niamh had difficulty naming, although she had seen him playing hurling in Liscorr. Yes, yes, she knew him and had admired his steady ‘puck fada’ on the field of play, and his name was Ruairi McFee. Oh yes, Niamh remembered Ruairi very well, and a little smile melted over her red lips, and lurked in the depths of her lovely eyes as Dermot made himself known to her. Ruairi had recently rented the small farm next to Catriona’s, and he had been invited by her to supper. It was time, Niamh decided, that she was at home.

Illustrations by Alicia Gale

I found this wonderful lady through my blog and her work is so good I had to recommend it to you… Have a look at this stuff and see for yourself. Thanks to Alicia for her permission to reproduce these on my site

Jim Woods

It was brought to my attention that I never shared my finished series of fairy tale illustrations based on the months of the year. This was a huge project, much bigger than I ever thought it would be, but I’m so pleased and proud to be able to say I did it. January: A Fresh […]

via Finished Fairy Tale Calendar — Alicia Gaile

Away with the Fairies

His family had christened him Edward, but we preferred to call him ‘Mitch’ because he was always playing truant from school, which where we live is known as “Mitching.” He was the life in our small group of boys as we played in the fields and streams around our homes. But as ‘Mitch’ grew older he gradually became a pale, thin version of the athletic young man that he had once been. By the time he had reached his mid-thirties ‘Mitch’ had become a sickly-looking man, ashen-faced, and with a feeble constitution. His hair was light auburn in colour and he preferred to keep long, as he had done in his youth. He also had a beard that he chose neither to shave or trim in any style, leaving it to grow wildly across his lower face. Strangely, his hands were a pale colour and looked to be delicate. Indeed, they were soft and not at all hard, or coarse, as you would expect the hands of a labouring man to be. But, as a young boy he had learned the trade of a tailor from his grandfather, in which trade he excelled. ‘Mitch’ now earned a very good living from his trade and had built up a good reputation for himself throughout the area for the quality of his workmanship. We remained close to him as we grew up and were full of admiration for his tailoring talent. There were, however, some who thought him to be something of a miser, hoarding his money rather than spending it freely like other men who spent their time in the ‘Bookie Shops’ and public bars of the town. But, ‘Mitch’ was a sensible, sober and rational man, who had more to interest him than the greyhounds, the horses, or the ‘Gargle‘ (drink). Nevertheless, much to the amusement of many, he insisted that he could see and hear the fairies that lived around his workshop, the town and the district. Whenever he met and confronted anyone who voiced any doubt about his spiritual talent his eyes would fill with a frightening wild, hollow look. At the same time, his normally friendly facial expression would become suddenly dark and his brow furrowed deeply.

Whenever his name was mentioned some would simply say, “Poor Mitch Curran, sure his head’s away with the fairies.” But, in my opinion, there was no man in the town who looked less like he had mental problems than ‘Mitch’ Curran. If ever a man enjoyed the ‘craic’, loved to hear a joke or could tell a humorous story it was ‘Mitch’. He could never have been described as an unhappy man in any manner or form, and it just appeared to be a natural talent that allowed him to hear and speak to the fairy folk, and sure he was not doing anybody any harm. Strangely, ‘Mitch’ was a man who did not seem to feel pain like the rest of us, or even experience the slightest tinge of fear, and I often wondered was this because of the close relationship he had developed with the ‘Good People.’ In fact, I was certain that this was a result of the fact that ‘Mitch’s’ relationship with the fairy folk appeared to be both intimate and friendly, and he would converse with them for hours. Any person who saw these conversations take place would tell you that they were terribly one-sided affairs. But, they would also admit that the discussions did appear to give ‘Mitch’ a great amount of pleasure, causing him to laugh loudly and joke the entire time that he talked with the ‘Good People.’

There were many occasions, when I was at a loose end, that I would call into ‘Mitch’s’ workshop just to see how he was keeping. “Well, Mitch, have you seen your fairy friends today?” I would ask him.

Aaah, Jimmy, would you whisht (be quiet). Can’t you see them yourself? There must be two dozen or more running around this place and keeping me back from my work,” he often replied.

No matter how hard I looked I could not see them. They were totally invisible to me despite ‘Mitch’ constantly insisting, “There’s the oul’ fella, sitting on top of the machine for he loves to feel the vibrations through his body when I am sewing. But, they are all having a bit of a tough time at the minute. There’s nothing to worry about, however, for they are all great wee schemers, the lot of them. They’ll soon find a way to be right again. Look, there’s one them now and he’s unravelling my silk threads!” he told me as he waved his hand at a bunch of thread bobbins, just as he would to wave away a fly.

Get away out of that you wee devil, or I will leave a mark upon you that will never go away. Get out of that, you wee thief!

Now, throughout my life I had heard many different tales about the ‘Good People’ that would encourage a man to be extra-careful in any dealings he might have with them. On one occasion I asked him, “Mitch, are you not afraid of the fairies at all?

What? Am I afraid, you’re asking me?” he answered with a loud laugh. “Sure, why would I need to fear them, for they have no power over me! None at all!

Of course,” he replied in a matter-of-fact manner that made me feel that I should have known this all along. “Didn’t my da tell the priest who christened me to include the special prayer against the fairies. You know, a priest cannot refuse the prayer to anyone when it is asked of him. So, I got the special prayer and, thanks be to God, that priest did what was right.

I was puzzled for a moment and watched him as he was then apparently distracted by fairy activity elsewhere in the shop, and shouted at the them, “Will you leave all that stuff alone, you imp. You are the thief of all thieves!

Having said this, ‘Mitch’ then returned his attention to me saying, “It was a good thing indeed, for those fairies wanted to make me their king!

To be honest with you. I almost fell off the stool with the shock of what he had just revealed to me but, somehow, I managed to maintain my composure and asked him calmly, “Is that really possible?

Isn’t it me who is telling you it is? Now, if you don’t believe me then you can ask them yourself and they will tell you the truth of it!

I decided that best thing that I could do at that time was to look all around me, even though I knew I would see nothing. But, I had seen ‘Mitch’s’ temper flare with the others who had doubted him and who had tried to take ‘a hand of him’ (make fun). Not surprisingly I decided to accept what he had told me and continued to ask him questions about his little, invisible friends, I chose to continue my enquiries with him. “What size are they, Mitch?

Och, sure they’re only wee boys, wearing green coats and the prettiest of little brogue shoes that a man ever set eyes on. There’s two old friends of mine, there,” he pointed toward a shelf of cloth lying in rolls. “They’re running on top of that cloth there. The one with the grey beard is the oldest of them and goes by the name, ‘Munchy’. The other one, with the small green bowler hat is called ‘Cheeks’ and he can play the Uileann pipes (Irish Bagpipes) like an angel.” ‘Mitch’ looked over to the rolls of cloth again and he called, “Cheeks, give us a wee tune on those pipes of yours, you blackguard. Play the ‘Stalk of Barley’.” Then he turned to me and hissed,” Now, Jim, whisht and listen!” While he continued his sewing, ‘Mitch’ beat time to the music with his feet on the wooden floor and seemed to be enjoying every note as if it was real, but I heard nothing.

This was not the only time that I visited Mitch in his workshop and I was not the only person to spend some time with him there. But, every time I had gone to his workshop I tried to hear the faintest sound of fairy voice, but I heard and saw nothing. Even as I sat there listening, ‘Mitch’s’ tongue never once ceased moving in his head. His wife once told me that there were many nights, after ‘Mitch’ went to bed, when he would awaken from his sleep and appear to brush the bedclothes as he made efforts to clear away the fairies from his bed. “Get out of here!” he would shout at them. “You shouldn’t be in here and, ‘Cheeks’ what time is this for you to begin playing those damned pipes? Get out and let me sleep, for I am completely knackered.” But, if they did not go away immediately he would shout at them again. The only noise that ‘Mitch’s’ wife could hear, however, came from her husband.

Now, if you go away and leave me in peace to sleep, then I will give you a wee surprise tomorrow,” he would try to sweeten them. “I will get the wife to make a big rice pudding and we will share it between us. You know you love rice pudding and, if you do what I ask, you will be licking the bottom of your bowl.

Turning to his wife, who was now wide awake, he would sleepily tell her, “They are not bad wee men, darling. Look at them all leaving quietly except for ‘Old Red’ over there. You know, it’s the aches of his old age that makes him want to sleep in the same bed as myself.” His wife, of course, could see nothing and would angrily pout as her husband put his head down on the pillow again, pulled the bedclothes closer around him, and returned to a peaceful sleep. Mrs. Curran could not, unfortunately, do the same. When she was awakened it could take her an hour or more to get back to sleep again and, even then, there would only be an hour or two until she had to rise and prepare breakfast.

Just adjacent to the town’s boundary stood the house of Frankie McCann, where I had spent many happy nights with very close friends, playing cards. It was a comfortable, warm cottage in which the fire was never allowed to die in the hearth and the kettle was always on the boil. The far gable-end of the house from the entrance gate was partly built into a grass covered mound that was said by some to be a home to the fairy folk. For many of the townspeople, however, McCann’s house was not only a place for fairies, but it was said by them to be haunted by the spirits of unbaptised children that were buried on the southern side of the mound. The gossips said that none but the brave, the McCann family and unbelievers like me, dared to enter the property. It must be said, however, that in every way possible such rumours were nearly as good as a burglar alarm for keeping undesirables away.

away with the fairiesFrankie’s child had been sickly baby since birth and even the doctor was not sure about exactly what was making her so sick. It was almost mid-summer, when fairies are at their most lively, that the child once again took a fever and began to cough harshly. One evening, around dark, we had gathered for a hand of cards in the house and we heard the strange sound of wood being sawed coming from the grassy mound. Puzzled by the noise we put our cards down on the table and decided that we would search for the source of the noise. On the mound, however, there were only white-thorn trees growing on the mound, and no local man in his right mind would even consider risking his life by sawing down one of those fairy trees. More puzzling to us was the fact that it was very late in the evening for any person to be sawing anything, which was also cause for concern.

There were seven or eight of us and we worked together to scour the entire property to find the source of the noise, but we found nothing. Other than ourselves we could find no other person, spirit or creature thereabouts. So, with nothing to be seen around the mound we returned to the house and sat down to resume our card game. But, we had no sooner sat down upon the chairs when the noise was heard once more, and this time it was much nearer to the house. We rushed from our seats into the darkness outside in the hope of catching the rascal off guard. Once again, however, we saw nothing untoward.

Several of us were standing together upon the grassy mound when we heard the sawing noise coming from a small hollow about one hundred yards from where we stood. Although the hollow was completely open to our view and we could hear the noise clearly, we could see no sign of a perpetrator. We moved closer to the hollow in the hope that we would finally discover who, or what, was making this strange noise. But, when we arrived at the hollow we could still hear the sawing noise, only now, added to this, there was the noise of nails being hammered into timber. It was now time, we decided, to send for ‘Mitch’ Curran’s assistance and we sent Tommy Bell to fetch him. Tommy’s task didn’t take him very long to complete and ‘Mitch’ was soon at our sides. As we expected, almost without hesitation, ‘Mitch’ announced the solution to our puzzle. He informed us, “It’s the fairies making the noise. I see them all and they are very busy.”

“But, what are they doing?” I asked him.

“They are building a coffin for a child,” he said almost in a whisper. “The body of the coffin is built and now they are finishing the lid.”

The breath rushed out of my body with the shock of what I had heard. My mind began to struggle to decide if what Mitch had said was true or not. Later, that very same evening the sickly child passed away and was grieved by the child’s loving parents. The next evening Frankie’s brother arrived at the house and, bringing a worktable outside, he began to construct a coffin for his niece. Those who heard the uncle working on this task at the back of the house agreed that the sawing and hammering sounds were exactly the same as those noises that were heard the previous night.

 

©2018 Jim Woods