More Irish Fairies

Changelings and other Fairy beings

In the past the Irish peasantry never thought, even for one moment, that a child abducted from its home would have been killed and buried in the cold earth somewhere. In their minds they imagined that the missing child was living among the fairies, although this belief did not lessen the heartbreak felt by the parents. They were convinced that their child was now condemned to endure, if not enjoy, all the changes in circumstances they would experience in a life that was constrained by their exile from heaven and earth. When the child was not restored again to its parents, it was assumed by the entire community that the child’s life was being prolonged to an indefinite period while it lived among the fairy-folk.

The idea that the fairy-folk practiced human abduction was held as being true among the Irish peasantry of days long passed. Today, when a child goes missing, or is abducted, all sorts of alarm bells begin to ring in our society. Some are returned unharmed, but most are found alive or dead, but all suffered at the hands of evil people. But, there are still some of whom no trace has been found. In many cases within Irish peasant homes those children who suddenly became sickly, or acted strangely, were often called changelings. It was said that the original child had been abducted from their home by the fairy-folk and replaced with an old, decrepit, sickly, emaciated ugly fairy child. The human parents almost expected such a thing to happen, especially when they knew that the fairy-folk prized young and lovely mortal children.

ChangelingTo guard against such things happening to children the midwives were accustomed to giving newly-born children a small spoonful of whisky, mixed with earth, as its first food. This was a charm intended to preserve the child from any extraordinary spell that may be cast upon them by the fairies. Special care was taken to watch over all new-born babies and to guard them until after they had been christened. Only then would they be considered free from the threat of abduction, or changed for a deformed, evil fairy child.

Although the peasant woman feared for her newborn child, especially if it was a handsome, fit, and pleasing child. But, it was not only children that were subjected to abduction and forced exile from their homes. Records speak of mortal women, who had recently been confined in childbirth, were also subject to abduction by the fairy-folk, who took them to the fairy realm where they would be forced to suckle and nurse fairy-born infants.

In Irish folklore, Changelings are said to have an inclination for carrying out certain grotesque pranks. They were known to mysteriously obtain a set of pipes, which they would carry under their arm, and they would often sit up in their cradle to perform a variety of airs with great flourish, as well as some strange grimaces. When the Changeling plays lively jigs, reels and hornpipes on that instrument, the people living in the cottage immediately began to dance wildly despite their reservations. Though they might be ready to drop with exhaustion the dancers are unable to stop their dancing until the Changeling stops playing.

Despite all the hilarious whims and oddities that a changeling might possess, it was still regarded as a very unwelcome family intruder. It was not unknown for the fairy child to be thrown across the fire’s hearth to attempt to eject him from the household. He would then suddenly vanish up through the open chimney, all the while calling on vengeance and shouting curses, as well as all kinds of terrible names, against the family that had sheltered him for so long.

The other method of removing the changeling froma cabin was to use a clean shovel to pick it up and place it on the centre of a dung-hill. In the meantime, the parents still believed that their own children would be returned to them no matter how long they had been absent. Men and women with special knowledge of the fairy-folk, called ‘fairy-doctors’ were called upon to direct certain prayers that would ensure the true child would return. The verses of these prayers were usually chanted in Irish. The following are the lines of a prayer that was once used for this reason and is translated into English and recorded Rev. John O’Hanlon (1870) :-

“Fairy-men and women all,

List! – it is your baby’s call;

For on the dung-hill’s top he lies,

Beneath the wide, inclement skies,

Then come with coach and sumptuous train,

And take him to your mote again.

For if ye stay till cocks shall crow,

You’ll find him like a thing of snow, –

A pallid limp, a child of scorn,

A monstrous brat of fairies born.

But ere you bear the boy away,

Restore the child you took instead;

When, like a thief, the other day,

You robbed my infant’s cradle bed,

But, give me back my only son,

And I’ll forgive the harm you done;

And nightly, for your gamboling crew,

I’ll sweep the hearth and kitchen too;

And leave you free your tricks to play,

Whene’er you choose to pass this way.

Then, like good people, do incline

To take your child and give back mine.”

When these words, or words like them, had been recited the Fairy-Doctors would retire to an adjoining cottage, closing the door carefully behind them and await whatever might happen, while they repeated some additional prayers and incantations. Any noise, whether caused by the elements or a passing vehicle, was quickly put down as due to the approach or departure of a fairy troop. When the door was opened sometime afterwards these so-called ‘Doctors’ would confidently declare that the true child had been returned. The poor emaciated being atop of the dung-hill was then brought into the cabin, and its deluded parents were told that their child would not long survive. The subsequent death of the child through mistreatment and malnourishment appeared to confirm the prediction made by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’. Each occasion added to the reputation already established by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’ among the Irish peasantry.

Fairy ManChildren, however, were not the only occupants of the raths who had been abducted. The fairy-folk would take a fancy to the pipes used by accomplished pipers, as well as the instruments used by other famous musicians. These people would often be abducted and brought to the underground and underwater habitations of the fair-folk. Unfortunately for these musicians, they had to play their music for the finely dressed, frisky little gentlemen and ladies. While the fairies danced the musicians played, until they were almost dead with fatigue. One saving grace, however, was that the fairy-folk were very conscientious about giving out good servings of refreshments and, usually before morning, those whom they had abducted would be freed. Sometimes, however, the musician was invited to stay with the fairy-folk but, if he preferred to return home to the land of mortals, he was allowed to go freely. But, the fairies will take away the musician’s instrument and replace it with one that is much more perfect and sweeter toned. Moreover, the fame of having been abducted to the land of the fairy-folk and having been given such a gift will establish the musician’s place in society, and his future financial prospects.

Likewise, midwives were said to be abducted to the fairy raths as pillion passengers on fairy horses that conducted them into the invisible abodes of the fairy-folk. Should these women take any food or drink while they are with the fairy-folk they cannot return home. But, these women are constantly pressed to eat and drink by the fairies, who constantly presented luxurious meals and drinks to them, upon which are placed the spell of detention.

We constantly hear stories about the gifts that the fairies can and have bestowed upon mortals like us. The fairies, however, were known to be less free in bestowing the riches of gold and silver to humans as a reward. Even when such riches were offered, those people so rewarded still found it very difficult to get their hands on it. There are many stories told about ‘crocks of gold’ and other treasures given by the fairy-folk that usually turn into stones, dry leaves, old bones, or something equally as worthless.

The Irish ‘fairy-man’, or ‘Fairy-women’, sometimes called ‘Fairy-Doctors’, were supposed to hold some mysterious sort of communication and influence with the fairies that lived in the motes and raths of the country. There were, of course, many rumours that these ‘fairy-doctors’ were impostors, who were originally changelings themselves. Such was the wariness of such people by the peasantry that they were generally relegated to living an almost hermit existence and a deep veil of mystery shrouded everything that they did.

They said that they were very well acquainted with all the secret things of the past, present and future. It was, allegedly, within their power to cure all illnesses and diseases that affect both man and beast. They said they could assist in the discovery and restoration of lost property, as well as give descriptions that would assist in the detection of the thief and their prosecution. People would go to them to have their fortunes told, because it was believed that they had knowledge of all matters that were of concern to the person. It was said that the fairies could cause cream to produce great amounts of cheese and the ‘fairy-doctors’ would take great care to impress on the minds of the ignorant that it would be desirable to make friends with the fairy-folk. This would prevent any evil effects caused by fairy resentment which could sometimes be regarded as fatal to the individual against whom it is directed.

The ‘fairy-doctors’ would often collect herbs and plants over which they would mumble certain spells and then use them as charms and cures for various troubles. These plants and herbs were considered to have been specially impregnated by some mysterious fairy influence that is efficacious for the healing arts. Sometimes, ‘Knowledgeable Old Women’, also called ‘Fairy-women’, were often known to exercise charms that did not encourage people to have confidence in their success. For example, an herb, or a bit of burnt sod taken from a the bonfire on St. John’s night in midsummer was often sewn into the clothes of women. It was a charm that was supposed to protect the wearer from any fairy plots, or abductions.

It was also said that there was an ointment that midwives used to smear on the fairy-children that, if rubbed on the eye of a mortal, would enable the mortal to see the spiritless skeleton of fairy illusions in the underground halls and palaces. Old friends and neighbours would often be discovered among the fairy followers in this manner. The fairies themselves, during their dancing and singing, also became visible to the eye that was rubbed with this ointment. Should a mortal make any sign to show that they could see the, the fairies would ask, “Do you see me?”

If answered in the positive they would be asked, “Which eye?”

Once informed the fairy will thrust his finger, or even puff his breath into that eye, and blind the incautious person, causing the charm to be removed.

As a final point of interest, the ‘Fairy-man’ was also called a ‘Charmer’ or ‘Cow-Doctor’ because he undertook to remove any fairy charms from sick cattle by preparing herbs and potions by spring well. So secretive was this process that he would not allow anyone to approach the site while he was creating his various concoctions. In some cases, particularly in the West of Ireland, cows were often driven into certain natural springs or loughs that were designated as being holy. This was done, usually, to restore the normal supply of dairy milk and butter, if the owner believed it had been reduced by some supernatural means. Considered to be a necessary part of the charm a bit of fresh butter was thrown into the water while certain incantations were sung.

The Irish Fairies

There was a time, and not too long ago, that the people were immersed in fairy-lore and superstitions. In our twenty-first century such things are laughed at, being considered simple superstition and old fashioned. Today, it is not considered ‘cool’ to talk about fairies and, in some circles, the word has a quite different and denigrating meaning. But, there are Irish people who believe in the ‘Fairy-World’ and the great things they are alleged to be able to do, and its on our knowledge of this world and its folk that others depend.

Evening time, as every Irish man and woman knows, is usually the period of the day when the fairy-folk choose to move from their raths and dells to new places of habitation. Furthermore, evening is the time usually selected by the fairies to indulge in their past-times and celebrations. There are many first-hand records from people who have seen the fairy-folk and witnessed the various frolics in which they indulge. From such records and witnesses has come the poetic and popular imagery that unites all to give us the depictions we have today.

The earliest records suggest that the most ancient and earliest settlers in Ireland were known as the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’. It is these ancient people who are thought to have been the first practitioners of druidism that brought natural and spiritual magic together. Tales tell us that these ‘Tuatha de Danaan’ were transformed into the fairy-folk at some remote time in the history of this island. It was at that time, too, that they were forced to live in underground places, within green hill-sides, raths and cairns. They were spread out in such numbers that even our most remote romantic dells and woodlands have become their most favoured haunts and are called by we mortals as ‘Gentle Places’. Moreover, it is known that these ‘Gentle Folk’ are also fond of living on the banks and little green hillsides that often lie beside gently flowing streams.

Dancing FairiesThere must have been an enormous number of raths covering Ireland in those far-off times. This is evident from the large number of raths that remain, but the case is made stronger by the fact that the compound word Rath, Raw, Rah, Ray, or Ra is constantly connected to the names of over a thousand various localities within Ireland. It is known that the fairy-folk enjoy getting together in these places, but it has proved difficult to gather accurate information concerning the social life of such folk, including what amuses them most and what their leisure pursuits are.

Music, it appears, is one of their most favourite amusements and their music can be heard beside the raths on most fine evenings. But, the beauty of this music has a type of ‘syren’ effect upon mortals, which causes them to linger and listen to these delightful melodies. While danger may be very close at hand, the mysterious, magical music makes them oblivious to anything other than its entrancing strains. Occasionally, the mortals may find themselves benefitting from their encounter with the fairy-folk, who may heap gifts upon mortal beings. Such gifts may cure both men and women of their infirmities and diseases, while removing any deformities they may have, and ensuring that they do not encounter any disagreeable accidents or misfortunes. The fairies are also known to pass on their supernatural power to both men and women, and invisibly assist them in many aspects of their lives.

At the same time, it has not been unknown for fairies to have a malevolent and mischievous disposition. They have been known to abduct mortals on a frequent basis, so that they can serve some selfish and degrading service for their captors. It has been known for fairies to bring a sudden stillness to the energies of mortals and ruin any of their prospects for worldly happiness. Occasionally, it is believed, they chose to leave people with their life-long illnesses, inflicting sorrow and pain on individuals and families alike. ‘Fairy Doctors’ would often prescribe an offering of ‘Cow’s Beestheens’ (some of the thick new milk given by a cow after calving) to be poured on a rath, which is supposed to appease the anger of the offended sprites. There were, indeed, many similar practices that were considered by the ‘Fairy Doctors’ to be no less potent when they are correctly used.

Sig, or Síghe (Pron: Shee) is an Irish word that is used as the generic title that is applied to the fairy, or fairy-folk. They are spread throughout the entire island, and the nearby nations of Scotland, Wales and England, where they more commonly known as fairies, elves, or pixies. The male fairy is known as the ‘Fear Shee’, while almost every person recognises the ‘Banshee’ as being the woman fairy. There have been occasions when the term ‘Mna Shee’, or women fairies, has been used in certain circumstances to describe certain of the ‘Little People’.

It must be made clear, however, that the ‘Fear Sighes’ are chiefly alluded to in the lore of ancient and legendary times. The ‘Ban-Shighes’ are commonly recognised to be supernatural beings that can often be heard wailing for deaths that are about to occur.

Traditionally it is the males only that appear in the ranks of fairy soldier troops. Fine dressed fairy lords and ladies mingle indiscriminately with other fairy-folk who sing and dance at fairy places in the moonlight. They are, it appears, social beings whose halls are often filled with song and the strains of beautiful, rhythmic music. It is these songs and music that can entrap and transport the souls of mortals, filled with a delicious enthusiasm for the journey. The sounds cause the ear to tingle with excitement as the human listeners to those magical and melodious cadences, which haunt the memory and imagination for a long time afterwards.

In the silver beams of night, we mortals are often granted sight of shadowy troop of fairies as they flit between our eyes and the wildly shining orb that is the moon. He will see, as others have done, that these ‘gentle folk’ are especially fond of singing and dancing at the midnight hour. The wild almost mesmeric strains of their unearthly music can be heard coming from every recess in the ground, within every green hill-side, or tangled wood.

Because of the lengthened daylight hours in summer and autumn the fairy-folk choose not to undertake their usual revels. They seem to feel it is inappropriate on those bright nights to gather and conduct their dancing parties in the secluded vales, or on the lush green banks of streams where the gurgling water trickles along the sheltered courses. On occasion they choose to gather near the ivied walls of old castles, beside a lake or river, or quite often in the gloomy environment of a graveyard, under the walls of its ruined church, or over the cold, lonely tombs of the dead.

Generally, it is harvest time that appear to be the best time of the year to give us frequent glimpses of our Irish fairy-folk. But, at these times, it is also important that we remember our Irish fairy-folk are very jealous of their privacy and they take great exception to any mortal intrusion into their lives. It I not unknown for them in fact, to wreak vengeance on all those people who dare intrude into their gatherings without permission.

Tradition informs us that the wild harmonies that we hear carried on soft, gentle breezesLeprechaun are truly the murmuring musical voices of the fairy-folk as they travel from place to place. Their contests and celebrations may continue through the dark hours of the night, but the first glow of the morning sun provides them with a signal for all their festivities to cease. It is then that the fairy-folk return to their shady raths, deep caverns, rocky crevices, or old grass covered barrows, where their fabled dwellings are concealed from prying human eyes. When they arrive at, or depart from, any particular spot their quick movements through the air create a noise that resembles the loud humming of bees as they swarm to and from a hive. Sometimes we can see a whirlwind that lifts soil and loose leaves into the air, but these are also known to be raised by the passing of a fairy clan.

Some fairy-folk are heard and seen while they are out hunting, blowing their horns, cracking their whips, shouting their “Tally-Ho!”, while their horses’ hooves thunder in the air, and their dogs cry out as they chase their quarry over the land. These fairy-folk are better known as ‘Cluricaunes’ and they turn the rushes and the ‘boliauns’ (Ragwort) into fine horses. When the fairies sit astride these mounts they gallop in the hunt, or transport them in a body, or troop, from one place to another. Over hedges and ditches, walls and fences, brakes and briars, hills and valleys, lakes and rivers, they sweep with incredible speed and an airy lightness.

The strange sounds that are caused by crackling furze blossoms are often attributed to a fairy presence. They like to shelter beneath clumps of gorse thickets, because they love the scent that comes from their flowers, and they create trackways that will make passage much easier through the wiry grass that grows around the roots of these bushes. From out of the yellow cup-leaved blossoms they sip the sweet dew collected there. At the same time, the fairy-folk refresh themselves by sucking the dew drops from other leaves and flowers. They are so light-footed when they are dancing, in fact, that these de drops are scarcely shaken off, even during their wildest exertions.

Filled with a great passion and eagerness for music and dancing, the fair-folk will spend the entire night, without even stopping to take a breath, at their favourite jigs and reels. They will glide around the space in lines and in circles, dancing with each other using a great variety of steps and postures. Usually they are dressed in green clothes of various shades and hues, or sometimes they are dressed in white and silver-spangled clothing and wearing high-peaked or wide-brimmed scarlet caps on their heads. In the light of the moon they can be seen under the shade of thick, ancient oak trees, dancing on or around large globular toadstools, or umbrella-shaped mushrooms.

Interestingly, we rarely find our Irish fairy-folk regularly employed in any industrial pursuits, except for those that can be chiefly conducted indoors and do not take much exertion on their part. Their efforts are used in creating items pleasing to young Irish girls, or thrifty housewives, but their scarcity is evidence of the amount of effort put into creating them. For the fairy-folk, however, it is pleasure and social enjoyment that are the delights that chiefly occupy their time, much as it does with various elements in our society. Yet, there is no need to be envious of these folks for it is only at a distance that the fairies appear to be graceful or handsome, although there clothing is always made from rich material of a fine texture.

It appears to be the habit of the Irish fairy-folk to frequently change shape, which allows them to suddenly appear and, just as suddenly vanish. Surprisingly, these elven-folk when you look closely at them, are generally found to be aged looking, withered, bent, and to having very ugly features. This is especially true of the men, while the female of the species are endowed with characteristics that give them a rare beauty in many areas and to these the little men always pay the greatest attention. But, because of their appearance, ordinary Irish people believe that they are a mix of human and spiritual natures. It is said also that their bodies are not solid but are made from some substance that we mortals are unable to feel when we touch.

It is generally agreed that these gentle-folk are filled with benevolent feelings or great resentment, depending on the circumstances of the moment. Although, during the day, these folk are invisible to humans they continue to see and hear all that takes place among men, especially when it concerns those matters in which they have a special interest. Cautious people are always anxious to ensure that they have a good reputation among the fairies and do all in their power to maintain a friendly relationship with them. It is a deeply held belief that the only means of averting the anger of the fairy-folk is always to be mannerly and open minded. This means taking care in all the actions you undertake, for example you should not strain potatoes, or spill hot water on, or over the threshold of a door because thousands of spirits are said to congregate invisibly at such a place, and to suffer from such careless actions. It was once common for a drinking person to spill a small portion of draught on the ground as an offering to the ‘good-people’.

The ordinary Irish folk have formed an ill-defined belief that the fairy-folk are like the fallen angels, in that they were driven from a place of bliss and condemned to wander this earth until the final day of judgement. The fairies themselves are believed to have doubts about their own future condition, although they do have high hopes of one day being restored to happiness. A mixture of good and evil balances their actions and motives, making them as vindictive in their passions as they are frequently humane and good in what they do. It is not unknown, for example, that desperate battles do take place between opposing bands that are hostile to each other. They meet, like the knights of old, armed from head to foot for combat. The air, witnesses have said, bristles with their spears and their flashing swords, while their shining helmets and bright red coats gleam in the bright sunshine.

Niamh’s Folk (Final Part)

Dermot did not offer to take the fodder from her, though he thought he was in love with Niamh and had every intention of asking her to marry him. He believed that the women of this county were used to carrying heavy burdens and left her to it. But Ruari McFee, saying nothing to the girl, began to untie the rope at her waist, and he swiftly swung the mass lightly over his own shoulders.

“Sure, there’s no need to do that!” Dermot said, while he thought to himself, “You are a ‘buck eejit!” (stupid idiot!)

“It is too heavy for a lass,” replied Ruairi, but his eyes did not meet Niamh’s eyes and they walked home together in silence through the creeping dusk.

Inside the cottage and by the red glow from the turf fire Niamh looked lovelier to him than ever she had. McFee, meanwhile, ate little and his mind appeared to be was in another place. Catriona’s remarks, and Dermot’s slow efforts at conversation seemed to fall on strangely deaf ears. He was a shy man, quietly spoken and found it difficult to socialise with people who were virtual strangers to him. Ruairi appreciated all these personality faults and yet could not quite understand what had come over him that evening. He asked himself the question all the next day, because, even as he threw himself into inspecting his new byres and out-houses, there was only one image in his mind and that was a picture of slim girl in a short faded green skirt, who was lying against a grassy bank, with her small head crushed against a background of faded ferns, and her shy lovely eyes looking into his face. It was Niamh, but she was said to be a changeling. “Nonetheless,” he told himself, “changeling or not, I have fallen in love with her!”

-***-

“It is no use at all to go against the girl. I have said so before now. And there are many girls in the district who are as good a prospect as she is, and maybe they’ll have a cow or two, or even a few pounds to bring with them. There’s wee Sheila O’Donnell and she could have as much as three hundred pounds to bring to the marriage!”

“As if I would look at a woman with a squint,” snapped Dermot as he furiously threw down the fishing-rod he was holding, “I will have none but Niamh, and if she will not have me, I will do someone an injury!”

In the meantime, Dermot’s mother deliberately continued peeling potatoes. “Ruairi McFee is stronger and bigger than you are,” she remarked. “And he has the eyes of a hawk, fists like jack-hammers. You’ll never take Niamh away from him by force. But perhaps, now, there might be a little plan; just a little plan, mind you.”

Dermot picked up the fishing-rod again and his cunning eyes grew intent. Catriona resumed, in her high-pitched voice, speaking without a pause as she peeled the potatoes. “The best thing would be that they would have a quarrel, and I’ll tell you a way this could happen. He doesn’t like to hear that they are all saying she is a changeling, and he doesn’t like her to talk about the good folk. When she told him the story of the kelpie that followed Robbie McVey over the moss, and finally drowned him in the ‘Black Pool’, he was angry, and called it all nonsense, and said that she should never again talk about such things. Niamh, of course, was not happy about that. She was asking me about the ‘Cave of Gold’ only yesterday, and when it was that anyone might see the fairies dancing, and if the tides would allow us to go. So, I told her it was on Midsummer’s Night at twelve o’clock, and she is just mad to go! Clean mad! But Ruairi was there, too, and I was listening at the door, after, and I heard him say that it was all just silly talk and nonsense, and that he would prefer that she did not go. He told her that it was too late at night, and that nasty squalls would spring up, and our boat was not exactly seaworthy. She begged and prayed that he would take her, and he said, ‘No’! Every time she pleaded he simply told her, ‘No’!”

“Very well, then,” Dermot cried out impatiently, as she paused in her story, “I suppose she is so mad with love that she gave the entire idea up.”

“She is pretty much in love,” his mother agreed, “and so she gave in to his wishes. ‘And I am going over to Ballygarvey, Niamh,’ I heard him say, ‘to see what Mr. Campbell, the land-agent, is wanting to tell me, and you will promise not to go when I am away because it is not safe for a girl like you to be out so late. Will you promise me?’ And she promised him. He told her that he would bring her a new brooch made of silver and marble stones, and they kissed each other before he left.”

“Very well, what then?” Dermot cried angrily. “I hear they are to be married when he comes back. So, what else is there for me, mother?”

Catriona had dropped her potatoes into the pot, and she swung it over the open turf fire, which was glowing redly in the dark little cottage. “Well, if I were you, Dermot, I would get out the boat, and I would offer to take her to the cave. And I will be telling her more stories to-night, when we are spinning. That girl is a changeling, sure enough, and she will go. When Ruairi comes back, he will hear the story, and he will be mad with her, and they will quarrel. You can go over to Liscorr that day, to be out of his way. They will have an almighty row, and will break off their relationship, and she will turn to you, in time.”

Dermot slowly considered the plan and agreed that it suited him perfectly well. He didn’t want a noisy quarrel, and no measuring of strength. He, too, remembered Ruairi’s muscles at the hurling match. But this secretly conspiring in the dark, while McFee was away, was much to his taste. He made up his mind now that his mother was a woman of great wisdom. He told her he approved of her plan, and that he would get her a little present the next time that he went to Ballygarvey. After this, her stories to Niamh about the cave were many and very enticing!

-***-

“Dermot, Dermot, but I’ve promised!” It was the next night, and Niamh stood before the cottage in her dark wincey skirt and green cotton jacket, her face turned up to her cousin’s. All last night, all through the day, old Catriona’s stories had haunted her every thought. The old woman had gone about her task in a cunning fashion and began as soon as they were both seated at the spinning-wheel and, in a rambling manner said that the next day would be Midsummer’s Night, when the fairies would be holding their dancing in the Cave of Gold. She said that only she was old, and frail, and feeble, she would have gladly gone to watch the festivities! Catriona had the second sight and could perhaps see what no other person could see and, she appeared to confident that the journey would hold no danger! How she would love to see the little folk dancing! At this point her voice fell quiet, and she looked around her into all the dark shadows of the kitchen, and up by the oak bench that stood near the window. She pricked up her ears in the hope of hearing the faint and far-off tune of Old Dingus Murray’s fiddle, for they said that the legendary sound could still be heard.

Feeling a little uneasy, Niamh rose from her seat, saying she would go and see if there were enough oat-cakes for supper, or see if that was someone outside. But, Catriona spoke sharply to her and told her to sit down again. She was determined that the girl would not escape her and then she asked if Niamh had ever been told the story of Old Dingus Murray and the Cave of Gold. Niamh admitted she had never heard the story and she sat down again, the spinning wheel idle and the soft grey carded wool lying in her lap. Catriona, spinning fast, and with the low vibrations of the wheel acting as a sort of accompaniment to her voice, began to tell the story. She was an Irish speaker, which makes it difficult to express in the English language the creeping, insidious fear and mystery of the tale. A tale about how the fiddler, Dingus Murray, fell in love with an O’Neill from Dargan, whose father would not allow him to woo his daughter until he overcame several foolish and impossible tasks.

CaveOne task required him to enter the Cave of Gold at midnight, on Midsummer’s Night, and play “The O’Neill of Dargan” as he passed through the little dancing folk and penetrated far into the mystery of the cave’s depths to where no man had ever been. Dingus, of course, took up the challenge, and with his long hair waving wildly in the breeze and his fiddle in his hands, he was seen standing at the shingly edge of the cave with his teeth gritted for the task ahead. The men who had rowed Dingus up to the cave saw him standing there, and they heard the first wild pealing notes from his fiddle drift in the wind. Thus, playing proudly and happily, he entered the cave with his dog at his heels, while they waited, watched, and listened. At last they heard one terrifyingly awful cry, after which there was silence except for the sound of the wind. Dingus had passed through the fairies, but “He never came home!”

Then, changing her tone, Catriona told the story of the only woman who had ever caught sight of the ‘wee folk’, and how, forever after, riches and wealth were hers, and she had never a wish that had gone unsatisfied! It was the going on into the inner caves that had undone the piper! The lass who had seen the fairies was a certain Eileen Curran, and “she married a chieftain, and went to live far away in another part of the country, and all her days she was clad in green silk. Yes, all her days!”

“How did she leave?” asked Niamh.

In a boat, with a man. It is easy, if the man is strong. Finally, Eileen Brid’s great stone cross at Craigmore, and they granted her even that! There she lies near the saintly Brid, and all because she had seen the ‘wee folk’ in the Cave of Gold!”

“Grandmother, would you lend me the magical rowan branch if I were to go?” Niamh whispered. “Would you, grandmother?” Her own voice frightened her for a moment and she imagined she could see Ruairi’s face appear before her. But, the old woman got up without a word, and, going to her linen cupboard took something, rolled in a fine kerchief, from it, which had the sweet smell of bog-myrtle in its folds, and she laid the brown faded leaves and the red, dry berries on Niamh’s lap.

“There it is! But you will give it back to me safely? or else bad things might happen to us all!”

“I will return it to you safely,” Niamh assured her. In her pocket she had the rowan, but Dermot was tampering with her conscience and her promise now.

“It was a very foolish thing to promise,” he said craftily. “Besides, Ruairi was afraid of the squalls, that is all, and there will be no squalls at all! You can come with me, and see if there is anything, and if my mother’s stories are true. If not, there is no harm done. It is a lovely cave to see.”

Niamh gave in, just as Catriona knew she would give in. Would she see anything? Would the ‘wee folk’ be there?  Before she could fully explore these thoughts, Niamh found herself in the little boat, and rowing towards the cave. Strangely, the night seemed to be only a paler day and they rowed close into the shore, until they discovered a place where the rock-face was split and showed a pale light within. There was just enough space for the boat to float in, passing through a low, overhanging archway. Niamh drew in her breath sharply and clasped her hands, as Dermot paused, watching her face, once they were through it. They were in a deep circular basin, where the water was a lovely pale green that darkened in the shadows. The rocky sides were cut, here and there, into long narrow openings, into one of which Catriona’s fiddler must have wandered. Here Niamh saw the water lying dark and mysterious, shadow-haunted. Bending over the edge of the boat, she could see the yellow sand far below and in bright sunshine her own fair face would have been reflected. Tiny jelly-fish edged with lilac spots, and with long white fringe, floated beside the seaweed, like strange jewels, and far above them they could see the pale yellow-redness of the summer evening sky, soft, and exquisite. Fringing the opening were ferns and heather, and tall fox-gloves, but the fairy bells did not stir in the breathless air. Were the ‘wee folk’, the ‘good folk’, lurking within she wondered? If she watched, would she see a tiny face peep out at her? She waited, watched, and waited some more and the time passed. “Dermot, I don’t see anything!” Niamh spoke at last, breathlessly, eagerly. She had forgotten Ruairi, she had forgotten everything but her desire. “Row me further in, Dermot.

He pushed the boat forward, and Niamh sat with her dark blue eyes, which seemed black in the shadow, and strained eagerly forward, listening, waiting. But, nothing moved, except that now and then little waves would break with a plashing ripple against the boat. Far up on the rocks, a passing breath of wind now and then swayed the flowers and the grasses, but no fairy face peeped out from anywhere, there was no tap of dancing feet, nor any note of fairy music.

Dermot, Dermot, there is nothing, nothing at all!”

The note of bitter disappointment in her voice upset Dermot. Once or twice he had attempted to speak, because he did not want to make this trip in silence, but Niamh had raised her little brown hand sharply. She thought that his manly voice might disturb the fairies. But, at last the silence had started to affect even her. In her mind she began to think that it was all of no use, for she could see and hear nothing.

We will just be going home then, Niamh” Dermot said in a quiet, practical tone of voice, unconcerned for the disappointment that Niamh was feeling because, in his opinion, the entire thing was just simple “foolishness.” “Maybe they are not dancing to-night and we would be better just go home.

“She said I would be sure to see them,” Niamh sighed with a sob in her voice. As Dermot pushed the boat out, Niamh crushed the rowans bitterly in her lap, and they fell into the bottom of the boat. She remembered Ruairi suddenly, as, once outside, she noticed that the weather had changed during her stay in that dark cavern. The light seemed obscured; there were white horses leaping in the distance; and the wind swept sharply into their faces as they looked seaward. It would, Dermot realised, now be dangerous to keep so close to the rocks, for a heavy groundswell had risen. He glanced around and voiced some strong oaths as he grabbed the oars. In the growing swell Dermot knew he would need all the strength he possessed in his muscles to row the clumsy boat to safety, and he would have to keep the boat out to sea to avoid the jagged rocks.

During the long row home, through the now angry waters, Niamh sat silently in the boat. When Dermot asked her to “Bale!” almost angrily she did so almost mechanically, realising the danger of an ugly leak that had suddenly appeared. There was no emotion, for nothing seemed to matter. There were no fairies and she would have to tell Ruairi that she had broken her word. Finally, they found a sandy, sheltered bay where they could land safely. Only Dermot knew how hard he had struggled against the wind and the tide in that clumsy and leaking craft. Niamh, however, did not see the tall figure that was waiting on the shore until she was preparing to leap from the boat. Then a strong hand took hers, and with a startled cry she saw it was Ruairi himself, standing there, grim, grave, silent, with a new expression on his face, which chilled her through and through. She wondered just how it was that he was there?

He helped Dermot to pull the boat up on to the shore, with a look of disdain on his face as he saw the boat when it was finally lying out of the water. “It is a pretty boat,” he said a little scornfully, “a pretty boat to take a lass out in, I’ll give you that, Dermot McCann.”

Dermot did not reply but called to Niamh sharply and all three walked up to the cottage in total silence. The night, which had grown gusty and wet, seemed to have changed as suddenly and mysteriously as Niamh’s life. At the door she paused for a moment and faced her lover, whose annoyed her terribly. “Well?” she said, “well?”

If she had pleaded with him. If she had been penitent, sorrowful! But, unfortunately, it was no penitent face which met his, and jealousy and wrath erupted within him, driving love aside. “Are you asking what I am thinking, Niamh?” he cried, “of the girl who promised me, and who broke her word, and went out with Dermot McCann? Well, I am thinking just nothing at all of her! I have warned her that the boat was not safe, and of the squalls, and that it was not the thing for a girl like her to go so late. She had promised, and yet she went! And this was the Tara brooch made of Connemara marble stones I have bought for you. But, it can go there!” He stormed as he flung the little packet remorselessly into the nearby bushes. “And as for yourself, I think nothing of you at all, everything between us is over. I am now leaving for a new life in Australia tomorrow along with John Campbell. He asked me some time ago, and I said ‘No,’ but I will go now, and will go to Derry this very night! Good-bye.

He turned away from her then, in his fury. All of this passed as suddenly, swept up as unexpectedly as had the squall outside the Cave of Gold. Niamh stood as if dazed, staring straight before her. An Irishman’s anger is like a great storm against which one must bend, and this is what Niamh did now.

Ruairi did not look back. Dermot, in the doorway, saw him stride on to the road, through the little patch of potatoes growing in front of the door. He set his face towards the high road for Derry and a very short time the sound of his footsteps had died away and the darkness of the night had swallowed him. That was all right, Dermot thought to himself, “Australia! Sure, isn’t that the best place for him?

There follows a mist, and a weeping rain,

And life is never the same again!

Niamh might have thought about these words, if she had known them, over the many days that followed. For Ruairi McFee was not the man sort of man to change his mind, nor speak it. He sailed from Derry to Liverpool and within the week he was believed to have boarded a ship for Australia. Many had gone before him and his many friends in Ireland believed he would vanish there. These were the days of sailing ships and slow communication, and Ruairi had never been the kind to write.

But Niamh did not marry her cousin, as everyone expected, including McCann. She told him “No,” gently, but quite doggedly, and nothing that he could say, or that Catriona could cause her to change her mind. Once the old woman muttered vengefully that she would never see the fairies, for she had lost her luck, and Niamh turned on her in a fierce temper. “It is all false,” she cried aloud so all would hear her, “for there are no green folk at all, and I do not care!”

away with the fairiesThe mystery and the charm of life had left her, for she no longer dreamed on the green grass circle, or wonder at the night-song of the burn. She no longer kept watch for the kelpies under the boulders, in the burns, or in the Rowan Pool. Her belief in the fairies had faded on the same night that Ruairi had left her, and only in that little white kirk on the hill-side, would you hear Niamh raise her voice in song. The joys that song can bring dies quickly on one’s lips when care and sorrow lie heavy on one’s heart. Years had passed since that fatal visit was paid to the Cave of Gold, Niamh never mentioned it, and she was returning, in the soft, golden haze of a September evening, from the castle. Catriona was growing feeble, and Niamh did everything she could for her, while the old woman only spun a little, and wandered out to gather sticks and twigs for the fire. The girl had been taking up carded wool to the castle and giving the great London ladies there a spinning lesson. But, before the cottage came into her view, with its surrounding field of poor and thinly growing oats and potatoes, she paused to look up the fairy knoll. There, on the top was the fairy ring and something suddenly made Niamh turn and mount the little hill.

The loch below her vantage point was tinged with red and the sky was a wonder and a glory. But, Niamh was not looking at the sky, or at the loch. She was thinking just how strange it was that she should go on living, and living much as usual, when all that was best and fairest in life was now gone. She sighed, looking down at the stream, splashing and leaping over the grey boulders. There was that story about the kelpies, but her grandmother rarely spoke of them now. Were there really no kelpies? No Fairies? And yet, …

A step behind her had made her stop quickly, and she gave a sharp cry. A man’s tall figure was there, not ten yards off, and the thought came to Niamh that perhaps, after all, it was all true, for this was a ghost! And if there were ghosts, why not wee folk and kelpies? “I believe it is Niamh, herself. Do you not know me, Niamh?

He spoke in a clear voice. There was no hint of a brogue, only the politest English. He spoke easily, with a strange accent. And yet, she knew him at once! It was Ruairi! Ruairi, well-dressed, handsome, upright, with a different and more independent carriage, but Ruairi all the same! Niamh stood quietly for a moment before speaking, “You are a great stranger,” she said. “It is a very long time, I believe, since you have been in Ireland.

He almost smiled. He was looking down at her intently. He wondered how it could be possible that she had changed so little, or had those five years been simply a dream? There, just as he remembered her, was Niamh, with the pale, clear, skin, the deep sloe-eyes, the ruddy crisp hair, and that characteristic little drop of her head! It was the girl that he had turned his back on, and been furious with, and had quite forgotten. Yes, he had quite forgotten her, though he had come back to this place, supposedly just to see how all the old folks were doing. “It is five years,” he said to her, “five years! Are you, are you married, Niamh?

The girl raised her eyes and looked at him. It was getting dark, and the stream was beginning its night-song. Niamh had suddenly noticed that, and she began to remember just how the water used to sing. The lovely, indescribably fragrant breath of the nearby moor swept into their faces by the breeze. It was a sweet and enchanting smell that complemented the velvety depths of her eyes and that beautifully familiar mouth. He wanted to know if she was married and even repeated the question, but with a new and eager ring in his voice, and Niamh shook her head.

Though there have been a good many marriages since you left. There was Marie McLean and Donald McNamee, and there was Colin – ” she began to tell him.

What about McCann, your cousin?

He is to be married this year,” she said, “to an English girl, believe it or not.”

So, you did not marry him, after all, Niamh?

Who said that I would?” she cried, as if she had been slapped. “You knew better than that! Who said that I would?

He did! And he said that you would go with him that night, if he asked you. And you did, Niamh! It was very cruel, but –” Ruairi paused for a moment before saying then, “But I am beginning to think that I was cruel, too. Was I?” He waited and watched her reaction.

Niamh nodded gently and spoke softly to him. “Yes, you were cruel, Ruairi, and you were very hasty. It is true that I was a foolish girl, but you might have given me another chance. I believed in my grandmother’s stories. I wanted to see the good folk.” She looked away, and sadness and disillusion crept over her face. “But I do not believe in them anymore. No, not anymore.”

Poor little Niamh. Poor wee girl!” He began to believe that it could not be five years. It could not, and they had only parted yesterday.

But it does not matter,” said Niamh, “and now perhaps you will call and see my grandmother? Are you on your way now?

Ruairi did not answer that. “Niamh,” he said, “I was very cruel, and I was just as angry as a man could be, and for five years I have been mad and sore. But, deep down, deep down, I never forgot you. I hated him, but I loved you. I will come and see your grandmother, but first, first, will you give me a kiss, Niamh, for the sake of the old days?”

Would she? he wondered. Perhaps, after all, he did not need to wait for her consent. He had her in his arms, and they closed round her, and Niamh’s head fell on his shoulder with a little sob that was a summary of all the five years of sorrow and heartache. “My darling,” Ruairi whispered, “I love you, and when I leave here, you will come too, or I will be staying on here with you. You shall choose Niamh, you shall choose, and to-morrow I will buy you something better than the Tara brooch that I was cruel enough to throw away!”

Together, hand-in-hand, they walked down to the cottage, and Catriona, who was never surprised at anything, shook hands sourly with him. She heard his story in silence, and nodded consent when he told her that he and Niamh were to be married, after all. He could look after the place, she said, or he could buy Con McGill’s farm, just above, if he had the money. Would he have money enough? For Dermot kept her very close now. With a bright smile Ruairi laid a packet in her lap, and said he thought he had money enough.

The next morning, Catriona saw him coming up the road. Niamh ran to meet him, and together they wandered off to the side of the stream. They came back by-and-by, and Niamh stood smiling in the cottage door, her arms full of rowan branches and Ruari had a spray in his coat, and the red berries nestled under her chin. “I have brought you back luck,” the girl cried happily. “We found the rowans down by the pool. And Ruairi says that there are maybe good folk in the world, after all! Who knows, grandmother?”

Catriona’s peat-brown old face was bent over her wheel. She allowed there might be one or two, with a half-grunt of satisfaction.

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.

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

Terry Toner’s Gander

This is a story of Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century and tells about Terry Toner, an honest young man from a very well-to-do farming family, who rented the biggest farm on this side of the Black Mountains. Because Terry was enthusiastic about farming, worked hard on his father’s farm, and was open-minded toward the new farming methods that were being advanced.  His industriousness, unsurprisingly, was quickly rewarded and brought great profits with every harvest he reaped. Terry was, however, greatly blessed by having a large family of healthy daughters, and this was a time when it was expected that a father would have a dowry for each of his daughters. Striving to be an honest and hardworking man, Terry was exhausted by the constant efforts he made to gather up the dowries that all his daughters needed to possess if they were to marry well.  There was not a trick or a crafty method for making money out of a farm that Terry did not know and would not employ to its full capacity.

Terry Toner Cottage
Terry and wife

Among all the different methods that Terry had used to raise himself up in the world, he always enjoyed breeding and raising turkeys and many other types of poultry. From all the poultry breeds available, Terry was particularly partial to raising geese.  From his own experiences Terry had many reasons for his preference. Twice every year the poultry farmer can pluck the geese to the bare skin and get a fine price for their feathers. At the same time his geese can provide the farmer with plenty of very sizeable eggs for eating and selling. Then, when the geese become too old to lay any more eggs, they can be killed, and can be sold on to the public for eating. The goose, Terry had recognised, was among the most valuable of all poultry and could provide him with a steady income, even when the land itself is not very fertile.

Thanks to the tender care and feeding that Terry gave his geese the flock expanded quickly. But, there was one old crafty gander that took a great liking to Terry, and he took to the farmer so well that there was nowhere that Terry could go about the farm without the gander following him. Whether it was to work himself or to direct the work of the farm labourers the gander would be at Terry’s heels, rubbing itself against his legs, and looking up into his face just like any other pet would do. There was no one in the district who had ever seen the likes of this activity before, and they continued to wonder as Terry Toner and the gander became closer companions. In fact, Terry was so taken by this particular bird that he would not allow his workers to pluck its feathers at all. Henceforward, the gander became Terry’s very special pet and he showered it with so much love and affection that one would have thought it was just another one of his children. Unfortunately, love and affection are not always perfect gifts and they seldom last very long. Terry’s neighbours very quickly began to suspect and question what the true nature and intentions of the gander could be. Some of the more superstitious among his neighbours even began to suggest that the gander was the devil himself, while many others were convinced that the gander was a fairy.

Fairy Doctor
Fairy Doctor

Being a conscientious and community minded man, Terry could not ignore all the things his neighbours were saying. But, because he was a man who had little belief in fairy creatures, or demons, you can imagine just how uncomfortable he was about those things being said by his neighbours and how difficult it was for him not to react. But, as the days passed into weeks, Terry began to become more and more uncomfortable with what was being said and, finally, he told everyone who wanted to know that he would send for Jerry Girvan, the fairy doctor in Ballydun.  Jerry Girvan was, of course, a man who was well-known in the entire district for his dealings with spirits and the ‘Good People’. It was said that there wasn’t a spirit that would say a cross word to him, nor would any priest in the diocese question him. Moreover, Jerry Girvan had been a very good friend to old Terence Toner, who was Terry’s late father. It was this fact alone that caused Terry to send for the fairy doctor to come as quickly as he possibly could. Sure enough, when Girvan got the message from Terry he made immediate preparations and returned that very same evening along with the boy that had been Terry’s messenger. As soon as he arrived at the farm, Terry greeted his friend and ensured that Girvan was given a good supper after his tiresome journey. They chatted for a while but, as soon as they were finished talking, Jerry immediately began to investigate the question of the crafty old gander.  He took a hold of the gander, turning it this way and that way, to the right and to the left, horizontal and upside down, until he was tired of handling the bird. Then he turned to Terry Toner and said, “Terry, you must take the gander into the next room and put a scarf, or any other convenient item around his head.”

“And why would you want me to do that?” asked Terry curiously.

“Because,” replied Girvan.

“Because what?” asked Terry.

“Because,” began Girvan, “if you don’t do as I ask, then you will never feel easy again. You will still be fearful in your mind. So, I say that you should ask me no more questions, but simply do what I bid you to do.”

“Well,” replied Terry, “have it your own way.”

With that he took the gander and gave it to one of his children standing close by.

“And you take care,” said Girvan to the child. Then, as soon as the bird was gone from the room, he turned to Terry and asked, “Do you know what that old gander is, Terence Toner?”

“I haven’t a clue,” replied Terry.

“Well, then,” laughed Girvan, “let me tell you that the gander is your own father!”

“Get away out of that, surely you must be joking with me,” gasped Terry, completely shocked by what he had been told and as the digested the revelation his face turned very pale. “How can that old gander be my father?” he asked Girvan, nervously.

“I am not joking with you about this, Terry,” Girvan told him. “What I tell you is the truth. It is your father’s wandering soul that has taken possession of this old gander’s body. Now, I knew your da in many ways, and I have to wonder why you didn’t notice that well-known way he would cock his eye.”

“Oh! In the name of God,” sighed Terry, “what will happen to me now! I must be cursed for eternity because I plucked that old gander bald at least twelve times. Bald, I tell you! What will I do now?”

“Well, in all honesty, Terry, there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about that now,” replied Girvan. “It was a terrible thing to do to your da, but sure it’s too late to lament about it now,” says he, “the only way to prevent what’s done, is to put a stop to it before it begins.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” said Terry, “but, tell me, how did you realise that it was my father’s soul that was in the old gander?”

“Sure, If I was to tell you that, you wouldn’t understand what I was talking about, at least not without a bit of book-learning and cookery knowledge,” said Girvan “So it’s better that you ask me no questions, and I will tell you no lies. You will just have to believe me when I tell you that it’s your father that’s in that gander, and if I don’t make him speak tomorrow morning, then I’ll allow you to call me a fool.”

“Say no more,” Terry told him, “that settles the business. But, isn’t it a quare thing for a decent, respectable man like my da to be walking about the country in the body of an old gander? And, oh, God forgive me! Didn’t I pluck him clean all those times and not know he was there. Sure, it’s a wonder that I didn’t stuff the damn bird, roast him and eat him for Christmas or Easter.” Then, after saying all of this, Terry fell into a cold sweat as he began to realise what could have happened, and he was on the point of fainting when images of what could have happened flashed through his mind.

When Terry finally came to his senses again, Jerry Girvan leaned over and spoke quietly and calmly to him. “Take it easy now, Terry,” says he, “don’t you be aggravating yourself, for I have a plan in mind that will make him speak out and tell us just what it is that he’s wanting.” Taking a deep breath, Jerry continued, “Now just you remember not to allow your mouth to run off and repeat anything that I tell you. Just pretend, as soon as the bird is brought back, how we’ve decided to send him to the market early tomorrow morning.  Then, if he doesn’t speak tonight, or make his escape out of the place, put him into the hamper early, and send him in the cart straight to town, to be sold for eating. Put two of your labourers in the cart with him, and my name is not Jerry Girvan if the goose doesn’t speak out before he’s half way there.” Then with a sense of urgency in his voice Jerry told him, “But, just you remember that as soon as he ever says the first word, you must immediately grab a tight hold of him and quickly bring him off to Father Carty. If his Reverence doesn’t make him retire into the flames of Purgatory then there is no power in my charms.”  Then, when all this was said, the old gander was let back into the room again and they all began to talk about sending him off, early the next morning, to be sold for roasting in the county town. It was all discussed in a matter-of-fact way, just as if all the details had already been discussed and settled. The gander, however, appeared to be taking absolutely no notice of the two men, at least no more notice than if they had been discussing someone who was a stranger to them. Terry wanted one of his men to prepare the cage for transporting the gander, by ensuring it was both there was plenty of hay to the journey soft and snug. He told the man, “This will be the last trip that poor old gander would be getting in this life.”

As the night fell and the hours dragged by, Terry became restless and unable to sleep. He began to grow very despondent and sorrowful as the night passed and his mind became entirely filled with images of what was going to happen the next day. So, as soon as his wife and the farm animals were bedded down for the night, he brought out some of his best poteen, and sat down with Jerry Girvan to have a few drinks. But, the more uneasy that Terry began to feel, the more he drank, and both he and Jerry Girvan finished almost two pints of the smooth clear spirit between them. It was to prove to be more than enough for the two men and, indeed, would have been enough for a few more if they had been invited. Nevertheless, they enjoyed every drop of the poteen and were very happy that they had not been foolish enough to follow Father Matt, who took the pledge against alcohol, which is a terrible and blasphemous thing for any Irishman to do.

Sure, there was a time when my own lady wife persuaded me, as only a woman can do, to take up the ‘pioneer medal’ and when that fine woman is with me I will stand proudly and loudly boasting that abstention from the demon drink is a fine thing for any man. But, quietly, I will admit to you that giving up the gargle leaves a man very dry. There are times, therefore, when I have reason to travel far from home and wife that I can get quite befuddled and lose my pioneer medal in my pocket. But, there is no harm done and anyone can be a little forgetful. Sure, there would be no need for forgiveness if a man didn’t give in to temptation now and again.

Terry Toner, however, was no pioneer and when he had finished his pint, he thought he might as well stop. “Enough is as good as a feast,” he told Jerry, “and I pity the unhappy man that is not able to control his liquor, and to keep constantly inside of a pint measure.” Then Terry got up from his seat and wished Jerry a good night, as he walked out of the room. But, he went out by the wrong door, being a trifle worse for wear, and not able to know whether he was standing on his head or his heels, or even both at the same time. As a result, instead of him getting into bed that night, he threw himself into the poultry hamper that the boys had prepared for transporting the gander in the morning. In that well-prepared hamper, sure enough, Terry sunk down to the bottom of the snug, warm and comfortable hay that had been piled there. With his turning and rolling about in the night, there was not a bit of him that was left uncovered as he lay up as snug as a lumper spud in a potato furrow before morning.

As the first light of day broke through the early morning cloud cover, the two boys that were to take the gander got up from their beds and made themselves ready for the journey to the county town. They set about catching the old gander and putting him in the hamper, before throwing a good lump of hay on the top of him, and finally tying him down strongly with a bit of baling twine. Once they had done this, they made the sign of the cross over him, to protect themselves from any harm, and then lifted the poultry hamper up on to the car. But, as they did this they were wondering all the while what in the world was making this old gander so very heavy. With the hamper finally aboard, they went along on the road towards the county town, wishing every minute as they travelled that some of the neighbours might be going the same way and would join them. Though they were fully grown men they didn’t quite like the idea of having no other company on their journey but the bewitched gander, and who could blame them for being worried. They were already trembling with an overwhelming fear that the old gander would begin, at any minute, speaking to them. Although each could see the concern of the other, they continued singing and whistling as loud as they could to try and keep the fear out of their hearts. Well, after they had continued along the road for more than half an hour, the two labourers came to the bad bit that was close by Father Crotty’s house, where there was one rut which was at least three feet deep. As the cart went over this rut it got such a terrible jolt that it wakened Terry, who was still lying snugly within the basket. “Oh!” says he, “my backside is broken with all this jumping and jolting! What the devil are ye doing with me?”

“Did ye hear anything a bit queer, Paddy?” asked the boy that was next to the car, as his face began to turn as white as the top of a mushroom. “I mean, did ye hear anything queer that might be coming out of that poultry hamper?” the boy asked.

“No, I heard nothing” replied Paddy, but he was turning just as pale as his companion, “it’s just the old gander that’s grunting with all the shaking about he’s getting.”

“What have ye put me into?” Terry cried out, from inside the hamper. “Let me out,” he shouted aloud, “or I’ll be dying of suffocation this minute.”

“There’s no use in you pretending,” says the boy to Paddy, “the gander’s speaking, glory be to God!”

“Let me out of here, you murderers,” screamed Terry.

“In the name of all the holy saints,” replied Paddy, “hold yer tongue, you black-hearted creature.”

“Who is it, that dares to call me such names?” asked Terry from inside the hamper. Then roaring at them both angrily he demanded, “let me out of here, you blasphemous heathens, or by this cross, I’ll give you a mighty beating.”

“Who are ye?” asked Paddy.

“Sure, who would I be but Terry Toner, ye eejits,” says he. “It’s myself that’s in here, you unmerciful blackguards,” says he, “now let me out, or I’ll get out of here despite ye both, and I’ll give the two of you a kicking you’ll never forget.”

“Sure, it is old Terry, sure enough,” said Paddy, “isn’t it great that the fairy doctor found him out?”

“I’m on the point of suffocation,” said Terry, “now let me out, I tell ye, and wait until I get at ye, for there will not be a bone in your body that I will not break and pound into powder!” With that said Terry began kicking and flinging himself about the hamper, and driving his legs against the sides of it, so that it was a miracle that the hamper was not knocked to pieces.

Well, as soon as the two labourers saw this, they began to beat the old horse into a gallop as hard as he could towards the priest’s house, through the ruts in the road, and over the stones. All the while the hamper could be seen flying three feet in the air with the jolting. It was small wonder, therefore, that by the time they got to the priest’s door, the breath was fairly knocked out of poor Terry, and he was lying totally unable to speak in the bottom of the hamper. Well, when his Reverence came down, they immediately began to tell him about all that happened, and how they had put the gander into the hamper. They told about how the gander began to speak, and how he confessed that he was old Terence Toner. Excitedly, they asked his reverence to advise them how they might get rid of the spirit for good and all.

The priest now turned to the boys and told them quietly, “I’ll take my book and I’ll read some really strong holy bits out of it. In the meantime, go you and get a rope and put it round the hamper. Then let it swing over the running water at the bridge and it will not matter if I don’t make the spirit come out of it.” Well, with all now said, the priest got his horse, and tucked his book in under his arm, and the boys followed his Reverence, leading the horse, and Terry holding keeping quiet, for he had seen that it was no use in him speaking. Besides, he was afraid that if he did make any noise they might treat him to another gallop and finish him off entirely. Well, as soon as they all came to the bridge the boys took the rope they had with them and made it fast to the top of the hamper, and swung it over the bridge, letting it hang in the air about twelve feet above the water. The priest rode down to the bank of the river, close by, and began to read from the book in a very loud and bold voice. When he had been speaking for about five minutes, all at once the bottom of the hamper dropped out, and down went Terry, falling with a splash into the cold river-water, and the old gander on top of him. Down they both went to the bottom with a splash you could have heard from half-a-mile away. Then, before they had time to rise again, his Reverence, in complete astonishment, gave his horse one dig of his spurs and, before he knew where he was, in he went, horse and all, on top of them, and down to the bottom they went. Within a moment or two, up they all came again together, gasping and puffing, and off with the current they went like shot. On they went, under the arch of the bridge until they came to the shallow water, where the old gander was the first to get out. The priest and Terry came out next, panting and blowing and more than half-drowned. The priest was so shocked by the experience he had underwent, especially seeing an unnatural spirit, as he believed, that he wasn’t the better of it for a month. As for Terry, as soon as he could speak he made it clear that he would have the life of those two eejit boys. But Father Matt would not allow him to harm the two boys and, as soon as Terry got had calmed down, they all tried their best to explain what had happened. Terry, however, believed that he had went to his own bed the night before. Father Matt concluded that it was all a mystery and he swore that if he caught anyone laughing at the accident he would lay a horsewhip across their shoulders. The years passed by quickly and Terry grew more and more fond of the old gander every day until, at last, he died at a wonderful old age. He left the gander after him and a large family of children, and to this very day the farm is being rented by one of Terry Toner’s legitimate successors.

Sacred Tree of Killygann

The breeze of that cold March day blew harshly as I walked steadfastly across the wide windswept fields towards the old burial-ground that rested in the townland of Killygann. On reaching the remains of the ancient church, I sat down for a moment upon the grassy bank that enclosed the cemetery. Taking a moment or two I contemplated the ground that lay before me and my mind wandered, thinking upon the generations of men that had taken the road to this place over the many years of its existence. In this place they had been buried to spend an eternity waiting upon the judgement of God, for whom an altar had been raised on this spot so many long years previously.

If you didn’t know what was inside this grassy enclosure, you would never have guessed that it was indeed a place of burial. There were, however, little hillocks here and there on the surface, which were about two or feet long, and defined by a stone. They were tombstones, marking the little graves that were the last resting-places of unfortunate babies that died in the act of being born, or who been born and fated to live but a short time before uttering a brief cry of pain, and going to sleep for eternity. These innocent, but unbaptized, children were never permitted to mingle with the baptised Christians and were always placed in these long disused cemeteries. In this old churchyard had not received the body of a baptised person in many decades, and its presence was almost untraceable beneath the long, rich green grass that flourished there.

It was said that the grandfather of the present landowner had decided to plant the entire area with fir-trees, which flourished in the rich soil formed by the decomposed bodies that lay many feet below. The trees, themselves, had grown to a very unusual size, and demonstrating to all that no man is totally useless, even in death. When his time is finished, and his labours are ended, a dead man’s body may still enrich the ground that is so often impoverished by his greed. In the meantime, among these tall, sheltering trees, a colony of rooks had established their airy city. And, while the young settlers to the place busily built their new nests, the older residents of the grove were engaged in repairing the damage their homes had received from the storms of winter. The air itself was busy with the shrill discordant voices of the black horde as they seemed to be mock those that sought sleep in the lower branches.

1_fairy_treeAs I sat upon that grassy bank, reflecting upon the old graveyard before me, I noticed a man walking along the same path that I had followed. He appeared to be very advanced in years, but he a tall figure of a man, who supported himself with a long wooden staff.  Against the chill of the March wind the old man was wrapped in a blue-grey coat that folded close under a belt of string, and a woollen hat that was drawn over his face, as if to screen it from the sharp blast of a cold-wind that rushed toward him. He suddenly stopped, then fixed his eyes on a spot in the burial ground where a wind-blasted and branchless whitethorn stood. This ‘fairy tree’ looked as if it had become part of the fabric of this ancient, lingering as it did over its grass-grown foundation. The old man then raised his eyes heavenward and sank to his knees, while his lips moved as if speaking some silent prayer. His actions at that place fuelled my imagination as to why this old man’s deep devotion, at such a place and time. I was confident that it was not from some ordinary motive that the old man had felt the need to pray. There must have been some reason, or some tradition connected with this ancient place, that had caused the old man to pray with such enthusiasm. So, as the old man rose from his knees, I approached him and said, “My friend, I hope you will pardon me for intruding, for your sudden and impassioned prayer has awakened my inquisitiveness.”

To my surprise the old man answered me in Irish and explained, “I was only begging mercy and pardon for the souls who in the close darkness of their graves cannot help themselves and I begged the good Lord to cease placing the guilt of their fathers upon the children. This spot caused me to remember a terrible act of sacrilege that my forefathers had committed. For this great sin their descendants continue to suffer, and I did not think for one moment that someone other than God had seen me.”

“Perhaps,” he continued, “as you seem to be a stranger in these parts, you have never heard of the Bald Berrys, and the blessed Whitethorn of Killygann. It is a very old tradition, and you might even say it is just a superstitious legend. But there is the whitethorn, blasted and decayed from the contact of my ancestors’ unholy hands. And here, before you, stands the last of their name. I am a homeless wanderer, with no other inheritance than this mark of the curse and crime of his race.” Removing his woollen hat as he said this, revealing a perfectly smooth head, upon which there was not one single hair.

“That old heads should become bald, is not a rare thing,” I told him, “and I have seen younger men whose heads are as hairless as yours.”

“My head,” he replied, “from my birth to this moment, never had a single hair upon it. Sadly, my father and grandfather endured the same fate, while my great-grandfather was deprived of his long, thick hair in one tearful moment. I shall tell you the whole story as we walk along together, if you are going in the direction of this path.”

As we walked together, he told me the following story. The old man spoke in such a poetic and energetic way that I wish I was able to infuse these qualities into my translation. But, for a wider audience I have had to write in English, which is a much colder language than Irish and fails to do justice to the wonderfully poetical language of the story.

“Many a biting March wind has passed over the heads of men since Colonel Berry lived at Lisnarick, whose veins had the true blood of one of old Strongbow’s chiefs, who became a sovereign prince in the land. His forebears had formed strong alliances with the ancient owners of the land, eventually renouncing any Anglo-Saxon connection and name. This noble family subsequently gloried in the title of McCoille and the colonel did nothing in his life that would bring shame on his forebears. He kept open house for all comers, and every day an ox was killed and consumed at Lisnarick. All the influential men of note in the province came there to hunt, fish and hawk. To feast and lodge there and enjoy the hall, which was always crowded with harpers and pipers, rich men and beggars, and jesters and story-tellers, who came and went as they pleased, in constant succession.” Then the old man let out a long sigh, “I can recall some of these good old times, but now they are vanished and gone for ever. The great hospitality that was so much a part of the chieftain’s hall has gone now and the hall has become a hovel on the moor. The wanderer now turns from the great towers of a Lord’ home, seeks the shelter of the peasant’s shed!

Davey Berry and his seven brothers lived with McCoille and held his name and family. Whether McCoille went hunting on horseback, or took the opportunity to shoot, or moved among the high and titled families of the land, they always went with him. They acted like a sort of body-guard, share in his sports or helping him assert his will in any quarrels. At that time, on the banks of the Bann, near the ruined tower of Shanlieve, lived a man named Edward Berry. On his farm there was a thick and thorny thicket that, for many years had been the hiding place for a fox. This, however, was no normal fox. This fox was famous throughout the Province and was celebrated for the extraordinary speed and prowess that he had shown to those many men who had tried so hard to hunt him down. There had, indeed, been many gallant and noble huntsmen sought the honour of bearing that fox’s tail as a trophy. But all efforts had been in vain and after exhausting both hounds and horses in the arduous pursuit the fox invariably returned every night to his favourite sanctuary. To outsiders it seems that a treaty of peace existed between Edward Berry and the fox. Edward’s poultry for several years, whether they sought the banks of the Bann or the barn door, never suffered because the fox was nearby. It would mix with Barry’s dogs and spend an hour or two playing with them, almost as if he belonged to the same species. Mr. Berry gave his wild crafty friend the same protection and freedom that he permitted his own domestic animals. The fame of this strange union of interests was widespread and even to this day the memory of Berry’s fox survives in the traditions of the country.

One evening as McCoille and his followers returned from a long and unsuccessful chase of Edward Berry’s fox, their route lay by the ruins of the ancient church of Killygann. Near this sacred spot a whitethorn tree had stood, and its beauty and bloom were talked about by every man, woman, and child. The simple prayerful folk who poured their petitions to God beneath its holy shade believed that the hands of guardian angels pruned its luxuriance and developed its form of beauty. They believed also that dewfall from heaven was sprinkled by angel hands to produce its rich and beautiful blossoms, which filled the cold winds of December with many tokens of holy fragrance that welcomed the heavenly coming Him who left his Father’s throne to restore to the sons of Adam the lost inheritance of heaven. McCoille was so enamoured by the beauty of the tree and caring little for its sanctity or the superstitious awe that was attached to it, he was firmly resolved to move it to his home at Lisnarick. He wanted his lawn to have that rare species of thorn which blooms in beauty when all other trees in the field are bare and barren.

Next day, when McCoille made known his intention to remove the sacred whitethorn of Kilygann, his people were astonished at his blatant lack of respect for tradition. In response they all declared that they would resist until death any attempt to commit such an audacious act of sacrilege. Now, McCoille was not a man who would permit resistance to his will and had always been accustomed to his commands being obeyed immediately and without question. When he found that his men were now refusing to obey him he exploded with uncontrollable anger. He cursed and damned all those who were standing around him, shouting, “Traitors!  You have all eaten at my table and enjoyed the hospitality of McCoille, and you have all sought and been given my protection. Yet, there are none you who are grateful enough to abandon your superstitious nonsense and carry out my commands!”

“Here, my Lord, are seven of your own name and Clan,” cried Davey Berry, “men who are sworn to stand or fall together, who obey no commands but yours, and acknowledge no law but your will. The whitethorn of Killygann shall leave its sacred place, if their strong hands and brave hearts can manage its removal. If it be a sacrilege to disturb the tree, which generations have revered, the curse for this sacrilege does not rest on us. Even should McCoille command us to tear the blessed gold from the shrine of a saint, we would not hesitate to obey him. We are just carrying out the will of our legal chieftain.”

They sang McCoille’s praises as they marched to where the tree had stood for many centuries, and they immediately proceeded to desecrate the spot that was made holy by those who had revered it over the ages. Such was the reverence shown to this holy whitethorn that a mystic circle surrounded it, within which no mortal foot may go. But, men have committed many wrongs and salved their consciences by convincing themselves that they acted in obedience to the commands of their leaders, and that a prayer of contrition will purify their souls.

That same evening McCoille saw the beautiful whitethorn planted in his garden and many were thanked for bringing it to him. Gold and rank were his rewards to those faithful men who had risen to the challenge and overcome the terrors of superstition to carry out his commands. But, McCoille was very much surprised when Davey Berry interrupted his morning sleep and announced that the tree had disappeared during the night. Confusion when he told his chieftain that the tree was again planted where it had stood for ages before, in the ancient cemetery of Killygann. McCoille was convinced that the tree venerated by the people had been secretly taken by them during the night to where it formerly stood. He immediately sent his most trusted men bring it back and stand guard until morning.

The Berry brothers obeyed the call of their chief and brought the whitethorn back. They replanted the tree, carefully covering its roots with rich mould, and made ready to watch over it all night. It proved to be a long and dark night, and they were wide awake. The night-breeze had stilled and all of nature appeared to have been mysteriously silenced. In this strange quietness a deep and undefinable feeling of dread crept into the hearts of the guards. These were men who had been tried and tested in the heat of battle but were now frightened by this fearful calmness. Their normal steadfast obedience to the commands of McCoille could not still their hearts against the remorse they began to feel, and there was talk amongst them against the sacrilege he had committed. As the night advanced their fear increased and they spread out their watchful circle around the mysterious tree. Davey, the eldest and bravest of the brothers, finally fell asleep. But, his short and fitful dozes were disturbed by wild and indistinct dreams. Then, as his sleep settled down and those vague images disappeared, the following vision came into his mind –

He began to dream that as he was keeping watch by the sacred whitethorn of Killygann, there stood before him a saintly man. This man’s radiant features and shining ancient clothing illuminated the entire area around him, piercing far into the darkness that surrounded him. In his hand he held a crosier, and upon his head sat a towering mitre. His long, white beard descended to the belt that encircled his rich bishop’s clothes, and he looked every inch the mitred abbot of some ancient monastery, which the rage of the English reformation had levelled to dust. The face of this saintly man, however, bore a fearfully severe expression, and the sleeping man fell to the ground, prostrate before the piercing eye that searched his inner-most soul.

“Wretched man,” said the shining apparition, in a thunderous voice, “ lift your head and listen carefully to your fate, and the fate that shall befall your sacrilegious brothers.”

Berry lifted his head in obedience to the instruction he received, though his soul sank within him, as stood before this dreadful voice and eye of terror. “Because you have violated the sanctity of this place” the holy man continued, “which has been consecrated to God, you and your family shall wander homeless ever more as beggars, and your heads, as a sign and a warning to future generations, shall suffer the pelting of every storm, and the severity of every changing season, unprotected by the defence that nature has bestowed upon all other men. This curse will last until your name and family be erased from memory.”

After hearing this angry denunciation against him the terrified man fell to the ground prostrate pleading for mercy, and he awakened with a cry of terror which alarmed the other guards. As he began to tell them about the terrible vision he had seen in his sleep, there was a crash of thunder, a flash of lightning, and the sweep of a whirlwind, which enveloped them all. As the new day dawned, the guards were to be found senseless, and at a considerable distance from the spot where they had lain the preceding night to guard the sacred tree. The thorn had also disappeared and, most strangely of all, the long black hair that shone like a raven’s wing, and was their pride, no longer adorned their heads. The fierce whirlwind, that had tossed them about, like the stubble of the field, had brought reality the dream, and removed their thick, long hair in its vengefulness.”

This was the story of the of the ‘Bald Berrys’ as it was told to me and I hand it on to you, the reader. I will make no further comment or note on this story, but I leave it to you to decide the truth of it. Some will question how an apparently cultured people can attribute the downfall of families, or the entailment of hereditary disease, to be caused by supernatural intervention. Others will remind you of an old saying –

             “There are more things in heaven

and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your

philosophy.”