“Don’t stay out after dark, or the bogeyman will get you!” was the warning a mother would give her children when they went out to play. But, more often than not, the children would laugh at the very idea of a bogey-man existing. Tradition in Ireland, however, does warn us that it is very dangerous for any person to be wandering the country roads and lanes on a late November night because that is the time that the dead celebrate the fact that they are able to wander the earth once again.
Tradition says that the busiest night for these spirit celebrations is the very last night of the month, for that is the evening on which the celebrations cease. It is on that night their right to dance freely on the hill with the fairy folk comes to an abrupt end. After they have danced their last dance the dead have to return to their cold graves, where they will lie in the ice-cold earth without music or drink until November returns the next year. It is only at that time will they be able to spring-up once again from their graves, dressed in what remains of their funeral clothing, and rush into the moonlight shouting loud howls of joy. But some might wonder from where such a tradition originated and, perhaps, the following story might help in answering the question.
“One cold November night there was a local woman who was making her way home at a time when it was said, the dead roamed the land. But she was very tired and carelessly she sat down on a large rock that stood by the side of the road so she could rest for a few moments and regain her breathing in the cold night air. Within a few moments of her sitting down upon the rock, however, a young man came walking by and he began to speak with her. ‘If you wait here a little while,‘ he told her, ‘you will see the most beautiful dancing that you have ever witnessed, over there by the side of the hill.‘”
“The woman stared quietly at the young man for a moment and noticed that his face was very pale and wore a very sad expression. ‘Why are you so sad?‘ she quietly asked him. ‘Your face is as pale as that of a corpse.‘”
“‘ Take a good look at me,‘ the young man told her. ‘Do you know me?‘”
“‘ Yes,‘ she said nervously, ‘Now I know who you are! Sure, you are young Breen and you were drowned last year when you went out fishing. What are you doing here?‘”
“‘ Look over there,’ he told her, ‘On the side of that hill over there you will see the reason for me being here.‘”
“The woman took a look over to where he pointed and saw a large crowd dancing in time to sweet music, and among their number she could see all those who had died as far back as she could remember. There were men, women and children, all dressed in white clothing, and their faces were as pale as the moonlight. ‘Now,‘ the young man said ominously to the woman, ‘you should run for your life, for if the fairies see you here, and bring you into the dance you will never be able to ever leave again.‘”
“While the woman and the young man were talking, however, the fairy folk came up to them both and danced in a circle around the woman, joining their hands together. At that moment she fell to the ground in a faint, and she was to remain in an unconscious state until the next morning when she awoke in her own bed. All those people who saw her at that time said that her face was as pale as that of a corpse, indicating that the woman had been given a ‘fairy-stroke.’ Having realised that she was afflicted the herb doctor was asked to help cure her, but despite their best efforts, she remained the same. As soon as the moon rose that night there was soft, low music heard from all around the house. Then, when the neighbours went to check on the woman, they found her dead.
In Ireland it is customary for the people to treat the fairy folk to many little acts of kindness. One example of this occurs when a cow is milked, and care is taken to let the first couple of draws from the udder are permitted to drop upon the ground for the “wee folk” to enjoy. Meanwhile, the poteen-makers at their illicit distillation sites also pay attention to the same “wee folk”. The very first, and best part, of the liquor which comes from the worm is always thrown to them in salutation. The Poteen-makers use a small tin measuring cup (a tionaiceen) to treat friends who may visit the still-house where
illicit distillation is carried on, including the fairy folk.
My uncles all went shooting game birds in the hills of Tyrone, developing good relations with several small farmers in the area. It was well-known that many of these small farmers used the illicit distillation of Poteen to increase their income. Among these men was ‘Pure Paddy’, so named because of the quality of the liquor that he distilled and sold. At one time I had the distinct pleasure of being with Paddy as he worked at the still, which was well hidden in the nearby turf-bog. It was during this visit that I noticed Paddy throwing a cupful of poteen behind the still to the right, and another to the left. “Why do you do that ? ” I asked the old Poteen-maker.
He had just thrown the first cupful and he shook his head disappointedly as he threw the next into some bramble bushes that were growing adjacent to the still. “For heaven’s sake, Paddy!” I exclaimed, “Why waste the stuff like that?”
“But, sure, I’m not wasting it!” said the old man, looking at me in a very odd manner, “if you only knew it.”
“But, you are throwing it away,” I insisted. “Is it not a waste for you to throw it all around yourself in that fashion?”
“To tell you the truth, boy,” he replied, “they’re welcome to it and as much more as they want. But, they’re not greedy in any way, you can be guaranteed of that.”
“They, they? ” I demanded. ” Who in the name of God are they? ”
“They’re the wee folk boy, who else? And those poor creatures need it too, for I’m sure that they must be feeling the cold.”
“Oh, you mean the fairies, I suppose?” said I.
“That’s right, young man.”
“And do you really believe in fairies?” I asked him.
“Believe in them,” he laughed. “Of course, I do, and why wouldn’t I? ”
“Oh, surely, you can’t be so foolish,” I scoffed.
” Foolish! By all that’s holy! Sure, it’s those people that don’t believe in them that are the true fools, I’m thinking.”
“And you imagine that they drink the poteen you throw around you in that way? ”
“Ay, they drink my poteen, and they are glad to get it,” said the old ‘moonshiner’ emphatically.
“Then,” said I, “suppose what you say is true, what would happen if you did not treat your invisible wee friends?”
“By Jaysus, son, there would be open blue murder about it, without any doubt at all. Sure, they’d be so angry that they would curse the still with bad luck and, maybe, the whole lot of the poteen would be spilled, or worse, the police would get it.”
“Has anything like that ever happened before?” I asked him.
“Aye, of course there has! Sure, how else would we know what would happen?”
I must admit that I was convinced in the truthfulness of the old man, but I wanted to hear more about such encounters with the fairy folk. I wanted to know if he had personally met with any “bad luck” himself because he had failed to give a hospitable offering to his exacting and easily angered, though easily appeased, friends, the “little folk.” To get him talking, therefore, I began by remarking that he must have had some personal experience of such things since he spoke so knowledgeably about such things. “Aye, indeed, young man, I’m sorry to say, and I’ll be sorry while there is still breath in me body. I have experience of just how unlucky it is for a man to be miserly with the ‘good people’,” said he.
“Tell me all about it,” I asked him anxiously and earnestly.
“Now, there’s not much to tell, young man, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.”
“One night,” he began, ” I was making my first brewing in this very same place where we are now. But, in those days I was young and foolish, and I would not take the advice of old Micky Whelan when he told me to treat ‘good people’ well. The answer I gave him was that they would go to the devil before I’ll give a drop to them, or anyone living or dead, until I have the money in my hand for it first. When I said that, of course, Old Micky spoke out, and he told me that I would rue those words. Then, blessing himself he got up and left me, a little frightened. There were a couple of the neighbours here, too, and they went away with him. Well, there was not one left here but myself, and I thought to myself that I would take a wee drink to keep up my spirits, for you can see, yourself, it’s a lonely place here for one to be with oneself, without a living soul to speak to. But, by all that’s holy, wasn’t left long without plenty of company, although it was the kind that I would have rather not had. Because, as quick as you could clap your two hands together, I heard the rasp of the bow across the strings of a fiddle, up there in the bushes, and with that the prettiest and the liveliest tune that I ever heard filled the air. The first thought that came into my head was that the lads had fallen in with ‘Blind Dominic’ the fiddler, when they were leaving the still-house, and that they sneaked back with the fiddle into the bushes to try and frighten me. So, I shouted out angrily that it would be better for them to come here and give me a hand, rather than going on with their nonsense, for if they were trying to frighten me they wouldn’t manage to do it. Well, suddenly I heard three or four shouts and the sound of dancing keeping time to the tune, and fine dancing it was. I began to mock it and told them they were very merry and that maybe it was the police they wanted to bring down on me with their nonsense. Well, I can tell you, the words were not right out of my mouth, when up struck another fiddle right beside me, and it wasn’t long until another began, and another, and another, until there were fiddles playing all around me everywhere, and the shouting, and the cheering, and the laughing began in earnest. By Jaysus, I thought to myself, it is the strange creatures about, but I’ll not let on that I’m one bit afraid of them and maybe they would not harm me. So, I jumped up and declared loudly that it was great music and I began to dance on the flagstone beside the fire in a very lively fashion. With one voice the entire company shouted out at me, calling me by name and telling me that I would rue it. Sure, they were now making a great hullabaloo, and right in the middle of it I got two smart blows, first on one cheek then on the other. It was then I began to think that it was time for me to get out, but I decided that I would take the keg with me, no matter what happened. So, putting the keg on my back, I took to my heels as quicklyas I could. But, I hadn’t gone more than three steps when I tripped, and fell, and the keg was broken into smithereens with every blessed drop spilled. Let me tell you, that’s when the commotion began in real earnest and ten times greater than before! You could hear the glasses, and the tin cups, and the mugs rattling against one another, and the shouts and the bustle of the wee-folk as they jostled one another trying to see who could get most of the drink that was spilled. Not even a half-penny’s worth did I get, but I heard as much as did me, and away I ran towards home as fast as my legs could carry me and not once did I look around until I reached the house. I can tell you that I never again forgot to give the good people a drink after that. And you can be sure when one does show them some hospitality they don’t forget it neither. It’s many a good turn they did me, but there was one turn in particular, and if you’re not afraid that the police will come on us I’ll tell you something about it.““I will risk the police, Jimmy,” said I as I sat down on a vacant three-legged stool, which stood beside the blazing turf fire under the still.
“Well, then,” began the old moonshiner, “One night, about the middle of December, I was making a brew for Christmas. It was about seven or eight o’clock in the evening, or thereabouts. My partner, Mickey, that I told you about a while ago, was just after leaving me to get something to eat, for he hadn’t had a bite of food since the morning. There wasn’t one person with me in the still-house but myself. Well, boy, I was sitting here just where I am now this minute, and smoking quite contentedly, while I was watching the Poteen running from the worm into the keg in case there would be any chance of it becoming white. Well, if it did turn white I would throw some water on fire to cool it down a little, and some more on the worm until it cooled, just as you saw me doing a while ago. Well, I wasn’t long sitting that way, when three shots from a gun went just over my head, one after another. Believe me when I tell you that I jumped up quick and sudden onto my feet. At first, I thought it was the police, for that’s what they generally do when they are intent on making a seizure. Well, I took to my feet mighty fast, you can be sure that I never once looked around me until I got to the top of that hill over there. It was only then that I felt brave enough to look around, but the devil a one could I see at all. I had a full view of the still-house, and all around it, but not a person I could I clap my eyes on, only everything just as it was. Well, back I came to the still-house again, but you can be sure that I kept my eyes sharp about me until Mickey came. When I told him the story, he looked at me, and he said that the faster we are out of this the better we’ll be. I asked Mickey what it could have been, and he simply told me that it is well known to me. He also said that I would see the lads before the morning. So, I told myself, that we should waste no time lifting the keg out of this place even though it was not yet three quarters full. Well, boy, to make a long story short, we cleared away everything and hid them in the bog over there. Then we went home, and we were only just sitting down at the fire when we heard the troop, the tramping of the revenue horses, as we thought it was the revenue police. Well, young man, as I said, we heard the tramp, tramp of the horses’ feet on the road, and the clattering of bayonets and swords, and the creaking of the saddles, and the orders of command, as if there was a whole regiment of horsemen and horses on parade. Mickey was totally surprised that what I had said had now come to pass, and he went with me to the door to have a look. It was a fine clear moonlight night, just like it is tonight, but as we looked out there wasn’t the devil of a horse or rider to be seen, although we could still hear the thud of the horses’ hoofs, and the clashing of the swords plainly. Were we frightened? By God, you may be sure that we were in a way, and, in another way, we were not, for you see we knew well enough that this a sign from the ‘good people’ telling us that the revenue men were coming. Sure, they did come a very short time later. But, although they searched every hole and corner in the place, they never discovered the place where we hid the keg and things. So, you see, you will never lose much by being kind to the good people.”
This is the first guest item I have included in my blog and I present to my readers for its interest value, and in the hope it will encourage others to send in their stories.
Browsing through Donegal Town’s official website recently, I came across some snippets of information from long ago regarding the anecdotes of a local character by the name of Belle Fey. A Faye, being a fairy, or Siog [sheog] a name given to her by her Dromore neighbours as a result of her strange ways. Belle Melly being her real name according to the 1940/41Donegal town electors list, for Dromore.
Poor Belle, I’m sure she’d turn in her grave if she were able to read the comments. Who’s to say she was just an old eccentric, had the author taken leave of his imagination, really! Doesn’t anyone believe in fairies or the little people anymore.? In my opinion Belle’s name ought to be up there in lights amongst Donegal’s countless legendary characters. Perhaps a song or a poem ought to have been composed in her honour. As far as I’m concerned, she was the real thing, a real living Siog. Belle, could, tell fortunes too, and see into the future just like her wee fairy friends who would come and sit at the foot of her bed during the night: she often said, the male Sioga would also visit her bedroom, a fact which greatly annoyed her – herself being a modest female and all.
I ought to know better than most folk about Belle’s, mystic talents because as an Eight-year old I had the doubtful privilege of meeting this wrinkled, steely-grey-haired, plaid-shawled old creature, and, being on the receiving end of a ‘Belle spell’, so to speak.
When we were youngsters my father and mother often brought our family on the gruelling twenty-four-hour journey to Donegal during our summer holidays. My dad emigrated to Yorkshire in the UK and was a coalminer in Yorkshire’s forbidding and dangerous 3,000 ft deep coalmines.
We usually stayed for the two weeks holiday with my dad’s brother and sister–the postman John, and Mae Carney; their house was situated in Dromore, up the lane at the top of the hill off the Donegal road. Their slate roofed cottage stood on the brow of the winding hill with its magnificent panoramic views over Donegal Bay, and the Blue Stack mountains–when it wasn’t raining that is! And was just a stone’s throw across the lane from Belle Fey’s faded whitewashed, thatched cottage. Belle must have had her eye on me, this wee buachailin ban, [ fair haired boy] as I was often up and down the lane with my sister Patricia, with Mae’s old enamel bucket to fetch water from the well, which bubbled up from a wee crystal–clear spring at the side of the lush green overgrown lane. Aunt Mae swore the water was “the best ever for making tae.”
As I recall, it was the day my father Hugh, was visiting his youngest sister Maggie Quinn at her pub, ‘Quinns Bar’, (Lazy Bush) at the top of Mountcharles, where he often went to catch up on the local gossip and discuss the price of cattle and imbibe in a few pints with his old school cronies. That particular occasion was a signal for Belle, to make her move on me, as she invited herself into John and Mae’s, house. Shortly a whispered discussion took place with my mother and aunt Mae, who herself was fond of reading the tea-leaves and such-like, as well as blowing her cigarette smoke up the turf blackened chimney of their huge open fire-place, which puzzled this eight-year old at the time. Many years later it transpired that John hated Mae smoking!
To continue the story; I was ushered into aunt Mae’s, dimly lit front parlour, which contained a dusty dark wood dining table and chairs, with the odd religious picture randomly placed on the whitewashed walls.
Situated on the inside gable of the house was an old fashioned black Victorian cast-iron fireplace, into which Belle, proceeded to set light to a crumpled newspaper in the empty grate. As the paper blazed away brightly, shooting orange blue flames up the chimney, Belle began mumbling as she stooped over the grate, while I stood mystified at the side of her, I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was saying, but I swear it wasn’t English. After a while Belle rose from the hearth in her usual bent posture, declaring authoritatively to my mother and Mae, in her rich Donegal accent. “This wee caddy will remain fair haired for the rest of his life”.
Sixty-five years on, and a bit more, and guess what? Short of having a bit of the thatch missing at the back, I still have a modest head of fair hair, despite a lifetime of trying to alter its colour by dousing it with strong tea, before I hit the town with the lads on a Friday night.
My mother and father, brothers and sisters, were all blessed with fine heads of typically Irish, dense, wavy auburn hair. Ultimately with the passing of time and sadly for them their hair turned grey and then white. Uncle John’s, hair may have been a bit sandy looking which he got from Ding, and Grandma Sweeney’s, side of the family, but with no stretch of the imagination was he blonde. So where in the blazes, excuse the pun, did mine come from? Belle Fey, “just an eccentric old woman? My foot!
Submitted by Fergus452@btinternet.com September 2018
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.
To 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.
Children, 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.
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.
There 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 breezes 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.