Lough Neagh is one of the largest and most beautiful bodies of water in the British Isles and lies in the centre of Ireland’s northernmost Province, Ulster. The waters of the lake are transparently blue in many places allowing you to see even small pebbles on the bottom, at a considerable depth. Near the southern end, a survey of the Lough bottom revealed cut stones that appear to have been laid in order, and careful observations have traced the remnants of the regular walls of a considerable sized structure. The Tradition of those who live on the shoreline tells us that this structure was once a castle, surrounded by a village, both of which succumbed to the expansion of the lake many generations past. In ancient times, it is said that the castle was owned by an Irish chieftain called Shane O’Donovan, who was noted for his bad character traits, such as being merciless in war, a tyrant in peace, feared by his neighbours, hated by his own family, and reviled by all for his inhospitality and lack of charity.
In those far off days, his castle stood by the bank of the lake, on an elevated promontory. It was almost an island, being joined to the mainland only by a narrow isthmus that stood at a small height above the level of the lake water. It is said that at one time an angel chanced to come into that part of Ireland, who had been sent from heaven to observe the people and to note their piety. Disguising himself in the clothes and body of a man, who was weary and footsore with travelling the country, the angel observed the castle from the hills above the lough and came down to boldly request a night’s lodging there. But his request was bluntly refused and, what’s more, the nasty and uncivil Shane O’Donovan set his dogs to bite the weary man. The angel immediately turned away from the castle, but he had no sooner passed through the castle gate than the villagers gathered around him and a contest began between them as to who should have the honour of entertaining the traveller.
The Angel made his choice and decided he would go to the house of a cobbler who was so poor that he had only one potato, and when he wanted another, he cut the one in two. Gratefully the heavenly visitor shared the cobbler’s potato and he slept on the cobbler’s floor, putting his feet onto the hearth to keep them warm. But as daylight dawned he rose, and called all the villagers together, led them out, across the isthmus to a nearby hill, and bid them look back. As they did so, they saw the castle and promontory separate from the mainland and begin to sink into the blue waters of the lough. Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, the castle sank, while the waters rose around it. But the waters stood like a wall on every side of the castle and did not wet a single stone from the highest turret to its foundation. After some time, the entire wall of water had risen higher than the battlements and, as the angel waved his hand, the waves suddenly rushed over the castle and its sleeping inmates, punishing the O’Donovan for his lack of hospitality. When all was done, the angel pointed to a spot close by, telling the villagers that they were to build and prosper there. Then, as the awe-stricken villagers knelt before him, the traveller’s clothing became pure white and shining wings appeared upon his shoulders, and he rose into the air to vanish from their sight.
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.”