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.
There is great luxuriance about Irish mythology, filled with Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Spirits and fantastic creatures of all sorts. This is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the history and characteristics of the ‘Fairy Folk’, more commonly known in Ireland as ‘The Good People.’ As with most mythological characters the origins of these people are confused and the subject of widespread debate. One popular belief concerning the origins of ‘The Fairy Folk’ suggests their beginnings are linked to a group of invaders known as the ‘Tuatha de Danann,’ which means “the people of the goddess Danu”, who were revered as gods by the native Irish. Over time, however, the ‘Tuatha de Danann’ succumbed to fresh invaders, who banished these so-called gods to the underground portion of Ireland. It is from this that people came to believe that fairies lived under the ground, and they came to be called ‘The Sidhe’ (pronounced: Shee).
Another popular belief, that may arise from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, suggests that the ‘Fairy Folk’ were once angels and were so numerous that they formed a large part of the population in heaven. When Satan turned against God and gathered a host of angels around him in open rebellion, there were some who did not want to join in the war that followed. They were fearful of the consequences that might be visited upon them by the victor and, therefore, preferred to see who won the battle before taking sides. Then, when the rebellious angels were defeated and expelled from heaven, those angels who had stood aside and did nothing were also banished. The offence of these neutral angels was one of omission rather than rebellion and they were not consigned to an eternity in the pit of hell with Satan and his followers. They were, instead, sent to earth where they were to remain, but not without hope that they may receive a pardon on the last day and be re-admitted to heaven. They are, therefore, expected to be on best behaviour, but they do retain the power to do a great amount of harm. It is for this reason that they are feared and only spoken of in quiet among the rural Irish, even today.
Stories about the fairy folk have been heard from all parts of the world, and one of the most interesting and consistent things about them appears to be that they can shape shift and make themselves look like anyone or anything they wish. They are, however, believed to be smaller than humans, averaging a height of between three and four feet. Generally, within Irish folklore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are described as being slightly taller than people and very beautiful, with reports suggesting that some fairies, such as the ‘Irish Sidhe’, were typically of a height of seven feet tall. One report I read says, “Though, by nature, they’re not the length of your finger, they can make themselves the size of a tower when it pleases them, and have that ugliness that you’d faint with the looks of them, as knowing they can strike you dead on the spot, or change you into a dog, or a pig, or a unicorn, or any other dirty beast they please.“
These ‘Good People’ were often seen wearing clothes of red and green that depended upon the tribe to which they belonged and their rank within the tribe. Some were described as having green skin, while other sources describe them as looking much like humans but with a strange, ‘otherworldly’ aura about them. and the appearance of being either very young or very old to help in the perception of mortals to their wisdom. It is said that, generally, the people of the fairy hills were very pale and were usually finely dressed, but otherwise were human-like in their appearance. Stories say that the ‘Fairy Folk’ often appear wearing green, red or grey clothing, and may have blond or brown hair. They could be either male or female and could appear either alone or in groups. But, when it comes to their clothes, the records generally agree that young lady fairies wear pure white robes and usually allow their hair to flow loosely over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the more matronly fairies tie up their tresses in a coil on the top or back of the head and surrounding their temple with a golden band. The young gentlemen fairies wear green jackets, with white breeches and stockings. But, when a fairy of either sex has need of a cap or head-covering, they will use the flower of the foxglove. Within Irish folklore, however, the female fairies are known to appear with messages or warnings, while groups of male fairies would gather to play games of Hurling, for which they needed a single human player in order to have the game.
It has, in the past, been considered irreverent and bad luck to call the ‘Fairy Folk’ by that name, or simply ‘Fairies’, and the rural folk of Ireland became accustomed to creating more genteel substitutes such as ‘The Good People.’ Although this reluctance to use the term ‘Fairies’ seems to be relaxing in these modern days, there is still a widespread preference to use the substitute names instead. In this article we will try to remain with those terms that most people are familiar with, such as the ‘Wee Folk’ or the ‘Little People’. It is likely that such terms were derived as a means of minimising their power and influence, and as a description of their physical stature.
Many in the world have heard of the Irish ‘Leprechaun’ and consider them to be members of the ‘Fairy Folk’, but they are said by some to be unfit associates for the ‘Good People’. Nevertheless, the ‘Good People’ are a sociable community who always live in large societies with each member involved in a plan of work that is to the benefit of all. They own all their property, the kind and value of which is unknown, in common and are united in their desire to achieve any communal objective. But they are, however, divided into groups of evil or good, which are occasionally involved in night-time battles with each other. The male fairies are very familiar with every military role and, like most of Ireland’s population, are divided into various factions. But, unlike other the mortal factions, the objects of contention among the fairy factions is rarely known for definite. There is a report of a great battle among the fairies that occurred many years ago in County Kerry. One party of fairy warriors stood upon a Rath, while the opposing army of fairies stood on an unused and lonely graveyard. The only mortal to witness the encounter was Paddy O’Donoghue, who related what he saw as follows – “Sure, wasn’t I lying beside the road, being on my way home, weak and tired with all the walking I had done? There was a bright moon out that night, and I heard a noise like a million soldiers tramping on the road, so I rose up and looked, and the way ahead was full of little men. These creatures were just the length of my hand, with green coats on, and all stood in rows like one of those army regiments, each man with a pike on his shoulder and a shield on his arm.One was in the front, as if he was the general, walking with his chin up as proud as a peacock. By God, but I was terribly scared, and I prayed faster than ever I had done in my life, for they were far too close to me for comfort or convenience. But they all went by, not a single one of them turning his head to look at me at all, thanks be to God for that, and so, they left me. After they were completely gone, I was curious to see what they were after, so I followed them, a good bit behind them, and ready to jump and run like a hare at the least noise, for I was afraid that if they caught me, they’d make me a pig at once or change me into some kind of a beast. They marched into the field between the graveyard and the Rath, and there was another army there with red coats, from the graveyard, and the two armies had the biggest fight you’ve ever seen, the greens against the reds. After looking on for a bit, I got excited, for the greens were beating the reds badly, and I up and gave a yahoo and called out, ‘At them again! Don’t leave one of those blackguards untouched!’ And with that word, the sight left my eyes and I remember no more until morning, and there I was, lying on the road where I had seen them, as stiff as a crutch.”
They say that fairy bodies are not composed of flesh and bone like we mortals, but of a kind of ethereal substance whose true nature is unknown. They can be clearly seen by some, many reports of which have been recorded, but some observers also tell us that they can also be seen through as if looking through a mist. In Ireland there is a belief that the fairies have a white blood, which is spilled in those occasional night battles between different groups of which the only evidence appears to be the remains of an inexplicable white liquid (Fairy Blood). They have, of course, the power of being able to vanish from the sight of mortals and the fact that the air seems to be filled with their presence causes ordinary mortals to give them respect. There are reports of them being heard without being seen, especially when they travel through the air and are recognised by the humming noise like that made by swarms of bees. It must be said, however, that despite modern artistic interpretations of the ‘Fairy Folk’ there is no evidence as to them possessing wings. A certain Kerry man, called Barney Murphy, thought that they had wings for he had seen several a number of years ago that seemed to have long, semi-transparent pinions, “like them that grows on a dragon-fly,” described them. But Barney’s neighbours, however, contradicted his report by adamantly denying that the ‘Good People’ had wings, suggesting that at the time Barney saw the fairies he was too drunk to distinguish a pair of wings from a pair of legs, and so this evidence of fairy wings must remain in doubt.
Fairy lore allows us to divide the ‘Good People’ into two distinct categories, i.e. ‘Trooping Fairies’ or ‘Solitary Fairies’. The trooping fairies are a matriarchal society and they consider socialisation and status important within their community. Moreover, they can be further divided into those who are known to be good and those who are more disposed to be bad. The ‘Solitary Fairies’ obviously live alone, but they are known to attach themselves to a certain family or house. But, despite what type of fairy is present, it is often recommended that local people leave offerings outside their homes overnight as a means of appeasing them. Even if the food offered is still there the next morning the people believed that it was the fairies would have appreciated the thought at least.
The people had other means and methods to prevent bad things from happening to them, including the keeping of a few charms and talismans handy that might just work against fairy magic. Iron is the most well-known and effective element to ward off the fairy folk, though steel might prove to be a better weapon because it is a much purer form of iron. In Irish folklore it is known that the importance of Iron does not just lie in its ability to ward off the fairies. It is also known as a means of deterring ghosts, witches, and more supernatural beings. The sound of bells and whistling can also keep away fairies and, if you ever found yourself being chased by evil fairies, you could leap to safety by crossing running water. By throwing burning embers at the fairies you could drive them away from entering your house, and some people would sprinkle their clothes with oatmeal while also carrying some in their pockets to guard against the fairies approaching. Four leaf clovers have always been considered lucky and will break any fairy magic, or you could always plant a rowan tree outside your house, or as a last choice you could simply try any blessed religious item. But mortals should always remember that there are many reasons as to why you should not even think of offending the fairies. Stories have described how fairy folk, when they feel themselves offended might lift extremely heavy objects, leave your hair in terrible tangles, or even replace your child with one of their own, or a magical block of wood.
In the mythology of Ireland, we have learned that the ‘Good People’ are derived from ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and are the original inhabitants of the ‘hollow hills’. They are the beings most strongly associated with agriculture and the produce of the land, and those ‘hollow hills’ in which they live are believed to be the entrances to their land of the ‘Fairy Folk’, sometimes called ‘Fairyland’. The ‘Good People’ were just as likely to be connected to mysterious, otherworldly islands that usually appeared in the West to fishermen but could never be reached, as they were to the hills and mounds of Ireland itself. (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In Irish lore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are everywhere. They live in the land, on the sea, and in the air. They are associated with the mounds and stone circles that litter the Irish landscape, as well as the multitude of watery places such as wells, springs, the sea and bogs, caverns, and strange swirls of wind, as well as specific trees, particularly lone Hawthorn trees.
It is also common belief in Ireland that the ‘Fairy Folk’ live in a parallel world to our own, into which mortals can accidentally enter through ‘Fairy Rings’. Although this other world may run in parallel to our own, time does not pass in the same way as it does in our mortal world. Tradition tells us that once a mortal enters this ‘Fairy Land’, there is almost no means of going back to their own world, and many Irish tales abound with stories concerning those people who were kidnapped by the ‘Fairy Folk’. Within these tales we can see that the concept of the ‘Fairy Land’ in Irish minds was just as complex as their beliefs about the ‘Fairy Folk’ that inhabited that land. On every occasion these ‘Fairy Lands’ were always described as being places of great beauty, wealth and peace. It is, therefore, not surprising to read in these stories that many mortals brought to such places did not want to leave until an overwhelming longing overtook them to see their families and homes. But, when these people did leave the ‘Fairy Land’ they would discover that hundreds of years had passed, and they would die and fade into dust as soon as they came in contact with mortality once again.
The ‘Good People’ are not confined just to their own realms, or the area around the entrances into those realms. Many stories reveal that they were able to go out into our world, occasionally appearing in local markets and fairs. Often, they would go unrecognized in such places, unless someone with the second sight saw them or they encountered someone who had previously dealt with them and still retained the ability to see them.
In the fairy lore of the Celts, the ‘Good People’ are described as being ruled by a monarchy and included a working class who were permitted to visit human markets and fairs in disguise, or were able to appear to farmers as people seeking to borrow something from them. When seen they were often riding on fine horses, coloured black, white or grey, and with hounds following. In older tales it is indicated that the deer in the forests are the cattle of the fairies. But it is on the quarter days Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa that the ‘Good People’ are said to be particularly active, moving from one hollow hill to another along long-established fairy roads. At Samhain and Bealtaine fairy influence is at its strongest and all mortals should take great care to avoid upsetting them. Bealtaine was known to be a time when the ‘Good People’ travelled the land, appearing as a stranger at the door of various houses asking for milk, or a coal from the fire. By giving these items to the ‘Good People’ it was said the household would have secured good luck for the year ahead. At Samhain, however, they are known to move from their summer to their winter homes in the hollow hills, and it is said that mortals face great danger if they come across them at night, for they are especially active between twilight and midnight. They travel in large bands and, although their parties are never seen in the daytime, there is little difficulty in following their line of march, for it has been reported that, “sure they make the most terrible little cloud of dust ever raised, and not a bit of wind causing it at all,” so that a fairy migration is sometimes the talk of the entire county.
The most malicious fairy host, an airborne tribe, are known to be most active at night, appearing as a wind that is very much feared by the country people. When this wind comes upon them the people avert their eyes from it and pray for safety, because they sometimes take people. These mortals are often taken great distances, where they may be kept forever, helping the ‘Good People’ as they carry out their mayhem and mischief throughout the country.
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are usually invisible to the eyes of mortal people, unless they wish for themselves to be seen, or the mortal has the gift of ‘second sight’. This ability to seem invisible is due to their power to deceive human senses by making one thing appear like another, such as making a handful of leaves being made to look like gold coins. Nevertheless, their movements along fairy paths and roads can be noticed by other means. The ‘Good People’ are known to ride out in procession, or ‘Fairy Raids’, which could prove to be dangerous to any mortal beings that they came across. As they ride out, they can create sudden whirlwinds or sudden blasts of wind, and they are known to present a threat to new brides, midwives and new-born babies.
The ‘Good People’ have the family relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and although it is said by some that fairy husbands and wives have as many little disagreements as are found in mortal households, “for, sure a woman’s tongue is longer than a man’s patience,” and “a husband is bound to be nagged incessantly day in and day out, for a woman’s jaw is sharpened on the devil’s grindstone,” yet opinions unfavourable to married happiness among the fairies are not generally well received. On the contrary, it is believed that married life in fairy circles is regulated on the basis of the absolute submission of the wife to the husband. This particular point was explained by a Donegal woman in this way, “They’re one, that’s the husband and the wife, but he’s more the one than she is.” Meanwhile, the love of children is one of the most prominent traits of fairy character, but as it manifests itself by stealing beautiful babes, replacing them by young ‘Leprechauns’ as changelings, the fairies are much dreaded by mothers along the west coast of Ireland, and they take many precautions against the ‘Fairy Folk’. Thefts of this kind now rarely occur, but at one time they were common, as “in them old days, you could see ten fairies where there isn’t one now, because they are leaving the country.“
A notable case of baby stealing occurred in the family of Termon MacGrath, who had a castle, now in picturesque ruins, on the shore of Lough Erne, in the County Donegal. The person telling the story was a ‘wise woman’ who lived in what was an apology for a cabin. It was, indeed, a thatched shed that had been placed against the precipitous side of the glen almost beneath the castle. The wretched shelter was nearly concealed from view by the overhanging branches of a large tree and by thick undergrowth, and seemed unfit for a pig-sty, but, though her surroundings were poor beyond description, ‘Old Meg,’ as her neighbour said, “knew a great deal about fairies and witches and could keep them from a baby better than any woman that ever drew breath.” Giving her a bit of tobacco, to enable her to take a draw of the pipe, quickly brought out the story. “It’s many years ago, that Termon MacGrath went, with all his army, to the war in the County of Tyrone, and while he was gone the baby was born and they called her Eva. She was her mother’s first, so she felt mighty uneasy in her mind about her, knowing that the ‘Good People’ always go after the first one that comes, and even more when it’s a girl they try harder to steal than when it’s a boy, because they believe that they’re easier to rear, although it’s me that doesn’t believe that one girl makes more trouble than do ten boys and isn’t as good.So, when the baby was born they sent out for an old witch of a widow who had set herself up as a wise woman, and she knew no more about doctoring than a pig, but they thought she could keep away the fairies, and that’s a job that takes one who tries to have no end of knowledge in the fairy folk. But the poor old woman did the best that she knew how, and so, God be good to her, she wasn’t to be blamed for that. But it’s the likes of her that put shame on them that have great knowledge of such things, for they make people think all wise women as ignorant as she is, herself. So she made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead with ashes, and she told them to bite off its nails and not to cut them until nine weeks had passed, and she held a burning candle before its eyes, so it would do the deeds of light and not of darkness, and mixed sugar and salt and oil, and gave it to her, so that her life would be sweet and long preserved and go smooth, but the old widow forgot one thing. She didn’t put a lucky shamrock, that’s got four leaves, in a gospel and tie it around the baby’s neck with a thread pulled out of her gown, and not remembering to do this, all the rest was no good at all. Nor did she tell the mother not to take her eyes off the child until the ninth day, for after that the fairies couldn’t take her. So the nurse took the baby into the next room and laid it on the bed, and went away for a minute, but thinking that she heard it cry, back she came and there was the baby, bedclothes and all just going through the floor, being dragged away by the fairies.The nurse scratched and caught the clothes and the maid helped her, so that the two of them pulled with all their might and got the bedclothes up again, but while the child was out of sight, the fairies changed it and put a fairy child in its place, but the nurse didn’t know what the fairies had done, nor had the old witch, that shows she was an ignorant woman entirely. But the fairies took Eva away under the lake where they treated her wonderfully. Every night they gave her a dance, with the loveliest music that was ever heard, with big drums and little drums, and fiddles and pipes and trumpets, for such a band the ‘Good People’ do have when they give a dance. So she grew and the queen said she should have a husband among the fairies, but she fell in love with an old Leprechaun, and the queen, to prevent such a thing, let her walk on the shore of the lake where she met Darby O’Hoolighan and loved him and married him with the queen’s consent. The queen told her to tell him if he struck her three blows without a reason, she’d leave him and come back to the fairies. The queen gave her a great number of riches, sheep and pigs without number and more oxen than you could count in a week. So, she and Darby lived together as happy as two doves, and she hadn’t as much care as a blind piper’s dog, moreover, they had two boys as good looking as their mother and as strong as their father.
“One day, after they’d been married seventeen years, she and Darby were going to a wedding, and she was slow, so Darby told her for to hurry and gave her a slap on the shoulder with the palm of his hand, and she began to cry. He asked her what was wrong with her and she told him he’d struck her the first of the three blows. So, he was very sorry and said he’d be careful in the future, but it wasn’t more than a year after, when he was teaching one of the boys to use a stick, that she got behind him and got hit with the shillelagh. That was the second blow, and made her lose her temper, and they had a real quarrel. So, he got mad, saying that neither of the blows ought to be counted, for they were both accidental. So, he flung the stick against the wall, ‘Devil take the stick,’ he said, and went out quick, and the stick fell back from the wall and hit her on the head. ‘That’s the third,’ she said, and she kissed her sons and walked out. Then she called the cows in the field and they left their grazing and followed her; she called the oxen in the stalls and they stopped eating and came out; and she spoke to the calf that was hanging in the yard, that they’d killed that morning and it got down and came along. The lamb that was killed the day before, it came; and the pigs that were salted and hanging up to dry, they came, all after her in a string.Then she called to her things in the house, and the chairs walked out, and the tables, and the chest of drawers, and the boxes, all of them put out legs like beasts and came along, with the pots and pans, and gridiron, and buckets, and noggins, leaving the house as bare as an evicted tenant’s, and all after her to the lake, where they went under and disappeared, and haven’t been seen by man to this blessed day.
“Now, there’s some that say the story isn’t true, because, they say how would a woman do such a thing and go off that a way and take everything she had, just because her husband hit her by accident those three times. But those who say it forget that she was a young woman, even if she did have those boys I was telling you about, and faith, it’s no lie I’m saying, that it’s not in the power of the angels of God to be knowing what a young woman will be doing. After they get old, and losing their teeth, and their beauty goes, then they’re sober and get over those notions; but it takes a long time to make an old one out of a young wan.
“But she didn’t forget the boys she’d left, and once in a while she’d come to the edge of the lake when they were close by the bank and spoke with them, for even, if she was half a fairy, she’d a mother’s heart that the good God put in her bosom; and one time they saw her with little man along with her, that was a Leprechaun, as they knew by the look of him, and that makes me believe that the real reason for her leaving her husband was to get back the old Leprechaun she was in love with before she was married to Darby O’Hoolighan.”
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are known to have produced children with humans and in order to procreate they have a nasty habit of stealing a bride from her wedding to marry one of their own kind instead. At some later date they might even kidnap a midwife to assist the bride to deliver the child of her fairy husband. Their penchant for kidnapping new brides is believed to be a result of their low birth rate and the need to increase their population with human babies and women. There are some who mighty dispute this cause, but what other cause could there be for stealing brides and babies, for which they are famed.
Within Irish folklore there are ample stories concerning kidnapped midwives and musicians who are released back into their own world after an agreed time period. Normally, those mortals taken into the fairy realm can never return if the eat or drink anything while there, but this rule does not hold for those who are taken for a pre-determined time period. There are also stories of those who go to the ‘Good People’ for a single night of dancing and entertainment only to emerge the next morning to find that four, forty, or four hundred years have passed in the mortal world.
The fairies commonly made their homes only in raths and Tumuli of Pagan days in Ireland, and, for this reason, the raths are much dreaded, and after sundown are avoided by the ordinary peasant folk. Attempts have been made to remove some of these raths from the landscape, but the unwillingness of the local people to engage in the work, no matter what inducements may be offered to them, has generally resulted in the work being abandoned. It has been reported that on one of the islands in the Upper Lake of Killarney there is a rath, and the proprietor, finding it occupied too much ground, resolved to have it levelled to increase the arable surface of the field. The work was begun, but one morning, in the early dawn, as the laborers were crossing the lake on their way to the island, they saw a procession of about two hundred persons, dressed like monks, leave the island and proceed to the mainland, followed, as the workmen thought, by a long line of small, shining figures. The phenomenon might have been genuine, but a mirage is by no means an uncommon appearance in some parts of Ireland, nevertheless work on the rath was at once postponed indefinitely. Besides raths, old castles, deserted graveyards, ruined churches, secluded glens in the mountains, springs, lakes, and caves are all homes and resorts to fairies, as is very well known on Ireland’s west coast.
As we know, there are many fairy hills and raths that exist throughout the island of Ireland, and between them run fairy roads and paths which are also invisible to mortal eyes. It is traditional that people refuse to build on such roads and paths, because to do so will inevitably bring the builder bad-luck, and often death. It is not such a good idea to disturb the site of the ‘Good Peoples’’ home, and to dig into a fairy mound, or cut down a fairy tree, will certainly bring the disturber misfortune and, perhaps, death. Even in this modern, technologically advanced society that Ireland has become there is still a very strong belief in such things will participate in protests against many road plans if it interferes with fairy trees, raths or mounds. It is also a fact that heavy fines can be placed upon those people who would destroy or damage fairy mounds, even if they are on private property.
The ‘Good People’ can either bless or harm mortals with whom they come into contact, and their gifts could bring great blessings to those who receive them, or they can be simple illusions that become worthless by dawn. In the same way the ‘Fairy Wind’ can bring illness or cause injury to humans including a sudden cramp, or stitch that tradition says is caused by an invisible ‘shot’ from an arrow fired by a disgruntled fairy. In some cases, this ‘Fairy Shot’ might be used against cattle and would cause them to waste away after they are struck, but it was a power that could be granted to witches that are close to the ‘Good People.’ In fact, it was widely believed in Ireland that witches learned their magic arts, for good or bad, from the ‘Good People’ with whom they were believed to closely associate themselves. Such friends of the ‘Fairy Folk’ were, of course, privy taught special knowledge and things like magic and healing. A favoured musician, a harpist or piper, might be given greater skill or particularly good instrument. The main amusements of the fairies consist of music, dancing, and ball-playing. In music their skill exceeds that of men, while their dancing is perfect, the only drawback being the fact that it blights the grass, “fairy-rings” of dead grass, apparently caused by a peculiar fungous growth, being common in Ireland. Although their musical instruments are few, the fairies can use these few with wonderful skill. It is said that near Colooney, in County Sligo, there was a “Wise Woman,” whose grandmother’s aunt once witnessed a fairy ball, the music for which was furnished by an orchestra which the management had no doubt been at great pains and expense to secure and instruct. She stated, “It was the cutest sight alive. There was a place for them to stand on, and a wonderful big fiddle of the size you could sleep in it, that was played by a monstrous frog, and two little fiddles, that two kittens fiddled on, and two big drums, beaten by cats, and two trumpets, played by fat pigs. All around the fairies were dancing like angels, the fireflies giving them light to see by, and the moonbeams shining on the lake, for it was by the shore it was, and if you don’t believe it, the glen’s still there, that they call the ‘Fairy Glen’ to this day.”
The fairies do much singing, usually in chorus, and their songs were formerly more frequently heard than they are today. Even now a belated peasant, who has been at a wake, or is coming home from a fair, in passing a rath will sometimes hear the soft strains of their voices in the distance, and will hurry away before they discover his presence and be angry at the unwelcome intrusion on their privacy. When in unusually good spirits they will sometimes admit a mortal to their celebrations, but should he speak, the scene at once vanishes, he becomes insensible, and generally finds himself by the roadside the next morning, “with that degree of pains in his arms and legs and back, that if sixteen thousand devils were after him, he couldn’t move a toe to save his own soul, that’s what the fairies do by pinching and punching him for coming on them and speaking out loud.”
As previously stated, they might appear as a stranger seeking to borrow something, needing milk or coal from the fire, or be encountered alone in a field or wood, or on a road. Those mortals brave enough to seek them out might choose to sleep on fairy mounds, or raths, or rings, in the knowledge that it would result in either a blessing or madness.
Thankfully, there are a variety of charms to protect us against the ‘Fairy Folk’, which are far too numerous to get into any depth with here. One example of these is – to keep a new mother and her baby safe from the ‘fairies’ they would be given milk from a cow who had eaten a ‘bog-violet’ (mothan). A charm to force a fairy host into releasing anyone they may have taken is to throw the dust from the road, an iron knife, or your left shoe at them and say, “This is yours; that is mine!” (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In those cases where a person is suffering from a bad fairy spell or curse, a ‘Fairy Doctor’ must be found, who is a person who has special knowledge of the fairies. These ‘Doctors’ are able to diagnose the exact cause and produce the appropriate charm, chant, or herb that will cure the unfortunate victim. Farmers, meanwhile, would tie a red ribbon on their cattle or horses as a means of keeping fairies away. Some would tie a rowan twig on to a cow’s tail, or lightly strike the animals with rowan or hazel switches to achieve the same aim. Just as rowan and red thread is known to protect things from fairies, there are other well-known protections, such as anything that is made of iron.
A means of maintaining good relations with the ‘Fairy Folk’ is to offer the gifts such as milk, butter, and bread left by the doorway, or at the roots of a ‘Fairy Tree’, as well as a small amount of whatever one is drinking poured out onto the ground. In some instances, milk might be thrown in the air for the fairies or butter buried near a bog as an offering to them. On holy days, it was customary for some people to offer a heavy porridge that was poured into a hole in the earth, or bread which could be left out, or tossed over the shoulder. Among other people it was customary, on Beltaine, to bleed live cattle and offer the blood collected to the fairies. These days people still make offerings to the ‘Good People’ in certain parts of Ireland which include milk, cream, bread or other baked goods, honey, and portions of meals, as well as alcohol.
In conclusion, it must be pointed out that there appears to be a long standing and complex association between the ‘Fairy Folk’ and the dead. In fact, the dead often appear among the ranks of the ‘Good People’, especially the newly dead. There is also evidence to suggest that better class of fairies are fond of human society and often act as guardians to those they love. In parts of Donegal and Galway they are believed to receive the souls of the dying and escort them to the gates of heaven although they are not allowed to enter with them. On this account, fairies love graves and graveyards, having often been seen walking to and fro among the grassy mounds. There are, indeed, some accounts of faction fights among the fairy bands at or shortly after a funeral, the question in dispute being whether the soul of the departed belonged to one or the other faction.
There are many stories within Irish folklore that feature someone seeing a person whom they thought to be dead. This is often explained by saying that the person in question had not died but was taken by the ‘Fairy Folk’ and a ‘Changeling’ left behind, which was buried in the person’s name. In many stories a person is believed to have died but appears, often in a dream, to a loved one and explains that they have been taken into ‘Fairy Land’ and can only be rescued in a certain way .This rescue plan usually involves the living person going to a crossroads at midnight when the ‘Fairy Raid’ will pass by and grabbing their loved one from the horse he or she is riding.
Giving honour and offerings to the ‘Fairy Folk’ is an important aspect of an Irish folklore customs and are traditions that we would all do well to continue in our modern, scientifically and technologically advanced world. The more kindly fairies often take great pleasure in assisting those who treat them with proper respect, and as the favours always take a practical form, there is sometimes a business value in the show of reverence for them. There was Barney Noonan, of the County Leitrim, for instance, who was described “And no better boy was in the county than Barney. He’d work as regular as a pump and liked a bit of a diversion as well as anybody when he had time for it. That, wasn’t often, to be sure, but he couldn’t be blamed for that, for he wasn’t rich enough by no manner of means to be celebrating regularly. He’d a great regard for the ‘Good People’, and when he went be the rath beyond his field, he’d pull off his cap and take the clay pipe out of his mouth, as polite as a dancing master, and say, ‘God save you, ladies and gentlemen,’ that the ‘Good People’ always heard though they never showed themselves to him.He had a bit of bog land, that the hay was on, and after cutting it, he left it to dry, and the sun came out beautiful and, in a day or so, the hay was as dry as powder and ready to put away. “So Barney was going to put it up, but, it being the day of the fair, he thought he’d take the calf and sell it, and so he did, and coming up with the boys, he stayed over his time, being hindered with the drinking and dancing and chatting-up the girls, so it was after dark when he got home and the night as black as a crow, the clouds gathering on the tops of the mountains likeevil spirits and creeping down into the glens like angels of destruction, and the wind howling like ten thousand Banshees, but Barney didn’t mind it all, being stupefied with the drink he’d had. So the hay never entered the head of him, but in he went and tumbled in bed and was snoring like a horse in two minutes, for he was a bachelor, God bless him, and had no wife to nag him and ask him where he’d been, and what he’d been at, and make him tell a hundred lies about not getting home before. So, it came on to thunder and lightning like all the evil demons in the universe were fighting with cannons in the sky, and by and by there was a clap loud enough to split your skull and Barney woke up.
“‘Damn it,’ says he to himself, ‘it’s going to rain and me hay on the ground. What will I do?’ says he. “So, he rolled over on the bed and looked out of a crack for to see if it was really raining. And there was the biggest crowd he had ever seen of little men and women. They’d built a row of fires from the cow-house to the bog and were coming in a string like the cows going home, each one with his two arms full of hay. Some were in the cow-house, receiving the hay; some were in the field, raking the hay together; and some were standing with their hands in their pockets as if they were the bosses, telling the rest for to make haste. And so, they did, for every one run like he was going for the doctor, and brought a load and hurried back for more.
“Barney looked through the crack at them, crossing himself every minute with admiration for the speed they had. ‘God be good to me,’ says he to himself, ‘It is not every young man in Leitrim that’s got haymakers like them,’ only he never spoke a word out loud, for he knew very well the ‘Good People’ wouldn’t like it. So, they brought in all the hay and put it in the house and then let the fires go out and made another big fire in front of the door and began to dance round it with the sweetest music Barney had ever heard.
“Now by this time he’d got up and feeling easy in his mind about the hay, began to be very merry. He looked on through the door at them dancing, and by and by they brought out a jug with little tumblers and began to drink something that they poured out of the jug. If Barney had the sense of a herring, he’d have kept still and let them drink their fill without opening the big mouth on him, being that he was as full as a goose himself and needed no more; but when he saw the jug and the tumblers and the fairies drinking away with all their might, he got mad and bellowed out like a bull, ‘A-a-h now, you little skites, is it drinking you are, and never giving a sup to a thirsty mortal that always treats you as well as he knows how,’ and immediately the fairies, and the fire, and the jug all went out of his sight, and he went to bed again in a temper. While he was lying there, he thought he heard talking and a secret revelry going on, but when he peeped out again, not a thing did he see but the black night and the rain coming down and each drop would fill a water glass. So, he went to sleep, contented that the hay was in, but not pleased that the ‘Good People’ would be pigs entirely, to be drinking under his eyes and not offer him a taste, no, not so much as a smell of the jug.
“In the morning up he gets and out to look at the hay and see if the fairies put it in right, for he says, ‘It’s a job they’re not used to.’ So, he looked in the cow-house and thought his eyes would leave him when there wasn’t a straw in the house at all. ‘Holy Moses,’ says he, ‘what have they done with it?’ and he couldn’t conceive what had happened to the hay. So he looked in the field and it was all there; bad luck to the bit of it had the fairies left in the house at all, but when he shouted at them, they got very angry and took all the hay back again to the bog, putting every straw where Barney laid it, and it was as wet as a drowned cat. But it was a lesson to him he never forgot, and I’ll guarantee you that the next time the fairies help him in with his hay he’ll keep still and let them drink themselves to death if they please without saying a word.” We should not forget or turn our backs on the ‘Fairy Realm’ that has existed side by side with our own for so many centuries. Honouring the ‘Fairy Folk’ prevents ill-luck befalling us and can bring us good luck and blessings. More importantly it helps us to create a reciprocal relationship between us and the ‘Fairy Folk’ that is based on respect and friendship. Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to know the signs of fairy trouble and how to protect yourself against them or find a ‘Fairy Doctor’ or Wise Woman to help you.
But we must remember that the fairies are by no means so numerous these days as they used to be. It is said their demise began with the rapid spread of National Schools and Father Mathew’s Temperance movement throughout Ireland, for it is known “they hate learning and wisdom and are lovers of nature.” In a few remote districts, where the schools scarce, the ‘Good People’ are still to be found, and their doings are told to us with a childlike faith in the power of these first inhabitants of Ireland, for it seems to be agreed among many researchers that they were in the country long before the coming either of the Gael, or of the English oppressor. So it is, that we mortals humans have a long and complex relationship with the ‘Fairy Folk’ and we must always remember that they are just as present today as they have ever been.
Wedin, W., The Sí, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works, 1998.
In Ireland one of the most generally believed superstitions, of the many held by the rural Irish, is that fairy gold, silver and jewels of all kinds are to be found hidden beneath almost every fairy Rath, cairn, or old castle in Ireland. Treasure seekers will be quick to tell you that it is a difficult task to locate and exhume any kind of buried treasure. Tradition, however, suggests that several families in bygone years had become rich through discovering a treasure store that had been hidden beneath the earth. But, as a first step toward securing hidden treasure, the seeker must first overcome the strange, inexplicable guardian spirit who is always on the alert and, therefore, must be encountered.
In Irish folklore we learn that the locations of these treasures are usually discovered by the mortal being given a dream, which is repeated three times. The treasure itself is usually contained within a ‘Crock’ or ‘Covered Vault’ before it is buried in the earth. Then, when any attempt is made to retrieve the treasure an awful gorgon-like monster, or other menacing demon, will appear to prevent the finder from gaining his reward. On occasions a destructive, rushing wind, sweeps over the plain, exiting from the opening that has been made. When free, it instantly carries away in its wake the hat from the gold seeker’s head, his spade, or even in certain cases, the adventurer himself. Because of this encounter he is frequently deposited with several broken bones, or a paralyzed frame, at a respectful distance from the buried treasure.
A tale tells us that on the banks of a beautiful northern river that is called ‘The Lagan’, and quite near to the town of Dromore, there may be seen a lush green plot of land, upon which stand two large, moss-covered stones, over six hundred feet apart from each other. Legend has it that two immense ‘crocks of gold’ are buried under these two very conspicuous land-marks. Over the years many attempts have been made by various people to dig around these large stones, and beneath them. No treasure has yet been recovered and when persistent efforts are made by any person they are, allegedly, visited by the apparition of a monk, dressed in full habit and with a cross in his hand. He warns these treasure hunters not to proceed with their sacrilegious work, because here it had been intended to build a church that was to equal in size and beauty the Church of St. Peter in Rome.
Legends also inform us that the contents of one ‘crock’ were intended to erect the structure of this grand building, while the other crock’s treasure was to be used to decorate the church. We are told that the golden treasure was most likely to have been saved from the wreck of an ancient religious foundation. For this reason, the treasure was regarded as being a sacred horde that should only be used to build a church, or a monastery.
One old remedy for protecting a home against the ‘Good People’ is, immediately after sunset, to lock every door and window in the house and light a great turf fire in the hearth, into which you place nine irons. As these irons become heated a great noise will be heard from outside the house that are the cries of a witch trying to gain entry, begging and shrieking in pain to remove the irons from the fire, for they were burning her. When the witch finds that all her entreaties are useless, she will return to her home, shrieking, and bring back all the butter that she had previously taken. It is only then that the irons should be removed from the fire and thereby cease her torment. From that moment the farmer shall be able to enjoy the quality of his butter production and relish its undiminished quality.
It has been a long-held tradition in Ireland that a good and careful housewife should always leave a large container full of good drinking water in the kitchen before going to bed for the night. Folklore tells that one night a woman was suddenly awakened during the night by a great noise coming from the kitchen. When she went into her kitchen the woman found a crowd of the ‘fairy folk’ busying themselves cooking food on the fire or preparing the food for a feast. When they saw the woman of the house, ‘the good people’ warned her to go back to bed and she very wisely obeyed their command. When she arose the next morning the woman found that everything in the kitchen appeared to be undisturbed, except the large container that she had used for holding drinking water. The container was now full of blood, which was a hint to the woman that she should leave plenty of pure spring water for the self-invited guests.
Another story tells us that one night, in a remote cabin that sat in a wild and mountainous district of the country, many years ago, two hard-working women busied themselves spinning flax. In the silence of the night their work was suddenly disturbed by a loud knocking at the cabin door. Frightened by the unexpected noise the two women kept quiet until they heard a shrill voice ask, in Irish, “Are you within, feet-water?“
“I am,” a voice replied from within a pot that stood in the corner of the kitchen in which the family washed their feet before going to bed. There was a sound of splashing water, and an eel-like shaped creature rose up from the pot and, stretching forward, the door was unlocked door. From the night several small women of extraordinary appearance, and dressed in strange clothes, entered the cabin, and immediately began to use the spinning-wheel.
One of the women of the house, saying that she needed to fetch turf for the fire, went outside but immediately rushed back into the cabin shouting, “The mountain is on fire!“
Shrieking loudly, the uninvited strangers immediately ran out of the house exclaiming, ” My husband and my children are burnt.” Seeing that their trick had succeeded the women of the house lost not a moment in resorting to the usual precautions against fairy influence. When they closed the door, they made it more secure with iron tongs, laid a broom against the door, threw a glowing ember from the hearth into the “feet water,” plucked a quill from the wing of a speckled hen, removed the band from the spinning-wheel, placed the carded flax under a weight, and made up the fire. They had scarcely returned to their bed when the mysterious visitors were heard outside again calling in Irish as before, ” Let me in, feet-water.” But this time, the pot answered them, “No, I cannot, for there is a spark in me.” The fairy women then called upon all the other objects in the cabin, one after another, “Let me in, tongs;” “Let me in, broom;” “Let me in, speckled hen;” “Let me in, wheel-band;” “Let me in, carded flax.” Each object replied that it was powerless to obey, owing to the precautions which had been taken. The fairies thereupon raised an angry yell of disappointed, and left, uttering the curse, “May your tutor meet her reward.” Once again, we see iron used as a charm against fairy-influence and fairy-assaults. But this folk legend also gives a description of the old custom of throwing a piece of burning peat into any vessel in which the feet have been washed. In some parts of Ireland, to this day, the hissing of an ember in a pot of water is a comfort to the residents of a remote cabin, for it assures them that their home is totally secure against the assaults of the “Good People.”
In some places a horseshoe is often seen nailed over the door of a house, a dairy, or a stable, or to the mast of a fishing boat. This is said to prevent the fairies from entering the house and doing mischief to those who reside there. At the same time, it is thought to prevent fairy mischief against a farmer’s milking the cows, or from taking the horses out of the stable and riding them over hill and dale the long night through, and leaving them to be discovered in the morning trembling in every limb exhausted and bathed in sweat. In another way the horseshoe works as a charm against fairies, who are supposed to be fond of lurking in fishing boats drawn up on the seashore and take great delight in hindering fishermen in their work. It is also traditional for a small piece of iron to be sewn into an infant’s clothes and kept there until it is baptised. Yet another prevention of Fairy interference with an infant is to put salt on the cradle.
Legend tells us that the fairies were conquered by a race of beings that used iron weapons, and it is because of this that they dread that metal, or steel. It is recommended to the friends of a person who has been carried off by the ‘Good People’ that, if they should venture into the underground retreat of the fairies to bring back the captive, they should arm themselves with a ‘Missal’, or a prayer-book, and an iron knife. This latter object was to be laid on the threshold of the entrance into the ‘Rath’ so it will prevent the fairies from pursuing the rescue-party when they have found the prisoner, and are in the act of carrying him off. Another practice recommended to persons wishing to recover a spell-bound friend from the fairies is to stand at a cross-roads on ‘All Hallow Eve’, or in a ‘Rath’, or at such a place that may be pointed out by a ‘Wise Woman’ or a ‘Fairy Doctor’. Having rubbed a special ointment on the eyelids, the fairies would become visible as the troop swept past the spot indicated, and the waiting person was able to recognise the prisoner by some peculiarity of their dress, or by some other means. A sudden gust of wind would indicate the nearby approach of the fairies, and those watching would stoop to gather up dust from under their feet, which they would throw at the procession. This action would compel the troop of fairies to surrender any human being that they might have in their custody.
Folklore tells that young mothers are supposedly carried off to nurse fairy children, and that well-known pipers or fiddlers were also taken and transported to underground dwellings, where, if they ate and drank of the good things offered to them by ‘the Good People’, they would never be allowed to return to their earthly homes. Meanwhile, for a girl to dream that she sees a fairy is a sign that she will soon be married. While it is a favourable omen for a woman to dream of fairies, it is considered to be an unfavourable sign for men, and no man should undertake any important matter for several days after such a dream, or it will surely end in disappointment.
In remote parts of the country some people still believe that the fairies change children in the cradle, and if an infant begins to pine or become peevish, it is believed to be a sign that such an exchange has been affected. Indeed, there are many detailed reports concerning the removal or substitution of a child are not uncommon. In his epic poem ‘The Faerie Queene’, Edmund Spenser describes one such incident –
“. . . A fairy thee unweeting reft,
There as thou slept in tender swaddling band,
And her base elfin brood there for thee left,
Such, men do changelings call, so changed by fairies’ theft.”
It was such tales that encouraged people to carefully watch their babies until they were christened, in case they were carried off or changed by ‘The Good People’.
It was said by people that until a woman had gone through the ceremony of ‘Churching’, after the birth of her child, she remained the most dangerous being on earth. No one should eat food from her hand, and myriads of demons are always around her trying to do harm, until the priest comes and sprinkles holy water over her. It was claimed that even if she went to the river to wash, the fish would all swim away from her in fear, for fishes are a very pious race, and cannot bear to be touched by unholy hands ever since the mark of Christ’s fingers was on them. Legend informs us that they were once, by accident, the overheard an argument against transubstantiation, which was held by a heretic, and they were so shocked at his language that they all left the river. The disappointed angler could not help regretting that the fish were so very particular as to the teachings of tenets of Mother Church.
If a man leaves the house after his wife’s confinement, tradition holds that some of his clothes should be spread over the mother and infant, or the fairies will carry them both off, for the fairy queen desires, above all things, a mortal woman to nurse her fairy offspring. And if her own child happens to be an ugly little sprite, she will gladly exchange it for the beautiful human babe, who henceforth will live entirely in fairyland, and never more see his kindred or home.
Fairy changelings are recognised by their tricky nature, and by constantly complaining and crying for food. One method, which at immediately demonstrates the nature of the child, is to place it over the fire on an iron shovel until, with wild shrieks, the fairy vanishes up the chimney, screaming all sorts of curses on the household that has it this way. But while waiting for the solution of the enigma, the unfortunate child is often so dreadfully burned that it dies in great agony, its cries being heard with callous indifference by its parents, who imagine that it is the fairy child, not their own offspring, that is tortured. The fairy changeling often produces a set of tiny bagpipes, sits up in the cradle, and plays jigs, reels, and lively dance music. The inmates of the cottage are forced, greatly against their will, to commence dancing, and this enforced amusement continues until they sink from exhaustion. When the infant is thus known to be undoubtedly a changeling, it is removed on an iron shovel from the cabin, and placed on the centre of the dunghill while rhymes are recited by the fairy doctor, the director of the operations, along with some verses in Irish, such as the following:
” Fairy men and women all,
List ! it is your baby’s call;
For on the dunghill’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 lump, 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.
Then give me back my only son,
And I’ll forgive the harm you’ve done;
And nightly for your sportive 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.”
(Recorded and translated by – Rev. John O’Hanlon)
When the ceremony is completed, all retire into the cottage, the door is carefully closed, and additional incantations are recited. Any sound made by the wind, or the noise made by a passing vehicle, is regarded as a signal of the fairy host arriving or departing. Then, the cabin door is opened carefully and the assembled party walk to the manure heap. The Fairy Doctor then hands the poor emaciated baby to the deluded parents, who declares that the ‘true child’ has been returned by the “Good People.”
Throughout Ireland’s history, and even in the present day, many have professed to have seen the Banshee as she goes wailing and clapping her hands in grief. On those rare occasions when more than one Banshee has been present, they have wailed and sang their haunting songs in chorus for the death of some great leader or holy man. There is, also, among the records of those who have seen the Banshee, reports that on some occasions she is accompanied by a large, black coach, upon which is mounted a coffin. This so-called “Death Coach” is drawn by huge, black, headless horses that are driven on by a headless coachman. From out of the darkening sky the coach will rumble its way to the door of your house, seeking to transport the souls of those who are dead to their final resting place. It said that if you open your door to the “Death Coach” a basin of blood is thrown into your face as a sign of purifying the house and dead person by removing evil spirits.
It is the way of the Banshee that not every Irish family can claim the honour of having one attend to them. According to custom the family must be respectably descended from a long and ancient line if it is to have a warning spirit of their own. At the same time, the Banshee does not appear to be influenced by any difference of creed. Providing there is no other impediment even Protestant families of Norman and Anglo-Saxon origin are able to boast of having their own Banshee. It is with some pride that even in our modern times several noble and distinguished families in Ireland can claim that this mysterious being continues to watch over them. Furthermore, it appears, she is not influenced by the circumstances of rank or fortune. In fact, the Banshee is more often found frequenting the homes of the lower classes than the homes of the rich and influential. It will interest you, therefore, to read that the following tale is one told by a member of a humble family that has claimed the honour of an attendant banshee for many years.
This story, then, is only one of many witness reports.
Not so many years ago there was a farmer, who lived in the vicinity of the beautifully scenic Glens of Antrim. At this stage of the story it is not necessary to disclose this man’s name, but we can tell the reader that he never saw the need to get married. In the same house lived the only child of his deceased sister, a son, and his elderly mother who acted as housekeeper in the home over which she was once mistress. The old woman and her grandson were both followers of the Roman Catholic Church, into which the farmer himself was baptised. For reasons best known to himself the man’s faith lapsed, and he was like a man in search of faith. As he grew older, however, the farmer’s search for a loving God to believe in appeared to waver and he became more a theistic in his outlook. He had no time for church going people, or the idea of sin, preferring to enjoy the fruits of life and not have to worry about accountability. He developed a rather dark, unattractive personality and kept himself aloof from others. He appeared sullen most of the time and showed himself to be a man of gloomy temperament. All of these personality imperfections, aligned with his well-known distaste of anything religious, only helped make him somewhat unpopular amongst his neighbours.
He may not have been well liked by his neighbours, but he was generally respected by them. In his dealings with them he never insulted or antagonised them, and was considered by most to be an honest, inoffensive man. More importantly he was a large and muscular man who, even when he was younger, had a reputation for toughness and being able to handle himself in a scrap. It comes as no surprise then that there were very few of his neighbours and acquaintances who desired to disturb him, even if they felt they had they cause to do so.
It was not only toward religion that this farmer’s hostility was directed. Having been well educated in modern science he was very much hostile to every kind of superstition, and he was constantly berating his old mother about all the superstitions she held to. The old woman was an extremely superstitious person, and she allowed others to believe that she was entirely conversant with everything concerning witchcraft, the spirits, and the fairy world which she was certain surrounded them.
Although his farm bordered the lands of several neighbours, he rarely set foot across the door of any of these. Moreover, he seldom asked any of his neighbours to enter his home and preferred to spend his leisure time reading books from a wide variety of genres. He also spent time in refurbishing his farm tools and equipment, which he viewed as vital to his livelihood. Occasionally he would spend time listening to and laughing at the wild, often blood thirsty stories told by his old mother, Mary. She was an endless repository of such stories and she enjoyed relating them to both her son and grandson.
This farmer had reached the age of forty years by the time our story takes place and old Mary had become extremely feeble with age. Her body was greatly stooped over and wracked with arthritis, while her face was made ugly by her dry and wrinkled skin. One cold November morning the farmer got out of bed before the first rays of daylight had broken through the darkness of the night. As he came out of his bedroom, he was somewhat surprised to find his aged mother in the kitchen, sitting over a fire she had raked-up in the hearth. She sat there in a serious and meditative mood, smoking an untipped cigarette. “Good morning, Ma,” he greeted her. “What are you doing up out of your warm bed so early in the day?“
“Ah sure I don’t rightly know what’s wrong with me,” she answered him. “I have had such a bad night, altogether. Sure, I never slept a wink and thought I would get up for a cup of tea and a smoke to see if it would help.”
“And what ails you, Ma? Are you sick, or what has come over you?”
“No, son. Thanks be to God I am not sick, but my heart seems that it is ready to burst, and there’s a such a heavy weight on my body that it makes me feel so weak.”
“Maybe it’s just a bad dream, Ma, or maybe a wee bug of some kind,” he said to her, in a tone that showed that he did not take her complaints too seriously. He was sure, from previous experience, that the old woman’s complaints could be put down to her simply feeling her age and not willing to admit it.
“A bad dream!” repeated old Mary, with a bitter sneer. “You think I’m imagining it; I wish to God that it was only my imagination, son. But, unfortunately, I am very much afraid that it is a lot worse than that. I have a notion that there is great trouble and misfortune hanging over lives at this moment.”
“And what makes you think such things, Ma?” he asked her with a half-suppressed smile on his face that demonstrated doubts. Mary, however, was well aware of his strong hostility toward every mention of superstitious beliefs and signs. She, therefore, chose to remain silent, but she bit her lower lip and shook her grey head despairingly.
“Why don’t you answer me, Ma?” the farmer again asked the old lady.
“Pay me no mind,” said Mary, “Sure I am just an old woman and don’t really want to tell you, because you will only laugh at me and think that I am going crazy. Nevertheless, you can mock and laugh at me, but I will tell you there is something bad hanging over this place. The banshee was about this house all through the night, and she has almost frightened me out of my wits with her shouting and bawling.”
Naturally, Mary’s son was fully aware of the banshee having been long supposed to haunt his family. In the past the man had sought the truth of the tale and was frustrated in his efforts. But, although he doubted the creature’s existence, and had not heard of her visiting the place in many years, he was totally unprepared for Mary’s announcement. He had not expected to experience the freezing sensation that moved so quickly up his spine. His complexion turned as pale as that of a corpse, and his body began to tremble excessively. It took several moments for him to gather himself together and with a forced smile he asked his mother, “And how do you know it was the banshee, Ma?”
She looked up at her son in disbelief that he would ask such a question. “How do I know?” Mary questioned him with a taunting sneer. “Sure, didn’t I see and hear her several times during the night? And more than that, didn’t I hear the cursed dead-coach rattling round the house, and through the yard, every night at midnight this last week. I was afraid that the house would be shaken so bad it would crumble around us!”
That forced smile was not yet gone from the man’s face. He was frightened by the prospect of the banshee’s presence, yet he was ashamed to show any fear to his mother. He asked her, “And did you ever see the banshee before, Ma?”
“Of course, I have,” Mary insisted. “I have seen her on many occasions. Didn’t I see her when your father died? Didn’t I see her when your sister and her man died? In fact, there is not one member of this family that has died in these last sixty years that I did not both see and hear the banshee.”
“Tonight, where did you see her? How did she look?” he questioned further.
“There was a sort of reddish light that lit up the entire house and caused me to waken,” she began. “It was then that I saw her at the little window over my bed. I could clearly distinguish her old, pale face and glassy eyes staring in at me, and she was rocking herself to and fro, clapping her tiny, withered hands, and crying out as if her heart was about to break in two.”
“Nonsense!” he told her. “It’s all in your imagination; go, now, and get the breakfast ready. I need to go into Ballymena to-day to get a few things. If I can get into town early enough, then I can ensure I will be home early.”
A sudden feeling of cold caused the old woman to tremble. She looked at him with a tear forming in her eye and implored him, “For Heaven’s sake, John, don’t go to-day. Please stay and go to Ballymena another day. I am afraid for you, son, I have a terrible feeling that should you go to town to-day there will be something bad happen to you on the road.“
“Nonsense, woman!” said John. “Don’t worry your head over such stupid things and get me my breakfast, please.“
Mary, with tears now flowing from her eyes, rose from her sea and began to get John’s breakfast ready for him. While she made his breakfast John washed, shaved, and began to dress for the journey to town. Finally, having completed his preparations in the bedroom, John returned to the Kitchen and sat down to a breakfast of porridge, followed with tea and toast. John enjoyed his food and quickly ate all that was set before. With breakfast concluded in silence John got up from the kitchen table and moved to put on his overcoat before leaving the house.
At this point Mary moved as quickly as she could toward the door. Flinging herself to her knees she cried out to him loudly, “John, John, please listen to me. Don’t go to-day! Please take heed of my warning. Although an old woman, I know more of the world than you do, and I can plainly see that if you go from here today you will never enter alive through this door again.”
John would not allow himself to be influenced by the drivel of wild superstitions from an old, doting woman. He gently pushed her out of his way with his hand, and proceeding to the farmyard, mounted his Yamaha motorbike and departed. With great sadness Mary watched him as he rode out of the yard, the tears still flowing from her eyes. When he went outside her range of vision, she turned back through the kitchen door, sat down by the fireside, removed her handkerchief from her apron, and she wept bitterly for her son.
The day was a bitterly cold one and John went about his business in town quickly. Then, as soon as his business was finished, and feeling the chill of the day, he decided to visit a local public-house. On entering the bar John immediately ordered a glass of hot whisky to help him remove the chill on his body. As he drank at the bar an old friend entered and greeted him warmly, insisting that John have another glass with him before he left. The friend had not seen John for over a year, and he was keen to catch up on any gossip and other things that John might know. As is always the case in such circumstances, one glass brought another, and it was late afternoon before John decided that he needed to get home. It was already getting dark outside and, having nearly ten miles to travel, it would be night-time before he would reach home again.
John’s friend, however, was not prepared to allow him to leave the bar when the craic was so good. The order for more hot whisky and Guinness was called and it was not until well into the night that the friends finally parted in a much-inebriated state. Of course, John was fully aware that he should not ride his motorbike while he was drunk. But good sense had long departed and having mounted his bike, John switched on the engine, turned the accelerator, and roared off from the space in which he had parked earlier. Somehow, he did not have any problems moving down the streets of the town and once outside its boundaries he dashed along at a rapid pace through the gloom and silence of the winter’s night. John had driven almost five miles from the town when, on arriving at a very desolate part of the road, a gunshot was fired from behind the bushes along the roadside. In that instant John was knocked of his bike, which crashed into a large oak tree. He was dead before he touched the ground, the victim of a stray shot fired by one of two poachers in nearby woodland. The two poachers rushed to John’s body, lying at the side of the road, and searched him for identity. They found and took his wallet full of money and, afraid of the consequences of their actions, the two men disappeared into the night before any other person came on the scene.
In the house Mary did not go to bed that night but sat at the fireside impatiently waiting for her son to return home. In the silence of the kitchen she listened for even the slightest sound that might indicate the arrival of his motorcycle. But all Mary’s listening and waiting was in vain. No sound met her ear except the sad wail of the night wind, which moaned fitfully through the tall bushes that surrounded the old house. Standing at the kitchen door Mary could hear the sullen roar of the narrow, dark river, which wound its way through the fields a short distance away. Overcome with tiredness; watching and listening for such a long period of time Mary finally fell asleep in the armchair that stood by the hearth. But the old lady’s sleep was not a restful one. She was constantly disturbed and awoken by frightful and appalling dreams that incessantly haunted her imagination.
At long last the greyness of early morning appeared, struggling through the wintry clouds, and Mary again opened the door to look out. She was dismayed to find no sign of her son’s motorbike, but her hopes were raised by the sound of a car engine as it entered the yard. Her hopes were quickly shattered, however, when she noticed two policemen get out of the vehicle. At that moment she knew that they were not bringing her good news and she expelled a great scream of grief as she fell to her knees. The two policemen rushed to her aid and several neighbours quickly gathered to see what was amiss. Working together they raised Mary to her feet and returned her to the comfort of her armchair in the kitchen. It was then that the policemen explained that her son had been shot and was dead. Mary was told that a few hours previously a police patrol had found his body lying at the side of the road, about five miles from town. John’s body had been found stretched on his back at the side of the road, immersed in a pool of blood that appeared to have its origin in a bullet hole to his head. The police further explained that when his body was examined at the scene no wallet or money was found on his person. The body was subsequently taken for a post-mortem and the enquiry declared John’s death to be unlawful killing by a person, or persons, unknown. After the inquest John’s body was returned home to be waked, as was traditional, before being committed to the family grave in the small rural graveyard next to the local church.
Having no legitimate children, the nearest heir to his property was his nephew. But he was too young to inherit and the old woman was considered too old to look after him properly. There was a nephew of Mary’s living in England who would be the ideal guardian and Mary immediately wrote a letter to him explaining what had happened. He was asked to help the family out and while they waited on him two young men from a neighbour’s family were appointed to take care of the place.
This is not a new thing in rural Ireland. Traditionally rural people help each other out at times of harvest and times of difficulty, and the two youths delegated to act as guardians had been well known and respected by John. Jack Donnelly was, like Mary, also a Roman Catholic and was a stoutly built, handsome fellow, who always had a pleasant word for everyone he met. He was full of life, energy and the bravado that is so typical of all young men and not just those who live in Ireland. Jack was considerably younger than John and was an active member of the local Parish, but very republican in his political outlook. He was a young man with the courage of a lion and was never afraid to stand up to any man. He was, however, extremely superstitious and would walk miles out of his road to avoid a “Fairy Tree”, or an ancient “Rath.”
Jack’s best friend, Harry Baker, on the other hand, came from a staunch, Loyalist and Protestant background. He was a tall, genteel-looking man with a proud and imperious manner, full of reserve and haughtiness. There were not many who could tolerate Harry, but Jack saw his friend’s manner as being a natural consequence of his political consciousness, religious background, and his superior intelligence and education. Just like his friend Jack, Harry also enjoyed a glass or two of good whisky and stout. Unlike Jack, however, he was of a more peaceful disposition and was utterly opposed to any superstitious beliefs. Considering himself to be better educated and more intelligent than most, Harry scornfully laughed at the very idea that such things as ghosts, goblins, and fairies existed.
It makes you wonder how Jack and Harry could be such good friends when they were diametrically opposed to each other in every point except their love of the gargle (Alcohol), and yet both men never failed to seize every opportunity of being together. There were occasions that they would physically fight each other, often blackening each other’s eyes when discussing their political and religious disputes. Despite this, their quarrels were always settled in an amicable way because they were never happy unless they were in each other’s company.
Both Jack and Harry had been staying in Mary’s house for about seven nights and they had been doing everything they could for her on the farm. As was usual the two men would sit in the kitchen at night, where they would share a few drinks before getting some sleep. The nights were getting colder and a large turf fire blazed brightly on the kitchen hearth, keeping them warm. Meanwhile, in her small adjacent bedroom old Mary was in a deep sleep, stretched out upon her good-sized bed and wrapped in warm blankets. Between the two friends, stood a small oak table, upon which was placed a large bottle of whisky, a kettle of boiled water, and a bowl of sugar. Knowing there was still a chance that cattle and sheep thieves might target the farm. But, to give them an added sense of security and comfort Harry had brought his shotgun and placed it on one end of the table. As they sat and talked both men constantly recharged their glasses from the bottle of whisky, laughing and chatting as they recounted stories of their youth. Although they tried to be as quiet as possible the house was filled with a sense of mirth that had not been seen for many a long day. It was during one conversation that Jack mentioned the story Mary had told about the Banshee’s appearance, and he expressed a sincere hope that she would not come that night to disturb their comfort.
“Banshee? Not that bloody nonsense again?” Harry shouted. “You papists are an awfully superstitious lot! I would like to see the face of any man, dead or alive, who would dare to make an appearance in this place to-night.” He reached over and put his hand on the double-barrel shotgun and with a wicked smile he told Jack, “By all that’s holy, Jack, I will let them have both barrels in one go if they annoy us tonight.”
“It will not help you to shoot your gun at a banshee,” laughed Jack.
“Rubbish!” said Harry and he gave Jack a contemptuous look across the table.
“Anyone that comes here tonight will be no spirit but a being of flesh and blood. I wouldn’t think twice about pulling the triggers on them, you can be sure of that.” As if to seal his oath Harry drained another tumbler of whisky-punch.
“But forget all that, Jack,” said Harry unexpectedly. “Now that we are in such good humour, give us one of your songs.”
“No problem,” replied Jack. “What song would you like to hear?”
“Anything you please; you choose the song but don’t sing it too loud and awaken old Mary,” answered Harry.
Jack put his hand to his mouth and, after coughing and clearing his throat, he began to sing softly. In quick succession he sang “The Orange Cat” and a prolonged version of the “Lakes of Killarney.” Both songs were not exactly poetic ballads, but Jack sung them because they expressed sentiments that were hostile to the British. They were songs that were popular among the more republican minded people of the North but antagonistic toward the Protestant, unionist population. Harry, however, just laughed at his friend’s foolish efforts to annoy him and quietly applauded when Jack had concluded his little concert. “Well done, Jack,” said Harry with a smile as soon as the singing ended, “You have a great singing voice but not much taste in songs.”
“Then you give us a wee song then,” said Jack.
Harry, without hesitation cleared his throat and began to run through his scales. Jack noticed a wicked smile on his friend’s face but sat back in his chair to listen to Harry’s song. With his deep, soft, and sonorous voice, Harry began to sing:
“It is old, but it is beautiful,
And its colours they are fine.
It was worn in Derry, Aughrim,
Enniskillen and the Boyne.
Sure, my father wore it in his youth,
In those by gone days of yore,
And on the twelfth I love to wear,
The sash my Father wore.”
Jack, from the beginning of Harry’s song, facially exhibited his aversion to the sentiments it expressed. But, when Harry began to repeat the song as a chorus, Jack lost all of his patience. He jumped up from his seat and bent over the table toward his friend. He swore vehemently at him and threatened to “break his gob” if he didn’t stop singing his song immediately.
“Cool the jets, Mate,” said Harry laughing. “I didn’t take the bait when you sang your songs just a while ago. Besides, sure it is only a bit of craic and nothing to get irritated about.”
Jack was quickly pacified, and Harry continued with a new song.
“Of all the money that ere I had, I spent it in good company.
And of all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas was done to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I cannot recall.
So, fill me to the parting glass.
Goodnight and joy be with you all.”
“Of all the comrades that ere I had, they’re sorry for my going away, And of all the sweethearts that ere I had, they wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise while you should not,
I will gently rise, and I’ll softly call,
Goodnight and joy be with you all!”
“Oh, if I had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in this town that sorely has my heart beguiled
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips, she alone has my heart in thrall.
So, fill me to the parting glass.
Goodnight and joy be with you all”
Jack was so pleased with the surprise of Harry singing his favourite song that he joyfully stretched out his hand, and even joined in chorus to the concluding stanza.
It was getting really late by this time and the fire had now almost died away on the hearth. More importantly, the whisky-bottle was almost emptied, and the two friends were getting very drowsy. Jack turned off the lamp and laid his head down on the sofa to sleep. Harry, in the meantime, settled himself down in the big armchair at the side of the hearth. The singing and the laughter were now hushed, and no sound was to be heard in the house but the incessant “tick, tick,” of the clock on the wooden dresser that stood in the kitchen. Jack and Harry did not know how long they had slept when, suddenly, the old woman awakened with a wild shriek that swept through the entire house. In a panic Mary jumped out of bed, ran into the kitchen and on to the sofa beside Jack. While Harry fell out of the armchair in a state of shock, Jack struggled to remove Mary’s terrified grip from around his neck. “What the hell has happened?” he shouted from beneath the sprawled figure of the old woman.
“It’s her!” she screamed in answer. “The banshee, the banshee! Lord have mercy on us! she has come again, and I have never heard her wail so wildly.”
Jack, of course, immediately believed old Mary’s explanation. Harry, however, was not so easily convinced and thought it might be some person who was trying to play a not too funny joke on the old woman. Both men listened attentively, but they could hear absolutely nothing. They opened the kitchen door, but all outside the house was still in that fine, calm night, under deep, blue-black sky filled with myriads of twinkling stars. As they went around the hay-sheds, all was calm and lonely, and the only sound that greeted their ears was the shrill barking of some neighbouring dog in the distance. It was so quiet, indeed, that the sluggish murmuring of the little tortuous river could be clearly heard nearby. Finally satisfied that everything was alright, the two men decided to return to the kitchen of the house, where they would replenish the still glowing embers of the fire. Now that they had been awakened again both agreed that it was a good opportunity to finish whatever still remained in the whisky-bottle that was left on the table. But they had not been sitting at the kitchen for many minutes when a wild, unearthly cry, originating from outside the house, broke the calm.
“It’s the banshee again,” Mary said in a faint voice. Jack’s blood drained from his body and with it much of his courage. Harry jumped up and grabbed hold of his shotgun.
When Jack saw what his friend was doing, he caught hold of his arm. “No, no, Harry, you can’t do this,” he said firmly but in a shaking voice. “Just sit down quietly, for there is nothing to fear. Nothing is going to happen us.“
Without a single word of protest Harry sat down again, but he still maintained a strong grip on the shotgun. Jack took a cigarette from a packet left on the table, lit it with a match, and took a long slow drag from it. Meanwhile, old Mary had gone down to the floor on her knees, striking her breast, and repeating a litany of prayers with great determination.
The sad wailing cry was again heard, though much louder and fiercer than before.
One moment it seemed to originate from the window, and the next moment it appeared to be coming from somewhere near the door. The men could see nothing but could hear everything. At times, the wailing seemed as if it was in the distance, then again it would appear as if it was coming down the chimney or springing up from the ground beneath their feet. Sometimes the wailing resembled the low, plaintive cry of a woman in great distress. Then, a moment later, it was more like a prolonged yell, loud and furious, and as if it being issued by a thousand throats. There were times when the sound resembled a low, melancholy chant, and then there were other times when it quickly changed to a loud, broken, and demoniacal laugh. This was how the noise continued, almost without a break, for about a quarter of an hour or more. The sound then died away to be succeeded by a heavy, creaking sound, as if from some large wagon that was approaching and, in the middle of this, the loud tramp of horses’ footsteps might be distinguished, which were accompanied by a strong, rushing wind. To their ears this new, strange noise appeared to travel around and around the house two or three times. Then, very suddenly, the sound seemed to make its way down the lane that led from the house to the road and was heard no more. Jack stood dumbfounded by the experience, while Harry, despite all his philosophy and scepticism, was completely astonished and frightened by what he had heard.
“This has been one hell of a night, Mary,” said Jack, at last.
“Indeed,” she replied. “That was the death-coach. I have often heard it before and have seen it once or twice.“
“Did you say that you had seen it?” asked Harry. “What was it like?”
Old Mary thought for a moment or two before telling Harry, “It’s just like any other horse drawn coach, but it is twice as big and is drawn by headless black horses. It is all hung over with black cloth, and there is a black coffin on the top of it.”
“God protect us!” exclaimed a frightened Jack.
“It is very strange phenomenon,” remarked Harry.
“But” continued Mary, “the coach always comes before the death of a person, and I wonder what brought it now, unless it came with the banshee.”
“Maybe it’s coming for you,” said Harry.
“No, no,” she said; “I am not one of the select.”
For a few minutes all three persons stayed silent awaiting for the sounds to return. They even began to believe that the banshee had now vanished, until once again the dreadful cry sounded loudly in their ears.
“Quick Jack, open the door and we will send out ‘Butch’,” said Harry, urgently.
‘Butch’ was a large and very ferocious Rottweiler that belonged to Jack, and always accompanied him wherever he went. Hurriedly Jack opened the door and attempted to coax the dog to go out, but the poor animal refused to go. When Jack attempted to grab him and force him out through the door, ‘Butch’ curled up and howled in a loud and mournful tone.
“Go get him!” urged Harry as he helped get hold of the dog and wrestle it out of the door. Almost immediately the dog was lifted up into the air by some invisible power and within seconds he fell again to the ground lifeless, and the doorstep was covered with his entrails and blood.
It was the final straw for Harry. He had lost all patience and he once again made a grab for his shotgun and called to Jack, “Come on, Big Lad, grab something heavy and follow me. This damn thing has really pissed me off now and I have to get a crack at it. By God it will rue the day it annoyed me.”
“I’ll follow you anywhere Harry,” said Jack, “but I would not tackle any banshee for a million pounds.“
Mary took a strong hold of Harry by the trousers and screamed at him, “Don’t you go out there! Just leave her alone while she leaves you alone! You can have no luck in this world or the next if you make any attempt to attack a banshee.”
“Hush, woman!” Harry snapped at her and he pushed her away contemptuously.
Jack now “bit the bullet” and followed Harry out of the door. The wild crying continued, and it seemed to come from somewhere near the big hay barn behind the house. The two men went around to the rear of the house and paused for a moment. Again, they heard the fearful cry, and, in response, Harry raised his shotgun.
“Don’t fire,” pleaded Jack.
Harry did not reply and gave Jack a scornful look as he placed his finger on the trigger and squeezed it. “BANG!” the gun exploded with a great thundering sound. An extraordinary scream now filled the night air, which was ten times louder and more terrifying than they heard before. Their hair stood erect on the two men and huge, round drops of sweat ran down their faces in quick succession. There was a glare of reddish-blue light that illuminated the entire hay shed and, at the same time, the rumbling of the death-coach could again be heard coming toward them.
The coach drove right up to the house, drawn by six headless black horses and the figure of a withered old woman encircled with blue flame was seen running floating across the yard. This spectral image entered that ominous carriage and they drove away with a horrible sound following. In an instant the coach swept through the tall bushes which surrounded the house and, as it disappeared, the old spectre let loose one last scream at the two men, while she waved her fleshless arms at them angrily. In moments it was lost to sight, but the unearthly creaking of the wheels, the tramping of the horses, and the appalling cries of the banshee continued to fill the night for quite a considerable time afterwards.
Their bravery tested, the two men quickly returned to the safety of the house, making sure that the door was once again made fast. They need not have worried because there was nothing that came to disturb them the rest of that night. In fact, they were not disturbed for the rest of the time they stayed there, which was only a couple of days more until the arrival of Old Mary’s nephew. Old Mary, however, did not live long after these events, for her health declined after that terrible night. She received all the sacraments of her faith and her remains were decently interred in the churchyard where her beloved family had all been buried.
The banshee has never returned since that night, although several members of that same family have since come to the end of their mortal existence. That fearful, warning cry was never heard again and, it is said that the spirit will never visit again until every one of the existing generation shall have gone to their eternal rest. Both Jack and his friend Harry lived on for many years after the events, their friendship undiminished by the years. Often, over the odd bottle of whisky, the two men would laugh as they recounted their strange adventure with the banshee. Sadly, however, it’s all over with them too and their tombstones stand tall in that lonely churchyard.