There are, in many parts of Ireland, certain bushes which are looked upon by the local people as being sacred to that most well-known species of inhabitants of the mystic world, the Sidhe, the Sheeogs (Fairies). There is no Irishman or Irishwoman who would do harm, or destroy, or interfere with, such bushes for any reason. There is one in Cillmartin that stands in the centre of a ploughed field, and many years ago I asked the question why it had not been removed to aid cultivation. I was quickly told that the farmer, who was English, could not get any man in the district to dig it up, out of the ground. At one time he sent for a nearby farm labourer, called Pat Cairn, whom he often employed at harvest time. Pat was instructed by the farmer to go immediately and clear out the old thorn tree that stood in the middle of ‘Big Field’.
“Ah, now, man dear,” said Pat, “You know I’d rather not have anything to do with the likes of that“
“Oh ! Stuff of nonsense, man, nonsense! Don’t be a silly clown! Really, what harm is there in cutting down an old thorn bush ? You’ll be well paid for your work and the entire job won’t take you more than ten minutes.”
“Well, now, I might as well tell you the truth, I wouldn’t cut that bush down even if you were to give me a hundred thousand pounds,” Pat told him emphatically.
“Get away out of this! You stupid superstitious idiot of a man!” the farmer exclaimed angrily, stamping his foot heavily on the ground. “I’ll just the bloody tree down by myself to-morrow.“
As planned, the farmer made his way to the ‘Big Field’ the very next morning, where several men who had already refused to undertake the job had gathered. “You men haven’t found the courage yet to uproot that old bush for me,” he said loudly to the gathered men.
Harry McFarland, who taught in the local village school, shook his head and told the Englishman, “Not yet, sir! Sure, only an eejit would dare to upset the ‘Good People’ and I’m no eejit!”
“By God! Even an intelligent man like yourself believes in such silly tales and would have the audacity to call me an idiot! Well we will soon see the truth of it,“
“Well, really sir, everyone here to whom you have spoken has assured you that it would not be ‘lucky’ for you to cut it! I would urge you, at this time, do not do this thing.”
” I’m surprised at you, who should know better, should allow such silly superstitions to enter into your head. Have you a hatchet about, that I can borrow ? “
“Indeed ? Bring the hatchet to me and I’ll make sure the tree is cut down, damn quick. Then, you will see just how little I care about your fairy-folk and their devilish spells.”
Harry managed to retrieve the hatchet and gave it to the farmer, who, accompanied by several of his farm labourers, immediately entered the field and approached the hawthorn bush, that stood about four feet high. The villagers were totally amazed at the foolish and daring deed that this English farmer was about to perform, and they kept a good distance back, terrified by the evil that they expected to fall upon him. ” Now then,” said the farmer, as he balanced the hatchet in his right hand, ” let me see what’s the best way to go about this.”
He walked around the bush twice, and then he walked back a few feet to a spot from where he could critically survey it. He cleared his throat loudly first, then took a good luck around him at the faces that were watching his every action. Then he spoke, “It is pretty after all! You know, I never even considered it before. But, by God, it’s quite an attractive addition to the field.” Turning to Harry McFarland he smiled warmly and spoke in a loud voice, “It’s really very pretty, Harry, and now that I have seen it in a new light, I think it would be a pity to cut it down. Instead, I’ll send down a gardener to-morrow, who will clip it and trim it nicely. Aye! yes, indeed, it would be a pity to dig it all up.” There was a huge sigh of relief from those that were standing around the scene, and then a hint of suppressed giggles as they turned away to hide the expression on their faces. They knew the truth of it. The farmer had “thought better of it,” and that he had suddenly realised that “caution was the better part of valour.” You have probably already concluded that the farmer’s idea of creating and ornament of the bush was nothing more than a pretence. I can assure you that the bush has never been trimmed, and there it remains, practically the same as it was over fifty years ago in its size and appearance.
In my sixty-five years of life I have been blessed to see many similar bushes in various parts of the country. One very particularly memorable specimen exists along the south shore of Lough Neagh where, many years ago, a substantial stone wall had to be built a narrow country road near the shore. But, in the line along which the wall had to be built, there grew a “fairy bush,” which the workmen refused to remove from the spot where it stood. Every request and promise of increased payment, and threats of job loss failed to move them. The men, point blank, would not touch the fairy bush. The result of all this was that the bush was left undisturbed in the centre of the wall and arched over it. This unusual position in the stonework has proved to be something of a local attraction, which has also frequently attracted the attention of visitors who pass that way.
Just while we are considering the subject of things that are sacred to the “wee folk”, we should look at “cairns,” or heaps of stones. I can recall one very remarkable incident that goes a long way toward supporting the belief among many rural Irish people that it is not right to take away, or utilise for building purposes, any of the stones in those “cairns.” Cathal Hughes was building himself a new house on the outskirts of the town. While making his plans, Cathal remembered that he had seen a beautifully suitable keystone in the “fairy cairn.” The same man had been told that it was not sensible or right to interfere with any of the stones in that heap. However, there was one stone that he had set his eyes upon, which was so well suited for his purposes that he tempted to take a chance. Cathal, therefore, took the stone from the cairn and inserted it in the wall of his new house. But, the first night that he slept in the house, or rather lay down to sleep, he was disturbed by a most mournful crying coming from the very corner in which he had placed the stone. All through that night, until dawn broke, that bitter and plaintive wail continued. Cathal decided he would remove the stone after breakfast, but some of his neighbours suggested that it would be a waste to take the wall away. In the faulty belief that he would not be annoyed any further, Cathal decided that he would postpone his decision to remove the stone until he was sure that the weird cries were at an end. Unfortunately, he had not long to wait, for on the second night of his stay in the new home, the crying, lower but more sorrowful, continued again until morning. This disturbance settled the matter as far as he was concerned. The stone was taken out and replaced on the cairn, while another less attractive stone was selected to fill the space that was left in the wall. With this the crying ceased, and Cathal swore loudly that he would never, ever, again meddle with the stones of the “fairy cairn”.
If you ever chance to go to the County of Armagh in the Northern portion of Ireland, you would be reasonably safe in addressing a man as “Mr. McCann!” If that should fail to gain his attention then you could try Murphy, or Quinn. And if this does not give you a positive result, then there is still the surname of Wilson to fall back upon. But, I would certain that failure in using all these surnames is next to impossible! Niamh, however, did not have any of these names, although she lived with her maternal grandfather, who was called Hughes.
Niamh was one of those beings that the people call a changeling, and any of those people residing in the Parish of Derryhusk would tell you so. There were one or two people in the area who would smile when they told you this. Her grandmother, Catriona Hughes stated it as fact, and Catriona had been given the second sight, which allowed her to see more than most other people. Nevertheless, she was held in high regard within Derryhusk Parish because of her ability to see beyond that misty veil which mercifully hides the future from ordinary beings. The old woman had long said, almost from the day the child was born, that the girl was a changeling. Her daughter, poor Anna had died when Niamh was born, and her father Robbie O’Neill had been tragically drowned. It was, you can see, that the baby had been surrounded by great tragedy and sorrow from birth, and the ‘good people’ had stolen her away, leaving Isabelle in her stead. At least this was the story that was common among all in Derryhusk.
When growing up, Niamh had always been something of an odd child, Catriona had insisted to her friends and neighbours. She would tell all that Niamh, with her ruddy, tawny locks, and sloe-eyes, elfish and silent, would do the oddest, uncanny, unaccountable things, as her moods swung between bouts of sadness and bouts of happiness. As for Niamh, she grew up in the confines of Derryhusk, and had never displayed any wish to leave, though she had been given opportunities to do so. Instead, she lived with Catriona until she was nineteen, and helped her with her spinning and knitting. It was her duty to milk the cows, and to maintain the home for her grandmother. But, the young girl’s head was filled with her grandmother’s teaching, convincing her to believe in the existence of the fairy folk, although she rarely ever spoke about them. Often, her cousin Dermot would find her seated in the middle of the fairy-ring on the small hillock, that stood above the cottage, picking the green grass absently, and gazing blankly into the distance.
One day, she told herself. she would hear the tapping of fairy feet as they danced upon the stone path, or a tiny voice which would call on her to enter into a magical world that would be so very different from lovely Derryhusk. On several occasions she thought that she was on the brink of meeting the little folk, only for someone to come and interrupted the moment. There was one night as she came home over the moss from Ardee that all was quiet and the only sound she could hear was that of her own footfall. Nearby the narrow stream ran, richly brown with the peat over which it gurgled, and the air was filled with honeyed scents, while distant hills faded into the lovely purple of the night’s embrace. Niamh was sure she heard a voice calling her then, and she had wandered up amongst the furze bushes, her face eager and filled with expectancy. And there above her on the small grassy hillock, appearing to flit between the grey lichen-covered boulders, she was certain that there were tiny white figures, waving her to come forward. In her eagerness she began to run towards the top of the small hillock, but, just as she approached that place, Dermot’s voice called to her from the high road. “What are you doing there?” he asked. “Is it the way home?” Niamh almost burst into tears as she descended the hill once more. For she could see nothing near the boulders at that moment but the waving cotton-grass and furzes amongst the peat bog.
It was a lovely September, and the hill-sides were a splendour of tawny colouring, the fading furze and bracken, golden and brown, and orange, and gold, and dusky indescribable grey. The sunset came early, and tingeing and stained the nearby tarn, while the cragged rock known as “The Hound’s Tooth” stood out sharply against a rose gold background caused by a descending sun. Niamh had gone to fetch fodder for the cows, and the fodder was a great pile of pale yellow bracken, which she bound together and fastened on her back. Carrying this load, she moved along the road, pausing now and then to lean her load on one of the rough trackside banks that bordered the ‘moss’. It was nearing evening, and shadows were creeping over the moss, while the small stream became a dark and sullen-brown now as it began the hoarse song that it sings only in the dark. The deer in a nearby woodland hear and love this river-song and they creep down cautiously, light-footedly, turning startled graceful heads from side to side, and they pause a moment, poised with listening ear, before they bury thirsty soft noses into the cool rushing water. The deer paid no attention to Niamh’s presence for they seemed to know that she posed no danger to them, though it was scarcely dark enough for the deer to make an appearance. There was still light enough in the sky to see a passing tourist from Liscorr, coming from popular Corrig on his way home. Niamh paused to rest and laid the heavy load of bracken on the grassy bank, where the yellow fern made a lovely background for her tawny-coloured hair and dark ebony-coloured eyes. Along the track she suddenly spied two men approaching, and she waited for their arrival with some apprehension until she realised one of the men was Dermot McCann. He was her cousin, short, swarthy, black-browed, with a twinkle of cunning in his grey eyes, and a jolly lilt in his voice. The other person Niamh had difficulty naming, although she had seen him playing hurling in Liscorr. Yes, yes, she knew him and had admired his steady ‘puck fada’ on the field of play, and his name was Ruairi McFee. Oh yes, Niamh remembered Ruairi very well, and a little smile melted over her red lips, and lurked in the depths of her lovely eyes as Dermot made himself known to her. Ruairi had recently rented the small farm next to Catriona’s, and he had been invited by her to supper. It was time, Niamh decided, that she was at home.
Dermot did not offer to take the fodder from her, though he thought he was in love with Niamh and had every intention of asking her to marry him. He believed that the women of this county were used to carrying heavy burdens and left her to it. But Ruari McFee, saying nothing to the girl, began to untie the rope at her waist, and he swiftly swung the mass lightly over his own shoulders.
“Sure, there’s no need to do that!” Dermot said, while he thought to himself, “You are a ‘buck eejit!” (stupid idiot!)
“It is too heavy for a lass,” replied Ruairi, but his eyes did not meet Niamh’s eyes and they walked home together in silence through the creeping dusk.
Inside the cottage and by the red glow from the turf fire Niamh looked lovelier to him than ever she had. McFee, meanwhile, ate little and his mind appeared to be was in another place. Catriona’s remarks, and Dermot’s slow efforts at conversation seemed to fall on strangely deaf ears. He was a shy man, quietly spoken and found it difficult to socialise with people who were virtual strangers to him. Ruairi appreciated all these personality faults and yet could not quite understand what had come over him that evening. He asked himself the question all the next day, because, even as he threw himself into inspecting his new byres and out-houses, there was only one image in his mind and that was a picture of slim girl in a short faded green skirt, who was lying against a grassy bank, with her small head crushed against a background of faded ferns, and her shy lovely eyes looking into his face. It was Niamh, but she was said to be a changeling. “Nonetheless,” he told himself, “changeling or not, I have fallen in love with her!”
“It is no use at all to go against the girl. I have said so before now. And there are many girls in the district who are as good a prospect as she is, and maybe they’ll have a cow or two, or even a few pounds to bring with them. There’s wee Sheila O’Donnell and she could have as much as three hundred pounds to bring to the marriage!”
“As if I would look at a woman with a squint,” snapped Dermot as he furiously threw down the fishing-rod he was holding, “I will have none but Niamh, and if she will not have me, I will do someone an injury!”
In the meantime, Dermot’s mother deliberately continued peeling potatoes. “Ruairi McFee is stronger and bigger than you are,” she remarked. “And he has the eyes of a hawk, fists like jack-hammers. You’ll never take Niamh away from him by force. But perhaps, now, there might be a little plan; just a little plan, mind you.”
Dermot picked up the fishing-rod again and his cunning eyes grew intent. Catriona resumed, in her high-pitched voice, speaking without a pause as she peeled the potatoes. “The best thing would be that they would have a quarrel, and I’ll tell you a way this could happen. He doesn’t like to hear that they are all saying she is a changeling, and he doesn’t like her to talk about the good folk. When she told him the story of the kelpie that followed Robbie McVey over the moss, and finally drowned him in the ‘Black Pool’, he was angry, and called it all nonsense, and said that she should never again talk about such things. Niamh, of course, was not happy about that. She was asking me about the ‘Cave of Gold’ only yesterday, and when it was that anyone might see the fairies dancing, and if the tides would allow us to go. So, I told her it was on Midsummer’s Night at twelve o’clock, and she is just mad to go! Clean mad! But Ruairi was there, too, and I was listening at the door, after, and I heard him say that it was all just silly talk and nonsense, and that he would prefer that she did not go. He told her that it was too late at night, and that nasty squalls would spring up, and our boat was not exactly seaworthy. She begged and prayed that he would take her, and he said, ‘No’! Every time she pleaded he simply told her, ‘No’!”
“Very well, then,” Dermot cried out impatiently, as she paused in her story, “I suppose she is so mad with love that she gave the entire idea up.”
“She is pretty much in love,” his mother agreed, “and so she gave in to his wishes. ‘And I am going over to Ballygarvey, Niamh,’ I heard him say, ‘to see what Mr. Campbell, the land-agent, is wanting to tell me, and you will promise not to go when I am away because it is not safe for a girl like you to be out so late. Will you promise me?’ And she promised him. He told her that he would bring her a new brooch made of silver and marble stones, and they kissed each other before he left.”
“Very well, what then?” Dermot cried angrily. “I hear they are to be married when he comes back. So, what else is there for me, mother?”
Catriona had dropped her potatoes into the pot, and she swung it over the open turf fire, which was glowing redly in the dark little cottage. “Well, if I were you, Dermot, I would get out the boat, and I would offer to take her to the cave. And I will be telling her more stories to-night, when we are spinning. That girl is a changeling, sure enough, and she will go. When Ruairi comes back, he will hear the story, and he will be mad with her, and they will quarrel. You can go over to Liscorr that day, to be out of his way. They will have an almighty row, and will break off their relationship, and she will turn to you, in time.”
Dermot slowly considered the plan and agreed that it suited him perfectly well. He didn’t want a noisy quarrel, and no measuring of strength. He, too, remembered Ruairi’s muscles at the hurling match. But this secretly conspiring in the dark, while McFee was away, was much to his taste. He made up his mind now that his mother was a woman of great wisdom. He told her he approved of her plan, and that he would get her a little present the next time that he went to Ballygarvey. After this, her stories to Niamh about the cave were many and very enticing!
“Dermot, Dermot, but I’ve promised!” It was the next night, and Niamh stood before the cottage in her dark wincey skirt and green cotton jacket, her face turned up to her cousin’s. All last night, all through the day, old Catriona’s stories had haunted her every thought. The old woman had gone about her task in a cunning fashion and began as soon as they were both seated at the spinning-wheel and, in a rambling manner said that the next day would be Midsummer’s Night, when the fairies would be holding their dancing in the Cave of Gold. She said that only she was old, and frail, and feeble, she would have gladly gone to watch the festivities! Catriona had the second sight and could perhaps see what no other person could see and, she appeared to confident that the journey would hold no danger! How she would love to see the little folk dancing! At this point her voice fell quiet, and she looked around her into all the dark shadows of the kitchen, and up by the oak bench that stood near the window. She pricked up her ears in the hope of hearing the faint and far-off tune of Old Dingus Murray’s fiddle, for they said that the legendary sound could still be heard.
Feeling a little uneasy, Niamh rose from her seat, saying she would go and see if there were enough oat-cakes for supper, or see if that was someone outside. But, Catriona spoke sharply to her and told her to sit down again. She was determined that the girl would not escape her and then she asked if Niamh had ever been told the story of Old Dingus Murray and the Cave of Gold. Niamh admitted she had never heard the story and she sat down again, the spinning wheel idle and the soft grey carded wool lying in her lap. Catriona, spinning fast, and with the low vibrations of the wheel acting as a sort of accompaniment to her voice, began to tell the story. She was an Irish speaker, which makes it difficult to express in the English language the creeping, insidious fear and mystery of the tale. A tale about how the fiddler, Dingus Murray, fell in love with an O’Neill from Dargan, whose father would not allow him to woo his daughter until he overcame several foolish and impossible tasks.
One task required him to enter the Cave of Gold at midnight, on Midsummer’s Night, and play “The O’Neill of Dargan” as he passed through the little dancing folk and penetrated far into the mystery of the cave’s depths to where no man had ever been. Dingus, of course, took up the challenge, and with his long hair waving wildly in the breeze and his fiddle in his hands, he was seen standing at the shingly edge of the cave with his teeth gritted for the task ahead. The men who had rowed Dingus up to the cave saw him standing there, and they heard the first wild pealing notes from his fiddle drift in the wind. Thus, playing proudly and happily, he entered the cave with his dog at his heels, while they waited, watched, and listened. At last they heard one terrifyingly awful cry, after which there was silence except for the sound of the wind. Dingus had passed through the fairies, but “He never came home!”
Then, changing her tone, Catriona told the story of the only woman who had ever caught sight of the ‘wee folk’, and how, forever after, riches and wealth were hers, and she had never a wish that had gone unsatisfied! It was the going on into the inner caves that had undone the piper! The lass who had seen the fairies was a certain Eileen Curran, and “she married a chieftain, and went to live far away in another part of the country, and all her days she was clad in green silk. Yes, all her days!”
“How did she leave?” asked Niamh.
“In a boat, with a man. It is easy, if the man is strong. Finally, Eileen Brid’s great stone cross at Craigmore, and they granted her even that! There she lies near the saintly Brid, and all because she had seen the ‘wee folk’ in the Cave of Gold!”
“Grandmother, would you lend me the magical rowan branch if I were to go?” Niamh whispered. “Would you, grandmother?” Her own voice frightened her for a moment and she imagined she could see Ruairi’s face appear before her. But, the old woman got up without a word, and, going to her linen cupboard took something, rolled in a fine kerchief, from it, which had the sweet smell of bog-myrtle in its folds, and she laid the brown faded leaves and the red, dry berries on Niamh’s lap.
“There it is! But you will give it back to me safely? or else bad things might happen to us all!”
“I will return it to you safely,” Niamh assured her. In her pocket she had the rowan, but Dermot was tampering with her conscience and her promise now.
“It was a very foolish thing to promise,” he said craftily. “Besides, Ruairi was afraid of the squalls, that is all, and there will be no squalls at all! You can come with me, and see if there is anything, and if my mother’s stories are true. If not, there is no harm done. It is a lovely cave to see.”
Niamh gave in, just as Catriona knew she would give in. Would she see anything? Would the ‘wee folk’ be there? Before she could fully explore these thoughts, Niamh found herself in the little boat, and rowing towards the cave. Strangely, the night seemed to be only a paler day and they rowed close into the shore, until they discovered a place where the rock-face was split and showed a pale light within. There was just enough space for the boat to float in, passing through a low, overhanging archway. Niamh drew in her breath sharply and clasped her hands, as Dermot paused, watching her face, once they were through it. They were in a deep circular basin, where the water was a lovely pale green that darkened in the shadows. The rocky sides were cut, here and there, into long narrow openings, into one of which Catriona’s fiddler must have wandered. Here Niamh saw the water lying dark and mysterious, shadow-haunted. Bending over the edge of the boat, she could see the yellow sand far below and in bright sunshine her own fair face would have been reflected. Tiny jelly-fish edged with lilac spots, and with long white fringe, floated beside the seaweed, like strange jewels, and far above them they could see the pale yellow-redness of the summer evening sky, soft, and exquisite. Fringing the opening were ferns and heather, and tall fox-gloves, but the fairy bells did not stir in the breathless air. Were the ‘wee folk’, the ‘good folk’, lurking within she wondered? If she watched, would she see a tiny face peep out at her? She waited, watched, and waited some more and the time passed. “Dermot, I don’t see anything!” Niamh spoke at last, breathlessly, eagerly. She had forgotten Ruairi, she had forgotten everything but her desire. “Row me further in, Dermot.“
He pushed the boat forward, and Niamh sat with her dark blue eyes, which seemed black in the shadow, and strained eagerly forward, listening, waiting. But, nothing moved, except that now and then little waves would break with a plashing ripple against the boat. Far up on the rocks, a passing breath of wind now and then swayed the flowers and the grasses, but no fairy face peeped out from anywhere, there was no tap of dancing feet, nor any note of fairy music.
“Dermot, Dermot, there is nothing, nothing at all!”
The note of bitter disappointment in her voice upset Dermot. Once or twice he had attempted to speak, because he did not want to make this trip in silence, but Niamh had raised her little brown hand sharply. She thought that his manly voice might disturb the fairies. But, at last the silence had started to affect even her. In her mind she began to think that it was all of no use, for she could see and hear nothing.
“We will just be going home then, Niamh” Dermot said in a quiet, practical tone of voice, unconcerned for the disappointment that Niamh was feeling because, in his opinion, the entire thing was just simple “foolishness.” “Maybe they are not dancing to-night and we would be better just go home.“
“She said I would be sure to see them,” Niamh sighed with a sob in her voice. As Dermot pushed the boat out, Niamh crushed the rowans bitterly in her lap, and they fell into the bottom of the boat. She remembered Ruairi suddenly, as, once outside, she noticed that the weather had changed during her stay in that dark cavern. The light seemed obscured; there were white horses leaping in the distance; and the wind swept sharply into their faces as they looked seaward. It would, Dermot realised, now be dangerous to keep so close to the rocks, for a heavy groundswell had risen. He glanced around and voiced some strong oaths as he grabbed the oars. In the growing swell Dermot knew he would need all the strength he possessed in his muscles to row the clumsy boat to safety, and he would have to keep the boat out to sea to avoid the jagged rocks.
During the long row home, through the now angry waters, Niamh sat silently in the boat. When Dermot asked her to “Bale!” almost angrily she did so almost mechanically, realising the danger of an ugly leak that had suddenly appeared. There was no emotion, for nothing seemed to matter. There were no fairies and she would have to tell Ruairi that she had broken her word. Finally, they found a sandy, sheltered bay where they could land safely. Only Dermot knew how hard he had struggled against the wind and the tide in that clumsy and leaking craft. Niamh, however, did not see the tall figure that was waiting on the shore until she was preparing to leap from the boat. Then a strong hand took hers, and with a startled cry she saw it was Ruairi himself, standing there, grim, grave, silent, with a new expression on his face, which chilled her through and through. She wondered just how it was that he was there?
He helped Dermot to pull the boat up on to the shore, with a look of disdain on his face as he saw the boat when it was finally lying out of the water. “It is a pretty boat,” he said a little scornfully, “a pretty boat to take a lass out in, I’ll give you that, Dermot McCann.”
Dermot did not reply but called to Niamh sharply and all three walked up to the cottage in total silence. The night, which had grown gusty and wet, seemed to have changed as suddenly and mysteriously as Niamh’s life. At the door she paused for a moment and faced her lover, whose annoyed her terribly. “Well?” she said, “well?”
If she had pleaded with him. If she had been penitent, sorrowful! But, unfortunately, it was no penitent face which met his, and jealousy and wrath erupted within him, driving love aside. “Are you asking what I am thinking, Niamh?” he cried, “of the girl who promised me, and who broke her word, and went out with Dermot McCann? Well, I am thinking just nothing at all of her! I have warned her that the boat was not safe, and of the squalls, and that it was not the thing for a girl like her to go so late. She had promised, and yet she went! And this was the Tara brooch made of Connemara marble stones I have bought for you. But, it can go there!” He stormed as he flung the little packet remorselessly into the nearby bushes. “And as for yourself, I think nothing of you at all, everything between us is over. I am now leaving for a new life in Australia tomorrow along with John Campbell. He asked me some time ago, and I said ‘No,’ but I will go now, and will go to Derry this very night! Good-bye.“
He turned away from her then, in his fury. All of this passed as suddenly, swept up as unexpectedly as had the squall outside the Cave of Gold. Niamh stood as if dazed, staring straight before her. An Irishman’s anger is like a great storm against which one must bend, and this is what Niamh did now.
Ruairi did not look back. Dermot, in the doorway, saw him stride on to the road, through the little patch of potatoes growing in front of the door. He set his face towards the high road for Derry and a very short time the sound of his footsteps had died away and the darkness of the night had swallowed him. That was all right, Dermot thought to himself, “Australia! Sure, isn’t that the best place for him?”
“There follows a mist, and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again!“
Niamh might have thought about these words, if she had known them, over the many days that followed. For Ruairi McFee was not the man sort of man to change his mind, nor speak it. He sailed from Derry to Liverpool and within the week he was believed to have boarded a ship for Australia. Many had gone before him and his many friends in Ireland believed he would vanish there. These were the days of sailing ships and slow communication, and Ruairi had never been the kind to write.
But Niamh did not marry her cousin, as everyone expected, including McCann. She told him “No,” gently, but quite doggedly, and nothing that he could say, or that Catriona could cause her to change her mind. Once the old woman muttered vengefully that she would never see the fairies, for she had lost her luck, and Niamh turned on her in a fierce temper. “It is all false,” she cried aloud so all would hear her, “for there are no green folk at all, and I do not care!”
The mystery and the charm of life had left her, for she no longer dreamed on the green grass circle, or wonder at the night-song of the burn. She no longer kept watch for the kelpies under the boulders, in the burns, or in the Rowan Pool. Her belief in the fairies had faded on the same night that Ruairi had left her, and only in that little white kirk on the hill-side, would you hear Niamh raise her voice in song. The joys that song can bring dies quickly on one’s lips when care and sorrow lie heavy on one’s heart. Years had passed since that fatal visit was paid to the Cave of Gold, Niamh never mentioned it, and she was returning, in the soft, golden haze of a September evening, from the castle. Catriona was growing feeble, and Niamh did everything she could for her, while the old woman only spun a little, and wandered out to gather sticks and twigs for the fire. The girl had been taking up carded wool to the castle and giving the great London ladies there a spinning lesson. But, before the cottage came into her view, with its surrounding field of poor and thinly growing oats and potatoes, she paused to look up the fairy knoll. There, on the top was the fairy ring and something suddenly made Niamh turn and mount the little hill.
The loch below her vantage point was tinged with red and the sky was a wonder and a glory. But, Niamh was not looking at the sky, or at the loch. She was thinking just how strange it was that she should go on living, and living much as usual, when all that was best and fairest in life was now gone. She sighed, looking down at the stream, splashing and leaping over the grey boulders. There was that story about the kelpies, but her grandmother rarely spoke of them now. Were there really no kelpies? No Fairies? And yet, …
A step behind her had made her stop quickly, and she gave a sharp cry. A man’s tall figure was there, not ten yards off, and the thought came to Niamh that perhaps, after all, it was all true, for this was a ghost! And if there were ghosts, why not wee folk and kelpies? “I believe it is Niamh, herself. Do you not know me, Niamh?“
He spoke in a clear voice. There was no hint of a brogue, only the politest English. He spoke easily, with a strange accent. And yet, she knew him at once! It was Ruairi! Ruairi, well-dressed, handsome, upright, with a different and more independent carriage, but Ruairi all the same! Niamh stood quietly for a moment before speaking, “You are a great stranger,” she said. “It is a very long time, I believe, since you have been in Ireland.“
He almost smiled. He was looking down at her intently. He wondered how it could be possible that she had changed so little, or had those five years been simply a dream? There, just as he remembered her, was Niamh, with the pale, clear, skin, the deep sloe-eyes, the ruddy crisp hair, and that characteristic little drop of her head! It was the girl that he had turned his back on, and been furious with, and had quite forgotten. Yes, he had quite forgotten her, though he had come back to this place, supposedly just to see how all the old folks were doing. “It is five years,” he said to her, “five years! Are you, are you married, Niamh?“
The girl raised her eyes and looked at him. It was getting dark, and the stream was beginning its night-song. Niamh had suddenly noticed that, and she began to remember just how the water used to sing. The lovely, indescribably fragrant breath of the nearby moor swept into their faces by the breeze. It was a sweet and enchanting smell that complemented the velvety depths of her eyes and that beautifully familiar mouth. He wanted to know if she was married and even repeated the question, but with a new and eager ring in his voice, and Niamh shook her head.
“Though there have been a good many marriages since you left. There was Marie McLean and Donald McNamee, and there was Colin – ” she began to tell him.
“What about McCann, your cousin?“
“He is to be married this year,” she said, “to an English girl, believe it or not.”
“So, you did not marry him, after all, Niamh?“
“Who said that I would?” she cried, as if she had been slapped. “You knew better than that! Who said that I would?“
“He did! And he said that you would go with him that night, if he asked you. And you did, Niamh! It was very cruel, but –” Ruairi paused for a moment before saying then, “But I am beginning to think that I was cruel, too. Was I?” He waited and watched her reaction.
Niamh nodded gently and spoke softly to him. “Yes, you were cruel, Ruairi, and you were very hasty. It is true that I was a foolish girl, but you might have given me another chance. I believed in my grandmother’s stories. I wanted to see the good folk.” She looked away, and sadness and disillusion crept over her face. “But I do not believe in them anymore. No, not anymore.”
“Poor little Niamh. Poor wee girl!” He began to believe that it could not be five years. It could not, and they had only parted yesterday.
“But it does not matter,” said Niamh, “and now perhaps you will call and see my grandmother? Are you on your way now?“
Ruairi did not answer that. “Niamh,” he said, “I was very cruel, and I was just as angry as a man could be, and for five years I have been mad and sore. But, deep down, deep down, I never forgot you. I hated him, but I loved you. I will come and see your grandmother, but first, first, will you give me a kiss, Niamh, for the sake of the old days?”
Would she? he wondered. Perhaps, after all, he did not need to wait for her consent. He had her in his arms, and they closed round her, and Niamh’s head fell on his shoulder with a little sob that was a summary of all the five years of sorrow and heartache. “My darling,” Ruairi whispered, “I love you, and when I leave here, you will come too, or I will be staying on here with you. You shall choose Niamh, you shall choose, and to-morrow I will buy you something better than the Tara brooch that I was cruel enough to throw away!”
Together, hand-in-hand, they walked down to the cottage, and Catriona, who was never surprised at anything, shook hands sourly with him. She heard his story in silence, and nodded consent when he told her that he and Niamh were to be married, after all. He could look after the place, she said, or he could buy Con McGill’s farm, just above, if he had the money. Would he have money enough? For Dermot kept her very close now. With a bright smile Ruairi laid a packet in her lap, and said he thought he had money enough.
The next morning, Catriona saw him coming up the road. Niamh ran to meet him, and together they wandered off to the side of the stream. They came back by-and-by, and Niamh stood smiling in the cottage door, her arms full of rowan branches and Ruari had a spray in his coat, and the red berries nestled under her chin. “I have brought you back luck,” the girl cried happily. “We found the rowans down by the pool. And Ruairi says that there are maybe good folk in the world, after all! Who knows, grandmother?”
Catriona’s peat-brown old face was bent over her wheel. She allowed there might be one or two, with a half-grunt of satisfaction.
It is said that in days long ago there were hordes of the ‘Good People’ who travelled all over this island. They were regarded as being a proud people, somewhat conceited their attitudes, and they would ride their fairy horses while soft and enchanting music played around them. But on their travels the ‘Good People’ were renowned for their habit of changing the children of mortals with one of their own, and despite the great efforts of the mortal parents to raise these children to certain standard they never met with any success.
In those days a peaceful man called Nolan lived in a small cabin that stood on a piece of land just beyond the River Bann. He was fortunate enough to meet and marry a pretty and mild-mannered woman, who gave birth to a baby boy in the first year of their marriage. Their joy at this blessing was, however, short-lived for it quickly became apparent that there was something wrong with the child. From his earliest days the child could not be taught how to crawl, or stand upright, walk, or even speak. Many of the neighbours began to conclude that the baby boy had been born a fool, but they were confused by the fact that he was physically perfect except for his larger than normal head.
Whatever the cause of the child’s problems, his mother considered to be a great challenge taking care of him in the home. Even as the child grew, he could do nothing to help himself, depending on his mother to lift him out of bed in the morning and to carry him to a chair, where she would make every effort to ensure he was comfortable for the entire day. Sitting in his chair the boy would the fire burn in the hearth until the shadows of night began to fall, and all the while he appeared to be happy and content with his lot. But he did appear to have good observational skills and even if the slightest item went missing from its usual place, he would have an angry scowl on his face until it was restored to its proper setting. And yet, his main delight was the turf fire, and when a sod of turf would fall the sparks would fly up the chimney. On seeing this display of sparks the child’s eyes would light up and he would open his mouth wide as if to shout out his approval, but not a sound was emitted from the Nolan child.
There came a day when Nolan and his wife decided that they would go to the local market, leaving the care of their child in the hands of two servants, a boy and a girl. “Now, keep a good fire burning in the hearth so the child can keep himself amused by watching the sparks from the glowing sods fly up the chimney. There’s plenty of work to be done, so work just as if I was standing at your back and telling you what to do,” said Mrs. Nolan as she left the house through the front door. But the Nolans had not long left the house when the two servants ceased working and began playing.
It was the servant boy who suggested, “We should make ourselves a wee bit of a feast now that the mistress and Mr. Nolan have left. After all, the ‘wee man’ here is not the full shilling and won’t be able to tell on us!” So, they brought out the fresh butter, cream and flour to bake cakes, and they built up the fire, set the pot hooks into the ears of the roasting pan and let down the crook for it to hang upon.
“All being well,” said the girl, “that will be well worth the wait!” Then she put the batter at the fire to bake. But all the time they were preparing their feast Nolan’s child watched their every move, not making a noise and hoping that he might be given a share of the food that his minders were preparing.
Meanwhile the cake was baking very satisfactorily, turning a beautiful golden colour and a really tempting smell began to rise from it. The two servants were now feeling very good, chatting with each other and laughing at each other’s jokes until the boy took a quick glance over the half-door to the cottage. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he exclaimed. “We’re going to be well caught now, for mister Nolan and the wife are almost upon us!”
It was indeed the Noland back from the market, much earlier than expected. Shocked into action the servant girl quickly removed the cake from the fire and slipped it under the child’s chair to hide it from view. “He has a terrible look on his face,” she told the servant boy.
“That is no problem, for the idiot can’t tell them anything!”
No sooner was the cake hidden from view than the Nolans walked into the house. But all four of them nearly fainted with shock and fear, for as soon as the child saw its parents, he cried out loudly, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” The servants were frozen to the spot, dreading that their secret would be discovered, and they would be immediately dismissed from their positions. They could see the steam rising and the child continued to shout, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” No other words were uttered by the child, but the one constantly repeated phrase, “Hot, hot, under my chair.”
Still reeling from the shock of hearing their child speak out, Nolan and his wife just could not comprehend what he was saying. Trembling with excitement at the experience they never thought to take a moment to consider if his words were making any real sense at all. The child was still calling, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” and his parents never once thought to look around the room to see if anything wrong, and the two servants continued to look after their own interests by keeping silent. A sense of confusion continued to reign in the house until night began falling and everyone in the house was weary, and completely puzzled. Mrs. Nolan took hold of her son and carried him to his bed and tucked him in comfortably as she did every night. But there was not to be much rest for anyone in the house that night.
In the deep blackness of the night a powerful storm sprang up, which shook the house to its foundations with its strength. It was as if the winds blew in from every point on the compass at one time, fighting with each other in an unending effort to gain mastery. But within these winds could be heard strange noises, music and shouting voices that were evidence that the ‘Good People’ were out and about in the night playing or battling among themselves. Believing that the strange noises would frighten her child with their loudness, Mrs. Nolan took a light in her hand and went to her son’s bed. “Is everything alright, son?” she asked calmly and quietly, although she did expect him to answer. To her surprise, however, she found that the child was not in her bed, for he was already away with the fairy horsemen that had come to fetch him.
After the mother had discovered that the child had disappeared the entire disturbance about the house ceased just as quickly as it had started. The music that had accompanied the ‘Good People’ now faded into the distance and the strong winds had become like a soft breeze on a warm summer’s morning. It was now that the Nolans realised that the fierce storm had been a simple fairy diversion to cover their nightly antics.
The child was never returned to the heartbroken Nolans, but from that moment onward the ‘Good People’ left them in peace. Never again did they hear the enchanting music coming from the distant hills, nor experience the passage of the fairy host near their home. It was a sad and lonely time for the couple and often they would look forlornly at the chair where their child would sit, delightedly watching the turf glowing red in the hearth and the sparks fluttering up the chimney.
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.