Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature. A pillar of the Irish literary establishment, he helped to found the Abbey Theatre, and in his later years served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State.
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The Trooping Fairies
THE IRISH WORD FOR fairy is sheehogue [sidheóg], a diminutive of "shee" in banshee. Fairies are deenee shee [daoine sidhe] (fairy people).
Who are they? "Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost," say the peasantry. "The gods of the earth," says the Book of Armagh. "The gods of pagan Ireland," say the Irish antiquarians, "the Tuatha De Danan, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high."
And they will tell you, in proof, that the names of fairy chiefs are the names of old Danan heroes, and the places where they especially gather together, Danan burying-places, and that the Tuath De Danan used also to be called the slooa-shee [sheagh sidhe] (the fairy host), or Marcra shee (the fairy cavalcade).
On the other hand, there is much evidence to prove them fallen angels. Witness the nature of the creatures, their caprice, their way of being good to the good and evil to the evil, having every charm but conscience — consistency. Beings so quickly offended that you must not speak much about them at all, and never call them anything but the "gentry," or else daoine maithe, which in English means good people, yet so easily pleased, they will do their best to keep misfortune away from you, if you leave a little milk for them on the window-sill over night. On the whole, the popular belief tells us most about them, telling us how they fell, and yet were not lost, because their evil was wholly without malice.
Are they "the gods of the earth?" Perhaps! Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hoards. The visible world is merely their skin. In dreams we go amongst them, and play with them, and combat with them. They are, perhaps, human souls in the crucible — these creatures of whim.
Do not think the fairies are always little. Everything is capricious about them, even their size. They seem to take what size or shape pleases them. Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music. They have only one industrious person amongst them, the lepra-caun — the shoemaker. Perhaps they wear their shoes out with dancing. Near the village of Ballisodare is a little woman who lived amongst them seven years. When she came home she had no toes — she had danced them off.
They have three great festivals in the year — May Eve, Midsummer Eve, November Eve. On May Eve, every seventh year, they fight all round, but mostly on the "Plain-a-Bawn" (wherever that is), for the harvest, for the best ears of grain belong to them. An old man told me he saw them fight once; they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl as it passes, that is the fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, "God bless them."
On Midsummer Eve, when the bonfires are lighted on every hill in honour of St. John, the fairies are at their gayest, and sometime steal away beautiful mortals to be their brides.
On November Eve they are at their gloomiest, for, according to the old Gaelic reckoning, this is the first night of winter. This night they dance with the ghosts, and the pooka is abroad, and witches make their spells, and girls set a table with food in the name of the devil, that the fetch of their future lover may come through the window and eat of the food. After November Eve the blackberries are no longer wholesome, for the pooka has spoiled them.
When they are angry they paralyse men and cattle with their fairy darts.
When they are gay they sing. Many a poor girl has heard them, and pined away and died, for love of that singing. Plenty of the old beautiful tunes of Ireland are only their music, caught up by eavesdroppers. No wise peasant would hum "The Pretty Girl milking the Cow" near a fairy rath, for they are jealous, and do not like to hear their songs on clumsy mortal lips. Carolan, the last of the Irish bards, slept on a rath, and ever after the fairy tunes ran in his head, and made him the great man he was.
Do they die? Blake saw a fairy's funeral; but in Ireland we say they are immortal.
Up the airy mountain,
Down along the rocky shore Some make their home,
High on the hill-top The old King sits;
They stole little Bridget For seven years long;
By the craggy hill-side,
Up the airy mountain,
Frank Martin and the Fairies
MARTIN WAS A THIN pale man, when I saw him, of a sickly look, and a constitution naturally feeble. His hair was a light auburn, his beard mostly unshaven, and his hands of a singular delicacy and whiteness, owing, I dare say, as much to the soft and easy nature of his employment as to his infirm health. In everything else he was as sensible, sober, and rational as any other man; but on the topic of fairies, the man's mania was peculiarly strong and immovable. Indeed, I remember that the expression of his eyes was singularly wild and hollow, and his long narrow temples sallow and emaciated.
Now, this man did not lead an unhappy life, nor did the malady he laboured under seem to be productive of either pain or terror to him, although one might be apt to imagine otherwise. On the contrary, he and the fairies maintained the most friendly intimacy, and their dialogues — which I fear were wofully one-sided ones — must have been a source of great pleasure to him, for they were conducted with much mirth and laughter, on his part at least.
"Well, Frank, when did you see the fairies?"
"Whist! there's two dozen of them in the shop (the weaving shop) this minute. There's a little ould fellow sittin' on the top of the sleys, an' all to be rocked while I'm weavin'. The sorrow's in them, but they're the greatest little skamers alive, so they are. See, there's another of them at my dressin' noggin. Go out o' that, you shingawn; or, bad cess to me, if you don't, but I'll lave you a mark. Ha! cut, you thief you!"
"Frank, arn't you afeard o' them?"
"Is it me! Arra, what ud' I be afeard o' them for? Sure they have no power over me."
"And why haven't they, Frank?"
"Because I was baptized against them."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Why, the priest that christened me was tould by my father, to put in the proper prayer against the fairies — an' a priest can't refuse it when he's asked — an' he did so. Begorra, it's well for me that he did — (let the tallow alone, you little glutton — see, there's a weeny thief o' them aitin' my tallow) — becaise, you see, it was their intention to make me king o' the fairies."
"Is it possible?"
"Devil a lie in it. Sure you may ax them, an' they'll tell you."
"What size are they, Frank?"
"Oh, little wee fellows, with green coats, an' the purtiest little shoes ever you seen. There's two of them — both ould acquaintances o' mine — runnin' along the yarn-beam. That ould fellow with the bob-wig is called Jim Jam, an' the other chap, with the three-cocked hat, is called Nickey Nick. Nickey plays the pipes. Nickey, give us a tune, or I'll malivogue you — come now, 'Lough Erne Shore.' Whist, now — listen!"
The poor fellow, though weaving as fast as he could all the time, yet bestowed every possible mark of attention to the music, and seemed to enjoy it as much as if it had been real.
But who can tell whether that which we look upon as a privation may not after all be a fountain of increased happiness, greater, perhaps, than any which we ourselves enjoy? I forget who the poet is who says —
"Mysterious are thy laws;
Many a time, when a mere child, not more than six or seven years of age, have I gone as far as Frank's weaving-shop, in order, with a heart divided between curiosity and fear, to listen to his conversation with the good people. From morning till night his tongue was going almost as incessantly as his shuttle; and it was well known that at night, whenever he awoke out of his sleep, the first thing he did was to put out his hand, and push them, as it were, off his bed.
"Go out o' this, you thieves, you — go out o' this now, an' let me alone. Nickey, is this any time to be playing the pipes, and me wants to sleep? Go off, now — troth if yez do, you'll see what I'll give yez to-morrow. Sure I'll be makin' new dressin's; and if yez behave decently, maybe I'll lave yez the scrapin' o' the pot. There now. Och! poor things, they're dacent crathurs. Sure they're all gone, barrin' poor Red-cap, that doesn't like to lave me." And then the harmless monomaniac would fall back into what we trust was an innocent slumber.
About this time there was said to have occurred a very remarkable circumstance, which gave poor Frank a vast deal of importance among the neighbours. A man named Frank Thomas, the same in whose house Mickey M'Rorey held the first dance at which I ever saw him, as detailed in a former sketch; this man, I say, had a child sick, but of what complaint I cannot now remember, nor is it of any importance. One of the gables of Thomas's house was built against, or rather into, a Forth or Rath, called Towny, or properly Tonagh Forth. It was said to be haunted by the fairies, and what gave it a character peculiarly wild in my eyes was, that there were on the southern side of it two or three little green mounds, which were said to be the graves of unchristened children, over which it was considered dangerous and unlucky to pass. At all events, the season was mid-summer; and one evening about dusk, during the illness of the child, the noise of a hand-saw was heard upon the Forth. This was considered rather strange, and, after a little time, a few of those who were assembled at Frank Thomas's went to see who it could be that was sawing in such a place, or what they could be sawing at so late an hour, for every one knew that nobody in the whole country about them would dare to cut down the few white-thorns that grew upon the Forth. On going to examine, however, judge of their surprise, when, after surrounding and searching the whole place, they could discover no trace of either saw or sawyer. In fact, with the exception of themselves, there was no one, either natural or supernatural, visible. They then returned to the house, and had scarcely sat down, when it was heard again within ten yards of them. Another examination of the premises took place, but with equal success. Now, however, while standing on the Forth, they heard the sawing in a little hollow, about a hundred and fifty yards below them, which was completely exposed to their view, but they could see nobody. A party of them immediately went down to ascertain, if possible, what this singular noise and invisible labour could mean; but on arriving at the spot, they heard the sawing, to which were now added hammering, and the driving of nails upon the Forth above, whilst those who stood on the Forth continued to hear it in the hollow. On comparing notes, they resolved to send down to Billy Nelson's for Frank Martin, a distance of only about eighty or ninety yards. He was soon on the spot, and without a moment's hesitation solved the enigma.
"'Tis the fairies," said he. "I see them, and busy crathurs they are."
"But what are they sawing, Frank?"
"They are makin' a child's coffin," he replied; "they have the body already made, an' they're now nailin' the lid together."
That night the child died, and the story goes that on the second evening afterwards, the carpenter who was called upon to make the coffin brought a table out from Thomas's house to the Forth, as a temporary bench; and, it is said, that the sawing and hammering necessary for the completion of his task were precisely the same which had been heard the evening but one before — neither more nor less. I remember the death of the child myself, and the making of its coffin, but I think the story of the supernatural carpenter was not heard in the village for some months after its interment.
Frank had every appearance of a hypochondriac about him. At the time I saw him, he might be about thirty-four years of age, but I do not think, from the debility of his frame and infirm health, that he has been alive for several years. He was an object of considerable interest and curiosity, and often have I been present when he was pointed out to strangers as "the man that could see the good people."
The Priest's Supper
IT IS SAID BY those who ought to understand such things, that the good people, or the fairies, are some of the angels who were turned out of heaven, and who landed on their feet in this world, while the rest of their companions, who had more sin to sink them, went down farther to a worse place. Be this as it may, there was a merry troop of the fairies, dancing and playing all manner of wild pranks, on a bright moonlight evening towards the end of September. The scene of their merriment was not far distant from Inchegeela, in the west of the county Cork — a poor village, although it had a barrack for soldiers; but great mountains and barren rocks, like those round about it, are enough to strike poverty into any place: however, as the fairies can have everything they want for wishing, poverty does not trouble them much, and all their care is to seek out unfrequented nooks and places where it is not likely any one will come to spoil their sport.
On a nice green sod by the river's side were the little fellows dancing in a ring as gaily as may be, with their red caps wagging about at every bound in the moonshine, and so light were these bounds that the lobs of dew, although they trembled under their feet, were not disturbed by their capering. Thus did they carry on their gambols, spinning round and round, and twirling and bobbing and diving, and going through all manner of figures, until one of them chirped out,
"Cease, cease, with your drumming,
And away every one of the fairies scampered off as hard as they could, concealing themselves under the green leaves of the lusmore, where, if their little red caps should happen to peep out, they would only look like its crimson bells; and more hid themselves at the shady side of stones and brambles, and others under the bank of the river, and in holes and crannies of one kind or another.
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Table of Contents
THE TROOPING FAIRIES?
Frank Martin and the Fairies
The Priest's Supper
The Fairy Well of Lagnanay
Teig O'Kane and the Corpse
Paddy Corcoran's Wife
The White Trout ; A Legend of Cong
The Fairy Thorn
The Legend of Knockgrafton
A Donegal Fairy
The Brewery of Egg-shells
The Fairy Nurse
Jamie Freel and the Young Lady
The Stolen Child
The Soul Cages
Flory Cantillon's Funeral
THE SOLITARY FAIRIES?
"The Lepracaun ; or, Fairy Shoemaker"
Master and Man
Far Darrig in Donegal
The Piper and the Puca
The Kildare Pooka
How Thomas Connolly met the Banshee
A Lamentation for the Death of Sir Maurice Fitzgerald
The Banshee of the MacCarthys
A Legend of Tyrone
The Black Lamb
The Radiant Boy
The Fate of Frank M'Kenna
"WITCHES, FAIRY DOCTORS-"
Bewitched Butter (Donegal)
A Queen's County Witch
The Witch Hare
Bewitched Butter (Queen's County)
The Horned Women
The Witches' Excursion
The Confessions of Tom Bourke
The Pudding Bewitched
The Legend of O'Donoghue
Loughleagh (Lake of Healing)
Hy-Brasail.-The Isle of the Blest.
The Phantom Isle
The Priest's Soul
The Priest of Coloony
The Story of the Little Bird
Conversion of King Laoghaire's Daughters
King O'Toole and his Goose
The Demon Cat
The Long Spoon
The Countess Kathleen O'Shea
The Three Wishes
The Giant's Stairs
A Legend of Knockmany
"KINGS, QUEENS, PRINCESSES, EARLS, ROBBERS-"
The Twelve Wild Geese
The Lazy Beauty and her Aunts
The Haughty Princess
The Enchantment of Gearoidh Iarla
Munachar and Manachar
Donald and his Neighbours
The Story of Conn-eda