In honor of St Patrick's Day we've decided to share a tale from Dr. Bob Curran's Celtic Lore and Legend. This story appears on page 121 in a section entitled About the Fairies.
For the Celtic people and their descendants, fairies and their nature presented something of a problem. There was no doubt in the popular mind that such beings existed, but what exactly were they? Were they, for example, spirits? A separate race of men? Ancient gods? Were they well intentioned towards Mankind or were they hostile? Were they agents of the Devil seeking to lead God’s children astray? Or were they something else? Views on them were ambivalent. In later years, the Christian Church taught that fairies were inherently evil and should be avoided, and local wisdom suggested that they should be feared. And yet the debates continued.
Arguably, nowhere in the Celtic world was the imminence of the fairy kind so closely felt than in
Within every bush and beyond every stone throughout the countryside, the fairy
kind were said to dwell. And it was here that many of the debates about the
exact nature of the Good Folk were conducted. Local sages turned their minds to
explaining fairy nature and fairy ways and to placing them within the rural
context around them. The debate even seems to have made its way across the Ireland Atlantic
Ocean to ,
with folklorists there examining the tales of Irish fairies and even comparing
them with Native American stories. As did the Irish, the Native Americans had
their “little America
people,” and certain comparisons between the two are to be found.
The following extract comes from Dr. David Rice McAnally’s book Irish Wonders (published in 1888). Dr. McAnally (1810–1895) was an Irish-American folklorist who had amassed a fair amount of orally based material from the Irish countryside. Rather than adopting a scientific or philological approach to the tales, as many folklorists do, he preferred to concentrate on their literary, poetic, and narrative aspects. His was an attempt to present them as they would initially have been delivered by the storytellers themselves, and his work is nonetheless scholarly for that. What we find in this collection, therefore, is the authentic voice and belief of the Irish country people. The following is a discourse rooted in this tradition, concerning the origins and nature of the fairies, and it gives us insight as to how these enigmatic beings were viewed by rural Irish people during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Excerpt From Irish Wonders
by Dr. David Rice McAnally
The Oriental luxuriance of the Irish mythology is nowhere more conspicuously displayed than when dealing with the history, habits, characteristics and pranks of the “good people”. According to the most reliable of the rural “fairy men”, a race now nearly extinct, the fairies were once angels, so numerous as to have formed a large part of the population of heaven. When Satan sinned and drew throngs of the heavenly host with him into open rebellion, a large number of the less warlike spirits stood aloof from the contest that followed, fearing the consequences and not caring to take sides till the issue of the conflict was determined. Upon the defeat and expulsion of the rebellious angels, those who had remained neutral were punished by banishment from heaven, but their offence being only one of omission, they were not consigned to the pit with Satan and his followers, but were sent to earth where they still remain, without hope that on the last day they may be pardoned and readmitted to
are thus on their good behaviour, but having power to do infinite harm, they
are much feared, and spoken of either in whisper or aloud, as the “good
Unlike Leprechawns, who are not considered fit associates for reputable fairies, the good people are not solitary; but quite sociable, and always live in large societies, the members of which pursue the co-operative plan of labor and enjoyment, owning all their property, the kind and amount of which are somewhat indefinite, in common, and uniting their efforts to accomplish any desired object, whether of work or play. They travel in large bands, and although their parties are never seen in the daytime, there is little difficulty in ascertaining the line of their march, for, “sure they the terriblest little cloud o’ dust iver raised, an’ not a bit o’ wind in it at all”, so that a fairy migration is sometimes the talk of the country. “Though be nacher (by nature), they’re not the length av yer finger, they can make themselves the bigness av a tower when it plazes them an’ av that ugliness that ye’d faint wid the looks o’ thim, as knowin’ they can shtrike ye dead on the shpot or change ye into a dog, a pig, or a unicorn or anny other dirthy baste they plaze”.
As a matter of fact, however, the fairies are by no means so numerous at present as they were formerly, a recent historian remarking that the National Schools and societies of Father atthew are rapidly driving the fairies out of the country, for “they hate larnin’ an’ wisdom an’ are lovers av nacher entirely”. In a few remote districts where schools are not yet well established, the good people are still found and their doings are narrated with a childlike faith in the power of the first inhabitants of
, for it seems to be agreed that they were in the country
long before the coming either of the Irishman or of his Sassenagh oppressor. Ireland
The bodies of the fairies are not composed of flesh and bone but of an ethereal substance, the nature of which is not determined. “Ye can see themselves as plain as the nose on yer face an’ can see through thim like it was a mist”. They have the power of vanishing from human sight, when they please, and the fact that the air is sometimes full of them. Inspires the respect entertained for them, by the peasantry. Sometimes they are heard without being seen and when they travel through the air, as they often do, are known by a humming noise similar to that made by a swarm of bees. Whether or not they have wings is uncertain. Barney Murphy of Kerry thought they had; for several seen by him a number of years ago seemed to have long, semi-transparent pinions, “like thim that grows on a dhraggin-fly”. Barney’s neighbors, however, contradicted him by stoutly denying the good people the attribute of wings and intimated that at the time Barney saw the fairies he was too drunk to distinguish a pair of wings from a pair of legs, so this branch of the subject must remain in doubt.
With regard to their dress, the testimony is undisputed. Young lady fairies wear pure white robes and usually allow their hair to flow loosely over their shoulders; while fairy matrons bind up their tresses in a coil on the top or back of their head, also surrounding the temples with a golden band. Young gentleman elves wear green jackets, with white breeches and stockings; and when a fairy of either sex has need of a cap or head covering, the flower of the fox-glove is brought into requisition.
Male fairies are perfect in all military exercises for, like the other inhabitants of
, fairies are divided into factions, the objects of
contention not, in most cases, being definitely known. In Kerry a number of years ago, there was a great
battle among the fairies, one party inhabiting a rath or sepulchral mound and
the other an unused and lonely graveyard. Paddy O’Donohue was the sole witness of this encounter, the
narrative being in his own words: Ireland
“I was lyin’ be the road, bein’ on my way home an’ tired wid the walkin’. A bright moon was out that night, an’ I heard a noise like a million av sogers (soldiers) thrampin’ on the road, so I riz (rose) an’ looked, an’ the way was full av little men, the length o’ me hand, wid green coats on, an’ all in rows like wan o’ the ridgmints; aitch wid a pike on his showldher an’ a shield on his arrum. Wan was in front, beway he was the ginral, walkin’ wid his chin up, proud as a paycock. Jagers, but I was skairt an’ prayed fasther than iver I did in me life, for it was too clost to me entirely they wor for comfort or convaynience aither. But they all went by, sorra the wan o’thim turnin’ his head to raygard me at all, Glory be to God for that same; so they left me. Afther they were clane gone by, I had curiosity to see phat they were after, so I folly’d thim, a good bit aff, an’ ready to jump an’ run like a hare at the laste noise, for I was afeerd if they caught me at it, they’d make a pig o’ me at wanst or change me into a baste completely. They marched into the field bechuxt the graveyard an’ the rath an’ there was another army there wid red coats, from the graveyard an’ the two armies had the biggest fight ye iver seen, the granes agin the reds. Afther lookin’ on a bit, I got axcited, for the granes were batin’ the reds like blazes, an’ I up an’ gave a whilloo an’ called out ‘At ‘em agin. Don’t lave one o’ the blaggards’. An’ wid that word, the sight left me eyes an’ I remimber no more till mornin’, an’ there was I, layin’ on the road where I’d seen thim, as stiff as a crutch.”
Leaving all behind him, the hero sets off into the mystic realm.
The homes of the fairies are commonly in raths, tumuli of the pagan days of
and. On this account, raths are much dreaded and after
sundown are avoided by the peasantry. Attempts have been made to move some of
these raths but the unwillingness of some of the peasants to engage in the
work, no matter what inducements may be offered in compensation, has generally
resulted in the abandonment of the undertaking. On one of the islands in the
Upper Lake of Killarney there is a rath, 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, habited 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 was perhaps genuine, for the mirage is by no
means an uncommon appearance in some parts of Ireland , but work on the rath was at once indefinitely postponed.
Besides raths, old castles, deserted graveyards, ruined churches, secluded
glens in the mountains, springs, lakes and caves, all are the homes and resorts
of fairies, as is very well known on the west coast. Ireland
The 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, not, however being 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.
The 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
. Although their musical instruments are few, the fairies
use those Ireland
few with wonderful skill. Near Colooney, in Sligo, there is a “knowledgeable 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.
“It was the cutest sight alive. There was a place fro thim to shtand on an’ a wonderful big fiddle av the size ye could slape [Editor’s Note: sleep] in it, that was played by a monshtrous frog an’ two little fiddles, that two kittens fiddled on, an’ two big drums baten be cats an’ two trumpets played be fat pigs. All around the fairies were dancing like angels, the fireflies givin’ thim light to see by an’ the moonbames shinin’ on the lake, for it was be the shore it was, an’ if ye don’t believe it, the glen’s still there, that they call the fairy glen to this blessed day.”
The fairies do much singing, seldom, however, save in chorus, and their songs were formerly more frequently heard than at present. Even now as belated peasant, who has been at a
wake, or is coming home from a fair, in passing a rath will sometimes hear the soft strain of their voices in the distance and will hurry away lest they discover his presence and be angry at the intrusion on their privacy. When in unusually good spirits, they will sometimes admit a mortal to their revels, but if he speaks, the scene at once vanishes, he becomes insensible and usually finds himself by the roadside the next morning, “wid that degray av pains in his arums an’ legs an’
back, that if sixteen thousand devils were afther him he cudn’t stir a toe to save the sowl av him, that’s phat the fairies do be pinchin’ an’ punchin’ him for comin’ on them an’ shpakin’ out loud”.
Kindly disposed fairies often take great pleasure in assisting those who treat them with proper respect, and as their favors always take a practical form, there is sometimes a business value in the show of reverence for them. There was Barney Noonan from
, for instance: “An’ sorra a better boy was in the country
than Barney. He’d work as reg’lar as a pump an’ liked a bit av divarshun as
well as anybody when he’d the time for it, that was n’t often to be sure, but
small blame to him, for he was n’t rich be no manner o’manes. He’d a power av
ragard av the good people an’ when he wint be the rath beyant his field, he’d
pull off his caubeen an’ take the dudheen out av his mouth, as p’lite as a
dancin’ masther, an’ say ‘God save ye ladies an’ gintlemen’ that the good
people always heard though they never showed themselves to him. He’d a bit o’ a
bog that the hay was on, an’ afther cuttin’ it, he left it for to dhry, an’ the
sun came out County Leitrim
beautiful an’ in a day or so the hay was as dhry as powdher an’ ready to put away.
So Barney was goin’ to put it up, but it bein’ the day av the fair, he thought he’d take the calf an’ sell it, an’ so he did, comin’ up wid the boys, he stayed over his time, bein’ hindhered wid dhrinkin’ an’ dancin’ an’ palaverin’ at the gurls so it was afther dark when he got home an’ the night as black as a crow, the clouds gatherin’ on the tops av the mountains like avil sper’ts an’ crapin’ down into the glens like disthroyin’ angels an’ the wind howlin’ like tin thousand Banshees, but Barney did n’t mind it all wan copper, bein’ glorified wid the dhrink he’d had. So the hay niver enthered the head av him, but he wint an’ tumbled in bed an’ was shnorin’ like a horse in two minnits for he was a bach’ler, God bless him, an’ had no wife to gosther him an’ ax him where he’d been an’ phat he’d been at, an’ make him tell a hundred lies about not getting’ home afore. So it came on to thunder an’ lightnin’ like as all the avil daymons in the univarse were fightin’ wid cannons in the shky, an’ by an’ by there was a clap loud enough to shplit yer skull an’ Barney woke up.
‘Tattheration to me’ says he to himself ‘it’s goin’ for to rain an’ me hay on the ground. Phat’ll I do?’ says he.
So he rowled over on the bed, an’ looked out av a crack for to see if it was ralely rainin’. An’ there was the biggest crowd he iver seen av little men and wimmen. They’d built a row o’
fires from the cow-house to the bog an’ were comin’ in a shtring like cows goin’ home, aitch wan wid his two arums full o’ hay. Some were in the cow-house, recayvin’ the hay, some were in the field, rakin’ the hay together, an’ some were shtandin’ wid their hands in their pockets, beways they were the bosses, tellin’ the rest for to make haste. An’ so they did, for every wan run like he was afther goin’ for the docther, an’ brought a load an’ hurried back for more.
Barney looked through the crack at thim a crossin’ himself ivery minnit wid admiration for the spheed they had. ‘God be good to me’, says he to himself, ‘‘t is not ivery gossoon in Leitrim that’s got haymakers like thim’ only he never spake a word out loud, for he knewn very well the good people ‘ud n’t like it. So they brought in all the hay an’ put it in the house an’ thin let the fires go out an’ made another big fire in front o’ the dure, an’ begun to dance round it wid the sweetest music Barney iver heard.
Now be this time he’d got up an’ feelin’ aisey in his mind about the hay, began to be very merry. He looked on through the dure at thim dancin’ an’ by an’ by, they brought out a jug wid little tumblers an’ began to drink summat that they poured out o’ the jug. If Barney had the sense av a herrin’, he’d a kept shtill an’ let thim drink their fill without opening the big mouth av him, bein’ that he was full as a goose himself an’ naded no more; but when he seen the jug an’ the fairies drinkin’ away wid all their mights, he got mad and bellered out like a bull ‘Arrah-a-a-h now, ye little attomies, is it drinkin’ ye are an’ never givin’ a sip to a thirsty mortial that always thrates ye as well as he knows how’ an’ immejitly the fairies an’ the fire an’ the jug all wint out av his sight an’ he to bed again in a timper. While he was layin’ there he thought he heard talkin’ an’ a cugger-mugger goin’ on but when he peeped out agin, sorra a thing did he see but the black night an’ the rain comin’ down an’ aitch dhrop the full av a wather-noggin. So he wint to slape (sleep), continted that the hay was in, but not plazed that the good people ‘ud be pigs entirely, to be afther dhrinkin’ under his eyes an’ not offer him a taste, no not so much as a shmell at the jug.
In the mornin’ up he gets an’ out for to look at the hay an’ 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 an’ thought the eyes ‘ud lave him when there was n’t a shtraw in the house at all. ‘Holy Moses’, says he, ‘phat have they done wid it?’, an he could n’t consave phat had gone wid the hay. So he looked in the field an’ it was all there; bad luck to the bit av it had the fairies left in the house at all, but when he shouted at thim, they got tarin’ mad an’ took all the hay back agin to the bog, puttin’ every shtraw where Barney laid it an’ it was as wet as a drownded cat. But it was a lesson to him that he niver forgot, an’ I go bail that the next time the fairies help him in wid his hay, he’ll kape shtill an’ let thim dhrink thimselves to death if they plaze without sayin’ a word.”