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Nobel Prize winning writer and poet W.B. Yeats included almost every sort of Irish folk in this marvelous compendium of fairy tales(1892).
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The Fairies’ Dancing-place
The Rival Kempers
The Young Piper
A Fairy Enchantment
Teigue of the Lee
The Fairy Greyhound
The Lady of Gollerus
The Devil’s Mill
Fergus O’mara and the Air-demons
The Man who Never Knew Fear
Seanchan the Bard and the King of the Cats
Owney and Owney-na-peak
The Knighting of Cuculain
The Little Weaver of Duleek Gate
Classification of Irish Fairies
Authorities on Irish Folklore
All the words that I gather,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm darkened or starry bright.
W. B. Yeats.
London, January 1892.
I am often doubted when I say that the Irish peasantry still believe in fairies. People think I am merely trying to bring back a little of the old dead beautiful world of romance into this century of great engines and spinning-jinnies. Surely the hum of wheels and clatter of printing presses, to let alone the lecturers with their black coats and tumblers of water, have driven away the goblin kingdom and made silent the feet of the little dancers.
Old Biddy Hart at any rate does not think so. Our bran-new opinions have never been heard of under her brown-thatched roof tufted with yellow stone-crop. It is not so long since I sat by the turf fire eating her griddle cake in her cottage on the slope of Benbulben and asking after her friends, the fairies, who inhabit the green thorn-covered hill up there behind her house. How firmly she believed in them! How greatly she feared offending them! For a long time she would give me no answer but ‘I always mind my own affairs and they always mind theirs.’ A little talk about my great-grandfather who lived all his life in the valley below, and a few words to remind her how I myself was often under her roof when but seven or eight years old loosened her tongue, however. It would be less dangerous at any rate to talk to me of the fairies than it would be to tell some ‘Towrow’ of them, as she contemptuously called English tourists, for I had lived under the shadow of their own hillsides. She did not forget, however, to remind me to say after we had finished, ‘God bless them, Thursday’ (that being the day), and so ward off their displeasure, in case they were angry at our notice, for they love to live and dance unknown of men.
Once started, she talked on freely enough, her face glowing in the firelight as she bent over the griddle or stirred the turf, and told how such a one was stolen away from near Coloney village and made to live seven years among ‘the gentry,’ as she calls the fairies for politeness’ sake, and how when she came home she had no toes, for she had danced them off; and how such another was taken from the neighbouring village of Grange and compelled to nurse the child of the queen of the fairies a few months before I came. Her news about the creatures is always quite matter-of-fact and detailed, just as if she dealt with any common occurrence: the late fair, or the dance at Rosses last year, when a bottle of whisky was given to the best man, and a cake tied up in ribbons to the best woman dancer. They are, to her, people not so different from herself, only grander and finer in every way. They have the most beautiful parlours and drawing-rooms, she would tell you, as an old man told me once. She has endowed them with all she knows of splendour, although that is not such a great deal, for her imagination is easily pleased. What does not seem to us so very wonderful is wonderful to her, there, where all is so homely under her wood rafters and her thatched ceiling covered with whitewashed canvas. We have pictures and books to help us imagine a splendid fairy world of gold and silver, of crowns and marvellous draperies; but she has only that little picture of St. Patrick over the fireplace, the bright-coloured crockery on the dresser, and the sheet of ballads stuffed by her young daughter behind the stone dog on the mantelpiece. Is it strange, then, if her fairies have not the fantastic glories of the fairies you and I are wont to see in picture-books and read of in stories? She will tell you of peasants who met the fairy cavalcade and thought it but a troop of peasants like themselves until it vanished into shadow and night, and of great fairy palaces that were mistaken, until they melted away, for the country seats of rich gentlemen.
Her views of heaven itself have the same homeliness, and she would be quite as naïve about its personages if the chance offered as was the pious Clondalkin laundress who told a friend of mine that she had seen a vision of St. Joseph, and that he had ‘a lovely shining hat upon him and a shirt-buzzom that was never starched in this world.’ She would have mixed some quaint poetry with it, however; for there is a world of difference between Benbulben and Dublinised Clondalkin.
Heaven and Fairyland — to these has Biddy Hart given all she dreams of magnificence, and to them her soul goes out — to the one in love and hope, to the other in love and fear — day after day and season after season; saints and angels, fairies and witches, haunted thorn-trees and holy wells, are to her what books, and plays, and pictures are to you and me. Indeed they are far more; for too many among us grow prosaic and commonplace, but she keeps ever a heart full of music. ‘I stand here in the doorway,’ she said once to me on a fine day, ‘and look at the mountain and think of the goodness of God’; and when she talks of the fairies I have noticed a touch of tenderness in her voice. She loves them because they are always young, always making festival, always far off from the old age that is coming upon her and filling her bones with aches, and because, too, they are so like little children.
Do you think the Irish peasant would be so full of poetry if he had not his fairies? Do you think the peasant girls of Donegal, when they are going to service inland, would kneel down as they do and kiss the sea with their lips if both sea and land were not made lovable to them by beautiful legends and wild sad stories? Do you think the old men would take life so cheerily and mutter their proverb, ‘The lake is not burdened by its swan, the steed by its bridle, or a man by the soul that is in him,’ if the multitude of spirits were not near them?
W. B. Yeats.
I have to thank Lady Wilde for leave to give ‘Seanchan the Bard’ from her Ancient Legends of Ireland (Ward and Downey), the most poetical and ample collection of Irish folklore yet published; Mr. Standish O’Grady for leave to give ‘The Knighting of Cuculain’ from that prose epic he has curiously named History of Ireland, Heroic Period; Professor Joyce for his ‘Fergus O’Mara and the Air Demons’; and Mr. Douglas Hyde for his unpublished story, ‘The Man who never knew Fear.’
I have included no story that has already appeared in my Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (Camelot Series).
The two volumes make, I believe, a fairly representative collection of Irish folk tales.
Lanty M’Clusky had married a wife, and, of course, it was necessary to have a house in which to keep her. Now, Lanty had taken a bit of a farm, about six acres; but as there was no house on it, he resolved to build one; and that it might be as comfortable as possible, he selected for the site of it one of those beautiful green circles that are supposed to be the play-ground of the fairies. Lanty was warned against this; but as he was a headstrong man, and not much given to fear, he said he would not change such a pleasant situation for his house to oblige all the fairies in Europe. He accordingly proceeded with the building, which he finished off very neatly; and, as it is usual on these occasions to give one’s neighbours and friends a house-warming, so, in compliance with this good and pleasant old custom, Lanty having brought home the wife in the course of the day, got a fiddler and a lot of whisky, and gave those who had come to see him a dance in the evening. This was all very well, and the fun and hilarity were proceeding briskly, when a noise was heard after night had set in, like a crushing and straining of ribs and rafters on the top of the house. The folks assembled all listened, and, without doubt, there was nothing heard but crushing, and heaving, and pushing, and groaning, and panting, as if a thousand little men were engaged in pulling down the roof.
‘Come,’ said a voice which spoke in a tone of command, ‘work hard: you know we must have Lanty’s house down before midnight.’
This was an unwelcome piece of intelligence to Lanty, who, finding that his enemies were such as he could not cope with, walked out, and addressed them as follows:
‘Gintlemen, I humbly ax yer pardon for buildin’ on any place belongin’ to you; but if you’ll have the civilitude to let me alone this night, I’ll begin to pull down and remove the house to-morrow morning.’
This was followed by a noise like the clapping of a thousand tiny little hands, and a shout of ‘Bravo, Lanty! build half-way between the two White-thorns above the boreen’; and after another hearty little shout of exultation, there was a brisk rushing noise, and they were heard no more.
The story, however, does not end here; for Lanty, when digging the foundation of his new house, found the full of a kam1 of gold: so that in leaving to the fairies their play-ground, he became a richer man than ever he otherwise would have been, had he never come in contact with them at all.
1Kam— a metal vessel in which the peasantry dip rushlights.
In the north of Ireland there are spinning meetings of unmarried females frequently held at the houses of farmers, called kemps. Every young woman who has got the reputation of being a quick and expert spinner attends where the kemp is to be held, at an hour usually before daylight, and on these occasions she is accompanied by her sweetheart or some male relative, who carries her wheel, and conducts her safely across the fields or along the road, as the case may be. A kemp is, indeed, an animated and joyous scene, and one, besides, which is calculated to promote industry and decent pride. Scarcely anything can be more cheering and agreeable than to hear at a distance, breaking the silence of morning, the light-hearted voices of many girls either in mirth or song, the humming sound of the busy wheels — jarred upon a little, it is true, by the stridulous noise and checkings of the reels, and the voices of the reelers, as they call aloud the checks, together with the name of the girl and the quantity she has spun up to that period; for the contest is generally commenced two or three hours before daybreak. This mirthful spirit is also sustained by the prospect of a dance — with which, by the way, every kemp closes; and when the fair victor is declared, she is to be looked upon as the queen of the meeting, and treated with the necessary respect.
But to our tale. Everyone knew Shaun Buie M’Gaveran to be the cleanest, best-conducted boy, and the most industrious too, in the whole parish of Faugh-a-ballagh. Hard was it to find a young fellow who could handle a flail, spade, or reaping-hook in better style, or who could go through his day’s work in a more creditable or workmanlike manner. In addition to this, he was a fine, well-built, handsome young man as you could meet in a fair; and so, sign was on it, maybe the pretty girls weren’t likely to pull each other’s caps about him. Shaun, however, was as prudent as he was good-looking; and although he wanted a wife, yet the sorrow one of him but preferred taking a well-handed, smart girl, who was known to be well-behaved and industrious, like himself. Here, however, was where the puzzle lay on him; for instead of one girl of that kind, there were in the neighbourhood no less than a dozen of them — all equally fit and willing to become his wife, and all equally good-looking. There were two, however, whom he thought a trifle above the rest; but so nicely balanced were Biddy Corrigan and Sally Gorman, that for the life of him he could not make up his mind to decide between them. Each of them had won her kemp; and it was currently said by them who ought to know, that neither of them could over-match the other. No two girls in the parish were better respected, or deserved to be so; and the consequence was, they had every one’s good word and good wish. Now it so happened that Shaun had been pulling a cord with each; and as he knew not how to decide between, he thought he would allow them to do that themselves if they could. He accordingly gave out to the neighbours that he would hold a kemp on that day week, and he told Biddy and Sally especially that he had made up his mind to marry whichever of them won the kemp, for he knew right well, as did all the parish, that one of them must. The girls agreed to this very good-humouredly, Biddy telling Sally that she (Sally) would surely win it; and Sally, not to be outdone in civility, telling the same thing to her.
Well, the week was nearly past, there being but two days till that of the kemp, when, about three o’clock, there walks into the house of old Paddy Corrigan a little woman dressed in high-heeled shoes and a short red cloak. There was no one in the house but Biddy at the time, who rose up and placed a chair near the fire, and asked the little red woman to sit down and rest herself. She accordingly did so, and in a short time a lively chat commenced between them.
‘So,’ said the strange woman, ‘there’s to be a great kemp in Shaun Buie M’Gaveran’s?’
‘Indeed there is that, good woman,’ replied Biddy, smiling and blushing to back of that again, because she knew her own fate depended on it.
‘And,’ continued the little woman, ‘whoever wins the kemp wins a husband?’
‘Ay, so it seems.’
‘Well, whoever gets Shaun will be a happy woman, for he’s the moral of a good boy.’
‘That’s nothing but the truth, anyhow,’ replied Biddy, sighing, for fear, you may be sure, that she herself might lose him; and indeed a young woman might sigh from many a worse reason. ‘But,’ said she, changing the subject, ‘you appear to be tired, honest woman, an’ I think you had better eat a bit, an’ take a good drink of buinnhe ramwher (thick milk) to help you on your journey.’
‘Thank you kindly, a colleen,’ said the woman; ‘I’ll take a bit, if you plase, hopin’, at the same time, that you won’t be the poorer of it this day twelve months.’
‘Sure,’ said the girl, ‘you know that what we give from kindness ever an’ always leaves a blessing behind it.’
‘Yes, acushla, when it is given from kindness.’
She accordingly helped herself to the food that Biddy placed before her, and appeared, after eating, to be very much refreshed.
‘Now,’ said she, rising up, ‘you’re a very good girl, an’ if you are able to find out my name before Tuesday morning, the kemp-day, I tell you that you’ll win it, and gain the husband.’
‘Why,’ said Biddy, ‘I never saw you before. I don’t know who you are, nor where you live; how then can I ever find out your name?’
‘You never saw me before, sure enough,’ said the old woman, ‘an’ I tell you that you never will see me again but once; an’ yet if you have not my name for me at the close of the kemp, you’ll lose all, an’ that will leave you a sore heart, for well I know you love Shaun Buie.’
So saying, she went away, and left poor Biddy quite cast down at what she had said, for, to tell the truth, she loved Shaun very much, and had no hopes of being able to find out the name of the little woman, on which, it appeared, so much to her depended.
It was very near the same hour of the same day that Sally Gorman was sitting alone in her father’s house, thinking of the kemp, when who should walk in to her but our friend the little red woman.
‘God save you, honest woman,’ said Sally, ‘this is a fine day that’s in it, the Lord be praised!’
‘It is,’ said the woman, ‘as fine a day as one could wish for: indeed it is.’
‘Have you no news on your travels?’ asked Sally.
‘The only news in the neighbourhood,’ replied the other, ‘is this great kemp that’s to take place at Shaun Buie M’Gaveran’s. They say you’re either to win him or lose him then,’ she added, looking closely at Sally as she spoke.
‘I’m not very much afraid of that,’ said Sally, with confidence; ‘but even if I do lose him, I may get as good.’
‘It’s not easy gettin’ as good,’ rejoined the old woman, ‘an’ you ought to be very glad to win him, if you can.’
‘Let me alone for that,’ said Sally. ‘Biddy’s a good girl, I allow; but as for spinnin’, she never saw the day she could leave me behind her. Won’t you sit an’ rest you?’ she added; ‘maybe you’re tired.’
‘It’s time for you to think of it,’ thought the woman, but she spoke nothing: ‘but,’ she added to herself on reflection, ‘it’s better late than never — I’ll sit awhile, till I see a little closer what she’s made of.’
She accordingly sat down and chatted upon several subjects, such as young women like to talk about, for about half an hour; after which she arose, and taking her little staff in hand, she bade Sally good-bye, and went her way. After passing a little from the house she looked back, and could not help speaking to herself as follows:
‘She’s smooth and smart,
But she wants the heart;
She’s tight and neat,
But she gave no meat.’
Poor Biddy now made all possible inquiries about the old woman, but to no purpose. Not a soul she spoke to about her had ever seen or heard of such a woman. She felt very dispirited, and began to lose heart, for there is no doubt that if she missed Shaun it would have cost her many a sorrowful day. She knew she would never get his equal, or at least any one that she loved so well. At last the kemp day came, and with it all the pretty girls of the neighbourhood to Shaun Buie’s. Among the rest, the two that were to decide their right to him were doubtless the handsomest pair by far, and every one admired them. To be sure, it was a blythe and merry place, and many a light laugh and sweet song rang out from pretty lips that day. Biddy and Sally, as every
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