I know; You don’t believe in Fairies, the “Little People”, Leprechauns, or “The Good People.” How can you you hope to make such a decision without knowing at least something about such beings. In the following essay I have attempted to record at least some of the traditional beliefs about ‘Fairies’, which have been gathered from various parts of Ireland. It is a widely held belief among many in Ireland that these, so called, ‘Little People’ were, at one time, very numerous throughout the entire country and, in recent years, have disappeared from the majority of their former lands. There is a legend that says the fairies were all blown away, over two centuries ago, by a great storm, and that the most likely place to which they had been blown was Scotland. Many Irish people believe that, greatly reduced in numbers, the fairies still inhabit the more remote parts of the country. There are still many stories being told about people having fairy visitors, and the many events that had been experienced in their by others in their youth, and in the time of their fathers and grandfathers.
When discussing Irish fairies we must, first of all, lose the image of these “Little People” as tiny creatures who could hide themselves under a mushroom, or that could dance on a blade of grass. Say such things to any old person from the west of Ireland and you will be sent away very quickly, probably with a very red ear. Those who claim to have met fairies during their lives will agree that they are, indeed, small people, but not small enough that a mushroom could give them shelter. They are usually described as being approximately the size of small children, and this description appears to be quite universal in all four Provinces of Ireland. On occasion I have been told that the fairies can be as large as a well-grown boy or girl, and that, sometimes, they can be as small as children who are just beginning to walk; namely the height of a chair or a table. There was one description that I read, which compared the size of the fairies as being about the size of monkeys.
There is one thing that can be closely associated with these ‘Little People’ is the colour ‘Red’. In the south-east of the country, should a young girl be wearing a red handkerchief on her head, it is still said that she is wearing a ‘fairy cap’. Elsewhere, there are many stories, frequently told, of small men wearing red jackets running about the many ancient forts that dot the landscape. Meanwhile, the fairy women are, sometimes, said to appear to people in red cloaks and, moreover, I have heard stories that say fairies have red hair. One farmer, who lived in a mountainous area of Ireland, told a story that one stormy night he had seen little creatures with red hair, about the size of children. When he was asked if those creatures that he saw might not have really been children from some of the nearby cottages, his very confident reply was that no child would or could have been out in such bad weather.
There was an old woman living in the same mountainous area who vividly described how, when going out to look after her goat and its young kid, she had heard loud screams and had seen wild-looking, scantily clad figures whose hair was standing on their heads like a horse’s mane. This old lady spoke with great respect for the fairy folk which, she said, formerly inhabited hills that ranged above her home, and she warned that great care should always be taken not to destroy their thorn-bushes. One story that she told spoke of a friend who was sitting alone one night in her cottage, sewing. Unexpectedly, a small, old woman, who was dressed in a white cap and apron, came into the cottage and borrowed a bowl of meal. The next night the old woman repaid the debt, and the meal she brought was put in the meal barrel. The woman kept the small matter a secret, but she was pleasantly surprised to find that her meal barrel did not need replenishing, no matter how much she used. After some time her husband asked if the store of meal in the barrel was not coming to an end. The wife replied that she would show him that she still had sufficient meal in her barrel, and she lifted the cover of the barrel. To her complete astonishment the barrel was almost empty, and she suddenly realised that if she had kept her secret, she would still have had an unlimited supply of meal.
There have been many several similar stories that I have heard and read, and in none of them have I found reports of any evil consequences that had followed from partaking in food that had been brought by the fairies. There are stories of men whohave been carried off by them, have heard their beautiful music, seen them dancing, or witnessed a fairy battle without bringing any misfortune on themselves. On the other hand, according to a story I heard at Buncrana, Co. Donegal, a little herd-boy paid dearly for having entered one of their dwellings. As he was climbing among the rocks, he saw a cleft, and creeping through it came to where a fairy woman was spinning with her “weans,” or children, around her. His sister missed him, and after searching for a time, she too, came to the cleft, and looking down saw her brother, and called to him to come out. He came, but was never able to speak again.
In another case deafness followed intercourse with the fairies. An elderly man at Maghera, Co. Down, told me that his brother when four or five years old went out with his father. The child lay down on the grass. After a while the father heard a great noise, and looking up saw little men about two feet in height dancing round his son. He called to them to be gone, and they ran towards a fort and disappeared. The child became deaf, and did not recover his hearing for ten years. He died at the age of seventeen.
To cut down a fairy thorn or to injure the house of a fairy is regarded as certain to bring misfortune. An old woman also living at Maghera, related how her great-grandmother had received a visit from a small old woman, who forbade the building of a certain turf-stack, saying that evil would befall anyone who injured the chimneys of her house. The warning was disregarded, the turf-stack built, and before long four cows died.
I was told that when a certain fort in Co. Fermanagh was levelled to the ground misfortune overtook the men who did the work, although, apparently, they were only labourers, many of them dying suddenly. It was also said that where this fort had stood there were caves or hollows in the ground into which the oxen would fall when ploughing. An attempt to bring a fort near Newcastle under cultivation is believed to have caused the sudden death of the owner.
The fairies are celebrated as fine musicians; they ride on small horses; the women grind meal, and the sound of their spinning is often heard at night in the peasants’ cottages. The following story is related as having occurred at Camlough, near Newry.
A woman was spinning one evening when three fairies came into the house, each bringing a spinning-wheel. They said they would help her with her work, and one of them asked for a drink of water. The woman went to the well to fetch it. When there she was warned, apparently by a friendly fairy, that the others had come only to mock and harm her. Acting on the advice of this friend, the woman, as soon as she had given water to the three, turned again to the open door, and stood looking intently towards a fort. They asked what she was gazing at, and the reply was: “At the blaze on the fort.” No sooner had she uttered these words than the three fairies rushed out with such haste that one of them left her spinning-wheel behind, which, according to the story, is now to be seen in Dublin Castle. The woman then shut her door, and put a pin in the keyhole, thus effectually preventing the return of her visitors.
In this story we have probably an allusion to the signal fires which are believed by the peasantry to have been lit on the forts in time of danger, one fort being always within view of another. These forts, or raths, appear to have been the favourite abode of the fairies. To use the language of the peasantry, these little people live in the “coves of the forths,” an expression which puzzled me until I found that coves, or caves, meant underground passages— in other words, souterrains.
There are a number of these souterrains in the neighbourhood of Castlewellan, and with a young friend, who helped me to take a few rough measurements, I explored several.
Plan of Ballymagreehan Souterrain.
Ballymagreehan Fort is a short distance from Castlewellan, near the Newry Road. It is a small fort, and on the top we saw the narrow entrance to the souterrain. Passing down through this, we found ourselves in a short passage, or chamber, which led us to another passage at right angles to the first. It is about forty feet in length and three feet in width; the height varies from four to five feet. The roof is formed of flat slabs, and the walls are carefully built of round stones, but without mortar. At one end this passage appeared to terminate in a wall, but at the other it was only choked with fallen stones and débris, and I should think had formerly extended farther.
Herman’s Fort is another small fort on the opposite side of Castlewellan, in the townland of Clarkill. Climbing to the top of it, we came to an enclosure where several thorn-bushes were growing. The farmer who kindly acted as our guide showed us two openings. One of these led to a narrow chamber fully six feet high, the other to a passage more than thirty feet in length and about three feet wide, while the height varied from three and a half feet in one part to more than five feet in another. I was told that water is always to be found near these forts, and was shown a well which had existed from time immemorial; the sides were built of round stones without mortar, in the same way as the walls of the passage.
We heard here of another souterrain about a mile distant, called Backaderry Cove. It is on the side of a hill close to the road leading from Castlewellan to Dromara. A number of thorn-bushes grow near the place, but there is no mound, either natural or artificial. Creeping through the opening, we found ourselves in a passage about forty feet in length; a chamber opens off it nine feet in length, and between five and six feet in height, while the height of the passage varies from four and a half to five and a half feet. There is a tradition that this passage formerly connected Backaderry with Herman’s Fort.
Ballyginney Fort is near Maghera. I only saw the entrance to the souterrain, but from what I heard I believe that here also there is a chamber opening off the passage. The farmer on whose land the fort is situated told me that one dry summer he had planted flax in the field adjoining the fort. The small depth of soil above the flat slabs affected the crop, so that by the difference in the flax it was easy to trace where the passage ran below the field.
We have seen that the fairies are believed to inhabit the souterrains; they are also said to live inside certain hills, and in forts where, so far as is known, no underground structure exists. I may mention as an example the large fort on the Shimna River, near Newcastle, where I was told their music was often to be heard. There may be many souterrains whose entrance has been choked up, and of which no record has been preserved. Mr. Bigger gave last session an interesting account of one discovered at Stranocum; another was accidentally found last September in a field about three miles from Newry. Mr. Mann Harbison, who visited the souterrain, writes to me that the excavation has been made in a circular portion which is six feet wide and five feet high. A gallery opens out of this chamber, and is in some places not more than three feet six inches high.
The building of the forts and souterrains is ascribed by the country people to the Danes, a race of whom various traditions exist. They are said to have had red hair; sometimes they are spoken of as large men, sometimes as short men. One old woman, who had little belief in fairies, told me that in the old troubled times in Ireland people lived inside the forts; these people were the Danes, and they used to light fires on the top as a signal from one fort to another. I heard from an elderly man of Danes having encamped on his grandmother’s farm. Smoke was seen rising from an unfrequented spot, and when an uncle went to investigate the matter he found small huts with no doors, only a bundle of sticks laid across the entrance. In one of the huts he saw a pot boiling on the fire, and going forward he began to stir the contents. Immediately a red-haired man and woman rushed in; they appeared angry at the intrusion, and when he went out threw a plate after him.
The traditions in regard both to Danes and fairies are very similar in different parts of Ireland. In Co. Cavan the country people spoke of the beautiful music of the fairies, and told me of their living in a fort near Lough Oughter. One woman said they were sometimes called Ganelochs, and were about the size of children, and an old man described them as little people about one or two feet high, riding on small horses.
In Co. Waterford I was told that the fairies were not ghosts: they lived in the air. One man might see them while they would be invisible to others.
In an interesting lecture on the “Customs and Superstitions of the Southern Irish,” the Rev. J. B. Leslie, who has kindly allowed me to quote from his manuscript, describes the fairies as “a species of beings neither men nor angels nor ghosts…. They are connected in the popular imagination with the Danish forts which are common in the country. In these they seem to have their abode underground. At night they hold here high revels— in grand banqueting-halls— and in these revels there must always, I believe, be a living human being. The fairies are often called the ‘good people’; some think they are ‘fallen angels.’ They are usually thought of as harmless creatures, unless, of course, they are interfered with, when the power they wield is very great. They are very fond of games; some testify that they have seen them play football, others hurley, while playing at marbles is a special pastime, and I have even heard of persons who have discovered ‘fairy marbles’ near or in these forts. No one will interfere with the forts; they fear the power and anger of the fairies.”
While the fairies are generally associated with the forts, I heard both in Co. Down and Co. Kerry of their living in caves in the mountains, and a lad whom I met near the Gap of Dunloe described them as having cloven feet and black hair.
A boatman at Killarney spoke of the Leprechauns as little men about three feet in height, wearing red caps. He thought the fairies might be taller, and spoke of their living in the forts. He said these forts had been built by the Danes, who must have been small men, when they made the passages so low. We thus see that fairies and Danes are both associated with these ancient structures. Although the Irish peasant speaks of these Danes having been conquered by Brian Boru, the structure and position of the raths and souterrains point to their having been the work of one of the earlier Irish races rather than of the medieval Norsemen. Their name appears to identify them with the Tuatha de Danann whose necromantic power is celebrated in Irish tales, and of whom, according to O’Curry, one class of fairies are the representatives. I know that some high authorities regard the Tuatha de Danann and the fairies as alike mythological beings. The latter are certainly in popular legend endowed with superhuman attributes; they can transport people long distances, creep through keyholes, and the fairy changeling, when placed on the fire, can escape up the chimney and grin at his tormentors. If we ask the country people who are the fairies, the reply is frequently, “Fallen angels.” According to an old woman in Donegal, these angels fell, some on the sea, some on the earth, while some remained in the air; the fairies were those who fell on the earth.
These “fallen angels” may be the representatives of the spirits whom the pagan Irish worshipped and strove to propitiate, and some of the tales relating to the fairies may have their origin in the mythology of a primitive people. But the raths and souterrains are certainly the work of human hands, and I would suggest that in the legends connected with them we have a reminiscence of a dwarf race who rode on ponies, were good musicians, could spin and weave, and grind corn. The traditions would point to their being red-haired.
Mr. Mann Harbison has kindly written to me on this subject, and expresses his belief that the souterrains “were constructed by a diminutive race, probably allied to the modern Lapps, who seem to be the survivors of a widely distributed race.” In another letter he says: “The universal idea of fairies is very suggestive. The tall Celts, when they arrived, saw the small people disappear in a mysterious way, and, without stopping to investigate, imagined they had become invisible. If they had had the courage or the patience to investigate, they would have found that they had passed into their souterrain.”
In his work “Fians, Fairies, and Picts,” Mr. David MacRitchie argues that these three names belong to similar if not identical dwarf races in Scotland. The Tuatha de Danann he also regards as of the same race as the fairies, or, to give them their Irish name, the Fir Sidhe, the men of the green mounds.
The remains of the ancient cave-dwellers point to a primitive race of small size inhabiting Europe. Dr. Munro, in his work “Prehistoric Problems,” refers to the skeletons discovered at Spy in Belgium by MM. Lohest and De Pudzt. He describes them as examples of a very early and low type of the human race, and states that Professor Fraipont, who examined them anatomically, “came to the conclusion that the Spy men belonged to a race relatively of small stature, analogous to the modern Laplanders, having voluminous heads, massive bodies, short arms, and bent legs. They led a sedentary life, frequented caves, manufactured flint implements after the type known as Moustérien, and were contemporary with the Mammoth.”[ 4]
Let us compare this description with that in the ballad of “The Wee, Wee Man”:[ 5]
“His legs were scarce
a shathmont’s [approx 6 inches] length,
And thick and thimber
was his thigh;
Between his brows there was
And between his
shoulders there was
(“Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs,” published anonymously, but known to have been collected by David Herd (vol. i., p. 95, ed. 1776).
I do not, however, mean to suggest that the builders of the raths and souterrains were contemporary with the men of Spy, but rather that a small race of primitive men may have existed until a comparatively late period in this country. Leading a desultory warfare with their neighbours, they would carry off women and children, and injure the cattle with their stone weapons. We should note that in the traditions of the peasantry, and also in the old ballads, those who have been carried off by the fairies can frequently be released from captivity, and they return, not as ghosts, but as living men or women. May we not see in these legends traces of a struggle between a primitive race, whose gods may have been, like themselves, of diminutive stature, and their more civilized neighbours, who accepted the teaching of the early Christian missionaries?
F.R.A.I. Elizabeth Andrews. Ulster Folklore