When I was a young man the fairy folk were known more commonly as the “Good People”. In those days it was believed that these ‘Good People” very much wanted to add to their numbers, but only from among the beautiful, innocent, and most amiable children of mortals. It was not a vindictive act on their part, for the ‘good people’ were not known to show any signs of being ill-disposed in any way toward men or women. This was especially true if the mortals had made some effort to show the ‘good-people’ some respect, or at least had not provoked them with their bad behaviour.
In bygone days, however, there were some fairy-folk known as ‘Gentiles’ or ‘Tribes of the Glens’ who were not just as kindly. They were believed to have been dark spirits, or monsters, who generally lived in lonely valleys, wild dells, and gloomy caverns. Although they appeared to have possessed a limited ability to actually harm human beings, they were considered to be revengeful, deceitful, and malevolent spirits when the opportunity was presented to them. Although they were easily overcome by brave warriors in those far-off days, the ordinary Irish peasantry was always worried about the mischievous plans and resentful attitude that these dark spirits could conjure up. There were none who would even consider the prospect of passing by the haunts of these ‘Gentiles’ late in the evening, or after nightfall.
When it comes to the ‘Good People’ Irish popular tradition is filled with many weird places and personages, all of which have found their way into our native literature. Their names are related to some of the most famous chieftains and females in Irish mythology, and to a variety of fairy-haunts. The Fiachna MacRoetach and Eoichaidh MacSail are mentioned in Irish folklore as rival chiefs among the Sidhe, or fairy-men. Ilbhreac was the Elfin chief of Eas Roe (Ballyshannon), where there was a much celebrated Sidhe mansion. Meanwhile, in a Rath along the side of the road between Cork and Youghal it is believed that a ghostly chieftain, called Knop, holds court among his folk. Sometimes, music and merriment are heard from within this fort, and travellers along that road have reported that they saw strange lights around it. A similar fairy mound, which the locals call ‘Brigh Leith’ has been a famous home to the ‘Good-People’ in Westmeath since ancient times.
The ‘White Shee’, or ‘Fairy Queen’ has long been recognised as having pre-eminence over others of her sex. Folklore tells us that ‘Ounaheencha’ a fairy queen of the ocean, would sail around the coasts of Kerry, Cork and Clare in her quest for handsome young men, who were captured and taken to her cave. Again, the fairy damsel is famed for having given Finn MacCool a battle stone, to which a chain of gold was fastened. With this weapon in his hands, Finn was rendered totally invincible on the field of battle.
‘Cleena’, the Elfin Queen of South Munster, is reputed to live in her invisible palace at ‘Carrig Cleena’ near Fermoy, County Cork. In Irish, known as ‘Cliodhna’, she is said descended from the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’ and her name is given to a loud, roaring, surge that occurs in Glandore harbour, ‘The Wave of Cleena’ (Tonn Cliodhna). But along the coast of Cork there are numerous caverns, which the sea has hollowed out of the rocks, and from these caves, the waves echo loudly with a deep, monotonous roar. In the calm of night, those moaning surges from ‘Tonn Cliodhna’ are especially impressive, bringing a sense of fear and melancholy to the local people.
The names of such Fairy-Queens were renowned among the Irish peasantry of old, on a level comparable with that of ‘Meadbh’, who was the celebrated Queen of Connaught. She was, perhaps, the most renowned among the heroines of Ireland’s ancient days and figures very prominently in the annals of our nation. But, Meadbh was not renowned simply for her beauty, which was said to be unmatched, or poetic ability. It was her masculine vigour of character that makes her stand out when compared to others of her sex. When young, she contracted a marriage with the King of Ulster, Conor McNessa, which ended unhappily for her. Separated from King Conor, Meadbh formed an alliance with a Connaught chieftain called Ailill. Unfortunately, Ailill died a short time after the marriage. Meadbh, however, did not mourn for long before she married the son of the King of Leinster, who was also called Ailill. But, it was Meadbh’s fighting abilities and her warlike deeds that became the subject of many old bardic stories and romances.
In my youth, which was not that long ago, I knew of several local people who were excellent at telling stories and passing on their folkloric knowledge, although they were already old or middle-aged. In those days while working in the fields, or sitting by the fireside, or at fair, a market, or merry-making on a Sunday or holiday, it was customary to hear or relate an old story. These tales often had plots more intricate, yet just as interesting, and well-drawn to a satisfying conclusion as any that you find in the stories of the finest novelists. Many an hour I would lie under a shady tree or hedgerow and would listen with delight to the tales of wonder. In these tales were many kings and princes that were portrayed as the hero and, usually after a considerable share of fighting with giants or chieftains, some accomplished and beautiful princess became a bride to the conqueror, and returned with him to share the honours of his palace and kingdom.