FAIRY FOLKLORE True or False
Part Five - “The Irish Fairy”
Isn’t it true that by looking into the past, we can gain a better understanding of the present conditions in which we find ourselves? The one major advantage of looking into the past is that it is easier to examine the actions and instincts of a people at a specific time in history when the conditions of life were less complex than they are now. Once we have considered these actions carried out in simpler times, we are better able to understand human actions, even in the complicated circumstances of modern life.
When we look back into Ireland’s past, we discover that there was little, if any, distinction made between the supernatural beings that ‘exist’ and the spirits of the dead. The minds of people in Ireland, however, been influenced greatly by the rise of Christianity in our world which has caused modern man to separate the spiritual from the supernatural. But, the Irish peasantry of earlier times found it to be extremely difficult to envisage a beneficent spirit and, therefore, the characters they gave to these spirits were simply reflections of themselves. Then, the rise of Religious beliefs, old and new, brought a fear of the unknown to the simple people of the time. It is hard to believe now, but there was a period of time when an Irishman, from his birth until his death, would have allowed his life to be controlled by superstition, priests, and prophets. We know, from ancient tales and stories, that the only supernatural beings that the native Irish believed in or feared were the dead spirits from their own tribe or clan. They also held a fear of the spirits of the dead members of another tribe or clan because these were considered to be hostile enemies, both malevolent and malign. It was known, for example, that on occasion a burial would require a slave, an enemy, or a stranger to be slain and their corpse to be buried as a means of haunting the burial place and frightening away the curious.
Among ignorant and savage people there is little or no distinction between good and bad spirits, varying only when their characters are envisaged in the flesh. When the spirits are divided into the good and the malignant, they are often further developed into superhuman beings that are often described as gods or demons. This has led, in modern times, to alleged apparitions of ghosts, or spirits, being generally divided into various categories, including those produced by religious fraud or gross imposture, and those which are the product of the imagination, and occasioned anxiety of mind, overwork of the brain, or illness.
It has been suggested that fear of the living helps to maintain the social framework, while fear of the unseen preserves the religious framework society. In our modern times, many who would verbally deny the existence of spirits will still demonstrate by fear their belief in their presence. The savages of this world will worship those beings that convey ideas of fear or dread among them. But the worship of beings who contribute to a society’s wants and necessities is also frequently seen among the uncivilised as well as the semi-civilised societies of the world. A woman might give adoration to all those articles and implements which assist her in carrying out her household duties, or a carpenter will give homage to the tools of his trade, as does a soldier to the arms he bears, or a mason to his trowel, and a ploughman to his plough.
Within Ireland some researchers, for example Professor O'Curry (1794-1862), in his Lectures on the ‘Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History’, divides the fairy folk into two distinct classes, i.e., the bona fide fairies or demons and the magic race of the Tuatha de Danann, who, after being conquered by the Milesians, transformed themselves into fairies. Meanwhile, it is said that in the North of Ireland, fairies appear to be of a larger stature and more uncouth than elsewhere in the country. Among them there are accounts of a fairy called ‘Grogan’ that is small, hairy, with broad shoulders, and is said to be extremely strong. Also, in the Province of Ulster, the peasant farmers of the day on which rain mingled with sunshine would occasionally declare, "The good people are baking to-day," which alludes to the apparently unlimited supply of water for moistening the flour and of the sun’s heat for baking the fairy dough.
Today, many people don’t believe in the ‘Good People’ because they have never seen them. But we should be always bear in mind that, although the fairies are invisible to mortals in daylight, they still make careful study of all that occurs, and especially anything that might be of particular interest to themselves. It is, therefore, inadvisable to mention them by the names of “fairies” or “The Little People”, for they prefer to be spoken of respectfully as “The Good People”. It is simple desire to gain the favour of beings that are known to possess a malignant nature, or a wish to avoid offending benign spirits with words of ill omen. In many areas of the country weasels, or stoats, are greatly disliked by the farming community. These creatures are supposed to steal milk from cows, to spit fire, and to be endowed with power to injure both man and beast. But the farmer, once he sees such a creature, prefers to gain its favour and will often raise his hat and addresses it in a pleasant, polite manner.
Many people who believe in the existence of fairies also believe that ‘The Good People’ are a mix of both human and spirit natures. This belief stems from an effort by the Irish peasantry to reconcile heathen and Christian teachings, which brought about the ill-defined belief that fairies are fallen spirits, driven from heaven, and condemned to dwell on earth until the day of judgment. The legend states that at the time of Satan's rebellion some angels remained true to their allegiance, others sided with Lucifer, whilst a third party remained neutral. When the rebellion was quashed those who had sided with the Almighty remained in heaven, those who had fought against Him were cast into the nether regions of Hell, while the neutral group were seen to be unfit for either heaven or hell and were compelled to dwell in rocks and hills, seas and lakes, bushes and thickets, where they would remain until the day of judgment. There remains some disagreement among the rural population of Ireland whether these former angels will ever have even a remote chance of salvation on the day of judgement. It is thought that the fairies themselves have serious doubts regarding their future, although they maintain a hope that they will be restored to happiness in Heaven. These doubts are thought to be the cause of their enmity towards mortal men, whom they believe are certain of gaining eternal happiness in Heaven with the Almighty. Thus, the actions of the fairies are balanced by a mixture of good and evil, and their passions are often as vindictive as their inclinations are generous and humane.
At one time, on ‘May Eve’, the peasants would drive all their cattle into old ‘Raths’, or forts, thought to be much frequented by the fairies, bleed them, taste the blood, and pour the remainder on the earth. Men and women were also bled, and their blood sprinkled on the ground, but this practice has long ago died out. On occasion, when it was thought a cow fell sick through fairy malice, it was not uncommon practice in the West of Ireland to devote the ailing animal to St. Martin. The ritual was performed by simply letting a few drops of blood from the cow in honour of the saint and, if it recovered, the animal would never be sold or killed, as it would dishonour the blessed saint if it was to die any other way but naturally.
A small cup of the thick new milk given by a cow after calving, if it is poured on the ground, especially in the interior of a Rath, or fort, is supposed to appease the anger of the offended fairies. Before drinking, a farmer would often spill a small portion of the milk on the earth, as a complimentary drink to ‘The Good People’. The same principle of a first oblation is carried out in a cure for heartburn. The sufferer, on consulting an " herb-doctor," is usually given an egg, with instructions to boil it, chip the shell and throw the first spoonful on the ground, and eat the remainder. This process must be gone through on three successive days, to ensure the charm will be successfully completed.
Even today, in some areas of Ireland, harvest-time is still a remarkable time for getting frequent glimpses of fairy cavalcades. On a stormy day, the swirls of dust that are raised by the wind along the rural roads are considered by the locals as a sign that a fairy parade of fairies is travelling from one ‘Rath’ to another. When seen the locals pay them the same marks of respect are given to the invisible fairy horsemen as if the dust had been raised by a procession of the Lords and Ladies. Some people will throw tufts of grass, pieces of sticks, or even small pebbles into the centre of the dust swirls as an offering to appease ‘The Good People’ as they pass.
On the calm summer evening it is known that the fairies often go out hunting, and the faint sound of their tiny horns, the baying of their fairy hounds, the galloping of fairy horses, the cracking of whips, and the shouts of the fairy hunters, it is said, can be distinctly heard, for their swift movement through the air generates a noise that resembles the loud humming of bees as they swarm from the hive. Travelling through the air upon rushes instead of upon borrowed horses is common in the history of ‘The Good People’ the occurrence in fairy history, but a blade of grass, a straw, a fern root, or a cabbage stalk are equally adapted for steeds. But these articles must be cut to simulate a real horse. It is also believed that those people afflicted with "falling sickness ", or epilepsy, are merely suffering from the great tiredness caused by the long journeys that they are forced to take, night after night, with the fairies, mounted on cabbage stumps. Just like Shakespeare’s Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, they are said to -
" Skim milk, sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn."
Such a thing can be prevented, and the butter made to rise, by nailing a horseshoe on the bottom of the churn, for it is well known that an iron horseshoe, or indeed an iron article of any kind, is a potent charm to keep the fairies away.