The Sighe

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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The Sighe, Shee, or Sith were of many varieties. As the Farr-shee was the man of the Sidhs, so was the Bann-shee the woman of the Sidhs. They were magical deceivers; they built fine halls, and interfered in battles.

"Behold the Sidh before your eyes,
It is manifest to you that it is a king's mansion,
Which was built by the firm Daghda;
It was a wonder, a court, an admirable hill."

They might have been deified mortals. Lug Mac Ethlend had been a thousand years a Sidh. He would sometimes sojourn awhile on earth. Once he had a son by the fair Decture, and thus Cuchulainn became a hero. Carolan, the Irish bard, celebrates the fairy hills of Sith Beag and Sith More in Leitrim. Troops of them on horses followed their King Donn and Queen Cliodhna, or Cleena.

The Daoine Shee, or men of peace, referred to in the Book of Armagh, were peevish rather than malevolent. Dressing in green, they resented the appearance of human beings in green. They who wanted to see them must select Hallow-eve, walk round their hill nine times, when a door would open, revealing the dancing throng. It is dangerous to accept their invitation to come in for a dance, as the tripper never returns again to his home.

Fairy-inspired bards were liable to be spirited away by their muse, the Leannan Sighe. If she helped them in composition, they were bound to follow her throughout eternity.

"Were it not better thou shouldst dwell awhile with a young maiden of golden locks,
Than that the country should be laughing at thy doggrel rhyme?"

The Mermaids, or sea-fairies, were Moruodh, or Moruogh. Their hair and teeth were green. We have no record of their pugnacious qualities, as of the denizens of land. Ailne, whose lay is in old Irish, lamenting the death of her husband and two sons, knew—"by the mighty fairy host, That were in conflict over the Dun, Fighting each other"—that evil would befall her three beloved. They did not then play Ceol-sidh, or fairy music.

The word Sidh is said to be the Celtic root for a blast of wind. The whirlwind was certainly called a fairy wind. There is a Sidh Thuim on the Boyne, Sidh Neanta of Roscommon, Sidh Meadha near Tuam, Sidh Aodha Ruaidh a hill of Donegal. There are seventy Irish townships beginning with Shee.

Ireland abounds with localities having fairy associations. Joyce gives many. Finn and his Fenians are in Sliabh-na-mban-fionn, the mountain of the fair-haired women; Rath Sithe, the Fenian fortress, is in Antrim; the Fairy's wood is in Sligo. Then there are the Sheegys, fairy hills, in Donegal; the Sheeauns, fairy mounds; the haunted hills, Shean, Sheena, Shane; and Knockna looricaim, the hills of the Cluricane. In Lough Corrib the Leprechauns were said to have been provided with ground meal for supper by hospitable neighbours.

There was a Banshee's palace in South Munster, and another in a rock near Mallow. The Banshee Aeibhell had a fine palace in a rock by Killaloe; it was she who threw her cloak round the hero O'Hartigan at the battle of Clontarf, so rendering him invisible. In fact, Joyce is led to exclaim, "Some parts of Connaught must have been more thickly populated with fairies than with men."

Were the fairies in Ireland of great antiquity?

One has written of the fancy, "that the tales of mortals abiding with the Fays in their Sighe palaces are founded on the tender preferences shown by the Druidic priestesses of old to favourite worshippers of the Celtic divinities." N. O'Kearney is of opinion that "our fairy traditions are relics of paganism." Kennedy says, "In borrowing these fictions from their heathen predecessors, the Christian story-tellers did not take much trouble to correct their laxity on the subject of moral obligations." Andrew Lang sees that "the lower mythology—the elemental beliefs of a people—do service beneath a thin covering of Christian uniformity."

At least, we may admit, with Prof. Stokes, that "much of the narrative element in the classic epics is to be found in a popular or childish form in primitive Fairy tales."

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