Fairy Archaeology and Medico-Religious Ceremonies

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER IV...continued

It is a fact strange, but nevertheless true, that, according as the people are forgetting how to talk Irish, and have taken to reading Bibles and learning English, and thus losing the poetic fictions of other times, so have the animals which used in former days to be excessively communicative, given over holding any discourse with human beings. We must, therefore, go back to the ancient records for any well-authenticated instance of this description, and no better can be got than the following: In the "Wonders of Ireland," according to the Book of Glendalough, it is related, that "on a certain day the poet Mac Coise was at the Boyne, where he perceived a flock of swans, whereupon he threw a stone at them, and it struck one of the swans on the wing. He quickly ran to catch it, and perceived that it was a woman. He inquired tidings from her, and what it was had happened unto her, and what it was that sent her thus forth? And she answered him, 'In sickness I was,' said she, 'and it appeared to my friends that I died, but really it was demons that spirited me away with them.' And the poet restored her to her people." This is said to have occurred about the middle of the tenth century, the time when the elder Mac Coise, chief poet to O'Rourke, prince of Briefny, flourished.[10]

The "Book of Glendaloc" does not now exist; but a transcript of its "wonders" is preserved in the "Book of Ballymote," in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.

The belief in the brownie still remains among the superstitious Presbyterians of the mountains of Derry and Antrim, who leave bread and milk for him on the hearth at night. It is, however, very difficult to find any genuine pagan Irish superstition without being more or less modified by the wonders of the Old or New Testament. The witch of Endor, and the rod of Moses turned into the serpent, have modified many of our superstitions—the marvellous corrupting the marvellous. The devils going into the swine have also helped to tinge many of our saints' legends.

The only genuine stories we have are told in the "Discourse between Patrick and Caoilte Mac Ronan," a purely bardic production, which has not been interpolated by the monks. In all the lives of Patrick he is made greater than Christ, and therefore his miracles become ridiculous.

The following instance of popular superstitious prejudice has been afforded the writer by a person who was present at the transaction; and, as it is best expressed in the words of the narrator, it is here inserted as a quotation: "I well remember in the year 1818, that Mary, the wife of Daniel Kelly, a bouncing, full, auburn-haired, snow-white-skinned woman, about twenty-eight years of age, died suddenly on a summer's day, while in the act of cutting cabbages in her garden. Great was the consternation throughout the entire parish of Moyarta, in the south-west of Clare, at this sad event, the more particularly as several persons who were in a westerly direction from her at the time, declared that they had seen and felt a violent gust of wind pass by and through them in the exact direction of Kelly's house, carrying with it all the dust and straws, &c., which came in its way. This confirmed the husband and friends of the deceased in their impression that she had been carried off to nurse for the fairies. Immediately Mary Quin, alias the Pet (Maire an Pheata), and Margaret MacInerheny, alias Black Peg, two famous fairy-women in the neighbourhood, were called in, who, for three days and three nights, kept up a constant but unavailing assault on a neighbouring fort or rath for the recovery of the abducted woman. But at the end of that time it was found that the body, or what in their belief appeared to be the body, of Mary Kelly, could not be kept over ground, wherefore it was placed in the grave, but still with a total unbelief of its identity. Her bereaved husband and her brothers watched her grave day and night for three weeks after, and then they opened it, in the full conviction of finding only a birch broom, a log of wood, or the skeleton of some deformed monster in it. In this, however, they were mistaken, for they found in it what they had put into it, but in a much more advanced state of decomposition."

Whenever the good people venture abroad, or suddenly change their residence in the open day, their transit is marked by a whirlwind, in the eddies of which dust, straws, and other light substances, are taken up and carried along. When such occur, the Irish peasant, if conversing, ceases to speak, crosses himself, holds his breath, looks down, and mentally repeats a short prayer; and no irreverent expression with regard to the supernatural movement ever drops from him. Many persons have told us that they have often heard and FELT the fairies pass by them with a sound like that of a swarm of bees, or a flock of sparrows on the wing. An instance of this occurred lately during the hurricane at Limerick.

There is no prejudice more firmly rooted than the belief in the abduction of recently-confined females, for the purpose of acting as nurses either to the children of the fairy queen, or to some of those carried away from earth. In certain cases of mental aberration which sometimes occur at this period, the unhappy state of the patient is always attributed to fairy interference. It is believed that the real person is not physically present, but that the patient is one of the fairies who has assumed the features and general appearance of the abducted individual, while the actual person is "giving the breast" to one of Fin Varra's children in the fairy halls of the hill of Knockmaah, in the county Galway. In such cases, if there has been any delay in recovery, the medical attendant is at once discarded, and if a friar had been called in to read prayers over her, and that this did not prove immediately effectual, all legalised practitioners, medical or ecclesiastical, are dismissed, and the fairy doctor is applied to. His mode of proceeding is usually as follows: he fills a cup, or wine-glass with oaten meal, and mutters over it an Irish prayer. He then covers it with a cloth, and applies it to the heart, back, and sides, repeating the incantation on each application. If it is a fairy that is present, one-half of the meal disappears at one side of the vessel, as if it were cut down from above. That which remains is made into three small cakes and baked upon the hearth. The sick person is to eat one of these every morning, "fasting;" when the spell is broken, the fairy departs, and is once more replaced by the real mortal, sound and whole.

The "meal cure" is likewise employed, with some modification, for the heart-ache, and in that case, the expression, "Foir an Cridhe,—ease the heart, ease the heart," is made use of by the charmer on each application. The patient generally visits the doctor on a Monday, Thursday, and Monday, and the meal in the cup is lessened each time in proportion to the amount of disease removed, until at last the vessel is completely emptied. The remnant is brought home each day by the patient, who must not lose any of it, nor speak to any person by the way. The invalid then makes it into a cake, and sits by the fire until it is baked, taking care that neither cat, dog, nor any other living thing passes between him and his cake until it is baked and eaten with three sprigs of watercress, in the name of the Trinity. The meal cure is a very good specimen of fairy sleight of hand, and worthy the attention of modern wizards.

As the person is not always conscious of her state while labouring under what is termed by physicians, "puerpural mania," it is rather difficult to get any very accurate or collected account of the fairy nursery in which they pass their time; and when the cures and charms prove ineffectual, and they "die all out," the truth becomes more difficult to attain; nevertheless it is not quite impossible. In proof of this, we would refer our readers to a very poetic and well-told legend in the Rev. Mr. Neilson's "Introduction to the Irish Language,"[11] where we have an account of one Mary Rourke, who, having died in childbirth, in the county of Galway, was washed, laid out, waked, keened, and buried with all due form and ceremonial. Mary, however, "was in Knockmagha, three quarters of a year, nursing a child, entertained with mirth and sweet songs; but notwithstanding, she was certainly in affliction. At length the host of the castle told her that her husband was now married to another woman, and that she should indulge no longer in sorrow and melancholy; that Fin Varra and all his family were about to pay a visit to the province of Ulster. They set out at cock-crowing, from smooth Knockmaah forth, both Fin Varra and his valiant host. And many a fairy castle, rath and mount they shortly visited from dawn of day till fall of night, on beautiful winged coursers:—

'Around Knock Greine and Knock-na-Rae,
Ben Bulbin and Keis-Corainn,
To Ben Echlann and Loch Da éan,
From thence north-east to Slieve Guilin,
They travelled the lofty hills of Mourne,
Round high Slieve Donard and Ballachanèry,
Down to Dundrim, Dundrum and Dunardalay,
Right forward to Knock-na-Feadala.'"

These are all the celebrated haunts of the fairy people in the west and north. Now at the foot of Knock-na-Feadala there lived with his mother, who was a widow woman, a boy named Thady Hughes, an honest, pious, hard-working bachelor. Well, Thady went out on Hallow Eve night, about the very time that the court of Fin Varra were passing through the air, and as he stood in the gap of an old fort looking up at the stars that were shining bright through the clear frosty air, he observed a dark cloud moving towards him from the south-west, with a great whirlwind; and he heard the sound of horses upon the wind, as a mighty troop of cavalry came over the ford, and straight along the valley, to the very rath on which he stood. Thady was in a mighty flustrification, and trembled all over; but he remembered that he had often heard it said by knowledgable people, that if you cast the dust that is under your foot against the whirlwind at the instant that it passes you, "them that's in it" (that is, if they have any human being along with them) are obliged to be released. So, being of a humane disposition, he lifted a handful of the gravel that was under his foot, and threw it lustily, in the name of the Trinity, against the blast, when, lo and behold! down falls a young woman, neither more nor less than Mary Rourke from Galway, all the way; but mighty wake entirely. Thady took courage, having heard her groan like a Christian, so he spoke softly to her, and lifted her up, and brought her home to his mother, who took care of her till she recovered. In process of time the heart of Thady was softened, and he took Mary to wife, and they lived mighty happy and contented for a year and a day, the lovingest couple in the whole county Down, till a stocking merchant from Connemara, passing that way, recognized her as the wife of Michael Joyce, of Gort, who shortly after came all the ways from Connaught to claim her: and it took six clergy and a bishop to say whose wife she was.[12]

A few, however, of those who have been carried away have returned, and have left us faithful records of all they saw, and what was said and done in the court of his elfin majesty.

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[10] See "The Irish version of Nennius," by the Rev. Dr. Todd, in the "Irish Archaelogical Society's Transactions," page 209.

[11] Dublin, printed for P. Hogan, 1808.

[12] For further particulars on the subject of Irish medical superstitions, as regards the obstetric art, see the Author's essay on the subject in the "Edinburgh Monthly Journal of Medical Science," for May, 1849.