Fairy Archaeology and Medico-Religious Ceremonies

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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"We let mischievous witches with their charms,
We let hobgoblins, fairies, whose sense we see not,
Fray us into things that be not."

The Blast—Story of John Fitzjames—Cleena and the Fairy-Woman—The Dedication—The Meal Cure—The Fallen Angels—Mac Coise's Swan—Mary Kelly's Abduction—The Grave Watchers, a Legend of Fin Varrah, and Knockmah—The Fairy Nurse: a Tale of Innis-Shark.

THE fairies, or "good people"—the dhoine shee of the northerns—are looked upon by us from beyond the Shannon, as the great agents and prime movers in all accidents, diseases, and death, in "man or baste;" causing the healthfulness and fertility of seasons, persons, cattle, and localities; blighting crops, abstracting infants or young people, spiriting away women after their accoutrements, raising whirlwinds and storms, and often heating people most unmercifully. In fact, in former times, and even yet, in the islands of the extreme west, except from sheer old age, or some very ostensible cause, no one is ever believed to "die all out." True it is, that all the outward and visible signs of death are there—speech, motion, respiration, and sensation have ceased; the fountains of life are stopped, and heat has fled; the man is "cowld as a corpse; but what of that?—isn't it well known he got a blast? Sure 'tis no later than the day before yesterday week he was up and hearty, the likeliest boy in the parish, and there he is to-day as stiff as a peeler's ramrod. Didn't I see him with my two livin' eyes at Cormac Maguire's funeral, and he riding home fair and asey, the quitest baste that ever was crassed, without as much as a deligeen bristoh [1] on him—and he, I may say, all as one as black fasting; [2] as he only tuck share of three half-pints at Tubber-na-Skollig—when the mare boulted at a wisp of straws that was furlin (whirling) at the cross-roads, and off she set, gallopin', gallopin', ever ever, till he fell on his head in the shuch [3] forninst his own door, and when they lifted him up he was speechless, and never tasted a bit of the world's bread from that day to this. The priest said an office for him, and the doctor said he was fractured; but sure everybody knows the good people had a hand in it."

Decomposition may indeed afford the physiologist proof positive that the vital spark has fled, but that avails little with a people who firmly believe that he is "with the fairies on the hill of Rawcroghan (Rath Croghan),[4] or the Fort of Mullaghadooey,[5] where there's plenty of the neighbours gone afore him." So rooted is this belief, that we have known food of different kinds, bread, meat, and whiskey to be brought by the relatives of deceased persons, and laid for weeks after in these places for their comforts. Fairy-women are often employed to "set a charm," and bargain for their release with the king and queen of the gentry. Years may elapse, yet will the friends and relatives still cling with desperate tenacity to the delusive hope that the fairy-stricken will return; and they listen with avidity to the various legends which tell how such and such of their neighbours or friends in former times were seen in the court of Fin Varra, or down in the Well of Oran, and sent home messages to their friends to be no ways uneasy about them, for that they would return one day or another. But when the death is very sudden, and no apparent cause can be assigned for it, nothing will persuade the lower orders—and, during the last century, not only the peasantry, but the middle and upper classes—that the person has not been spirited away by supernatural agency. The following historic Munster tale will illustrate this opinion better than any other which we can at present remember:—

"In the year 1736, John, the son and heir of James Fitzgerald, was affianced to a young lady near Fermoy. Munster did not produce in that day a man more noble in person, or with more accomplished manners, or who more excelled in arms and rural sports, than John Fitzjames. His betrothal and expected wedding were the pleasing theme of conversation through the country roads for weeks before the latter occurred, and heavy and substantial were the presents and the contributions to the festivities, sent in by the numerous and powerful friends of the affianced parties, who themselves were to be guests on the happy occasion. The wedding-day arrived, the knot was tied, the feast concluded, and the music and dancing had commenced. The new-married couple were, as is usual, sent down first in the country dance, and never, perhaps, in Munster, nor Ireland itself, did chanter and bow give forth a merrier strain, or timed the dance of a nobler pair than John Fitzjames and his blooming bride; and so thought all who had the happiness to witness them. In the height of his pride and joy, and in the heat of the dance, when he had gone down the middle and up again, changed sides and turned his partner with five-and-forty couple, John Fitzjames clasped his beautiful bride in his arms, impressed a burning kiss upon her lips, and as if struck by a thunderbolt, dropped dead at her feet! The consternation and horror which seized all present were indescribable; every means was adopted to restore animation; but John Fitzjames arose no more. For months and years after, the most reputed fairy-men and women throughout Munster were retained by his own and his virgin bride's friends, in the fruitless endeavour to bring him back from fairyland, whither it was universally believed he had been carried."

Our esteemed friend, Mr. Eugene Curry, to whom we are indebted for this and other tales, has kindly afforded us the following additional notice:—

"There are many mournful elegies in the Irish language still extant, which were written on John Fitzjames at the time of his decease, the best of which is that by James Fitzgerald. Among the many persons who repaired to Glinn to make battle with the fairies, were Caitileen Dubh Keating, and her daughter, Caitileen Oge, from Killclocher, near Loophead, in the county Clare. Caitileen Dubh and her daughter repaired from Glinn to Carrig Cliodhna [6] (Cleena's Rock), near Fermoy, where Cleena, the fairy queen of south Munster, was said to reside in her invisible palace. Here Caitileen, who tarred her clothes and rolled herself in feathers of various colours, met the queen face to face, and reproaching her with the abduction of John Fitzjames, demanded his restoration. Her majesty acknowledged the "soft impeachment, but peremptorily refused to restore so noble a prize to any mere creature of earth. A long argumentation then ensued between them on the matter, which ended, however, in the defeat of Caitileen and her daughter by the superior power of Cleena, who is one of the Tuatha de Dannan race, and whose history is preserved in the Book of Lismore, one of the ancient Irish manuscripts in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. The whole of the argument between the queen and Caitileen was by Fitzgerald cast into a very curious and amusing Irish poem, which is still preserved in the county of Limerick, and of which I possess a fragment. The following rough, but literal translation, is a specimen of one of the stanzas:—

"'O Cleena, Christ himself salute thee!
Long is the journey I have made to thee,
From Cill Cluhar of the ripe berries,
And from Shannon's bank, where sail the swift ships:
Look down, and quickly inform me
What is the state of John Fitzjames?
Or has he parted with Isabel Butler?
Or has he married the maid with the flowing hair?'"

To this Cleena answers

"'To marry or wed I shall not allow him:
I prefer, even tho' dead, to have him myself,
Than married to any beauteous maid of Erin;
And here now, Caitileen, is thy information.'"

We remember a lady of wealth and high respectability in Connaught, who, having lost several of her children in succession, dedicated her next born son to the Virgin, and dressed him completely in white from top to toe, hat, shoes, and all, for the first seven years of his life. He was not allowed even to mount a dark-coloured horse, but had a milk-white pony for his own use. In this instance, however, the people's prediction, that there was "no use in going agin the good people," literally occurred; for when he grew up to manhood, he met a sudden death—having died from the effects of a fall from his horse.

Whenever the slightest accident takes place, as when one falls, or even trips in walking, or sneezes,[7] it is attributed to the fairy influences by which the person is at that moment supposed to be surrounded, and therefore it is expedient immediately to cross one's-self, and invoke a benediction. It would be considered not only disrespectful, but very unlucky, if the bystander did not say, "God bless you," or "God between you and all harm," or spit on you in such a case.[8]

It would be a difficult task to reduce to precise terms all the popular ideas on Irish pantheology, and as they can only be gleaned and sifted from the tale, the rite, or legend, they are best expressed by the same means. The general belief, however, is, that the "good people" or the "wee folk," as they are termed in Ulster, are fallen angels, and that their present habitations in the air, in the water, on dry land, or under ground, were determined by the position which they took up when first cast from heaven's battlements. These are almost the very words used by the peasantry when you can get one of them to discourse upon this forbidden subject. They believe that God will admit the fairies into his palace on the day of judgment, and were it not for this that they would strike or enchant men and cattle much more frequently. They sometimes annoy the departed souls of men who are "putting their pains of purgatory over them" on the earth.[9] The idea of their being fallen angels, came in with Christianity. In the "Book of Armagh" they are called "the gods of the earth"; and in the "Book of Lismore" they are described as the spirits or rather the immortal bodies and souls of the Tuatha de Dananns. The popular impression is, that the great majority of them are old, ugly, and decrepit, but have a power of taking on many forms, and that they generally assume a very diminutive size. It is also believed that they can at will personify or take on the shape of men or animals when they reveal themselves to human beings. The latter is not now, however, so generally believed as in former times, but there are still well-established visitations of both good and bad people in the shape of black cats, which constantly appear to the faithful in this description of folk's lore.

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[1] Deligeen bristoh: A spur; literally "the thorn that incites."

[2] Black fasting, in the religious sense of the word, means total abstinence from meat and drink; but it is an expression not unfrequently applied in Connaught, to abstaining from whiskey. It is, however, generally used in a bantering sense.

[3] Shuch, the sink or stagnant pool of dirty water that is to be found opposite the entrance of the Irish cabin.

[4] For a topographical and antiquarian description of the ancient palace of Rathcrogan, the Tara of the west, in the parish of Kilcorkey, near Ballynagar, county Roscommon, see Dr. O'Donovan's edition of the "Annals of the Four Masters," A.D. 1223, pp, 204, 205.

[5] Mullaghadooey, mullach a dumha, i.e., the summit, or hill of the tumulus, or sepulchral mound; a very remarkable conical hill, in the parish of Baslick, and barony of Ballintobber, near my native village of Castlerea, county Roscommon.

[6] Carrig-Cleena is in the parish of Kelshannick, barony of Duhallow, county Cork. There is another Carrig-Cleena near the loud surge of Cleena's wave, in the vicinity of Glandore. See "Annals of the Four Masters," A.D. 1557, p. 1549.

[7] Sneezes. For some curious authorities respecting the superstitious belief about sneezing, see the "Irish Nennius," p. 145, note z.

[8] Spitting forms the most general, the most popular, and most revered superstition now remaining in Ireland. It is the great preservation against the Evil Eye, and the cure by the "fasting spittle" is one of the most widely-spread of all our popular antiquities; therefore it shall in due course have a chapter devoted to its consideration.

[9] See the Life of Cairbre Crom, in Colgan.