Tales of the Fairies
DURING my travels in Ireland I made a stay of some time at the house of a farmer at a cross-road west of Dingle. Besides cultivating two farms, this man kept a small country store, near the famous Ventry Strand, had a contract to keep a road in repair, and was, in general, an active person. He had built an addition in two stories to his house, and the upper story he rented to me. The part which I occupied was at the intersection of the roads, and had windows looking out on both of them. Not far from the house was the chapel,[in rural Ireland "chapel" means a Catholic church; "church," a Protestant church.] and about a mile beyond that the graveyard. The position was a good one from which to observe the people of the district as they passed to and fro on the two roads.
My host, Maurice Fitzgerald, was a man who knew the whole countryside well, spoke Gaelic with more ease than English, and held intimate relations with the oldest inhabitants. He knew the Gaelic name of every field within two miles of his house and the name of every hill, cliff, and mountain for many a mile. It may be stated here that in the Gaelic-speaking parts of Ireland there is a most complete system of naming every spot that needs to be distinguished from those around it. My host was a man who retained a belief in fairies, though he did not acknowledge it--at least, explicitly and in words.
"When I was a boy," said he, "nine men in ten believed in fairies, and said so; now only one man in ten will say that he believes in them. If one of the nine believes, he will not tell you; he will keep his mind lo himself."
It is very interesting indeed to find a society with even ten per cent. of the population professed believers in fairies. Of the remaining ninety per cent. a majority are believers without profession, timid believers, men without the courage of their convictions. The minority of the ninety per cent. falls into two parts, one composed of people of various degrees of belief in the fairy creed and philosophy, the other unbelievers. If one were to borrow the terms used in describing shades of difference in religious experience during our time, this minority might be divided into doubters, agnostics, and infidels.
The people of any purely Gaelic district in Ireland, where the language is spoken yet, preserve numerous remnants of pre-Christian belief, and these remnants are, in many cases, very valuable. Grotesque, naïve, and baseless they seem to observers almost always, but if the beliefs and opinions of the ordinary great ones of the earth be examined with due care, and with that freedom of spirit which is indispensable in such investigations, it will be found that many of them are not a whit more reasonable nor built on a better basis than the fairy creed of Ireland.
The people in Ireland have clung to their ancient beliefs with a vividness of faith which in our time is really phenomenal. Other nations have preserved large and (for science) precious heritages of superstition, but generally they have preserved them in a kind of mechanical way. The residuum of beliefs which they give us lack that connection with the present which is so striking in the case of the Irish. Certain divisions of the great Slavic race have preserved a splendid remnant of the old cosmic philosophy of pre-Christian times, and preserved parts of it with remarkable distinctness, but for all people who speak English the beliefs of the Irish contained in their tales have a near interest and a popular value that no similar productions of other nations are likely to attain.
As fairies are made to take such frequent part in Irish country life, and come to one's mind almost involuntarily when speaking of the supernatural in Ireland, I think it well to give in this connection some of the fairy tales and ghost stories told me at that house on the cross-road. These tales will show how vivid the belief of the people is yet, and will prove that fairies are not for all men personages of the past, but are as real for some persons as any other fact in life in this last decade of the nineteenth century.
After I had written down all the tales about Fin Mac Cool and other heroes that I could find in that region, I invited my host to come to me in the evening and bring two or three men to tell strange adventures of our own time, true tales of the district.
I was moved to this by what I had learned at the funeral of a man who had died from a fairy stroke a few days before, and by meeting two men who had been injured by similar strokes. One of the two was a farmer's son who had fallen asleep incautiously while near a fairy fort and was made a cripple for life; the other was a man of fairly good education, who, besides his English knowledge, read and wrote Gaelic. I was unable to obtain the details relating to his case, but the man who died had interfered with a fairy fort and hurt his hand in the act. The deceased was only thirty-three years old, a strong, healthy person, but after he had meddled with the fort his hand began to swell, and grew very painful. The best doctors were summoned, but gave no relief, and the man died from a fairy stroke, according to the statement of all, or nearly all, the people.
After supper the "man of the house" came with two other persons, and we passed a very interesting evening. One of the two visitors was a blind man named Dyeermud Duvane, about forty years of age, and born in the neighbourhood, who had been in America, where he lost his eyesight. He related to me somewhat of his life in the United States. He had been a worker in quarries, had been in charge of gangs of men in New England and the West. He had saved a considerable sum of money when he was placed over a gang of Italians in one of the quarries near Springfield, Mass. The Italians became enraged at him for some reason, and blew up the poor man in the quarry. He lost his sight, and lay in a Boston hospital till his money was gone. After that his friends sent him home, where he lives now in a very small way. Though blind, he found a wife, and with her lives in a little cottage, has a garden and a quarter of an acre of potatoes.
This blind man, though a sceptic by nature, knew some good cases of fairy action, and told the first story of the evening. The second man was seventy years old, white-haired, with a fair complexion, and blue eyes which were wonderfully clear and serious. This was a genuine believer in fairies and a rare example of one type of old Irishman. He lived near a fairy fort about a mile distant; his name was John Malone. His family and friends had suffered from fairies, and his daughter-in-law died from a fairy stroke.
After some preliminary conversation, the blind man began as follows: