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Mythology

Banshees

The Banshee is the wildest & grandest of all the Irish superstitions. The spirit assumes the form of a woman, sometimes young but more generally very old; her long, ragged locks float over her thin shoulders; she is usually attired in loose white drapery, & her duty upon earth is to warn the family upon whom she attends of some approaching misfortune. This warning is given by a particularly mournful wail - at night - a sound that resembles the melancholy sigh of the wind, but having the tone of a human voice, & distinctly audible at great distance... She is sometimes seen as well as heard; but her form is rarely visible except to the person upon whom she more especially waits. This person must be of an old stock - the representative of some ancient race; & him or she, she never abandons, even in poverty or degradation. Thus the McCarthys, the O'Sullivans, & the O'Reardons, and other se__ts, now reduced to the grade of peasants, have each their Banshee. Few, indeed, of the old families of Ireland are without such an attendant spirit, & the stories of them are to be gathered in every part of the country.

- Halls, Vol. II, p. 106-07

 

 

Fairies

Overview

The superstitions of the Catholic Irish peasantry were characteristic of the intense folk life of a people steeped in tradition & ancient culture. In the backwash of a Europe that had been transformed, on an island shut off from modern influences by the English conquest, denied access to education, isolated rural Ireland kept the memory, unbroken, & in direct succession, of its older life. Oral tradition, uncontaminated by books & undiluted by alien ideas, conserved the old beliefs from generation to generation...

The fairies that dwelt in Ireland - "the grass is full of them," a piper said - were a projection of the character of the people - mischief-loving, fond of dancing & singing, great at sports, gentle until aroused, full of wiles & tricks, called the "good people," who themselves liked to be called "the gentry." Of course they spoke Irish. "What else would they talk?" a woman replied to Lady Gregory. While there were malevolent & malignant creatures among the invisible hosts, the Irish fairy world stands forward by the absence of grossness & sinister apparitions which other races have conjured up in their experience. The witch, for example, was rare, & the devil had no place in the fairy universe. "Fallen angels" was the characterization by the Catholic Irish of the spirits, although their origin was pagan.

The grace & delicacy in the concept of the little creatures represented an idealization of the invisible world, rather than a fearful perversion of human characteristics. Their little forms were so lithe that when they danced upon a dewdrop it trembled & did not break. Fairy music, once heard, haunted the mind with its loveliness; & the highest praise of a fiddler was that he snatched his art from the wee folk: the people could dance all night without tiring to his tunes...

[e] things happened in Ireland. Fairy raths, or forts, fairy kings & fairy paths were involiate ground, & if a road took an unnecessary turn in building it was because the people refused to cut through a traditional fairy path.

- G. Patton, To the G. Door, p. 95-97

The people believed [that the fairies?] followed the emigrant to America...but in the crowded slum tenement houses, by the looms, boilers, & forges of factories, along the canals & railroads, amidst the bustle of city streets, the fairies of the pleasant countryside, the ruined castles, the furze-covered hills & open skys, found (& wanted) no haven in America.

- ibid., p. 100

Did the Irish really believe in fairies, or were they up to their old pastime of treating the absurd seriously? One woman made a classic answer: "Oh, I wouldn't believe in fairies, but it is not harm to believe in fallen angels." Or the characteristic instance told by Sean O'Faolain of the West Cork woman who, when asked if she believed in fairies, replied, "I do not, but they are there!" Devout Roman Catholics though they were, a corner of their minds kept room for the paganism that was older than Patrick.

- ibid., p. 101

 

"She was dressed in red flannel (in Galway), the costume of all mountain peasantry of that country, & this color they tell you is chosen to keep the fairies away."

- Ireland's Welcome to a Stranger, p. 187

 

Donegal

"The elves, which in their true shape are but a few inches high, have an airy, almost transparent body; so delicate is their form, that a dew-drop, when they dance on it, trembles, indeed, but never breaks. Both sexes are of extraordinary beauty, & mortal beings cannot be compared with them.

They do not live alone or in pairs but in large societies, they are invisible to man, particularly in the daytime, as they can be present & hear what is being said, the peasantry never speak of them but with caution & respect, terming them 'the good people,' or 'friends,' as any other name would offend them. If a great cloud of dust rises on the road, it is a sign that they are about to change their residence & move to another place, & the invisible travelers are always saluted with a respectful bow. They have their dwellings in clefts of rock, caves, and ancient t__muli."

 

- Halls, Vol. IV, p. 238

 

 

Fear-Grota

 

"The Fear-Grota (Man of Hunger) is an emaciated phantom that goes through the land in famine time, begging an alms & bringing good luck to the giver."

- Yeats, Irish Fairy & Folk Tales, p. 85.1

 

 

Experiences with

Told by a woman, "Mollie the Wise," who had spent 7 years with farie

s.

...Molly lived with the fairies for a number of years. She was taken when she was crossing a lake with her father & uncle because the failed to make the sign of the cross when they crossed a place in the water where a boy had been drowned (Molly says taken by the fairies), years ago. "It was lilting of a song I was; & my father & uncle paused just as the boat was gliding over the place, & they said they were looking at me that minute, and thinking how purty the moonlight was settling on my face, & the next I was gone." ..."At times she would describe the fairies as the most benevolent "little craythers" in the world, and lament bitterly that she had ever left them. She had, she would say, while with them, "white bread and fresh butter, and cruddy cream, & beautiful flowers, and loads of sweethearts, and everything but the grace of God."

- Mr. & Mrs. S. C. Hall, Vol. III, p. 258

 

 

Isle of the Blessed

It may be regarded as a distinguishing feature in Celtic mythology that its views of the spiritual world are not so gloomy & terrific as those of the Gothic, & we do not find any idea of a place of punishment among its cheerful dogmas. Hence there is no indigenous word in the Irish language to express Hell; whereas the word for Heaven is strictly indigenous, & literally signifies "the isle of the noble," Flath

-inis.

This island is said to be situated off the western coast of Ireland and generally invisible, except to some gifted individuals, who occasionally descried it through the grey mists of the ocean. It is said to be a region of perennial spring & endless pleasure.

- Halls, p. 395

 

 

Fairies - Raths (Mounds)

There is no object which the peasants regard with so much superstitious dread as the rath, from the belief that it is the special property of the fairies. It is almost impossible to find a laborer who can be tempted by any reward to put his spade into one of them. They have consequently remained undisturbed for ages; & often a large space is therefore suffered to continue in unprofitable waste in the center of a fertile meadow. Stories in abundance are told of punishments that have followed attempts to open or level these raths, & of scenes & objects witnessed by persons who have unconsciously slept beside them, or passed them in the night.

- Halls, Vol. I, p. 375 note

"Fairy hill back of Salty's house"

 

 

Fairy & Folk Tales

"In the Parochial Survey of Ireland it is recorded how the story-tellers used to gather together of an evening, & if any had a different version from the others, they would all recite & vote, & the man who had varied would have to abide by their verdict. In this way stories have been handed down with such accuracy, that the long tale of Dierdre was in the earlier decades of this century, told almost word-for-word, as in the very ancient MSS in the Royal Dublin Society. In one case only it varied, & the MS was obviously wrong - a passage had been forgotten by the copyist. But this accuracy is rather in the folk & bardic tales than in the fairy legends, for these vary widely, being usually adapted to some neighboring village or local fairy-seeing celebrity."

- Irish Fairy & Folk Tales, edited by W. B. Yeats, in the introduction

 

 

Land of Promise - Mannan

In Irish mythology Manannan is King of the Land of Promise. The Land of Promise is sometimes identified as a supernatural region in the sid-mounds, the great barrows of the dead; sometimes as approached over the sea or a lake. It is a land where there is naught but truth; without death or decay, or sadness, or envy, or jealousy, or hate, or gloom, or pride, a land of plenty, of flocks & herds, of the ever-young, of flowers & fruits.

P. 150

Irish mythology is a strange world of the imagination...remote from the world of the Middle Ages. The Irish gods are neither "little people" nor "fairies," but tall & beautiful & fair; in all their physical strength and power & fairness of countenance, & even dress, they are superior to human men & women... There are no witches or devils, no puerile miracles or mere vulgar displays of magical powers. The supernatural & the marvelous are invested with restraint & dignity. No question of guilt, or punishment, or judgement in the afterlife ever disturbs the serenity of what Gerard Murphy has called the "strange loveliness" of Celtic mythology. It is this "strange loveliness" of "the otherworld atmosphere which gives its special beauty to the Irish mythological cycle.

  • Dillon & Chadwick, The Celtic Realms, p. 1582

 

 

Storytelling

The old people of Ireland took the greatest delight in repeating their legendary tales to the children, by which constant repetition their old stories became in fact hereditary, & I dare say neither gained nor lost a single sentence in the recital for 100 years. The massacres of Queen Elizabeth were quite familiar to them."

- Sir Jonah Barrington (1769-1834), Personal Sketches (1827), p. 28

1 William Butler Yeats, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. New York : Boni and Liveright, Inc., 1918.

2 Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick, The Celtic Realms. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967.