Both of my parents were from County Donegal here in Ireland, and there can’t be many areas more deprived and remote than where they grew up. My father’s home was Cloghan, south-west Donegal. Cloghan was a bleak, godforsaken area with much stony soil. My mother lived in the north of the county, in a place called Hillside – which is what it was, a scattering of small farms on the side of a hill.  

My brothers and sisters and I spent many of our childhood summer holidays in Cloghan and Hillside and were barely aware of the poverty around us. What we were aware of however was the rich and sometimes frightening folklore passed on to us by older people who lived there. Sometimes I wondered if they were just trying to scare us townies with their stories of banshees, for example, but other times I was convinced that they believed some of the stories themselves. 

A banshee (in Gaelic this is bean sí, meaning faerie woman of the grave mound) was a spirit that came by night when someone’s death was imminent and usually unexpected. If she was seen, which was rarely, she was dressed in white, although sometimes she wore other colors. But she was more often just heard and her bloodcurdling wails could last as long as half an hour. When she was taking her leave, witnesses sometimes heard a fluttering sound like a bat would make.

I can still remember lying in bed after I returned home to Derry at the end of every summer and imagining sometimes that I heard the wailing of a banshee in our backyard and wondered who was going to die, when probably what I was hearing was only a she-cat in heat.

Strange to relate, arguably the most famous poem ever written about faeries was one by a man who had lived not far from my father’s place in Cloghan. His name was William Allingham, and he was a poet of great learning and output. The poem I’m referring to is The Faeries and here is the beginning of it. The first of these two opening verses captures something of the fascination and fear associated with “the little people”:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men; 
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together; 
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl's feather! 

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam; 
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake. 

Ireland has a long history which goes back to pagan tim
es well before Saint Patrick. But even after the introduction of Christianity here, paganism hung on in the form of many superstitions.The Church authorities recognized that it would be prudent to tread tolerantly when it came to old pagan beliefs, and the result was that paganism and Christianity became joined in an uneasy marriage of convenience. But the annulment is now well underway, nearing the point of completion, in fact.

This however doesn’t prevent the tenacious few from still believing that faeries live all around them. And these spirits are not to be trifled with. They cannot be seen by day, but by night-time they are there, waiting.

Indeed, if one reads a little more of The Faeries one can see that this beautiful poem turns decidedly chilling.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back
Between the night and morrow;
They thought she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag leaves,
Watching till she wake.

The greatest of all Irish poets was William Butler Yeats, and he was profoundly influenced by William Allingham. Indeed, The Faeries was part of what inspired Yeats to write his haunting poem The Stolen Child. While Allingham’s story is told from the point of view of mere mortals, the faeries in Yeats’ poem are the narrators telling how they beguile a boy child to come away with them.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glencar
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams ...

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faerie, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you
can understand. 

Yeats wrote this little masterpiece when he was in his early 20s. He had been introduced to the occult while at art college in Dublin and was immediately fascinated. This passion never left him and informed much of his poetry. He had lost faith in conventional Christianity through the influence of his father, and, because of his need to believe in something outside the material world, he spent the rest of his life steeped in Gaelic lore, mysticism and spiritualism. Such a man could easily lose sight of the real stories behind the missing children in Ireland. 

It was many years after my childhood days in Cloghan and Hillside that a nurse enlightened me about the stolen children. “The faeries were just the fall guys. Or girls,” she told me. “There must have been a lot of mothers that abandoned their babies because they were driven astray in the head. If it wasn’t postpartum depression it was the demented state they were in from going through one pregnancy after another. Artificial birth control just wasn’t on because the Church said that was a mortal sin, and depriving husbands of sex wasn’t approved of either because most priests told women in confession that they had to give them their conjugal rights.” 
And so the tragedies of abandoned children continued. Or as Yeats put it in the final lines of The Stolen Child:  

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faerie, hand in hand,
from a world more full of weeping than he
can understand.


If you enjoyed this piece and would like a free copy of my novel The Fabricator, click here and I'll send it right over.
Thank you for reading. – Colm 

Views: 930

Tags: Folklore, Yeats, banshee, faeries

Comment by Margaret Whittock on September 16, 2016 at 5:02am

The Stolen Child ... a beautiful poem and one of my favourites. 

Comment by Margaret Whittock on September 16, 2016 at 5:07am

Colm, have just had a look at your website. I really like your book covers. Do you design these? It's a shame The Fabricator isn't downloadable to Kindle. Do you ever set any of your books up for Kindle?

Comment by Colm Herron on September 16, 2016 at 7:27am

Thanks Margaret. My daughter designed three of the covers and the other was a combined effort. I didn't put The Fabricator on Kindle because I was very discouraged by the reaction to the book I'd published before that - Further Adventures of James Joyce. None of the reviewers understood what that book was about - and I won't compromise by dumbing it down. Since that I've been planning to do a final edit of The Fabricator before putting it on Kindle. Same goes for my first novel For I Have Sinned. But time is the killer. I'm now trying to write another novel. 

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on September 16, 2016 at 5:55pm

Wonderful article Colm. I remember Allingham's poem very well as we were required to memorize it and recite in class. Another one was Yeats' Lake Isle of Inishfree. Around Crossmaglen as children we were warned about that other scary character, Wiliel the wisp.......LOL.....Scared the crap out of us. Again a great article and I look forward to the next one. 

Comment by Colm Herron on September 17, 2016 at 5:36am

You've sparked my memory John. When you mentioned Willie the wisp I remembered that we were warned not to stop to listen to The Whispering Man. Mythical of course but very real at the same time. The Whispering Man was any paedophile that might be lurking. 

Thanks so much for your comment John. By the way, your scholarly articles leave me in awe

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on September 17, 2016 at 6:56pm

I'm not familiar with the Whispering Man Colm. He is probably based in old tales from long age. I must do some research.

Comment by Colm Herron on September 18, 2016 at 9:46am

John, I've a feeling that the Whispering Man was a local construct. Nobody I spoke to outside of Derry had heard of him.

Comment by Claire Fullerton on September 18, 2016 at 11:34am

Colm, have you ever heard the last song on the Waterboys album, "Fisherman's Blues?" Mike Scott, the mastermind behind the band, which recorded this classic album in Spiddal, hired a local man from Carraroe to read "The Stolen Child" and then put it to music. Loved this piece!

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on September 18, 2016 at 12:37pm

'Come away human child, to the waters and the wild...'

Classic Yeats. Fisherman's Blues another classic.

Comment by Colm Herron on September 19, 2016 at 6:22am

I'd heard The Stolen Child song Claire and have just played it again. Scott's idea of having the local man's recitation interspersed with the rest was inspired. The entire piece is a tribute to Yeats and his attempted flight from the material world. Every time I hear the words 'the waters and the wild' in my head I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins who must have had a significant influence on Yeats. It's impossible to say his poem Inversnaid aloud without marvelling at his mastery of rhythm and onomatopoeia. Here's the link to it. It begins quietly, then explodes.


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