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: 812

Tags: Folklore, Yeats, banshee, faeries

Comment by michael dunne on September 25, 2016 at 5:46pm

The Fisherman is at a  remove from 19th and 20th Century Irishmen. We are not talking about W B's version of Gillies and landed gentry. We should think carefully about the notorious Gregory Clause and the aristocracy which WB aspired to. If you want, please look up what a Breacadóir done for a living in those times. Breac is the Gaelic word for speckled and also for a trout. Irishmen were not 'fly fishermen or experienced anglers as depicted in this poem which is an attack on irish people and a supporting endorsement for Synges Playboy of the Western World.The vast majority of Irish people in those times of great hardship could hardly feed themselves let alone attend the theatre. This poem is an attack on the Irish but an indiscriminate one like the indiscriminate attacks that are made on the underprivileged everywhere. The philistines which W. B. directs his criticism in this play are the Nouveau Rich, the greasy penny to the greasy till merchants that his class helped set up in Gombeen Ireland.      

Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped ‘twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;

The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Maybe a twelvemonth since,
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down-turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, ‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.

As a matter of interest a Breacadóir would call to people in various Munster towns and for a modest fee he would speck;le of punch your grinding stones so you could break down grain and make bread. Under colonial and royal laws it was illegal for people to grind their own grain. A check on the early Census records will let you know who the Millers were. It may also be noted that millers were a form of Proctor or tithe collector or tax man for the Crown.

Comment by michael dunne on September 25, 2016 at 5:50pm

W B would have stuck to 'the waters and the wild' were it not for the terrible beauty created by social inequality. The Faeries and hobgoblins had to go like the Earls. Both were pains in the butt and responsible for the present indecision of our people.

Comment by Colm Herron on September 26, 2016 at 5:51am

Thanks Michael. I have no illusions about Yeats' attitudes to what he considered the mere mortals of Ireland. Three people convinced me long ago that his talent as a wordsmith (excepting his nonsensical stage collaborations with Augusta Gregory) was an entirely different matter from his socially poisonous better than thou attitude and unbearable pretensions. Those three were Joyce, Francis Stuart (see Black List, Section H) and Stan Davies in his outstanding and underrated biography of Joyce A Portrait of the Artist. Just as Oscar Wilde's buggering of boys in the company of Andre Gide during their forays into north Africa in no way turns me off the brilliance of what they wrote, Yeats' insufferably stuffy world outside his poetry doesn't affect my appreciation of most of what HE wrote. 

The present indecision of our people, in my opinion, is down to their apathy and lack of backbone - with a small minority of honourable exceptions. They bent and continue to bend under the lash from Europe and the lies of our two main political parties re the unforgivable crime of austerity that was visited on them. Our people need to be led and the political establishment have rendered them so passive that I despair.   

Comment by michael dunne on September 26, 2016 at 7:37am

Thank you Colm. I am no literary scholar, but I come from a long line of proud underdogs, which has its setbacks but despair isn't one of them. It may take another decade or so, but so many of our young population have been consigned to impoverishment by discriminating government/ Trade Union partnerships disenfranchising those starting out in life to the extent they may never be able to afford a home in which to live. So our greatest export and sadly our greatest asset is once again the boat or the plane to anywhere.

I'm not sure its the lash of Europe we bend under but more like the age old racketeering and exploitation of the working class. No more adept a species could one find for this pursuit than the Gombeen Irishman and his cohorts elsewhere. But reforms in civil rights, social entitlements, access to the E.U. courts and women's equality are credited to the same EU. Its a worrying development to see working class people form the backbone of the Brexit referendum. They are voting themselves back to the Victorian time where children were used as chimney cleaners until legislation eventually stopped the practice. Afterwards geese were substituted. The UK never embraced the Euro because the divide would have been too expensive to bridge, and so remain joined at the hip with the US dollar.The US a couple of years ago protested Irelands corporate tax laws were not right? Then as soon as they raised enough protest, and the EU have now taken up the 'Lash' the US has stepped back to watch developments. Ireland as you know is a small population of 5 million souls with up to recently an agricultural economy. This was even part of a plan to keep the UK in cheap food.Now with EU help and an educated population we have diversified. But our country as yet isn't powerful enough to act as the sole International Revenue Police Enforcement Agency. When we are, our first port of call might be the US followed by the UK and how their banking system and tax returns operate.

Spheres of influence especially economic ones have 'changed utterly' in the past couple of decades. The US who helped set up the Common Market and coupled this economic package with the military one of 'Containment' are now side by side with the Russians in Syria. The elephant in the room is the expanding economy of China due to its exploitation of cheap labour costs.This is where the real focus of the international community enforcement organizations like the UN should be focused. Whatever about Americas finest hour in rescuing Europe militarily and economically after World War 2, recent events and the specter of Mr.Trump raises the big question of where and how future US policies will develop.  


Comment by Colm Herron on September 26, 2016 at 9:24am

Michael, I think we differ mainly in emphasis. The EU is a mixed bag. It has so many good attributes but Merkel got her minions to read the riot act to Cowan and his cowards during the long night of the long knives because her (and others') friends the bankers had to be accommodated, Irish haircut not an option. This crowd of European gangsters studiously ignored the first rule in investments: THE VALUE OF YOUR SHARES MAY GO DOWN AS WELL AS UP.

I'd love to think that our determined young people would rise up in 10/20 years but if your sentence "So our greatest export and sadly our greatest asset is once again the boat or the plane to anywhere" comes to pass in a big way then God save us. Hence my feelings of despair. 

And as for the US, well, the US is a disaster that has already happened and is on its way to being a catastrophe. Every call they make on foreign policy is so utterly stupid that it's almost unbelievable. (Look at Samantha Power for heaven's sake. And have a gander at this:  )

Michael, the US movers and shakers inside and outside of Washington have produced Trump as surely as Victor Frankenstein produced his monster. And I wouldn't blame it all on the Republicans by any means. And when Hillary wins, as she will, brace yourself for the most hawkish, brutal, self-satisfied presidency since Dubya's. The girl can't help it. I'll make a forecast now which I hope to God is wrong. The Palestinian people are going to get it in the neck within months of her inauguration. It will make the last slaughter of 2 years ago seem tame. And her war games in the further and wider will only be Gaza writ large.

I agree entirely with your socialist analysis in your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. And I accept what you call "age old racketeering and exploitation of the working class" as a fact. That's what I mean by our differing emphases. When I wrote of the 2 main Irish parties' lies I was including those two characteristics.

Comment by michael dunne on September 26, 2016 at 2:51pm

You are right Colm regarding the EU and its mixed bag. In the earliest days of Irelands banking crisis, Angela was adamant the Irish Government should 'burn the bondholders' Her stance changed within days on realizing the extent of the problem and how many of these same bondholders were German. These are stressful times for all people. My daughter is apparently happy working in New Zealand. She had a well paid job here but left as she sees many of her friends here unemployed when she returned on holiday. The EU is being outthought and outmaneuvered by the US and by certain elements in the UK. For me it is sad to watch what was the greatest organization of people and their entitlements being scuppered by both devious and dense individuals.  So the baby is going to be dumped with the bathwater.


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