Up the airy mountain, Down the rush glen, We darent’ go a-hunting, For fear of little men; Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together; Green jacket, red cap, And white owl’s feather!
– from “The Fairies” by William Allingham
Happy St Paddy’s Day! This March-long, we are celebrating our favourite fairy tales, and it has to be said that nobody on Earth does Fairytales quite like the Irish.
In Ireland, to this very day of Science & Skepticism, Fairies are still as much a part of the landscape as the rolling emerald hills, the crumbling cliffs and sparkling waters. Ask any local about them, and you may get a very different account – after all, the Celtic fairies are changelings and come in a host shapes and sizes. But you will always find the same love, respect and possibly a tad of fear or annoyance at these capricious wee folk who share Ireland’s past and present with its ordinary people.
Just who are these Fairy beings, and where do they come from?
Unlike the fairy tales from France and Germany that took place long ago and far, far away, the Irish fairy tales are often told as if they happened yesterday, and to someone living in your own village. That is because the fairies of Ireland are still at large, causing as much mischief as ever. Our cultures may change, but theirs never does. Here are just a few of the folks you’re likely to meet in an Irish Fairy Tale:
- The Sheehogue This word is simply the Irish word for “fairy”; Fairies are called deenee shee, which simply means ‘the wee folk’. Though of course they are not always little, and can in fact appear rather terrifyingly enormous at times!
- The Banshee appears in the form of a woman, either young or old, and is said to wail as an omen of someone’s death.
- The Pooka is a changeling and may appear in the form of a dark horse with yellow eyes, a small goblin or a large bogeyman. Whichever way he comes, farmers know better than to forget to leave a bit of their grain for him. To do so would mean disaster on their livestock, for he is known to shoot them with his paralysing fairy darts when angry.
- The Grogoch is a less intimidating fairy. He looks like a sort of small, hair-covered ogre… that is when he isn’t invisible. His aim to please by helping about the house (much like a house elf), and only asks for a bit of cream left out in payment. When not helping about the house, he lives in caves and crags. Look out for one of these “Grogoch” houses if ever you’re out exploring the Irish hills.
- The Leprechaun which means “the shoemaker” is, as Yeats put it, the only industrious person among the fairies. Whilst the others favour revelries & non-stop dancing to their favourite tunes, the leprechaun busies himself with shoe repair (a useful profession, no doubt. considering how many pairs must wear out with all the dancing!).
Those are just a few of the many Deenee Shee familiar to Irish fairy tales, not to even mention the Black Dog, the Merrows, Merpeople, or sheanagigs!
What sort of mischief do the Irish Fairy folk get up to?
To answer that question, I’m enlisting the help of one of the great Irish fairy tale collectors, W.B. Yeats. **For MUCH more on the subject, I recommend his collection called Irish Fairy and Folk Tales.
Favourite activities of the fairies include: feasting, fighting, dancing & playing beautiful music (and be warned, if you ever you chance to hear a fairy tune, don’t imitate it! They have no patience for human renditions of their music!). They are also known to make Fairy Rings around special trees, and dance and play such sweet music than many a mortal has been bewitched!
Fairy Festivals include:
- May Even when they fight over the best grain
- Midsummer Eve when the fairies frolic at the witching hour, and occasionally steal away a human maiden or appoint a human Fairy King for the night to join in their revelries
- November Eve when the fairies are quite gloomy at the start of winter & may cause a bit of trouble. Also, the Pooka is abroad and goes about spoiling the blackberries.
There is just a wee taste of Irish Fairytales for you on this St Paddy’s Day. Interested to know more? You can find some brilliant Irish story tellers telling the tales as they were meant to be told (orally by the fireside) on Youtube, including this telling of The Black Dog by Eddie Lenihan.
Enjoy your shamrock shakes, dance a jig, and don’t forget to leave a bowl of cream out for the fairies!