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 Evidence in Ireland

[Note: This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]

Douglas Hyde

Introduction by DOUGLAS HYDE, LL.D., D. Litt., M.R.I.A. (An Craoibhin Aoibhinn), President of the Gaelic League; author of A Literary History of Ireland, &c.

Whatever may be thought of the conclusions drawn by Mr. Wentz from his explorations into the Irish spirit-world, there can be no doubt as to the accuracy of the data from which he draws them. I have myself been for nearly a quarter of a century collecting, off and on, the folk-lore of Western Ireland, not indeed in the shape in which Mr. Wentz has collected it, but rather with an eye (partly for linguistic and literary purposes) to its songs, sayings, ballads, proverbs, and sgéalta, which last are generally the equivalent of the German Merchen, but sometimes have a touch of the saga nature about them. In making a collection of these things I have naturally come across a very large amount of folk-belief conversationally expressed, with regard to the ‘good people’ and other supernatural manifestations, so that I can bear witness to the fidelity with which Mr. Wentz has done his work on Irish soil, for to a great number of the beliefs which he records I have myself heard parallels, sometimes I have heard near variants of the stories, sometimes the identical stories. So we may, I think, unhesitatingly accept his subject-matter, whatever, as I said, be the conclusions we may deduce from them.

The folk-tale, which I have spent so much time in collecting, must not be confounded with the folk-belief which forms the basis of Mr. Wentz’s studies. The story is something much more intricate, complicated, and thought-out than the belief. One can quite easily distinguish between the two. One (the belief) is short, conversational, chiefly relating to real people, and contains no great sequence of incidents, while the other (the folk-tale) is long, complicated, more or less conventional, and above all has its interest grouped around a single central figure, that of the hero or heroine. I may make this plainer by an example. Let us go into a cottage on the mountain-side, as Mr. Wentz and I have done so often, and ask the old man of the house if he ever heard of such things as fairies, and he will tell you that ‘there is fairies in it surely. Didn’t his own father see the “forth” beyond full of them, and he passing by of a moonlight night and a little piper among them, and he playing music that mortal man never heard the like? ‘ or he’ll tell you that ‘he himself wouldn’t say agin fairies for it ‘s often he heard their music at the old bush behind the house’. Ask what the fairies are like, and he will tell you - well, pretty much what Mr. Wentz tells us. From this and the like accounts we form our ideas of fairies and fairy music, of ghosts, mermaids, pucas, and so on, but there is no sequence of incidents, no hero, no heroine, no story.

Again, ask the old man if he knows e’er a story, and he will ask you at once, ‘Did you ever hear the Speckled Bull; did you ever hear the Well at the end of the world; did you ever hear the Tailor and the Three Beasts; did you ever hear the Hornless Cow? Ask him to relate one of these, and if you get him in the right vein, which may be perhaps one time in ten, or if you induce the right vein, which you may do perhaps nine times out of ten, you will find him begin with a certain gravity and solemnity at the very beginning, thus,

‘There was once, in old times and in old times it was, a king in Ireland’; or perhaps ‘a man who married a second wife’; or perhaps ‘a widow woman with only one son’: and the tale proceeds to recount the life and adventures of the heroes or heroines, whose biographies told in Irish in a sort of stereotyped form may take from ten minutes to half an hour to get through. Some stories would burn out a dip candle in the telling, or even last the whole night. But these stories have little or nothing to say to the questions raised in this book.

The problem we have to deal with is a startling one, as thus put before us by Mr. Wentz. Are these beings of the spirit world real beings, having a veritable existence of their own, in a world of their own, or are they only the creation of the imagination of his informants, and the tradition of bygone centuries? The newspaper, the ‘National’ School, and the Zeitgeist have answered to their own entire satisfaction that these things are imagination pure and simple. Yet this off-hand condemnation does not always carry with it a perfect conviction. We do not doubt the existence of tree-martins or kingfishers, although nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of every thousand pass their entire lives without being vouchsafed a glimpse of them in their live state; and may it not be the same with the creatures of the spirit world, may not they also exist, though to only one in a thousand it be vouchsafed to behold them? The spirit creatures cannot be stuffed and put into museums, like rare animals and birds, whose existence we might doubt of if we had not seen them there; yet they may exist just as such animals and birds do, though we cannot see them. I, at least, have often been tempted to think so. But the following considerations, partly drawn from comparative folk-lore, have made me hesitate about definitely accepting any theory.

In the first place, then, viewing the Irish spirit-world as a whole, we find that it contains, even on Mr. Wentz’s showing, quite a number of different orders of beings, of varying shapes, appearances, size, and functions. Are we to believe that all those beings equally exist, and, on the principle that there can be no smoke without a fire, are we to hold that there would be no popular conception of the banshee, the leprechaun, or the Maighdean-mhara (sea-maiden, mermaid), and consequently no tales told about them, if such beings did not exist, and from time to time allow themselves to be seen like the wood-martin and the kingfisher? This question is, moreover, further complicated by the belief in the appearance of things that are or appear to be inanimate objects, not living beings, such as the deaf coach or the phantom ship in full sail, the appearance of which Mr. Yeats has immortalized in one of his earliest and finest poems.

Again, although the bean-sidhe (banshee), leprechaun, puca, and the like are the most commonly known and usually seen creatures of the spirit world, yet great quantities of other appearances are believed to have been also sporadically met with. I very well remember sitting one night some four or five years ago in an hotel in Indianapolis, U.S.A., and talking to four Irishmen, one or two of them very wealthy, and all prosperous citizens of the United States. The talk happened to turn upon spirits - the only time during my entire American experiences in which such a thing happened-and each man of the four had a story of his own to tell, in which he was a convinced believer, of ghostly manifestations seen by him in Ireland. Two of these manifestations were of beings that would fall into no known category; a monstrous rabbit as big as an ass, which plunged into the sea (rabbits can swim), and a white heifer which ascended to heaven, were two of them. I myself, when a boy of ten or eleven, was perfectly convinced that on a fine early dewy morning in summer when people were still in bed, I saw a strange horse run round a seven-acre field of ours and change into a woman, who ran even swifter than the horse, and after a couple of courses round the field disappeared into our haggard. I am sure, whatever I may believe to-day, no earthly persuasion would, at the time, have convinced me that I did not see this. Yet I never saw it again, and never heard of any one else seeing the same.

My object in mentioning these things is to show that if we concede the real objective existence of, let us say, the apparently well-authenticated banshee (Bean-sidhe,’ woman-fairy ‘), where are we to stop? for any number of beings, more or less well authenticated, come crowding on her heels, so many indeed that they would point to a far more extensive world of different shapes than is usually suspected, not to speak of inanimate objects like the coach and the ship. Of course there is nothing inherently impossible in all these shapes existing any more than in one of them existing, but they all seem to me to rest upon the same kind of testimony, stronger in the case of some, less strong in the case of others, and it is as well to point out this clearly.

My own experience is that beliefs in the Sidhe (pronounced Shee) folk, and in other denizens of the invisible world is, in many places, rapidly dying. In reading folk-lore collections like those of Mr. Wentz and others, one is naturally inclined to exaggerate the extent and depth of these traditions. They certainly still exist, and can be found if you go to search for them; but they often exist almost as it were by sufferance, only in spots, and are ceasing to be any longer a power. Near my home in a western county (County Roscommon) rises gently a slope, which, owing to the flatness of the surrounding regions, almost becomes a hill, and is a conspicuous object for many miles upon every side. The old people called it in Irish Mullach na Sidhe. This name is now practically lost, and it is called Fairymount. So extinct have the traditions of the Sidhe-folk, who lived within the hill, become, that a high ecclesiastic recently driving by asked his driver was there an Irish name for the hill, and what was it, and his driver did not know. There took place a few years ago a much talked of bog-slide in the neighbouring townland of Cloon-Sheever (Sidhbhair or Siabhra), ‘ the Meadow of the Fairies,’ and many newspaper correspondents came to view it. One of the natives told a sympathetic newspaper reporter, ‘Sure we always knew it was going to move, that ‘s why the place is named Cloon-Sheever, the bog was always in a “shiver” !’ I have never been able to hear of any legends attached to what must have at one time been held to be the head-quarters of the Sidhe for a score of miles round it.

Of all the beings in the Irish mythological world the Sidhe are, however, apparently the oldest and the most distinctive. Beside them in literature and general renown all other beings sink into insignificance. A belief in them formerly dominated the whole of Irish life. The Sidhe or Tuatha De Danann were a people like ourselves who inhabited the hills - not as a rule the highest and most salient eminences, but I think more usually the pleasant undulating slopes or gentle hill-sides - and who lived there a life of their own, marrying or giving in marriage, banqueting or making war, and leading there just as real a life as is our own. All Irish literature, particularly perhaps the ‘Colloquy of the Ancients’ (Agallamh na Sen—rach) abounds with reference to them. To inquire how the Irish originally came by their belief in these beings, the Sidhe or Tuatha De Danann, is to raise a question which cannot be answered, any more than one can answer the question, Where did the Romans obtain their belief in Bacchus and the fauns, or the Greeks their own belief in the beings of Olympus?

But granting such belief to have been indigenous to the Irish, as it certainly seems to have been, then the tall, handsome fairies of Ben Bulbin and the Sligo district, about whom Mr. Wentz tells us so much interesting matter, might be accounted for as being a continuation of the tradition of the ancient Gaels, or a piece of heredity inherent in the folk-imagination. I mean, in other words, that the tradition about these handsome dwellers within the hill-sides having been handed down for ages, and having been perhaps exceptionally well preserved in those districts, people saw just what they had always been told existed, or, if I may so put it, they saw what they expected to see.

Fin Bheara, the King of the Connacht Fairies in Cnoc Meadha (or Castlehacket) in the County Galway, his Queen Nuala, and all the beautiful forms seen by Mr. Wentz’s seer-witness (pp. 6o ff.), all the banshees and all the human figures, white women, and so forth, who are seen in raths and moats and on hill-sides, are the direct descendants, so to speak, of the Tuatha De Danann or the Sidhe. Of this, I think, there can be no doubt whatever.

But then how are we to account far the little red-dressed men and women and the leprechauns? Yet, are they any more wonderful than the pygmies of classic tradition? Is not the Mermaid to be found in Greece, and is not the Lorelei as Germanic as the Kelpy is Caledonian. If we grant that all these are creatures of primitive folk-belief, then how they come to be so ceases to be a Celtic problem, it becomes a world problem. But granted, as I say, that they were all creatures of primitive folk-belief, then their occasional appearances, or the belief in such, may be accounted for in exactly the same way as I have suggested to be possible in the case of the Ben Bulbin fairies.

As for the belief in ghosts or revenants (in Irish tais or taidhbhse), it seems to me that this may possibly rest to some extent upon a different footing altogether. Here we are not confronted by a different order of beings of different shapes and attributes from our own, but only with the appearances, amongst the living, of men who were believed or known to be dead or far away from the scene of their appearances. Even those who may be most sceptical about the Sidhe-folk and the leprechauns are likely to be convinced (on the mere evidence) that the existence of ‘ astral bodies’ or ‘doubles’, or whatever we may call them, and the appearances of people, especially in the hour of their death, to other people who were perhaps hundreds of miles away at the time, is amply proven. Yet whatever may have been the case originally when man was young, I do not think that this had in later times any more direct bearing upon the belief in the Sidhe, the leprechauns, the mermaid, and similar beings than upon the belief in the Greek Pantheon, the naiads, the dryads, or the fauns; all of which beliefs, probably arising originally from an animistic source, must have differentiated themselves at a very early period. Of course every real apparition, every ‘ghost’ apparition, tends now, and must have tended at all times, to strengthen every spirit belief. For do not ghost apparitions belong, in a way, to the same realm as all the others we have spoken of, that is, to a realm equally outside our normal experience?

Another very interesting point, and one hitherto generally overlooked, is this, that different parts of the Irish soil cherish different bodies of supernatural beings. The North of Ireland believes in beings unknown in the South, and North-East Leinster has spirits unknown to the West. Some places seem to be almost given up to special beliefs. Any outsider, for instance, who may have read that powerful and grisly book, La Legende de la Mort, by M. Anatole Le Braz, in two large volumes, all about the awful appearances of Ankou (Death), who simply dominates the folk-lore of Brittany, will probably be very much astonished to know that, though I have been collecting Irish folk-lore all my life, I have never met Death figuring as a personality in more than two or three tales, and these mostly of a trivial or humorous description, though the Death Coach, the belief in which is pretty general, does seem a kind of parallel to the creaking cart in which Ankou rides.

I would suggest, then, that the restriction of certain forms of spirits, if I may so call them, to certain localities, may be due to race intermixture. I would imagine that where the people of a primitive tribe settled down most strongly, they also most strongly preserved the memory of those supernatural beings who were peculiarly their own. The Sidhe-folk appear to be pre-eminently and distinctively Milesian, but the geancanach (name of some little spirit in Meath and portion of Ulster) may have been believed in by a race entirely different from that which believed in the cliracaun (a Munster sprite). Some of these beliefs may be Aryan, but many are probably pre-Celtic.

Is it not strange that while the names and exploits of the great semi-mythological heroes of the various Saga cycles of Ireland, Cuchulainn, Conor mac Nessa, Finn, Osgar, Oisin, and the rest, are at present the inheritance of all Ireland, and are known in every part of it, there should still be, as I have said, supernatural beings believed in which are unknown outside of their own districts, and of which the rest of ireland has never heard? If the inhabitants of the limited districts in which these are seen still think they see them, my suggestion is that the earlier race handed down an account of the primitive beings believed in by their own tribe, and later generations, if they saw anything, saw just what they were told existed.

Whilst far from questioning the actual existence of certain spiritual forms and apparitions, I venture to throw out these considerations for what they may be worth, and I desire again to thank Mr. Wentz for all the valuable data be has collected for throwing light upon so interesting a question.

RATRA FRENCHPARK,
County Roscommon, IRELAND,
September
1910.

 

 

 

 

 

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