Thursday 2 October 2014

Fairy Annals of Ulster -- No 1

In the old days of the King Artour

•      •      •      •      •      •      •

All was this londe ful filled of faerie;
The elf-quene, with her joly compagnie
Danced ful oft in many a grene mede,
This was the old opinion, as I rede;
I speke of many hundred yeres ago;
But now can no man see none elves mo.
              CHAUCER. -- Wife of Bath's Tale.

"BUT lost -- for ever lost to me those joys,
Which reason scatters, and which time destroys.
Too dearly bought, maturer judgment calls
My busied mind from tales and madrigals;
My doughty giants, all are slain or fled,
And all my knights -- blue, green, and yellow -- dead!
No more the midnight fairy tribe I view,
All in the merry moonshine, tippling dew;
Ev'n the last lingering fiction of the brain,
The churchyard ghost, is now at rest again.
Enchantment bows to wisdom's serious plan,
And pain and prudence mar and make the man.


The following legends or "Fairy Annals" were collected during a residence, in the summer of 1857, in the vicinity of the Giants' Causeway, and in that of 1858, in the neighbourhood of Cushendall (Co. Antrim), at the request of the Editor of this Journal, who wished to ascertain to what extent the belief in the supernatural, in its various manifestations, still existed in our northern province. The conditions favourable to the success of an investigation of this nature were wanting, apparently at least, in the locality first mentioned. The scenery of the coast, magnificent as it is, was not "Fairy" scenery. The land, though well cultivated, possessed but little sylvan beauty; and was inhabited chiefly by a sober, industrious, Presbyterian community, working hard for daily bread, diligent in attendance at their Calvinistic places of worship, and in whom the "romantic element," had it ever existed, might have been supposed to be -- if not preached outa -- at least ground out, under the pressure of high rents. But the land though not picturesque, had a few green spots, still believed to be the haunts of the "Gentle People;" and a friendly intercourse established with its kind-hearted and simple inhabitants, sufficiently proved that the profession of a stern and gloomy mode of faith was not incompatible with this element, and that the pressure from without had not altogether extinguished it.

In Dunluce Castle, Mave Roe, the Banshee or Warning Spirit of the MacDonnells, was believed to rest occasionally from her wanderings, in one of the desolate chambers of those magnificent ruins, remarkable for its cleanliness; but, beyond the silent awe with which her apartment was regarded, little seemed to be felt or known respecting the mournful spirit.

What visitor to the "Causeway" has not heard some of the thousand-and-one tales of its Giant artificers -- Fin Mac Cool and his legions -- of whose work the world has seen no second copy? But these local tales (ingenious and humorous as many of them are) are no longer believed even by their probable authors -- the "Causeway Guides." Science has almost smiled them down; and, in their stead, we must now be content to listen to a dry chapter of Geology, illustrated by a box of specimens of the unvarying model adopted by these learned Thebans, whose "doughty giants" are alas! "all slain or fled."

Powerful in utterly demolishing the strongholds of the Giants, the torch of science must "pale its ineffectual fires" beneath the lights from Fairy-land. We have yet to learn why those lights, still brightly shining among ourselves, should have also illumined the popular mind in all countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and, as has been recently shown, have shed their rays in the far West, amidst our brethren, the Red Indians of the American prairies.b

It is more than poetically true that the belief in Fairies is not a mere "mid-summer night's dream." We have them in Ulster, in this nineteenth century, in all the "pomp, pride, and circumstance" with which they are invested in the ancient mythology of Iceland. They are with us (as is clearly demonstrated in these Annals) to improve our morals and our habits, to reward and punish, to delight and terrify, to torment and amuse, and even to combat in serried legions for our material interests; while, unlike some spirits of modern times, they come without "rapping."

Dr. Dryasdust, the sage philosopher, who probably presides over this and other similar Journals, may, if he can, in the plenitude of his wisdom, discredit the universal testimony of mankind as to the reality of these spiritual existences. The annalist of the Fairies of Ulster bows in modest silence before it; and, to sanction the introduction of their "Annals" into pages so erudite, pleads the words of Charles Dickens, who assures us that "There is in all literature nothing that can be produced which shall represent the essential spirit of a man, or of a people, so completely as a legend, or a Fairy-tale. The wild freaks of fancy reveal more of the real inner life of man than the well-trimmed ideas of the judicious thinker." K.

The adventures recorded in the two following Annals were communicated by a respectable farmer, far advanced in years (now no more), who resided in a well-known hamlet or "town," consisting of six houses only, situated at the confluence of the river Bush with the sea, and from that circumstance deriving its name, Bush-foot. This river, celebrated for its salmon-fishing, attracts, as might be expected, the lovers of "the gentle craft," in great numbers, each season to its banks; some of whom, with occasionally a few families of the so-called better classes, prefer the accommodations the "town" affords, to those of watering-places of greater size and pretension, on account of its vicinity to the Giant's Causeway, and other portions of the magnificent scenery of the Antrim coast; and who, at times, gladly avail themselves of the companionship of its singularly unsophisticated, quiet, and intelligent inhabitants. This companionship has insensibly refined the manners and language of the villagers, and accounts, in some measure, for the style in which our old friend the farmer told his tale. In him, the belief in Fairies and other supernatural beings was not a superstition, but a faith; and in all earnestness and sincerity he commenced his narrative, as follows:


"I was tradin' at one time, back and forward on the coast of Scotland, in a smack belongin' to a merchant in Greenock; our cargo was sometimes fish, but mostly oil of different kinds, that we took from one port to another. I never can forget what happened to me one winter, many years ago.

We were off the west coast, and the weather was rough and stormy; it blew so hard one day that we had to run for it, and took shelter in a small bay in Islay, along with eight or ten fishing boats, driven in by the gale to the same place. There were three men besides myself on board the smack. We got the oil-casks ashore, and hauled the smack up as far as 'we could on the beach, and kept her up with a leg on each side; and the three hands went to spend the remainder of the day and night with some acquaintances they had on the island, leavin' me in charge of the smack.

I amused myself watchin' the fishermen settlin' their nets and sortin' their fish, for they had caught plenty before the wind got up; and when it grew dark I went below, took my supper, and got into my berth for the night. I can't say how long I slept, until I was awoke by a noise on deck like people dancin'; and nice music, softer and sweeter than any ever I heard before, playin' at a little distance: at times I took it for the pipes, but no pipes ever came up to it for sweetness. After listenin' for a while, I got up and looked out; there was nothin' to be seen on deck, and the music sounded as if it was a mile off, and at last died away.

I went below, greatly surprised at what had happened, and was soon asleep once more in my berth. Again I was awoke by the dancin' over my head, and the music, that sounded louder than at first. I lay for some time listenin', and expectin' it would stop, but no such thing: at last I got up and called out, crossly enough, for them to leave that, whoever they were, or it would be worse for them. I had a pair of pistols in the cabin, and takin' one of them in my hand, I went up a second time; but nothin' was to be seen, and the music soundin' as before, at a great distance, soit as ever. I began to think it was some of the fishermen that were playin' these tricks on me, so I says, "Boys, there has been enough of this; mind your own business, and let me alone from this out, or maybe you'll get the like of this about your ears;" and with that, I fired off the pistol, but no one spoke: all was quiet, except the music far away.

I lay down, and after a time fell asleep, but once more I was startled worse than ever; for I heard the oil-casks scringin' on the beach -- which was shingly -- as if they were goin' to be staved, rollin' backwards and forwards at a fearful rate. I charged the pistols, and takin' one in each hand, I went up, determined, whoever it was, to make them pay dearly for that sort of fun; but I declare I was scared when I saw nobody on, or in sight of the smack, and the barrels lyin' as we left them on the beach; but the music had stopped, and instead of it, I heard a noise like children laughin' and talkin' far off in the distance. All I could do was to rage and swear that I would shoot whoever made any more disturbance, and down I went to ray berth; but there was no sleep for me the remainder of the night: sometimes the dancin' would begin, and the music; then that would stop, and the casks would begin scringin' over the shingles; then I would hear scrapin' and borin', as if they were makin' holes in the sides of the smack. Day broke at last, and when I looked out I saw some of the fishermen coming down the country to their boats. 'Well,' said they to me, 'you had pleasant company last night.' 'I had plenty of noise,' says I, 'but no company that I saw.' 'Well, we saw plenty of good company on and about the smack; but we left the place entirely to them and you, thinkin' it safest not to stay when we wer'nt wanted.' They saw the Gentle People dancin' on the deck to the music, and sportin' about the smack, and they went off, leaving their boats and the fish lyin' about."

"And you really think, Mr. H. it was the Fairies all the time?" I asked.

"To be sure it was," he replied; "and I would have seen them as well as the fishermen did, if I had'nt sworn and spoke so cross at the start. People should speak civilly to the Gentle People, or else say nothin'; for if you provoke them they will have their revenge, one way or other.

I was comin' home from Coleraine one night long ago, with my wife and the schoolmaster on the car. I was sittin' on one side, and they on the other. We saw a great light shinin' on the road a good way on before us. When we came up to it I saw nothin' on my side but the bright light: it was at a new road that had been made, where a hill had been levelled through an old fort that was there at that time. My wife and the schoolmaster saw a company of small ladies and gentlemen in a large room, blazin' with light, in the bank under where the fort was, some walkin', some sittin', but all talkin' and laughin'. None of us spoke, for fear, as we drove past; but the schoolmaster, to the day of his death, never forgot the sight he saw of the beautiful company in that blazin' room, and many a time spoke to my wife about it."

"Where do you think the Fairies came from?" I asked.

"Many of them have been in this country from the earliest time," he replied. "Fleets of them came over from Orkney and Norway, sailing in egg-shells; and it is a fashion still among the country-people to teach their children, after they have eaten an egg, to run their spoon through the end of the shell, to prevent the Gentle People using them again for boats to sail away from us."c

"Where do you think they live now?" I inquired.

"Mostly in their underground habitations; but since the gospel was preached in this country, it was too strong for them, and they are greatly dispersed; some say they have taken to the air, but God only knows.


"One mornin', some years ago, in hind-harvest, before day-break, Jemmy Thompson and I got up to look about some young cattle we had grazin' near the Bush; there had been a great deal of rain, and there was the largest flood in the river that any of us had seen; it was over the Cutts entirely when we went down. It was one of the spring-tides at the fall of the moon, at the time, and a westerly wind blowin' in pretty strong. I never saw a greater commotion at the mouth of the Bush than there was that mornin', -- between the breakers as they came foamin' up, and the flood in the river. We stood lookin' at the wild picture before us, when all at once we saw a tall figure of a man standin' on one of the pillars in the middle of the Bush, with a long, loose grey cloak on him, his face turned next the strand, so that we could not see it. We were scared at first -- Jemmy worse than I was -- when we saw the man (as we took him to be) in such a place, where nobody could have got to him, even in a boat, in such a surge of water. Scared as I was, I hailed him, and asked how he got there. There was no answer. I hailed a second time, and asked could we help him: after a little he moved himself, but did not speak or turn his face to us. 'Come away, Alick,' says Jemmy, 'we're too long here:' and indeed by that time I was ready enough to go, for I was weak at the heart with fear, and Jemmy was worse. We turned home, never looking back. Jemmy went to his bed, but I did'nt; and when the family got up, and the breakfast over, I went in to see Jemmy. I found him in bed, and it shakin' under him, he trembled at such a rate, and the perspiration hailin' off him with the fright he got!"

"What do you think the figure was?" I asked.

"It was the Grey Man" he replied, "he has been often seen along this coast; there is a path called after him 'the Grey Man's path,' at Fair Head, as every body knows."

"Who or what is the Grey Man?

"I know very well what he was," replied he; "it was clear enough that mornin' for us to see the colour of the cloak he had on, and we could have seen his cloven foot, only he was standin' in the water that was over the pillar at the time!"d

The foregoing startling incident forms a striking contrast, in its details, to the former "Gentle" experience of our friend, the farmer. If, as the poet informs us,
"From his brimstone bed, at break of day,
A-walking the Devil had gone,"
the intense realism of his appearance to the two awe-struck and terrified spectators proves the fact, that a belief in this living and terrible personage still exists in the Church of which they were members.

To be continued...

[a] "The Kirk was the agent in suppressing the romantic element in Scotland; and this explains the fact that so many Scotch literati have been Episcopalians." Athenaeum, May, 1858.

[b] Far and wide among the nations
      Spread the name and fame of Kwasind;
      No man dar'd to strive with Kwasind,
      But the mischievous Puk-Wudjies,
      They the envious little people,
      They the fairies and the pygmies,
      Plotted and conspired against him.
                           LONGFELLOW'S Hiawatha.

[c] Reginald Scott, in his Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), says it was believed that witches could sail in an egg-shell, a cockle, or a muscle shell, through and under the tempestuous seas. -- Stevens, Notes on Macbeth.

[d] The ghastly humour with which the "Deil" was associated in the popular Scottish mind, was, perhaps, more terrible than the awe which he inspired. Inexplicable as many of the phenomena of witchcraft scorn to be, the key to the whole belief is the intense realism with which our ancestors thought of the "Enemy." He was not a principle of evil only, but a real, living, terrible personage, who could manifest himself in the flesh whensoever he pleased. In fact, he was "a familiar terror, and might pass out of the invisible into the visible world any moment." Chambers.

The above article is reproduced from the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 6, 1858.

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