There is an Irish language and culture going right back to the magical tale of the Tuatha Dé Dannann, a people for whom spoken words held great power. Today in our literary dominated consciousness, we are not aware perhaps of the very different world one inhabits when language is primarily known as a spoken lived experience. In the Ancient Greece Plato, in his Phaedrus, cautioned that writing could produce a forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it because they will no longer exercise their memories.
In Ireland sayings (na seanfhocail), and stories(scéalta), were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. It was not uncommon to meet a farmer in rural Mayo at the turn of the last century for whom the great stories of Ancient Greece were constant companion as the stories of Ancient Ireland. Thanks to the role of Ireland’s Hedge Schools which served as a means of knowledge during the 800 years of cultural suppression, a form of Classical education animated the minds of young scholars, keeping these stories fresh and alive. While the people may have been materially poor, culturally there is no doubt but that the indigenous Irish imagination is a unique jewel indeed.
Folklore – or Lore of the Folk refers to those stories that have been recorded by interested persons since the Turn of the 19th Century. In Ireland, these collectors include Oscar Wildes’ Mother Lady Wilde or “Speranza” as she liked to be known. Another formidable lady collector was Lady Gregory, herself a Playwright and a key mentor for Nobel Laureat W.B. Yeats, in his journey to becoming a successful Poet. Through their celebration of the Culture and Language of the Irish People the ladies, Wilde and Gregory, fanned the flames of change for a people who were without a voice and in great poverty following hundreds of years of suppression.
In these pages you will find experts from such Folklore. Here are tales of wonder and enchantment, of Romance, love and loss. As you make your journey through the beauty of Ireland’s coast, I hope you will hear the voices of the past in these stories.
Your eyes may be opened to that mystery and see the world as it once appeared to innocent eyes, full of wonder and inexplicable wonders. Here every Stone tells a story. If we could only listen!
The Evil Eye
As it is in Greece, Egypt, or Italy up to present times- we find tales of the dark power of the Evil Eye in the folklore of Ireland. I share with you here one such story. It is said that everything that is beautiful and naturally attracts attention or admiration is at risk from the terrible effects of the Evil Eye. Therefore, there has been a custom in Ireland not to praise anything without adding immediately, “God Bless It” . And, if this formula was omitted, it was imagined that there would follow a most terrible effect on the thing praised.
This superstition, may be traced to ancient times and to the ancient figure of Balor- a Formorian Giant and Hero who is spoken of in ancient manuscripts as being able to destroy his enemies by a glance alone!
It was said that no true help was possible in one who was to become a victim of the Evil Eye. The Fairy Doctor would have to be called and he alone could destroy that evil and fatal influence by saying a mystical charm.
To avoid the “Evil Eye” it was therefore customary when passing a farmyard where cows were gathered to be milked to say “The Blessing Of God be on you and on all your labours”. And when looking at a child one would say “God Bless it”.
Lady Gregory, in her book first published in 1888, Ancient Legends of Ireland, she wrote the following account of one family and how they saved their baby from the effects of the Evil Eye.
A woman in Co. Galway had a beautiful child, so handsome that the neighbours were especially careful to say “God Bless It” whenever they saw him. They knew that the fairies would desire the child and carry it off into the hills.
A stranger came to the house one day, an old woman. “Let me rest”, she said, “For I am weary”. And so she sat down and looked at the child – But never did she say “God bless it”. When she had rested, she looked at the child again fixedly in silence and then she went on her way.
That night the poor child cried and would not sleet. All the next day, it moaned as if in pain. So the mother went to the local Priest and told him of her troubles. He would do nothing however, for fear of the fairies. And then just as that poor mother was in despair, she saw a strange woman going by the door of her house. “Who knows” said she to her husband ”but this woman would help us”. So they asked the woman to come in and rest. And when she looked at the child she said “God bless it”, instantly, and spat three times at it, and then she sat down.
“Now what will you give me,” she said, “if I tell you what ails the child?”.
“I will cross your hand with silver” said the mother, “as much as you want, only speak,” and she laid the money on the woman’s hand. “ Now tell me the truth, for the sake and in the name of Mary and the good Angels.”
“Well,” said the stranger, ”the fairies have had your child these two days in the hills, and this is a changeling they have left in its place. But so many blessings were said on your child that the fairies can do it no harm. For there was only one blessing wanting, and only one person gave the Evil Eye.
Now, said she, you must watch for that woman and bring her into your house and cut off a piece of her cloak in secret. Then you must burn that piece close to the child until the smoke rises from it and makes him sneeze ; and when this happens the spell will be broken, and your child will come back to you in the place of this changeling”.
And with that, the stranger got up and went on her way.
All that evening the woman watched for the old woman who had given the Evil Eye to her child. At last , she spied her on the road.
“Come in” , she cried, “Come in , good woman, and rest, for the cakes are hot on the griddle and the supper is ready”.
And so, the old woman came in, but she did not say “God bless you kindly” , she only scowled at the child, who cried then worse than ever. Now the mother had asked her eldest girl to cut off a piece of the old woman’s cloak, secretly, as she sat down to eat. And the girl did as she was told and handed the piece to her mother, unknown to anyone. To everyone’s surprise, this was no sooner done than the woman rose up and went out of the house. This she did without uttering a word to anyone. And then, she was never seen again.
Once the old woman was gone, the father carried his child outside and burned
the piece of cloth before the door, holding his boy above the smoke until the child sneezed three times. Then the child was returned to his mother who laid him in bed . Curiously, the child then slept peacefully, a smile upon his face and cried no more that cry of pain. When he awoke, the happy mother knew that she had got her own darling child back from the fairies. No evil thing happened to him from that day forward.
pp21-22 Lady Gregory
According to Folklore, the spirit race known as the Sidhe the Sí and also called the “Feadh-Ree” or fairies are supposed to have once been angels in heaven cast out as punishment for their pride. Some, it is said, fell to Earth and dwelled there long before man’s creation, as the first Gods of the earth. Others, it is said, fell to sea where they build themselves beautiful fairy palaces of crystal and pearl underneath the waves; but on moonlight nights they often come up on the land, riding their white horses. They celebrate then with their fairy friends of the earth on the green lands under ancient trees – drinking the nectar from flowers which is the fairy wine.
However, all is not light in the fairy realm. It is said that other fairies are given to evil and spiteful deeds. For some fairies cast out of heaven, fell into hell from where they are sent forth as willed by the devil on missions of evil to tempt the souls of men downwards with false glitter of sin and pleasure.
The fairies of the earth, however, are said to be small and beautiful. They passionately love music and dancing, and live in luxurious palaces under the hills and in the deep mountain caves. It is said that by the strength of their magic power alone they can obtain all that they require for their fairy homes. They can also assume all forms, and shall never know death until the last day comes.
It is said that the Fairies are quite jealous of the human race who are so tall and strong and to whom mortality has been promised. They are therefore often tempted by the beauty of a mortal woman desiring to have her as a wife. The children of such marriages have a strange mystical nature it is said and generally become famous in music and song. Yet they are passionate, revengeful and not so easy to live with. It is known that they are of the fairy face by their beautiful eyes and a bold and reckless temperament.
Where can you find a fairy?
The favourite camp and resting place of the fairies is said to be under a Hawthorn tree. It is advised not to disturb or cut down any of these sacred trees. Mysterious deaths have befallen those who have tampered with honoured places of these mystical realms. Ancient hawthorns sacred to the fairies generally stand in the centre of a fairy ring. Yet, the people never would offer worship to these fairy beings for they look upon the Sidhe as a race of beings quite inferior to man. Nonetheless, the people had an immense dread and fear of the mystic fairy power. They would have been especially careful not to interfere with them nor offend them knowingly.
Wine for the Fairies
The fairies delight in good wines and are careful to give many blessings upon those who donate wine to them for they are truly upright and honest. It is said that the great Lords of Ireland, in ancient times, used to leave a keg of the finest Spanish wine frequently at night on their window-sill for the fairies. In the morning, it was all gone!