Irish Fairies by W. B. Yeats (1890)
When I tell people that the Irish peasantry still believe in fairies, I am often doubted. They think that I am merely trying to weave a forlorn piece of gilt thread into the dull grey worsted of this century. They do not imagine it possible that our highly thought of philosophies so soon grow silent outside the walls of the lecture room, or that any kind of ghost or goblin can live within the range of our daily papers. If the papers and the lectures have not done it, they think, surely at any rate the steam-whistle has scared the whole tribe out of the world. They are quite wrong. The ghosts and goblins do still live and rule in the imaginations of the innumerable Irish men and women, and not merely in remote places, but close even to big cities.
At Howth, for instance, ten miles from Dublin, there is a ‘fairies path’, whereon a great colony of otherworld creatures travel nightly from the hill to the sea and home again. There is also a field that ever since a cholera shed stood there for a few months, has broken out in fairies and evil spirits.
Sligo is, indeed, a great place for fairy pillaging of this kind. In the side of Benbulben (Binn Ghulbain) is a white square in the limestone. It is said to be the door of fairyland. There is no more inaccessible place in existence than this white square door; no human foot has ever gone near it, not even the mountain goats can browse the saxifrage beside its mysterious whiteness. Tradition says that it swings open at nightfall and lets pour through an unearthly troop of hurrying spirits. To those gifted to hear their voices the air will be full at such a moment with a sound like whistling. Many have been carried away out of the neighbouring villages by this troop of riders. I have quite a number of records beside me, picked up at odd times from the faithful memories of old peasants. Brides and new-born children are especially in danger. Peasant mothers, too, are sometimes carried off to nurse the children of the fairies. At the end of seven years they have a chance of returning, and if they do not escape then are always prisoners. A woman, said still to be living, was taken from near a village called Ballisodare, and when she came home after seven years she had no toes-she had danced them off. It is not possible to find out whether the stolen people are happy among ‘the gentry’, as the fairies are called for politeness. Accounts differ. Some say they are happy enough, but lose their souls, because, perhaps, the soul cannot live without sorrow. Others will have it that they are always wretched, longing for their friends, and that the splendour of the fairy kingdom is merely a magical delusion, woven to deceive the minds of men by poor little withered apparitions who live in caves and barn laces. But this is, I suspect, a theological opinion, invented because all goblins are pagans. Many things about fairies, indeed, are most uncertain. We do not even know whether they die. An old Gaelic poem says, ‘Death is even among the fairies’, but then many stories represent them as hundreds of years old.
Excerpt from the “Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922”.
Lia Fáil stone image by Anthony Murphy from the Mythical Ireland website.