Celtic Folklore:L. MacDonald DALRIADA MAGAZINE 1993
The People of the Mounds
Articles on the Sidhe"For all the hillside was haunted By the faery folk come again And down in the heart-light enchanted Were opal-coloured men" AEIn the first article of this series, I looked at the survival of belief among the Celtic peoples of an invisible realm inhabited by Otherworldly beings known collectively as the Sidhe, or the Good People. This belief was once common throughout all the Celtic countries, in localised forms. The Sidhe are considered to be a distinct race, quite separate from human beings yet who have had much contact with mortals over the centuries, and there are many documented testimonies to this. Belief in this race of beings who have powers beyond those of men to move quickly through the air and change their shape at will once played a huge part in the lives of people living in rural Ireland and Scotland.
It is difficult to pin-point an exact historical era as the time when fairy lore began. Many writers maintain that the people of Ireland and their Gods before the coming of the Gaels are the 'ancestors' of the sidhe. Clearly the belief in the sidhe is part of the pre-Christian religion which survived for thousands of years and which has never been completely wiped out from the minds of the people. When the first Gaels, the sons of Mil, arrived in Ireland, they found that the Tuatha De Danaan, the people of the goddess Dana, already had control of the land. The sons of Mil fought them in battle and defeated them, driving them 'underground' where it is said they remain to this day in the hollow hills or sidhe mounds.
In the early Irish manuscripts (which were recorded from an earlier oral tradition) we find references to the Tuatha De Danaan. In 'The Book of the Dun Cow' and the 'Book of Leinster' this race of beings is described as "gods and not gods", pointing to the fact that they are 'something in between'. Also in the Book of the Dun Cow it says of wise men that: "it seems likely to them that they [the Tuatha De Danaan] came from heaven, on account of their intelligence and excellence of their knowledge".
The hold that the Tuatha De Danaan had on the Irish mind was so strong that the new religion of Christianity could not shake it. In 'The Colloquy of the Ancients' a dialogue which supposedly took place between St. Patrick and the ghost of Caeilte of the Fianna, Patrick is amazed to see a fairy woman coming out of the cave of Cruachan, wearing a green mantle with a crown of gold on her head. Whereas the fairy woman is young and beautiful, Caeilte himself is old and withered. When Patrick enquires of this, Caeilte tells him that:
"She is of the Tuatha De Danaans who are unfading...and I am of the sons of Mil, who are perishable and fade away".
The sidhe of the subterranean mounds are also seen by the Irish as the descendants of the old agricultural gods of the Earth, (one of the most important being Crom Cruaich, the Crooked One of the Hill). These gods controlled the ripening of the crops and the milk yields of the cattle, therefore offerings had to be given to them regularly. In the Book of Leinster we discover that after their conquest the Tuatha De Danaan took revenge on the sons of Mil by destroying their wheat and the goodness of the milk (the sidhe are notorious for this even today). The sons of Mil were thus forced to make a treaty with them, and ever since that time the people of Ireland have honoured this treaty by leaving offerings of milk and butter to the Good People.
A notable feature of the sidhe is that they have distinct tribes, ruled over by fairy kings and queens in each territory. It would seem that the social order of the sidhe corresponds to the old aristocracy of ancient Irish families, which is in itself a reflection of the ancient Celtic caste system. It is interesting to note that many of the Irish refer to the sidhe as simply "the gentry", on account of their tall, noble appearance and silvery sweet speech. They have their own palaces where they feast and play music, but also have regular battles with neighbouring tribes. The great fairy hosts seem to be distinctly Milesian, but there are still folk memories of perhaps older pre-Gaelic races and their gods, in the form of the 'geancanach', a spirit of Ulster, or the 'cluricaun', of Munster. We must not forget also the 'leprechaun', a diminutive creature who is said to know the whereabouts of a pot of gold hidden in local fairy raths. The leprechaun could possibly be a folk memory of a dwarfish race of Fir Bolg people who lived in these raths before the coming of the Gaels.
In the testimonies of many rural folk a distinction is often made between the sidhe who are seen walking on the ground after sunset, and the 'Sluagh Sidhe', the fairy host who travel through the air at night, and are known to 'take' mortals with them on their journeys. There are also guardian sidhe of most of the lakes of Ireland and Scotland. These distinct categories of sidhe beings ties in with the testimonies of seers who divide the sidhe into wood spirits, water spirits, air spirits and so on, the elemental spirits of each place.
Lough Gur in County Limerick is a very magical place where we meet many of the sidhe kings and queens of Ireland. The lake lies within a circle of low lying hills, but once every seven years it appears as dry land, where an entrance to the Land of Youth may be found. The lake's guardian is known as Toice Bhrean (the lazy one) because she neglected to watch over the well, from which the lake sprang forth. It is believed that once every seven years a mortal meets their death by drowning in the lake, 'taken' by the Beann Fhionn, the White Lady.
FAIRY QUEENS OF IRELANDThere are many great fairy queens that are remembered in Irish folk tales. They are known as 'bean righean na brugh', the fairy queen of the palace, and are quite clearly the tutelary goddesses of local tribes. Many are still said to be the guardians of certain Irish clans.
Three miles south west of Lough Gur is Cnoc Aine, or Knockainy, the hill of Aine, one of the most important fairy queens of Munster. Also on the shores of the lake is Cnoc Finnine, of the goddess Fennel, the sister of Aine.
Many of the sidhe folk have encounters or relationships with mortals. The Earl of Desmond once saw Aine combing her hair on the bank of a river. He fell in love with her and seizing her cloak made her his wife. The offspring of this union was Aine's enchanted son Geroid Iarla, who lives under the lake awaiting his return to the world of men. Once every seven years he emerges from the water as a phantom riding on a white horse.
Aine is revered throughout Ireland. In Co. Derry locals say she was a mortal woman who was 'taken' by the fairies; the local family O'Corra are said to be descended from Aine. In Co. Louth Aine's stronghold is at Dunany point (Dun Aine). Every year three days are dedicated to her, the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday after Lammas; it was said that she would claim a life on those days.
It is at Cnoc Aine in Co. Limerick where Aine is most well remembered as a great queen. Every year on St. John's Eve (24 June) local people would form a procession around the hill, then carry flaming torches through the fields of ripening crops. Aine herself was seen on many occasions leading the procession.
The fairy queen of the north of Munster is Aoibheal; she is the ancestral deity of the O'Briens, (the descendants of Brian Boru) who rules from Craig Liath (grey rock) in Co. Clare. At the great battle of Clontarf, Aoibheal had fore-knowledge of the outcome and tried to warn her people. Aoibheal is revered in many of the 'Aislings', the vision poems of the eighteenth century concerning the future freedom of Ireland.
Cliodna is loved and cherished by the people of Co. Cork, where a number of place names are associated with her. She is the guardian goddess of the O'Keefes, and said to be the eldest daughter of the last Druid of Ireland. One of the three great waves mentioned in Irish mythology is Tonn Cliodna, the wave of Cliodna, off the coast at Glandore, Co. Cork. A legend tells of Ciabhan of the Curling Locks who took Cliodna out of the lands of Manannan and brought her to the shores of Ireland in his curragh. He left Cliodna alone on the shore while he went off to hunt deer; while he was gone Manannan sent a huge wave over the strand and Cliodna was drowned.
In the north east of Leinster the fairy queen Grian of the Bright Cheeks has her abode on Cnoc Greine. The sidhe mound of her father was attacked once by the five sons of Conall. Grian pursued them and in revenge she transformed them into badgers. In the Irish sagas Grania eloped with Diarmaid, and all over Ireland there are cairns and cromlechs known locally as 'the bed of Diarmaid and Grania'. In Co. Tipperary, east of loch Derg, lies Knockshegouna, the fairy hill of Una. Una is the wife of the fairy king Finnbheara of Cnoc Meadha; she is a somewhat elusive figure, but nevertheless her sidhe dwelling was a very important place in former times, and she is still remembered by local people.
FAIRY KINGS OF IRELANDThe great fairy king of Co. Galway in the west of Ireland is Finnbheara (Finnvarr). Cnoc Meadha is his abode, a prominent hill west of Tuam, on top of which is a burial mound. To the north west is Magh Tuireadh, where the legendary battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danaans took place. There are many stories which illustrate Finnbheara's liking for earthly women. He would often draw young girls away to dance all night with him in his palace, but the next morning they were always found safely asleep in bed. One particular nobleman was not so fortunate, however. His bride was taken one time by the fairy king. The bride's old nurse told the noble that he must dig down into the sidhe mound, starting at the top. But during the night the fairies of the mound filled the tunnel back in with earth. This happened again on the second night. In despair the nobleman turned to the old nurse again, who told him to sprinkle the earth with salt and place a line of burning turf around the trench, as the sidhe could not resist that. The following morning the bride was found safe in her bed.
Finnbheara is also known to love horses, and he is usually seen riding a black horse with flaring red nostrils. Some-times he would invite young men to ride with his fairy host.
In Co. Limerick the fairy king Donn of Knockfierna is well remembered. There is a large earthern fort on his hill and a number of dolmens known as the 'Giants Graves'. You can see the entrance to his fairy palace. Donn is the ancient Celtic god of the Dead who rules the rocky islands to the south west on the Atlantic coast. Donn is also known in Co. Fermanagh as the ancestor of the Maguires, whom he helped in their battles. Sometimes he is seen riding on a white horse on stormy nights, when people would exclaim: "Donn is galloping in the clouds tonight". Donn now more closely resembles a medieval Irish landlord than a god. He rules quite strictly but will aid his people when needed. He is also believed to fight against rival hosts in other counties, the winner carrying off the best potato crop for that year.
It will be noted that the fairy queens and kings are in fact the old pagan gods and goddesses 'in disguise' who have long been revered by the Irish. I once heard someone state that the Celtic gods of Ireland had long been wiped out, buried under the sway of Catholicism. Yet anyone who has been to the Emerald Isle, or listened to her many folk tales can see for themselves that this is very far from the reality. The old gods live on in folk tales as the giants of the hill; the Gobhan Saor who built all the bridges of Ireland; the Gille Decair, a clown and trickster; the carl (serf) of the drab coat and many others. The old deities were once worshipped throughout Ireland, however it is in the west that they are best remembered now, the east having been more Christianized and anglicised, and subject to more invasions. By contrast, the west of Ireland, to which the native Irish were driven ("to hell or Connaught") has held on longer to her ancient heritage.
FAIRY WOMEN OF SCOTLANDThere are many similarities to be found in the fairy lore of Scotland, no doubt due to the migration of peoples back and forth between Scotland and Ireland. Most people know about the last wave of Gaelic incomers into Scotland from Ireland in the fifth century, but for many centuries before this the Irish were intermarrying with the Cruithne (Picts) of Scotland and this is mentioned in some early texts. Thus there has been a long interchange between the two lands which has led to a mingling of folklore and belief.
The most well known of the fairy women both in Ireland and Scotland has to be the Bean Sidhe, the Banshee. In Ireland she is the ancestress of the old aristocratic families, the Irish clans. When any death or misfortune is about to occur in the family, she will be heard wailing her unearthly lament. It was considered something of a status symbol to have a banshee attached to your family! She is more often heard than seen, though if you do catch sight of her she may be combing her long hair with a silver comb. She is also known as the bean chaointe, the wailing woman, and also as badhbh chaointe. Badhbh is the Irish for a scald crow, but more interestingly it is the name of one of the Celtic war goddesses who would shriek over the battlefields in the form of a crow.
In the Highlands of Scotland this type of banshee is known as the bean tighe, the fairy housekeeper, or in some places as the Glaistig Uaine, the Green Lady, who is often sighted in the rooms and the grounds of the old castles of the Scottish clans, keeping watch over everything. There is also the wilder type of banshee found in the remoter places. This type of banshee wanders through the woods and over the moors at dusk, luring travellers to their doom.
The gruagach is the fairy woman who watches over the cattle fold at night and protects the goodness of the milk. On Skye, Tiree and other islands are to be found 'gruagach stones', stones with hollows in where libations of milk were poured as an offering to her. If this daily offering was neglected, the best cow of the fold would be found dead in the morning. The Book of Arran mentions such a gruagach who minded the cattle in the district of Kilmory.
There are many stories of sidhe women who help households with spinning, housework, threshing corn and so on. However, if they are interfered with in any way, even by the offering of a present, they will never return again. Alexander Carmichael mentions the 'bean chaol a chot uaine 's na gruaige buidhe', the slender woman of the green kirtle and yellow hair, who can turn water into wine and weave spider's webs into plaide, and play sweet music on the fairy reed.
We also find in Scotland the dreaded bean nighe, otherwise known as the Washer at the Ford. She may be seen at midnight washing the death shirt of someone about to die. Usually the person who meets her knows that it is his own fate that she foretells. As she washes she sings a dirge: "Se do leine, se do leine ga mi nigheadh" (It is your shirt, your shirt that I am washing).
Many spirits of rivers and mountains in Scotland appear in the shape of an old hag, the Cailleach. The most famous is the Cailleach bheara who washes her clothes in the whirlpool of the Corryvreckan off Jura, and rides across the land in the form of the 'night mare'.
There is another sidhe being that is mentioned in the writings of Fiona MacLeod and is greatly feared among the Gaels. He is the Amadan Dubh, the Fairy Fool, bringer of madness and oblivion. Sometimes he appears as a darkly clad figure on the slope of a hill after sunset, playing on his reed pipes a fairy enchantment.
We may conclude, then, that within the fairy lore of Scotland and Ireland are to be found the remnants of the old pagan religion, with gods and goddesses being remembered as the guardian ancestors of the clans. In fact, all the clans once claimed descent from a particular deity, so this is nothing new. The old gods still appear in local tales, as kings and queens of fairy palaces, or as guardians of lakes. In other words, they are still very much part of the land and the folk memory of the people. Belief in the sidhe has been steadily diminishing, however, not least through the decline in the Gaelic language, and with it so many of the folk tales that were only ever told in the Gaelic. It is sad that the attitude of so many people of today is that these tales are merely children's stories, to be put aside when we grow older and wiser in years. How far from the truth this is, if only they could see it. The fairies are the elemental powers of the land, the ancient Earth Shapers who live in the hollow hills, to whom the world of Mankind is but a dream...