Author: Yeats, W. B. (William Butler), 1865-1939
Folklore — Ireland
Ireland — Social life and customs
Atlantic Coast (Ireland) — Social life and customs
Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, First Series
By Lady Gregory
Seven Short Plays
Folk-History Plays, 2 vols.
The Golden Apple
Our Irish Theatre. A Chapter of Autobiography
IRISH FOLK LORE AND LEGEND
Visions and Beliefs, 2 vols.
Cuchulain of Muirthemne
Gods and Fighting Men
Saints and Wonders
Poets and Dreamers
The Kiltartan Poetry Book
From a picture by Robert Gregory in Sir Hugh Lane’s Collection
VISIONS AND BELIEFS IN THE WEST OF IRELAND COLLECTED AND ARRANGED BY LADY GREGORY: WITH TWO ESSAYS AND NOTES BY W. B. YEATS
“There’s no doubt at all but that there’s the same sort of things in other countries; but you hear more about them in these parts because the Irish do be more familiar in talking of them.“
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
NEW YORK AND LONDON
The Knickerbocker Press
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
The Sidhe cannot make themselves visible to all. They are shape-changers; they can grow small or grow large, they can take what shape they choose; they appear as men or women wearing clothes of many colours, of today or of some old forgotten fashion, or they are seen as bird or beast, or as a barrel or a flock of wool. They go by us in a cloud of dust; they are as many as the blades of grass. They are everywhere; their home is in the forths, the lisses, the ancient round grass-grown mounds. There are thorn-bushes they gather near and protect; if they have a mind for a house like our own they will build it up in a moment. They will remake a stone castle, battered by Cromwell’s men, if it takes their fancy, filling it with noise and lights. Their own country is Tir-nan-Og—the Country of the Young. It is under the ground or under the sea, or it may not be far from any of us. As to their food, they will use common things left for them on the hearth or outside the threshold, cold potatoes it may be, or a cup of water or of milk. But for their feasts they choose the best of all sorts, taking it from the solid world, leaving some worthless likeness in its place; when they rob the potatoes from the ridges the diggers find but rottenness and decay; they take the strength from the meat in the pot, so that when put on the plates it does not nourish. They will not touch salt; there is danger to them in it. They will go to good cellars to bring away the wine.
Fighting is heard among them, and music that is more beautiful than any of this world; they are seen dancing on the rocks; they are often seen playing at the hurling, hitting balls towards the goal. In each one of their households there is a queen, and she has more power than the rest; but the greatest power belongs to their fool, the Fool of the Forth, Amadan-na-Briona. He is their strongest, the most wicked, the most deadly; there is no cure for any one he has struck.
When they are friendly to a man they give him help in his work, putting their strength into his body. Or they may tell him where to find treasure, hidden gold; or through certain wise men or women who have learned from them or can ask and get their knowledge they will tell where cattle that have strayed may be found, or they will cure the sick or tell if a sickness is not to be cured. They will sometimes work as if against their own will or intention, giving back to the life of our world one who had received the call to go over to their own. They call many there, summoning them perhaps through the eye of a neighbour, the evil eye, or by a touch, a blow, a fall, a sudden terror. Those who have received their touch waste away from this world, lending their strength to the invisible ones; for the strength of a human body is needed by the shadows, it may be in their fighting, and certainly in their hurling to win the goal. Young men are taken for this, young mothers are taken that they may give the breast to newly born children among the Sidhe, young girls that they may themselves become mothers there.
While these are away a body in their likeness, or the likeness of a body, is left lying in their place. They may be given leave to return to their village after a while, seven years it may be, or twice or three times seven. But some are sent back only at the end of the years allotted them at the time of their birth, old spent men and women, thought to have been dead a long time, given back to die and be buried on the face of the earth.
There are two races among the Sidhe. One is tall and handsome, gay, and given to jesting and to playing pranks, leading us astray in the fields, giving gold that turns to withered leaves or to dust. These ride on horses through the night-time in large companies and troops, or ride in coaches, laughing and decked with flowers and fine clothes. The people of the other race are small, malicious, wide-bellied, carrying before them a bag. When a man or woman is about to die, a woman of the Sidhe will sometimes cry for a warning, keening and making lamentation. At the hour of death fighting may be heard in the air or about the house—that is, when the man in danger has friends among the shadows, who are fighting on his behalf.
The dead are often seen among them, and will give help in danger to comrade or brother or friend. Sometimes they have a penance to work out, and will come and ask the living for help, for prayers, for the payment of a debt. They may wander in some strange shape, or be bound in the one place, or go through the air as birds. When the Sidhe pass by in a blast of wind we should say some words of blessing, for there may be among them some of our own dead. The dead are of the nature of the Saints, mortals who have put on immortality, who have known the troubles of the world. The Sidhe have been, like the Angels, from before the making of the earth. In the old times in Ireland they were called gods or the children of gods; now it is laid down they are those Angels who were cast out of heaven, being proud.
This is the news I have been given of the people of the Sidhe by many who have seen them and some who have known their power.
Coole, February, 1916.
|II.—Seers and Healers||35|
|“A Great Warrior in the Business“||103|
|III.—The Evil Eye—the Touch—the Penalty||127|
|Witches and Wizards and Irish Folk-Lore||247|
“The Celtic Twilight” was the first book of Mr. Yeats’s that I read, and even before I met him, a little time later, I had begun looking for news of the invisible world; for his stories were of Sligo and I felt jealous for Galway. This beginning of knowledge was a great excitement to me, for though I had heard all my life some talk of the faeries and the banshee (having indeed reason to believe in this last), I had never thought of giving heed to what I, in common with my class, looked on as fancy or superstition. It was certainly because of this unbelief that I had been told so little about them. Even when I began to gather these stories, I cared less for the evidence given in them than for the beautiful rhythmic sentences in which they were told. I had no theories, no case to prove, I but “held up a clean mirror to tradition.”
It is hard to tell sometimes what has been a real vision and what is tradition, a legend hanging in the air, a “vanity” as our people call it, made use of by a story-teller here and there, or impressing itself as a real experience on some sensitive and imaginative mind. For tradition has a large place in “the Book of the People” showing a sowing and re-sowing, a continuity and rebirth as in nature. “Those,” “The Others,” “The Fallen Angels” have some of the attributes of the gods of ancient Ireland; we may even go back yet farther to the early days of the world when the Sons of God mated with the Daughters of Men. I believe that if Christianity could be blotted out and forgotten tomorrow, our people would not be moved at all from the belief in a spiritual world and an unending life; it has been with them since the Druids taught what Lucan called “the happy error of the immortality of the soul.” I think we found nothing so trivial in our search but it may have been worth the lifting; a clue, a thread, leading through the maze to that mountain top where things visible and invisible meet.
To gather folk-lore one needs, I think, leisure, patience, reverence, and a good memory. I tried not to change or alter anything, but to write down the very words in which the story had been told. Sometimes Mr. Yeats was with me at the telling; or I would take him to hear for himself something I had been told, that he might be sure I had missed or added nothing. I filled many copybooks, and came to have a very faithful memory for all sides of folk-lore, stories of saints, of heroes, of giants and enchanters, as well as for these visions. For this I have had to “pay the penalty” by losing in some measure that useful and practical side of memory that is concerned with names and dates and the multiplication table, and the numbers on friends’ houses in a street.
It was on the coast I began to gather these stories, and I went after a while to the islands Inishmor, Inishmaan, Inisheer, and so I give the sea-stories first.
I was told by:
A Man on the Height near Dun Conor:
It’s said there’s everything in the sea the same as on the land, and we know there’s horses in it. This boy here saw a horse one time out in the sea, a grey one, swimming about. And there were three men from the north island caught a horse in their nets one night when they were fishing for mackerel, but they let it go; it would have broke the boat to bits if they had brought it in, and anyhow they thought it was best to leave it. One year at Kinvara, the people were missing their oats that was eaten in the fields, and they watched one night and it was five or six of the sea-horses they saw eating the oats, but they could not take them, they made off to the sea.
And there was a man on the north island fishing on the rocks one time, and a mermaid came up before him, and was partly like a fish and the rest like a woman. But he called to her in the name of God to be off, and she went and left him.
There was a boy was sent over here one morning early by a friend of mine on the other side of the island, to bring over some cattle that were in a field he had here, and it was before daylight, and he came to the door crying, and said he heard thirty horses or more galloping over the roads there, where you’d think no horse could go.
Surely those things are on the sea as well as on the land. My father was out fishing one night off Tyrone and something came beside the boat, that had eyes shining like candles. And then a wave came in, and a storm rose of a moment, and whatever was in the wave, the weight of it had like to sink the boat. And then they saw that it was a woman in the sea that had the shining eyes. So my father went to the priest, and he bid him always to take a drop of holy water and a pinch of salt out in the boat with him, and nothing would harm him.
A Galway Bay Lobster-Seller:
They are on the sea as well as on the land, and their boats are often to be seen on the bay, sailing boats and others. They look like our own, but when you come near them they are gone in an instant. (Note 1.)
My mother one time thought she saw our own boat come in to the pier with my father and two other men in it, and she got the supper ready, but when she went down to the pier and called them there was nothing there, and the boat didn’t come in till two hours after.
There were three or four men went out one day to fish, and it was a dead calm; but all of a sudden they heard a blast and they looked, and within about three mile of the boat they saw twelve men from the waist, the rest of them was under water. And they had sticks in their hands and were striking one another. And where they were, and the blast, it was rough, but smooth and calm on each side.
There’s a sort of a light on the sea sometimes; some call it a “Jack O’Lantern” and some say it is sent by them to mislead them. (Note 2.)
There’s many of them out in the sea, and often they pull the boats down. (Note 3.) It’s about two years since four fishermen went out from Aran, two fathers and two sons, where they saw a big ship coming in and flying the flag for a pilot, and they thought she wanted to be brought in to Galway. And when they got near the ship, it faded away to nothing and the boat turned over and they were all four drowned.
There were two brothers of my own went to fish for the herrings, and what they brought up was like the print of a cat, and it turned with the inside of the skin outside, and no hair. So they pulled up the nets, and fished no more that day. There was one of them lying on the strand here, and some of the men of the village came down of a sudden and surprised him. And when he saw he was taken he began a great crying. But they only lifted him down to the sea and put him back into it. Just like a man they said he was. And a little way out there was another just like him, and when he saw that they treated the one on shore so kindly, he bowed his head as if to thank them.
Whatever’s on the land, there’s the same in the sea, and between the islands of Aran they can often see the horses galloping about at the bottom. (Note 4.)
There was a sort of a big eel used to be in Tully churchyard, used to come and to root up the bodies, but I didn’t hear of him of late—he may be done away with now.
There was one Curran told me one night he went down to the strand where he used to be watching for timber thrown up and the like. And on the strand, on the dry sands, he saw a boat, a grand one with sails spread and all, and it up farther than any tide had ever reached. And he saw a great many people round about it, and it was all lighted up with lights. And he got afraid and went away. And four hours after, after sunrise, he went there again to look at it, and there was no sign of it, or of any fire, or of any other thing. The Mara-warra (mermaid) was seen on the shore not long ago, combing out her hair. She had no fish’s tail, but was like another woman.
There is no luck if you meet a mermaid and you out at sea, but storms will come, or some ill will happen.
There was a ship on the way to America, and a mermaid was seen following it, and the bad weather began to come. And the captain said, “It must be some man in the ship she’s following, and if we knew which one it was, we’d put him out to her and save ourselves.” So they drew lots, and the lot fell on one man, and then the captain was sorry for him, and said he’d give him a chance till tomorrow. And the next day she was following them still, and they drew lots again, and the lot fell on the same man. But the captain said he’d give him a third chance, but the third day the lot fell on him again. And when they were going to throw him out he said, “Let me alone for a while.” And he went to the end of the ship and he began to sing a song in Irish, and when he sang, the mermaid began to be quiet and to rock like as if she was asleep. So he went on singing till they came to America, and just as they got to the land the ship was thrown up into the air, and came down on the water again. There’s a man told me that was surely true.
And there was a boy saw a mermaid down by Spiddal not long ago, but he saw her before she saw him, so she did him no harm. But if she’d seen him first, she’d have brought him away and drowned him.
Sometimes a light will come on the sea before the boats to guide them to the land. And my own brother told me one day he was out and a storm came on of a sudden, and the sail of the boat was let down as quick and as well as if two men were in it. Some neighbour or friend it must have been that did that for him. Those that go down to the sea after the tide going out, to cut the weed, often hear under the sand the sound of the milk being churned. There’s some didn’t believe that till they heard it themselves.
A Man from Roundstone:
One night I was out on the boat with another man, and we saw a big ship near us with about twenty lights. She was as close to us as that rock (about thirty yards), but we saw no one on board. And she was like some of the French ships that sometimes come to Galway. She went on near us for a while, and then she turned towards the shore and then we knew that she was not a right ship. And she went straight on to the land, and when she touched it, the lights went out and we saw her no more.
There was a comrade of mine was out one night, and a ship came after him, with lights, and she full of people. And as they drew near the land, he heard them shouting at him and he got afraid, and he went down and got a coal of fire and threw it at the ship, and in a minute it was gone.
A boy told me last night of two men that went with poteen to the Island of Aran. And when they were on the shore they saw a ship coming as if to land, and they said, “We’ll have the bottle ready for those that are coming.” But when the ship came close to the land, it vanished. And presently they got their boat ready and put out to sea. And a sudden blast came and swept one of them off. And the other saw him come up again, and put out the oar across his breast for him to take hold of it. But he would not take it but said, “I’m all right again now,” and sank down again and was never seen no more.
For one there’s on the land there’s ten on the sea. When I lived at Ardfry there was never a night but there was a voice heard crying and roaring, by them that were out in the bay. A baker he was from Loughrea, used to give short weight and measure, and so he was put there for a punishment.
I saw a ship that was having a race with another go suddenly down into the sea, and no one could tell why. And afterwards one of the Government divers was sent down to look for her, and he told me he’d never as long as he’d live go down again, fo