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Book No. 62

To first story in the book press: 2814

To last story in the book press: 2843

Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World

Curtin Jeremiah

Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World, Jeremiah Curtin, 1895

Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World

Collected From Oral Tradition in South-West Munster

by Jeremiah Curtin

Boston; Little, Brown & Co.



Tales of the Fairies

During my travels in Ireland I made a stay of some time at the house of a farmer at a cross-road west of Dingle. Besides cultivating two farms, this man kept a small country store, near the famous Ventry Strand, had a contract to keep a road in repair, and was, in general, an active person. He had built an addition in two stories to his house, and the upper story he rented to me. The part which I occupied was at the intersection of the roads, and had windows looking out on both of them. Not far from the house was the chapel,[in rural Ireland "chapel" means a Catholic church; "church," a Protestant church.] and about a mile beyond that the graveyard. The position was a good one from which to observe the people of the district as they passed to and fro on the two roads.

My host, Maurice Fitzgerald, was a man who knew the whole countryside well, spoke Gaelic with more ease than English, and held intimate relations with the oldest inhabitants. He knew the Gaelic name of every field within two miles of his house and the name of every hill, cliff, and mountain for many a mile. It may be stated here that in the Gaelic-speaking parts of Ireland there is a most complete system of naming every spot that needs to be distinguished from those around it. My host was a man who retained a belief in fairies, though he did not acknowledge it--at least, explicitly and in words.

"When I was a boy," said he, "nine men in ten believed in fairies, and said so; now only one man in ten will say that he believes in them. If one of the nine believes, he will not tell you; he will keep his mind lo himself."

It is very interesting indeed to find a society with even ten per cent. of the population professed believers in fairies. Of the remaining ninety per cent. a majority are believers without profession, timid believers, men without the courage of their convictions. The minority of the ninety per cent. falls into two parts, one composed of people of various degrees of belief in the fairy creed and philosophy, the other unbelievers. If one were to borrow the terms used in describing shades of difference in religious experience during our time, this minority might be divided into doubters, agnostics, and infidels.

The people of any purely Gaelic district in Ireland, where the language is spoken yet, preserve numerous remnants of pre-Christian belief, and these remnants are, in many cases, very valuable. Grotesque, naïve, and baseless they seem to observers almost always, but if the beliefs and opinions of the ordinary great ones of the earth be examined with due care, and with that freedom of spirit which is indispensable in such investigations, it will be found that many of them are not a whit more reasonable nor built on a better basis than the fairy creed of Ireland.

The people in Ireland have clung to their ancient beliefs with a vividness of faith which in our time is really phenomenal. Other nations have preserved large and (for science) precious heritages of superstition, but generally they have preserved them in a kind of mechanical way. The residuum of beliefs which they give us lack that connection with the present which is so striking in the case of the Irish. Certain divisions of the great Slavic race have preserved a splendid remnant of the old cosmic philosophy of pre-Christian times, and preserved parts of it with remarkable distinctness, but for all people who speak English the beliefs of the Irish contained in their tales have a near interest and a popular value that no similar productions of other nations are likely to attain.

As fairies are made to take such frequent part in Irish country life, and come to one's mind almost involuntarily when speaking of the supernatural in Ireland, I think it well to give in this connection some of the fairy tales and ghost stories told me at that house on the cross-road. These tales will show how vivid the belief of the people is yet, and will prove that fairies are not for all men personages of the past, but are as real for some persons as any other fact in life in this last decade of the nineteenth century.

After I had written down all the tales about Fin Mac Cool and other heroes that I could find in that region, I invited my host to come to me in the evening and bring two or three men to tell strange adventures of our own time, true tales of the district.

I was moved to this by what I had learned at the funeral of a man who had died from a fairy stroke a few days before, and by meeting two men who had been injured by similar strokes. One of the two was a farmer's son who had fallen asleep incautiously while near a fairy fort and was made a cripple for life; the other was a man of fairly good education, who, besides his English knowledge, read and wrote Gaelic. I was unable to obtain the details relating to his case, but the man who died had interfered with a fairy fort and hurt his hand in the act. The deceased was only thirty-three years old, a strong, healthy person, but after he had meddled with the fort his hand began to swell, and grew very painful. The best doctors were summoned, but gave no relief, and the man died from a fairy stroke, according to the statement of all, or nearly all, the people.

After supper the "man of the house" came with two other persons, and we passed a very interesting evening. One of the two visitors was a blind man named Dyeermud Duvane, about forty years of age, and born in the neighbourhood, who had been in America, where he lost his eyesight. He related to me somewhat of his life in the United States. He had been a worker in quarries, had been in charge of gangs of men in New England and the West. He had saved a considerable sum of money when he was placed over a gang of Italians in one of the quarries near Springfield, Mass. The Italians became enraged at him for some reason, and blew up the poor man in the quarry. He lost his sight, and lay in a Boston hospital till his money was gone. After that his friends sent him home, where he lives now in a very small way. Though blind, he found a wife, and with her lives in a little cottage, has a garden and a quarter of an acre of potatoes.

This blind man, though a sceptic by nature, knew some good cases of fairy action, and told the first story of the evening. The second man was seventy years old, white-haired, with a fair complexion, and blue eyes which were wonderfully clear and serious. This was a genuine believer in fairies and a rare example of one type of old Irishman. He lived near a fairy fort about a mile distant; his name was John Malone. His family and friends had suffered from fairies, and his daughter-in-law died from a fairy stroke.

After some preliminary conversation, the blind man began as follows:


The preceding group of fairy tales are connected with the peninsula between the bays of Dingle and Tralee. The following tales were taken down west of the Killarney mountains, but between Dingle Bay and the Kenmare River, and relate to the southern half of Kerry.

In this mountainous region the Gaelic language is spoken generally by the older inhabitants, and in many places ancient ways of thinking are well preserved among people of fifty years and upward. Persons between thirty and fifty; though they know the old-time ideas, do not live in them altogether. As to people of the rising generation, their minds seem turned in another direction. They are not settled anywhere yet; some of them are seeking, others are drifting.

In general, the region is not one of rapid movement, and in many nooks and corners of it the past is well represented. The present tales touching fairies, ghosts, and various personages outside ordinary human life refer to actual beliefs. Some persons hold to these beliefs as firmly as possible; indeed, they are among the main articles of faith for a good number of the old people.

There are persons in the educated world who consider fairy tales as mere sources of amusement; there are others who look on them as too frivolous to be read by serious people. Both views are erroneous. Fairy tales contain the remnants of a religious system prior to Christianity. When these tales are collected and compared with each other and with that mass of Keltic literature extending from the twelfth to the present century, and which remains in manuscript in Dublin, London, Brussels, Rome, and elsewhere, we may expect to find a certain religious system, a certain philosophy of life and death, exhibited to us with a tolerable degree of distinctness.

In the fairy tales which I have collected so far, and in the conversation of the men who told them to me, I find a remarkable freedom of intercourse between the visible and the unseen worlds, between what we call the dead and the living--a certain intimate communion between what has been and what is. Unless in the case of old people, it can hardly be said that there is such a thing as death in the Keltic fairy philosophy. Children and young persons are removed; other bodies, apparently diseased or dying, are put in their places. The persons removed are taken to fairy mansions; if they eat they are lost to this life; if they refrain they have seven years in which return is possible.

This is only one item in the system of extra-human forces in Keltic belief. All that we find so far in Hero Tales or Fairy Tales in Ireland is in close connection with that pre-Christian religion which covered the earth and included all races of men, which, in its boundless variety, was essentially the same, whether we consider the Greeks and Hindoos or the Indians of North and South America. For this religion, raising the dead, travelling on the water, running through the air, are not exceptional or wonderful; they are of daily occurrence and common; they are not merely incidents in it, but part of its machinery. This old universal religion had many other ideas which acquired new associations after the Christian era and took on new names. It is most interesting to note how much of it survives yet, not only among the uninstructed but among the leaders of mankind.

I found two tales of St. Martin, which are given here. The first is curious as containing the man-eating ghost, which is common enough among the Slavs, but which I find now in Ireland for the first time.

The grey cows from the sea, in the second St. Martin story, seem of the same breed as Glas Gainach brought from Spain by Elin Gow and the Glas Gavlen stolen by Balor of Tory Island.

The sacredness of the plough chains is an interesting bit of agricultural lore in the story of John Reardon. The heated coulter of a plough is used in Ireland to force confession from a witch who prevents butter from appearing when milk is churned.

The ocular illusion by which one thing seems another, which causes Tom Connors to think that an old horse is his cow Cooby, is common among all peoples. I found some excellent illustrations of it in stories of the Modoc Indians of Oregon.



The burial customs of Ireland are very interesting because they throw light on beliefs concerning another life--beliefs that were once universal on the island and are held yet in a certain way by a good many people. There is much variety in the burial customs of the whole country, but I can refer only to one or two details which are observed carefully in the peninsula west of Killarney.

When the coffin is ready to be taken to the grave the lid is nailed down, but when it is at the edge of the grave the nails are drawn and placed one across another on the lid, which is left unfastened.

In arranging the corpse in the coffin the feet are generally fastened together to keep them in position. This is done frequently by pinning the stockings to each other; but however done, the fastening is removed before burial and the feet are left perfectly free. The corpse is not bound in any way or confined in the coffin. That it is held necessary to free the feet of the corpse is shown by what happened once in Cahirciveen. A man died and his widow forgot to remove the pins fastening his stockings to each other. The voice of the dead man came to the woman on the night after the funeral, telling her that his feet were bound, and to free them. Next day she had the grave opened, took the pins from the stockings, and left the feet untrammelled.

It is believed as firmly by some people that the dead rise from their graves time after time, each by himself independently, as it is by others that all men will rise ages hence at one call and be judged for their deeds simultaneously. Besides the separate movements of each dead person we have the great social apparition on the night of All Saints, when the dead come to the houses of their friends and sit by the fire, unseen of all save those who are to die within the coming year. In view of this visit a good fire is made, the room is swept carefully, and prayers are repeated.

When I inquired why the nails were drawn from the coffin and bonds removed from the corpse with such care, some persons said that it was an old superstition, others that it was an old custom, and others still that it was done to give the dead man his freedom.

In the following tale, that relating to John Cokeley, we have a good instance of punishment by fairies. The head and front of John's offending was that he stopped the passage against the fairies. The first result of that act was a slight attack of illness, the second his removal to another world, which, though invisible to all between sunrise and sunset, and visible between sunset and sunrise to few only, is right here on earth. Cokeley's place in the house is held by a fairy substitute with a ravenous appetite, a sour temper, and a sharp tongue, the usual qualities of such an agent.

I know one old man who has an afflicted daughter, and who believes firmly that she has been put in his house by the fairies; he thinks that his own daughter was taken away and this creature given to him. This one has the "tongue of an attorney," while his daughter was a "quiet, honest girl."

The crowning proofs that Cokeley was taken by the fairies are that he was seen repeatedly after sunset, and the sick man refused before his death to see the priest.

In the tale of Tom Foley there is no real ghost, but there is strong evidence of a general and firm belief that ghosts go among men and are active on earth.



The following curious story reminds one a little of Slavic tales of dead men who dwell in their tombs as in houses. Some of the Slav tomb-dwellers are harmless, others malignant. The malignant ones are dead persons who rise up bodily and go around at night devouring people. When one of these has eaten a victim he rushes back to his grave, for he is obliged to remain wherever he may be at cock-crow; if outside his grave, he falls stiff and helpless to lie there till the next night. There are two ways of giving a quietus to such a ghoul. One is to pin him to the earth by driving a stake of aspen wood through his heart; the other is to burn him to ashes. The burning, as described in Russian tales, is performed by a great crowd of people armed with bushes, long brooms, shovels, and rakes. These gather round the fire to drive back everything that comes from the body. When the body is on the fire a short time it bursts, and a whole legion of devilry rush forth in the form of worms, snakes, bats, beetles, flies, birds; these try with all their might to get away. Each carries the fate of the ghoul with it. If only one of them escapes, the dead man will be eating people the next night as actively as ever, but if the crowd drive every thing into the fire again he will be destroyed utterly.

A striking trait in the Irish fairy tales is the number of observances caused by the presence of fairies, rules of ordinary living, so to speak. For instance, nothing is more pleasing to fairies than a well-swept kitchen and clean water. A dirty kitchen and foul water bring their resentment.

The ghosts or night-walking dead, as they belong to the other world, seem to have at least in some cases the same likes and dislikes as the fairies. in the following tale Michael Derrihy, the dead man brought from the tomb by Kate, kills the three brothers because the people in the house did not throw out dirty water and brought in none that was clean, and he is determined that they shall stay killed, for he tries to do away with the only cure that can bring them to life again. Various acts of personal uncleanliness involve punishment from the fairies, in one tale they carry off from a mother an infant which she fails to wash properly; in another a careless, untidy girl, who rises in the night and commits offensive acts in the kitchen, is punished in a signal manner. There is present a whole party of fairies; men and women, though unseen by the girl. One of the women, who is making tea, takes a saucer and hurls it at her as she is returning to bed. The saucer is broken; one half flies over the bed to the wall beyond, the other is buried in the girl's hip. She screams and wakes the whole house. No one can help her She is in bed for three years after that in great suffering. No relief for her till her mother, who had just earned the gratitude of the fairies by acts of service, prays to have her daughter cured.

The fairy woman tells how the daughter offended and how she was punished, says that if the mother will go to the wall she will find one half of the saucer there; if she applies that to the affected part of the daughter's body it will cure her. The mother does as directed. One half of the saucer comes out of the hip to join the other, and the girl is cured straightway.

When the fairies are maltreated or despised they take ample vengeance; they punish severely. They are generous in a like degree for services or acts of kindness. So far as fairy methods of action are revealed to us in tales and popular beliefs, they constitute a system of rewards and punishments regulating the intercourse between this world and another. They are parts of an early religion in which material services are rewarded by material benefits, and in which conduct bordering upon morality is inculcated.

The ghosts, mainly malignant and nearly all women, are represented as partly under fairy rules and partly under Church punishment. Their position is not fixed so definitely.

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