Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344


A little north of the town of Sligo, on the southern side of Ben
Bulben, some hundreds of feet above the plain, is a small white square
in the limestone. No mortal has ever touched it with his hand; no sheep
or goat has ever browsed grass beside it. There is no more inaccessible
place upon the earth, and few more encircled by awe to the deep
considering. It is the door of faery-land. In the middle of night it
swings open, and the unearthly troop rushes out. All night the gay
rabble sweep to and fro across the land, invisible to all, unless
perhaps where, in some more than commonly "gentle" place--Drumcliff or
Drum-a-hair--the nightcapped heads of faery-doctors may be thrust from
their doors to see what mischief the "gentry" are doing. To their
trained eyes and ears the fields are covered by red-hatted riders, and
the air is full of shrill voices--a sound like whistling, as an ancient
Scottish seer has recorded, and wholly different from the talk of the
angels, who "speak much in the throat, like the Irish," as Lilly, the
astrologer, has wisely said. If there be a new-born baby or new-wed
bride in the neighbourhood, the nightcapped "doctors" will peer with
more than common care, for the unearthly troop do not always return
empty-handed. Sometimes a new-wed bride or a new-born baby goes with
them into their mountains; the door swings to behind, and the new-born
or the new-wed moves henceforth in the bloodless land of Faery; happy
enough, but doomed to melt out at the last judgment like bright vapour,
for the soul cannot live without sorrow. Through this door of white
stone, and the other doors of that land where geabheadh tu an sonas aer
pighin ("you can buy joy for a penny"), have gone kings, queens, and
princes, but so greatly has the power of Faery dwindled, that there are
none but peasants in these sad chronicles of mine.

Somewhere about the beginning of last century appeared at the western
corner of Market Street, Sligo, where the butcher's shop now is, not a
palace, as in Keats's Lamia, but an apothecary's shop, ruled over by a
certain unaccountable Dr. Opendon. Where he came from, none ever knew.
There also was in Sligo, in those days, a woman, Ormsby by name, whose
husband had fallen mysteriously sick. The doctors could make nothing of
him. Nothing seemed wrong with him, yet weaker and weaker he grew. Away
went the wife to Dr. Opendon. She was shown into the shop parlour. A
black cat was sitting straight up before the fire. She had just time to
see that the side-board was covered with fruit, and to say to herself,
"Fruit must be wholesome when the doctor has so much," before Dr.
Opendon came in. He was dressed all in black, the same as the cat, and
his wife walked behind him dressed in black likewise. She gave him a
guinea, and got a little bottle in return. Her husband recovered that
time. Meanwhile the black doctor cured many people; but one day a rich
patient died, and cat, wife, and doctor all vanished the night after.
In a year the man Ormsby fell sick once more. Now he was a goodlooking
man, and his wife felt sure the "gentry" were coveting him. She went
and called on the "faery-doctor" at Cairnsfoot. As soon as he had heard
her tale, he went behind the back door and began muttering, muttering,
muttering-making spells. Her husband got well this time also. But after
a while he sickened again, the fatal third time, and away went she once
more to Cairnsfoot, and out went the faery-doctor behind his back door
and began muttering, but soon he came in and told her it was no use--
her husband would die; and sure enough the man died, and ever after
when she spoke of him Mrs. Ormsby shook her head saying she knew well
where he was, and it wasn't in heaven or hell or purgatory either. She
probably believed that a log of wood was left behind in his place, but
so bewitched that it seemed the dead body of her husband.

She is dead now herself, but many still living remember her. She was,
I believe, for a time a servant or else a kind of pensioner of some
relations of my own.

Sometimes those who are carried off are allowed after many years--
seven usually--a final glimpse of their friends. Many years ago a woman
vanished suddenly from a Sligo garden where she was walking with her
husband. When her son, who was then a baby, had grown up he received
word in some way, not handed down, that his mother was glamoured by
faeries, and imprisoned for the time in a house in Glasgow and longing
to see him. Glasgow in those days of sailing-ships seemed to the
peasant mind almost over the edge of the known world, yet he, being a
dutiful son, started away. For a long time he walked the streets of
Glasgow; at last down in a cellar he saw his mother working. She was
happy, she said, and had the best of good eating, and would he not eat?
and therewith laid all kinds of food on the table; but he, knowing well
that she was trying to cast on him the glamour by giving him faery
food, that she might keep him with her, refused and came home to his
people in Sligo.

Some five miles southward of Sligo is a gloomy and tree-bordered pond,
a great gathering-place of water-fowl, called, because of its form, the
Heart Lake. It is haunted by stranger things than heron, snipe, or wild
duck. Out of this lake, as from the white square stone in Ben Bulben,
issues an unearthly troop. Once men began to drain it; suddenly one of
them raised a cry that he saw his house in flames. They turned round,
and every man there saw his own cottage burning. They hurried home to
find it was but faery glamour. To this hour on the border of the lake
is shown a half-dug trench--the signet of their impiety. A little way
from this lake I heard a beautiful and mournful history of faery
kidnapping. I heard it from a little old woman in a white cap, who
sings to herself in Gaelic, and moves from one foot to the other as
though she remembered the dancing of her youth.

A young man going at nightfall to the house of his just married bride,
met in the way a jolly company, and with them his bride. They were
faeries, and had stolen her as a wife for the chief of their band. To
him they seemed only a company of merry mortals. His bride, when she
saw her old love, bade him welcome, but was most fearful lest be should
eat the faery food, and so be glamoured out of the earth into that
bloodless dim nation, wherefore she set him down to play cards with
three of the cavalcade; and he played on, realizing nothing until he
saw the chief of the band carrying his bride away in his arms.
Immediately he started up, and knew that they were faeries; for slowly
all that jolly company melted into shadow and night. He hurried to the
house of his beloved. As he drew near came to him the cry of the
keeners. She had died some time before he came. Some noteless Gaelic
poet had made this into a forgotten ballad, some odd verses of which my
white-capped friend remembered and sang for me.

Sometimes one hears of stolen people acting as good genii to the
living, as in this tale, heard also close by the haunted pond, of John
Kirwan of Castle Hacket. The Kirwans[FN#8] are a family much rumoured
of in peasant stories, and believed to be the descendants of a man and
a spirit. They have ever been famous for beauty, and I have read that
the mother of the present Lord Cloncurry was of their tribe.

[FN#8] I have since heard that it was not the Kirwans, but their
predecessors at Castle Hacket, the Hackets themselves, I think, who
were descended from a man and a spirit, and were notable for beauty. I
imagine that the mother of Lord Cloncurry was descended from the
Hackets. It may well be that all through these stories the name of
Kirwan has taken the place of the older name. Legend mixes everything
together in her cauldron.

John Kirwan was a great horse-racing man, and once landed in Liverpool
with a fine horse, going racing somewhere in middle England. That
evening, as he walked by the docks, a slip of a boy came up and asked
where he was stabling his horse. In such and such a place, he answered.
"Don't put him there," said the slip of a boy; "that stable will be
burnt to-night." He took his horse elsewhere, and sure enough the
stable was burnt down. Next day the boy came and asked as reward to
ride as his jockey in the coming race, and then was gone. The race-time
came round. At the last moment the boy ran forward and mounted, saying,
"If I strike him with the whip in my left hand I will lose, but if in
my right hand bet all you are worth." For, said Paddy Flynn, who told
me the tale, "the left arm is good for nothing. I might go on making
the sign of the cross with it, and all that, come Christmas, and a
Banshee, or such like, would no more mind than if it was that broom."
Well, the slip of a boy struck the horse with his right hand, and John
Kirwan cleared the field out. When the race was over, "What can I do
for you now?" said he. "Nothing but this," said the boy: "my mother has
a cottage on your land-they stole me from the cradle. Be good to her,
John Kirwan, and wherever your horses go I will watch that no ill
follows them; but you will never see me more." With that he made
himself air, and vanished.

Sometimes animals are carried off--apparently drowned animals more
than others. In Claremorris, Galway, Paddy Flynn told me, lived a poor
widow with one cow and its calf. The cow fell into the river, and was
washed away. There was a man thereabouts who went to a red-haired woman
--for such are supposed to be wise in these things--and she told him to
take the calf down to the edge of the river, and hide himself and
watch. He did as she had told him, and as evening came on the calf
began to low, and after a while the cow came along the edge of the
river and commenced suckling it. Then, as he had been told, he caught
the cow's tail. Away they went at a great pace across hedges and
ditches, till they came to a royalty (a name for the little circular
ditches, commonly called raths or forts, that Ireland is covered with
since Pagan times). Therein he saw walking or sitting all the people
who had died out of his village in his time. A woman was sitting on the
edge with a child on her knees, and she called out to him to mind what
the red-haired woman had told him, and he remembered she had said,
Bleed the cow. So he stuck his knife into the cow and drew blood. That
broke the spell, and he was able to turn her homeward. "Do not forget
the spancel," said the woman with the child on her knees; "take the
inside one." There were three spancels on a bush; he took one, and the
cow was driven safely home to the widow.

There is hardly a valley or mountainside where folk cannot tell you of
some one pillaged from amongst them. Two or three miles from the Heart
Lake lives an old woman who was stolen away in her youth. After seven
years she was brought home again for some reason or other, but she had
no toes left. She had danced them off. Many near the white stone door
in Ben Bulben have been stolen away.

It is far easier to be sensible in cities than in many country places
I could tell you of. When one walks on those grey roads at evening by
the scented elder-bushes of the white cottages, watching the faint
mountains gathering the clouds upon their heads, one all too readily
discovers, beyond the thin cobweb veil of the senses, those creatures,
the goblins, hurrying from the white square stone door to the north, or
from the Heart Lake in the south.

William Butler Yeats