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Drumcliff and Rosses

Drumcliff and Rosses were, are, and ever shall be, please Heaven!
places of unearthly resort. I have lived near by them and in them, time
after time, and have gathered thus many a crumb of faery lore.
Drumcliff is a wide green valley, lying at the foot of Ben Bulben, the
mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall
to loose the faery riders on the world. The great St. Columba himself,
the builder of many of the old ruins in the valley, climbed the
mountains on one notable day to get near heaven with his prayers.
Rosses is a little sea-dividing, sandy plain, covered with short grass,
like a green tablecloth, and lying in the foam midway between the round
cairn-headed Knocknarea and "Ben Bulben, famous for hawks":


But for Benbulben and Knocknarea
Many a poor sailor'd be cast away,


as the rhyme goes.

At the northern corner of Rosses is a little promontory of sand and
rocks and grass: a mournful, haunted place. No wise peasant would fall
asleep under its low cliff, for he who sleeps here may wake "silly,"
the "good people" having carried off his soul. There is no more ready
shortcut to the dim kingdom than this plovery headland, for, covered
and smothered now from sight by mounds of sand, a long cave goes
thither "full of gold and silver, and the most beautiful parlours and
drawing-rooms." Once, before the sand covered it, a dog strayed in, and
was heard yelping helplessly deep underground in a fort far inland.
These forts or raths, made before modern history had begun, cover all
Rosses and all Columkille. The one where the dog yelped has, like most
others, an underground beehive chamber in the midst. Once when I was
poking about there, an unusually intelligent and "reading" peasant who
had come with me, and waited outside, knelt down by the opening, and
whispered in a timid voice, "Are you all right, sir?" I had been some
little while underground, and he feared I had been carried off like the
dog.

No wonder he was afraid, for the fort has long been circled by ill-
boding rumours. It is on the ridge of a small hill, on whose northern
slope lie a few stray cottages. One night a farmer's young son came
from one of them and saw the fort all flaming, and ran towards it, but
the "glamour" fell on him, and he sprang on to a fence, cross-legged,
and commenced beating it with a stick, for he imagined the fence was a
horse, and that all night long he went on the most wonderful ride
through the country. In the morning he was still beating his fence, and
they carried him home, where he remained a simpleton for three years
before he came to himself again. A little later a farmer tried to level
the fort. His cows and horses died, and an manner of trouble overtook
him, and finally he himself was led home, and left useless with "his
head on his knees by the fire to the day of his death."

A few hundred yards southwards of the northern angle of Rosses is
another angle having also its cave, though this one is not covered with
sand. About twenty years ago a brig was wrecked near by, and three or
four fishermen were put to watch the deserted hulk through the
darkness. At midnight they saw sitting on a stone at the cave's mouth
two red-capped fiddlers fiddling with all their might. The men fled. A
great crowd of villagers rushed down to the cave to see the fiddlers,
but the creatures had gone.

To the wise peasant the green hills and woods round him are full of
never-fading mystery. When the aged countrywoman stands at her door in
the evening, and, in her own words, "looks at the mountains and thinks
of the goodness of God," God is all the nearer, because the pagan
powers are not far: because northward in Ben Bulben, famous for hawks,
the white square door swings open at sundown, and those wild
unchristian riders rush forth upon the fields, while southward the
White Lady, who is doubtless Maive herself, wanders under the broad
cloud nightcap of Knocknarea. How may she doubt these things, even
though the priest shakes his head at her? Did not a herd-boy, no long
while since, see the White Lady? She passed so close that the skirt of
her dress touched him. "He fell down, and was dead three days." But
this is merely the small gossip of faerydom--the little stitches that
join this world and the other.

One night as I sat eating Mrs. H-----'s soda-bread, her husband told
me a longish story, much the best of all I heard in Rosses. Many a poor
man from Fin M'Cool to our own days has had some such adventure to tell
of, for those creatures, the "good people," love to repeat themselves.
At any rate the story-tellers do. "In the times when we used to travel
by the canal," he said, "I was coming down from Dublin. When we came to
Mullingar the canal ended, and I began to walk, and stiff and fatigued
I was after the slowness. I had some friends with me, and now and then
we walked, now and then we rode in a cart. So on till we saw some girls
milking cows, and stopped to joke with them. After a while we asked
them for a drink of milk. 'We have nothing to put it in here,' they
said, 'but come to the house with us.' We went home with them, and sat
round the fire talking. After a while the others went, and left me,
loath to stir from the good fire. I asked the girls for something to
eat. There was a pot on the fire, and they took the meat out and put it
on a plate, and told me to eat only the meat that came off the head.
When I had eaten, the girls went out, and I did not see them again. It
grew darker and darker, and there I still sat, loath as ever to leave
the good fire, and after a while two men came in, carrying between them
a corpse. When I saw them, coming I hid behind the door. Says one to
the other, putting the corpse on the spit, 'Who'll turn the spit? Says
the other, 'Michael H-----, come out of that and turn the meat.' I came
out all of a tremble, and began turning the spit. 'Michael H------,'
says the one who spoke first, 'if you let it burn we'll have to put you
on the spit instead'; and on that they went out. I sat there trembling
and turning the corpse till towards midnight. The men came again, and
the one said it was burnt, and the other said it was done right. But
having fallen out over it, they both said they would do me no harm that
time; and, sitting by the fire, one of them cried out: 'Michael H-----,
can you tell me a story?' 'Divil a one,' said I. On which he caught me
by the shoulder, and put me out like a shot. It was a wild blowing
night. Never in all my born days did I see such a night-the darkest
night that ever came out of the heavens. I did not know where I was for
the life of me. So when one of the men came after me and touched me on
the shoulder, with a 'Michael H----, can you tell a story now?' 'I
can,' says I. In he brought me; and putting me by the fire, says:
'Begin.' 'I have no story but the one,' says I, 'that I was sitting
here, and you two men brought in a corpse and put it on the spit, and
set me turning it.' 'That will do,' says he; 'ye may go in there and
lie down on the bed.' And I went, nothing loath; and in the morning
where was I but in the middle of a green field!"

"Drumcliff" is a great place for omens. Before a prosperous fishing
season a herring-barrel appears in the midst of a storm-cloud; and at a
place called Columkille's Strand, a place of marsh and mire, an ancient
boat, with St. Columba himself, comes floating in from sea on a
moonlight night: a portent of a brave harvesting. They have their dread
portents too. Some few seasons ago a fisherman saw, far on the horizon,
renowned Hy Brazel, where he who touches shall find no more labour or
care, nor cynic laughter, but shall go walking about under shadiest
boscage, and enjoy the conversation of Cuchullin and his heroes. A
vision of Hy Brazel forebodes national troubles.

Drumcliff and Rosses are chokeful of ghosts. By bog, road, rath,
hillside, sea-border they gather in all shapes: headless women, men in
armour, shadow hares, fire-tongued hounds, whistling seals, and so on.
A whistling seal sank a ship the other day. At Drumcliff there is a
very ancient graveyard. The Annals of the Four Masters have this verse
about a soldier named Denadhach, who died in 871: "A pious soldier of
the race of Con lies under hazel crosses at Drumcliff." Not very long
ago an old woman, turning to go into the churchyard at night to pray,
saw standing before her a man in armour, who asked her where she was
going. It was the "pious soldier of the race of Con," says local
wisdom, still keeping watch, with his ancient piety, over the
graveyard. Again, the custom is still common hereabouts of sprinkling
the doorstep with the blood of a chicken on the death of a very young
child, thus (as belief is) drawing into the blood the evil spirits from
the too weak soul. Blood is a great gatherer of evil spirits. To cut
your hand on a stone on going into a fort is said to be very dangerous.

There is no more curious ghost in Drumcliff or Rosses than the snipe-
ghost. There is a bush behind a house in a village that I know well:
for excellent reasons I do not say whether in Drumcliff or Rosses or on
the slope of Ben Bulben, or even on the plain round Knocknarea. There
is a history concerning the house and the bush. A man once lived there
who found on the quay of Sligo a package containing three hundred
pounds in notes. It was dropped by a foreign sea captain. This my man
knew, but said nothing. It was money for freight, and the sea captain,
not daring to face his owners, committed suicide in mid-ocean. Shortly
afterwards my man died. His soul could not rest. At any rate, strange
sounds were heard round his house, though that had grown and prospered
since the freight money. The wife was often seen by those still alive
out in the garden praying at the bush I have spoken of, for the shade
of the dead man appeared there at times. The bush remains to this day:
once portion of a hedge, it now stands by itself, for no one dare put
spade or pruning-knife about it. As to the strange sounds and voices,
they did not cease till a few years ago, when, during some repairs, a
snipe flew out of the solid plaster and away; the troubled ghost, say
the neighbours, of the note-finder was at last dislodged.

My forebears and relations have lived near Rosses and Drumcliff these
many years. A few miles northward I am wholly a stranger, and can find
nothing. When I ask for stories of the faeries, my answer is some such
as was given me by a woman who lives near a white stone fort--one of
the few stone ones in Ireland--under the seaward angle of Ben Bulben:
"They always mind their own affairs and I always mind mine": for it is
dangerous to talk of the creatures. Only friendship for yourself or
knowledge of your forebears will loosen these cautious tongues. My
friend, "the sweet Harp-String" (I give no more than his Irish name for
fear of gaugers), has the science of unpacking the stubbornest heart,
but then he supplies the potheen-makers with grain from his own fields.
Besides, he is descended from a noted Gaelic magician who raised the
"dhoul" in Great Eliza's century, and he has a kind of prescriptive
right to hear tell of all kind of other-world creatures. They are
almost relations of his, if all people say concerning the parentage of
magicians be true.

William Butler Yeats