Fairy stories

Mar 31st, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

It would have been Peggy’s birthday tomorrow – 88 if she had been with us.

Flicking through an anthology of Irish writing at the weekend, I spotted lines that were familiar, a William Allingham poem, learned in her school days in the 1920s, that Peggy would have recited. I had never listened closely to the words and only when reading it on Saturday, did it appear as something more sinister than the classroom rhyme I took it to be.

If children at rural primary schools were taught poems telling them that there was a danger of being abducted for so long that they would die, is it any wonder that such “harmless” rhymes combined with a realm of superstitions to create a fear of the fairies that can still be seen in thorn trees left untouched in fields?

Here’s The Fairies

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And a white owl’s feather!

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He’s nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen
Of the gay Northern Lights.

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
They took her lightly back,
Between the night and morrow,
They thought that she was fast asleep,
But she was dead with sorrow.
They have kept her ever since
Deep within the lake,
On a bed of flag-leaves,
Watching till she wake.

By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn-trees
For pleasure here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And a white owl’s feather!

I often wondered why the church never said anything to counteract such stuff – but maybe the church, with its threats of limbo, purgatory and hell, was just as bad.

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  1. Kneeling in a dark confessional box listening to the loud Yawns of an old priest on the other side of the screen, was enough to make a seven or eight year-old wet her pants! Who could blame her?

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