Fairy fears

Mar 6th, 2012 | By | Category: Ireland

It being the day off yesterday, reorganizing the bookshelves was on the list of things to be done.

It is odd how books creep up on you, you have only a few and then you turn around and they have somehow multiplied and have filled every inch of shelf. There were no less than twenty-three by Alexander McCall-Smith and there were books of poetry that had appeared without any memory of their ever being purchased anywhere.

Do people still learn poetry by heart? There are happy memories of visiting a Yorkshire woman in the West of Ireland who would tell gatherings about ‘how lion ate our Albert’ and other similar tales. The only poem I could ever recite was Seamus Heaney’s Requiem for the Croppies, (and I only learned that from listening to a tape of a concert by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy where it preceded the singing of Four Green Fields).

Peggy, my mother-in-law, born in 1920, could have recited poems, particularly a William Allingham poem, learned in her school days in the 1920s, in rural Co Down. I had never listened too closely to the words and only after she died did I find a printed copy of the poem; it seemed something more sinister than the classroom rhyme I took it to be.

It was a poem that explained to me something of the fear that still exists in rural areas of ‘fairies’. If children at rural primary schools ninety years ago 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 appear in conversations and 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.

Maybe not learning poetry is preferable.

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  1. Teignmouth. WM Praed, taught to us at HBS by Miss Taylor about 1972. I can’t think of Devon or Teignmouth without the opening lines of the poem (as I recall it) coming to my mind; ‘ I looked across a river stream, a little town was there oe’r which the morning’s earliest beam was wandering fresh and fair…’

    When I was quite ill three years ago I had to do something to keep my brain active and I found it almost impossible to focus on reading, or using the internet, I set myself a task to learn Ode to Celestial Music (or the girl in the bathroom singing) by Brian Patten. Strange choice. Interesting poem.

  2. The only lines of poetry I can remember from school are, ‘The Jervis Bay went hard a-port’ and ‘Today we have the naming of parts’. I think both lines come from war poems.

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