Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter XXV. The wee folk.
'There sings a bonnie linnet Up the heather glen; The voice has magic in it Too sweet for mortal men! Sing O, the blooming heather, O, the heather glen! Where fairest fairies gather To lure in mortal men.'
Carrig-a-fooka Inn, near Knockma,
A modern Irish poet* says something that Francesca has quoted to Ronald in her letter to-day, and we await from Scotland his confirmation or denial. He accuses the Scots of having discovered the fairies to be pagan and wicked, and of denouncing them from the pulpits, whereas Irish priests discuss with them the state of their souls; or at least they did, until it was decided that they had none, but would dry up like so much bright vapour at the last day. It was more in sadness than in anger that the priests announced this fiat; for Irish sprites and goblins do gay, graceful, and humorous things, for the most part, tricksy sins, not deserving annihilation, whereas Scottish fays are sometimes malevolent,--or so says the Irish poet.
* W. B. Yeats.
This is very sad, no doubt, but it does not begin to be as sad as having no fairies at all. There must have been a few in England in Shakespeare's time, or he could never have written The Tempest or the Midsummer Night's Dream; but where have they vanished?
As for us in America, I fear that we never have had any 'wee folk.' The Indians had their woodland spirits, spirits of rocks, trees, mountains, star and moon maidens; the negroes had their enchanted animals and conjure men; but as for real wee folk, either they were not indigenous to the soil or else we unconsciously drove them away. Yet we had facilities to offer! The columbines, harebells, and fringed gentians would have been just as cosy and secluded places to live in as the Irish foxgloves, which are simply running over with fairies. Perhaps they wouldn't have liked our cold winters; still it must have been something more than climate, and I am afraid I know the reason well--we are too sensible; and if there is anything a fairy detests, it is common-sense. We are too rich, also; and a second thing that a fairy abhors is the chink of dollars. Perhaps, when I am again enjoying the advantages brought about by sound money, commercial prosperity, and a magnificent system of public education, I shall feel differently about it; but for the moment I am just a bit embarrassed and crestfallen to belong to a nation absolutely shunned by the fairies. If they had only settled among us like other colonists, shaped us to their ends as far as they could, and, when they couldn't, conformed themselves to ours, there might have been, by this time, fairy trusts stretching out benign arms all over the continent.
Of course it is an age of incredulity, but Salemina, Francesca, and I have not come to Ireland to scoff, and whatever we do we shall not go to the length of doubting the fairies; for, as Barney O'Mara says, 'they stand to raison.'
Glen Ailna is a 'gentle' place near Carrig-a-fooka Inn--that is, one beloved by the sheehogues; and though you may be never so much interested, I may not tell you its exact whereabouts, since no one can ever find it unless he is himself under the glamour. Perhaps you might be a doubter, with no eyes for the 'dim kingdom'; perhaps you might gaze for ever, and never be able to see a red-capped fiddler, fiddling under a blossoming sloe bush. You might even see him, and then indulge yourself in a fit of common-sense or doubt of your own eyes, in which case the wee dancers would never flock to the sound of the fiddle or gather on the fairy ring. This is the reason that I shall never take you to Knockma, to Glen Ailna, or especially to the hyacinth wood, which is a little plantation near the ruin of a fort. Just why the fairies are so fond of an old rath or lis I cannot imagine, for you would never suppose that antiquaries, archaeologists, and wee folk would care for the same places.
I have no intention of interviewing the grander personages among the Irish fairies, for they are known to be haughty, unapproachable, and severe, as befits the descendants of the great Nature Gods and the under-deities of flood and fell and angry sea. It is the lesser folk, the gay, gracious, little men that I wish to meet; those who pipe and dance on the fairy ring. The 'ring' is made, you know, by the tiny feet that have tripped for ages and ages, flying, dancing, circling, over the tender young grass. Rain cannot wash it away; you may walk over it; you may even plough up the soil, and replant it ever so many times; the next season the fairy ring shines in the grass just the same. It seems strange that I am blind to it, when an ignorant, dirty spalpeen who lives near the foot of Knockma has seen it and heard the fairy music again and again. He took me to the very place where, last Lammas Eve, he saw plainly--for there was a beautiful, white moon overhead--the arch king and queen of the fairies, who appear only on state occasions, together with a crowd of dancers, and more than a dozen pipers piping melodious music. Not only that, but (lucky little beggar!) he heard distinctly the fulparnee and the folpornee, the rap-lay-hoota and the roolya- boolya--noises indicative of the very jolliest and wildest and most uncommon form of fairy conviviality. Failing a glimpse of these midsummer revels, my next choice would be to see the Elf Horseman galloping round the shores of the Fairy Lough in the cool of the morn.
'Loughareema, Loughareema, Stars come out and stars are hidin'; The wather whispers on the stones, The flittherin' moths are free. Onest before the mornin' light The Horseman will come ridin' Roun' an' roun' the Fairy Lough, An' no one there to see.'
But there will be some one there, and that is the aforesaid Jamesy Flanigan! Sometimes I think he is fibbing, but a glance at his soft, dark, far-seeing eyes under their fringe of thick lashes convinces me to the contrary. His field of vision is different from mine, that is all, and he fears that if I accompany him to the shores of the Fairy Lough the Horseman will not ride for him; so I am even taunted with undue common-sense by a little Irish gossoon.
I tried to coax Benella to go with me to the hyacinth wood by moonlight. Fairies detest a crowd, and I ought to have gone alone; but, to tell the truth, I hardly dared, for they have a way of kidnapping attractive ladies and keeping them for years in the dim kingdom. I would not trust Himself at Glen Ailna for worlds, for gentlemen are not exempt from danger. Connla of the Golden Hair was lured away by a fairy maiden, and taken, in a 'gleaming, straight- gliding, strong, crystal canoe,' to her domain in the hills; and Oisin, you remember, was transported to the Land of the Ever Youthful by the beautiful Niam. If one could only be sure of coming back! but Oisin, for instance, was detained three hundred years, so one might not be allowed to return, and still worse, one might not wish to; three hundred years of youth would tempt--a woman! My opinion, after reading the Elf Errant, is that one of us has been there--Moira O'Neill. I should suspect her of being able to wear a fairy cap herself, were it not for the human heart-throb in her verses; but I am sure she has the glamour whenever she desires it, and hears the fairy pipes at will.
Benella is of different stuff; she not only distrusts fairies, but, like the Scotch Presbyterians, she fears that they are wicked. "Still, you say they haven't got immortal souls to save, and I don't suppose they're responsible for their actions," she allows; "but as for traipsing up to those heathenish, haunted woods when all Christian folks are in bed, I don't believe in it, and neither would Mr. Beresford; but if you're set on it, I shall go with you!"
"You wouldn't be of the slightest use," I answered severely; "indeed, you'd be worse than nobody. The fairies cannot endure doubters; it makes them fold their wings over their heads and shrink away into their flowercups. I should be mortified beyond words if a fairy should meet me in your company."
Benella seemed hurt and a trifle resentful as she replied: "That about doubters is just what Mrs. Kimberly used to say." (Mrs. Kimberly is the Salem priestess, the originator of the 'science.') "She couldn't talk a mite if there was doubters in the hall; and it's so with spiritualists and clairvoyants, too--they're all of 'em scare-cats. I guess likely that those that's so afraid of being doubted has some good reason for it!"
Well, I never went to the hyacinth wood by moonlight, since so many objections were raised, but I did go once at noonday, the very most unlikely hour of all the twenty-four, and yet-
As I sat there beneath a gnarled thorn, weary and warm with my climb, I looked into the heart of a bluebell forest growing under a circle of gleaming silver birches, and suddenly I heard fairy music- -at least it was not mortal--and many sounds were mingled in it: the sighing of birches, the carol of a lark, the leap and laugh of a silvery runnel tumbling down the hillside, the soft whir of butterflies' wings, and a sweet little over or under tone, from the over or under world, that I took to be the opening of a million hyacinth buds in the sunshine. Then I heard the delicious sound of a fairy laugh, and, looking under a swaying branch of meadowsweet, I saw--yes, I really saw-
You must know that first a wee green door swung open in the stem of the meadowsweet, and out of that land where you can buy joy for a penny came a fairy in the usual red and green. I had the Elf Errant in my lap, and I think that in itself made him feel more at home with me, as well as the fact, perhaps, that for the moment I wasn't a bit sensible and had no money about me. I was all ready with an Irish salutation, for the purposes of further disarming his aversion. I intended to say, as prettily as possible, though, alas! I cannot manage the brogue, "And what way do I see you now?" or "Good-mornin' to yer honour's honour!" But I was struck dumb by my good fortune at seeing him at all. He looked at me once, and then, flinging up his arms, he gave a weeny, weeny yawn! This was disconcerting, for people almost never yawn in my company; and to make it worse, he kept on yawning, until, for very sympathy, and not at all in the way of revenge, I yawned too. Then the green door swung open again, and a gay rabble of wide-awake fairies came trooping out: and some of them kissed the hyacinth bells to open them, and some of them flew to the thorn-tree, until every little brancheen was white with flowers, where but a moment ago had been tightly-closed buds. The yawning fairy slept meanwhile under the swaying meadowsweet, and the butterflies fanned him with their soft wings; but, alas! it could not have been the hour for dancing on the fairy ring, nor the proper time for the fairy pipers, and long, long as I looked I saw and heard nothing more than what I have told you. Indeed, I presently lost even that, for a bee buzzed, a white petal dropped from the thorn-tree on my face, there was a scraping of tiny claws and the sound of two squirrels barking love to each other in the high branches, and in that moment the glamour that was upon me vanished in a twinkling.
"But I really did see the fairies!" I exclaimed triumphantly to Benella the doubter, when I returned Carrig-a-fooka Inn, much too late for luncheon.
"I want to know!" she exclaimed, in her New England vernacular. "I guess by the looks o' your eyes they didn't turn out to be very lively comp'ny!"