Even the Irish Parliament was concerned when workmen laid down their tools rather than offend the little men.
by Harold Wilkins
In the summer of 1950 I tramped the roads of southern Ireland. On the road to the Township of Cork I got into an interesting conversation with a man who told me he was a bus conductor. The talk turned to the subject of banshees and fairies called, by the old Irish, “good people.” They are said to be supernatural beings attached to ancient families and to descendants of ancient Irish kings and chieftains. The banshees appear and announce the imminent deaths of members of these old Irish families. The sign of their coming is often an appalling scream in the night, or just before dawn.
“Yes,” said the bus conductor seriously, “I have heard the banshee scream before a death and I, and others in this Irish county, have seen the little people — the fairies!”
“But surely you don’t believe in the existence of fairies?” I said, assuming a skeptical tone to draw him out and lead him on to talk “Shure, man, but I do!” he said. “I have seen fairies in the glens and woods of the mountain and round those ancient forts they call raths.”
“What do your Catholic priest tell you to do if you meet fairies in woods or on lonely roads?”
“They tell us to avert our eyes and walk on the other side of the road.”
I recalled this queer conversation in November, 1951, when a curious discussion was going on in the town council of a Southern Irish township, 120 miles due north of Cork. The place is called Roscommon and here the Board of Health, with two deputies or congressmen from the Irish Parliament, called the Dail, very seriously discussed fairies!
The medical superintendent, Dr. J. O’Hanrahan, said, “I want to grow vegetables in my garden, which is 30 yards square. We are short of food in Eire and I want to help the national effort. And I cannot! Why? Because there are fairies in my garden. The folk here believe they are on an ancient mound that stands in the garden. The land round my house ought to be leveled. We want to grow food . . . but not a man will put a spade or pick to that mound!”
A Dail deputy, the Mr. D. O’Rourke, replied, “If the doctor can’t operate on the fairies, we can’t!”
So the Board ordered that Dr. O’Hanrahan should proceed with the tillage of his garden — if he could do so!
As I write, November 6, 1951, the municipal authorities of the southern Irish township of Limerick have been compelled to leave untouched an ancient mound called Ballynanty Beg which they wanted leveled in order to erect 30 badly needed houses for workers. There has been another of these curious municipal discussions. The Housing Manager of
the Limerick City Housing Board, Mr. N. Macken, says, “It seems we shall have to give in to the fairies and leave that mound untouched. That will mean that, in a few months’ time, modern houses will surround that mound. The people of Limerick won’t go within a mile of the mound, which they call a rath, or fort. We hired several men to come with bulldozers and level the mound. But they no sooner came on the job than, one and all, they downed tools. Why? They told me with oaths that they have seen leprechauns making shoes there at night.”
Leprechauns look like little, wrinkled, old men.
The Limerick Town Council hired other Irish workers to come to the place from County Clare. Close up to the mystic mound these workers built a number of house gables. But when they came next morning not one remained standing! All of them had been thrown down in the night! A hard-headed overseer, Mr. John MacNamara, reported these facts to the Limerick Town Council. He may or may not scoff at stories of fairies and leprechauns but he stated, “The houses will have to be built some distance from that mound and, even then, the new tenants will be scared because they will have fairies at the bottom of their garden!”
In 1907 the late Sir John Ross told a friend that when he was 15 years old there was, close to his home, what the Irish call a “gentle bush” — a very ancient thorn, tree — round which fairies danced in a ring at night.
Ross was quite serious about it. He said, “This gentle tree was in a field where they dried wet clay bricks from a brick works close by. The Irish workers carefully avoided a circle close up to the tree. But once there was a strike and workers were brought there from Scotland. These Scotchmen were tough guys and scoffed at yarns about fairies. They laid wet bricks right up to the foot of the tree. Next morning all over those bricks nearest the tree were the marks of many tiny feet, naked feet! My father took me to see those bricks. It was a strange sight!”
I myself know an artist who went to paint a landscape in a woodland glade on an Irish estate. He was told fairies danced there on certain days in the summer.
For some reason he left his canvas unfinished in that glade over night. Next day, he found a curiously elfin sort of picture had been painted on the canvas.
About a mile from my home in Bexleyheath, Kent, is a public library, built close to the old Roman, or Dover road. The librarian tells me that he is puzzled to find, after weekends, that books have been taken and deposited on top shelves which were empty when he left. Local folk say that, according to old Kentish lore, the ground on which the library stands is pixy or fairy ground.
I also know of a very ancient country house in Kent which a stranger rented for a season. He took his wife and baby to live there. Someone told him that no one is able to stay long in that old house. It stands on pixy ground. The man laughed, saying “Pixies or no, I’ve rented that house for the summer and nobody is going to turn me out of it.”
His wife was soon puzzled by things falling from the walls onto the bed, without any apparent cause. She put up with the phenomena until the baby was hit by an object which fell from nowhere as she was bathing it. The child got a black eye. Then the wife refused to stay longer in the house. In 1949 I was roaming on a very wild waste called Dartmoor, located in Devon, England. On Dartmoor is the British Home Office prison — a large convict jail. This is a weird stretch of moor ranging for many miles, with glens, tors (rounded conical hills) and lonely heaths dotted with ancient remains of stone huts. Ancient stepping stones cross foaming brooks. No one knows who put them there in past ages. Round here and over the border in Cornwall the local folk firmly believe in pixies. They call them piskies and say they roam the wild heath and dance and play music in lonely dells.
Dr. Thomas Wood, a distinguished composer, traveler and author, told me that he believes that these pixies actually exist on Dartmoor and that he has heard and taken down their harmonies! He told me this very strange and eerie story:
“I was on Dartmoor in the summer of 1922 with a camping party on the banks of the river Teign. They were free and easy people, cooked their own food, dressed or did not dress, lazed and dozed in the heat of the day. I used to go off after breakfast to be alone, to think and make notes for a book I was writing. This book was large and leather-bound and the manuscript weighed seven pounds. I had a blazer over my legs to keep off the horse flies and a ground sheet to keep away the damp. Ahead and below, mile after mile, ranged the great rolling stretches of Dartmoor. It lay shimmering in the heat. There were bracken and gorse, grassy paths for the ponies, and pools in the bog, fringed with reeds. Little streams ran laughing in the sun between the rocks. There were ancient stone circles, hut circles, and kistvaens — memorials of the past of an unknown race when the world was young — bare brown tors, all wild and untameable.”
Dr. Wood was composing music for an opera and tapping out with his foot the time of the music. He was startled to hear his name called, “Tommy! Tommy!” The call came nearer: “Tomm-ee!” He looked round, but there was no one in sight!
“I picked up my field glasses and swept the moor to make sure. The moor was empty as the sky. Picnickers did not come here. The place was hard to find. . . .I knew I should see nothing! But that voice had sounded within 20 yards of me. It was not the voice of anyone over in the camp yonder. No one there called me Tommy and no one I could recall had a voice like that . . . small, clear, faintly mocking,’ pitched high. It was not a woman’s voice, not a child’s voice. It might be that of a youth, or a man’s falsetto. Had I been honored by a visit from a pixy?”
Dr. Wood went back to the place next day:
“The weather was more steamingly hot than ever. Dartmoor was asleep. So were the bees, the hawks, the wind, the tors. An hour went by — an hour and a half. The shadows shifted. The sun moved. . . . And then I heard the last thing I expected to hear . . . music in the air! It was overhead, faint as a breath. It died away, came back’ louder, over me, swaying like a censer that dips. It lasted 20 minutes. Portable wireless sets were unknown in 1922. My field glasses assured me no picnickers were in sight. It was not a gramophone nor was it an illusory noise in my ears. This music was essentially harmonic, not a melody nor an air. It sounded like the weaving together of tenuous fairy sounds. I listened with every faculty drawn out to an intensity.”
Dr. Wood wrote down what he heard:
“I am prepared to say on oath that what I wrote down is so close to the original that the authors themselves would not know the difference. . . . The music drifted into silence. No more came, then or since. I was reasonably certain that I had been deliberately encouraged to listen to the supernatural. The camp agreed with me. They knew their Dartmoor! And if you feel yourself skeptical —just you get yourself lost on this moor somewhere between Shovel Down and Tavy Head. That will teach you to respect the old ones!”
I have included a copy of the elfin harmony that Dr. Wood took down on lonely Dartmoor, Devon, that summer of 1922. If the reader has a violin or a piano he or she can play it and hear what Dr. Wood heard.
An old volume on the Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish peasantry quotes what the writer, Groker, calls “a piece of very ancient music”. Mr. Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle, Scotland, wrote in 1691, “The fairies speak but little and that by way of whistling clear not rough.” (A manuscript in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh).
The well-known English Poet Laureate, John Masefield, said that when he was in Ireland he was told by folk, who heard fairy music, that it “was like a waving in the air.”
Not long ago a man living in Toronto, Canada — formerly a telegraphist on the Canadian Pacific Railroad — wrote me:
“Mr. Wilkins: my mother, a dear old soul who lived to be 90, saw fairies washing their clothes in a glen in some woods close to Deeside, North Scotland. My mother’s sister, who died over 90, was also an eyewitness of fairies, or little people, play-acting in the moss in North Scotland. She saw them dancing as well as doing their laundry.”
I knew a Scottish “laird” of the Highlands, once a well known member of Parliament in the British House of Commons, who had spent years traveling all over South America and Mexico. He was a friend of the late Theodore Roosevelt. He told me he believed in the existence of fairies in lonely parts of Scotland’s mountains and glens. He was R. B. Cunninghame Graham and he died in the Argentine in 1939. Just before his death he wrote a new preface to a strange and very rare book titled “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies,” whose author was the Rev. Robert Kirk, minister of Aberfoyle in 1691.
Oxford University, England, has a debating society of graduates called the “Union” and on December 1, 1949, it carried by 416 votes against 198, the following motion:
“This house believes in the existence of fairies.”
This belief is by no means confined to the British Isles. The Onondaga and Tuscarora Indians of the U. S. declared that in a ravine, west of the village of Onondaga, there lived the “Little People”, whom the Tuscaroras called “Ehn-kwa-si-yea” (no men at all). The Onondagas showed to white visitors a smooth rock which they said had been worn by the bottoms of fairies who liked to bounce on it as they descended the precipitous bank of the ravine.
In Forfarshire, Scotland, is a wild crag called Mellin’s or Merlin’s Crag. It is said to be the haunt of fairies and a queer story is told by one John Smith. So far as I know, the old manuscript containing this story has never before been published:
“In 1640 John Smith was barn-man at a farm not far from Merlin’s Crag. He was sent by the farmer to cast divots of turf, onto the green behind the Crag. He laboured hours on this job when suddenly he was startled by an apparition coming round the front of the Crag. It was that of an old woman, 18 inches tall, in a green gown and red stockings. Long yellow hair reached her waist.
“She asked the scared farmworker: ‘And hoo wad ye feel were I to send my husband to tir (uncover) yer ain hoose like as yere tirning mine?’
“The man was tongue-tied. The old woman looked sternly at him and her eyes flashed.
‘”Yere this instant to place whaur ye took it iviry divot ye’ve cast ahint (behind) this Crag!’
“He was terrified and carried out her orders and his limbs shook with fright. He went back to the farm where the farmer laughed at him and to cure him of fear of the little folk bade him go back to the Crag and fetch home the divots instanter, which he reluctantly did.
“Nothing happened till 12 months later to the very day, when he quit the farm at sunset carrying a small stoup of milk in his hand. He was not seen again and no one knew what had become of him. Years passed when, on the anniversary of the same day, he walked into his own house at the usual hour carrying the stoup of milk. He said that on the eve of the day he quit the farm he was passing the grey precipice of Merlin’s Crag when he suddenly felt ill and sat down, resting his back against the rock. He fell asleep and woke, as he thought, about midnight.
“He found the fairies dancing in a ring around him. They bade him join the dance and gave him the prettiest fairy for partner. She took him by the hand and they danced three times round in a fairy ring. He became entranced and lost all desire to resume ordinary life. The dance and jollity went on till they heard the farmer’s cock crow. Then the crowd of fairies raced helter-skelter to the foot of the crag and on the front side a door opened in the rock-face and they went inside, dragging him with them. He remained a prisoner till the anniversary of the eve on which he returned, when the same old woman fairy appeared. She said to him: ‘Aye, the grass is now green on the roof of ma hoose which ye did tir after I bade ye nay. Now, an ye will tak an oath never to tell mortals what ye have
seen in this rock, an’ ye may gae to yer ain hoose.’
“He swore the oath and ever after went a mile out of his way to avoid the Crag after sundown.”
No one has ever explained the mystery of the weird fairy flints or microliths, a number of which are in the U. S. National Museum at Washington, D. G. These queer flints have been found not only in North America but in northwest and central India, Egypt, Tunis, North Africa, in south and central France, and on the Crimean shores of the Black Sea in Russia. These flints are so small and delicately fashioned that it would seem that only a being of fairy size could use them. The “blades” are less than 1 1/2 inches long and the cores not more than 1 3/4 inches wide. Often they are in crescent form, the straight edges being the cutting edges.
These microliths are made of jasper, chalcedony, agate, horn-stone, and flint. It is a mystery what purpose these flints served — and as great a mystery is who made them.
It must be realized that there are today sane, educated and even learned people, not only in Ireland but in Scotland and Southern England, who believe that fairies exist. They swear they have been called by fairies on lonely moors and glens. If they really do exist it is on a plane of matter or time that science has not yet probed.