Written by Michael George Crawford from Warrenpoint. First published by V. G. Havern [Warrenpoint] and printed by Outlook Press [Rathfriland] in “Legendary Stories of The Carlingford Lough District (1913)”
Adapted by Dónal Kearney (2016)
North of the Clonallon Road in Warrenpoint rises the Hill of Jenny Black. It is named after an infamous old witch who dwelt there in the days when the dark arts held sway, when certain women were suspected of being in league with the demon. They were thought to have the evil eye and conjured spells to the injury of humankind. Every accident that happened was the suspected actions of a witch.
To the credit of the people of Ireland, it must be said that they took no part in the cruel torturing and murdering of persons suspected of witchcraft, which disgraces nearly every country in Ireland to this day. There was a statute passed by the British in Ireland against witchcraft. It wasn’t until the Witchcraft Laws were repealed by King George II that the ancient dames breathed freely once more after the long reign of terror and persecution against them. One might ask: where are they all now?
Jenny Black resided at the top of Clonallon Hill and she was held in the greatest terror by those believers in the dark arts.
She was generally seen sitting in her cabin at the wheel, spinning and weaving diabolical spells and charms in the usual manner of witches. Her black cat would blink at the fire in the grate, in the usual manner of black cats. It is said that her cat would talk to Jenny Black in front of visitors, until they fainted or fled with fright.
At this time, the hills of Clonallon were covered with dense woods, believed to be inhabited by evil spirits, devils, hobgoblins. The local folk would give these woods a wide berth after dark. Jenny Black was long noted for playing tricks upon nocturnal wanderers; she appeared in frightful shapes and would swoop down on them to tear or jostle them about the road.
One dark night, two farmers were returning from the town with their horses and carts. When they met the hill, Jenny was just alighting off her broomstick. The horses were not acquainted with Jenny’s particular form of travel – they bolted and galloped wildly back down the steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, the horses collided and sent their owners flying off the carts, headfirst to the ground. The horses, wild with fear, then trampled the men and killed them where they lay.
On another occasion, the witches fair and devils gay were enjoying an evening’s entertainment in the wicked woods of Clonallon when they were disturbed by a farmer of the name O’Hare. Slightly under the influence of the uisce bheatha, and spirited by his indulgences, O’Hare boldly faced Jenny’s assembled guests. He was not in the least bit cowed by their numbers and horrible appearance. Stepping unsteadily forward, he challenged the whole condemned lot to fight him. Looking around and smiling at each other, the beasts fell upon him with teeth and nails, tore at this flesh and beat him over the head with their limbs.
Jenny Black, cleverly manoeuvring the broomstick, swept down from the air like a hawk, lifted him out of the woods and sailed through the skies towards the lough. Halfway to Carlingford, Jenny dropped the unfortunately O’Hare far into the dark waters below, where he sank and remained below the surface. The farmer O’Hare’s sad fate kept local folk from meddling in the devil’s business any more. They spoke of Jenny Black in a more respectful manner after that.
One night, a couple of teenagers went out hunting started a hare on the witch’s hill. Their dogs gave chase to the hare, which ran round the hill, doubling and twisting back on its own tracks. The youths noticed that the dogs were not too anxious to get in close on the seeming hare, and they became suspicious of the animal. They called the dogs off – at that moment, the hare turned into the withered and naked old witch known as Jenny Black.
The dogs yelped with fright and the boys were petrified. The witch then cast a spell on them, led them into a chamber in the hill, which was filled with people older than the witch herself. They lured the young fellows round a cauldron that was swirling wildly. The others were throwing strange herbs into the seething pot, and the boys knew instantly that they were in the presence of witches and wizards.
Jenny Black then forced the boys into a dance, their partners being two of the ugliest witches of the company (which was saying a lot!). For hours they were trapped in that mad whirl. The sweat rolled off them, their heads were light and dizzy with the crazing dancing. They minds swam and their bodies ached, but still they were compelled to jig. They realised that the hags were dancing them to death, revelling in the energy of their souls, dripping them dry through the medium of dance.
When they were near their last gasp, one of the lads remembered he had a small witch-hazel stick in his pocket. Witch-hazel was said to possess the power to resist the spells of witches, if properly used. So he dipped into his pocket as subtly as he could – he made it part of his manic dance – and he touched his partner’s hand with the witch-hazel. With an awful shriek, she disappeared. He quickly danced around the room before the crowd could fathom what was happening and touched the rest of them with. Right enough, they all vanished and the boys escaped. However, their dogs had sadly become the party’s feast.
She often wandered the fields of Warrenpoint as a hare. She milked the poor farmers’ cows before the people were up in the morning – a common deviance of witches. On Hallows Eve, the witch and her evil companions concocted their strongest spells for the year ahead. To thwart her designs, the planters carried lighted candles through Clonallon’s woods, from eleven to midnight (the principal time of their operation). If the lights burned steady and clear, the people would triumph over the witches in the year ahead. However, if the light blew out while they were in the woods, the locals would be subjected to the witch’s power for the ensuing year.
Eventually, the local folk burned Jenny Black at the stake. Since then, the woods of Clonallon were consumed by a purifying fire. Her old home was destroyed and the forested site of her evil deeds were levelled.
To this day, there are some who believe that Jenny Black still haunts her hill in the form of a white hare.
As gentle mists roll out the bay,
Like velvet lies Clonallon grey,
Jenny sang a haunting tune and
set her sights by the spotlight of the moon.
The women of the town,
they owe old Jenny more than they can know.
They men are leading timid lives
For on their antics she does not look light.
Upon the lough, a silhouette
Upon the lough, so cold and wet
And so they talk – “We’ll get her yet!”
And so they talk upon the lough.
Hunted like a witch from Hell
- before she died, she weaved a spell;
Clapped her palms and screamed until
the curse was cast on Jenny Black’s Hill.
To this day, she roams the fields;
An old, white hare – Away she steals!
That name still lingers on our ears
despite the passing of the years.
I am doing a good bit of research these days into the connections between folklore and community identity. This has involved a long hard look into folk songs and traditional song, in particular. I’ve been reading a short book I found in a charity shop called Ireland: Towards a Sense of Place. It’s interesting because it was published in 1985, though many of its ideas have yet to bear fruit in Ireland today.
A lot of Irish lore delves into life on this island – as well as life off this island. Emigration is a major theme in the songs and stories because it seems we are never done leaving. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Irish about emigration, or indeed about any of the recurring themes in our local stories. The reason they are popular is that they are universal, human themes: love, loss, death, revelry, magic, etc. Irish folk culture has been influenced by other western European cultures for as long as we can tell.
In the category of the so-called emigrant’s farewell, we can understand the sense of place that has become so important in Irish culture. With a diaspora spanning continents and millions of people who feel Irish, this sense of place is a fascinating one 100 years since the foundation of an independent Irish state. Although a very young political entity, Ireland’s sense of history seems timeless.
If this sleep were on you in Cill na Dromad or some grave in the West,
It would ease my sorrow, though great the affliction and I’d not complain.
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, No. 68
In this poem, it scarcely matters where Cill na Dromad actually is. It could even be fictional, for all that it matters. The point is, as Seán Ó Tuama reminds us, we all know what Cill na Dromad is: “the centre of one’s universe, the beloved home-place”.
In all of this literature connected with place – even in the nature lyrics written by the monks in the golden age of early Christianity – there is no sense of the mystic presence of God or Spirit such as one finds in the literature of other peoples. Rather one is continually struck with the feeling that place and natural phenomena connote above all stability, certainty, eternity on earth… The traditional treatment of home-place and territory in literature survived in good measure the linguistic changeover in the nineteenth century from Irish to English.
In my research of religion in Irish folksong, I've repeatedly come across this idea that Christian values are largely absent from early Irish texts. Instead, there are much stronger pagan themes relating to the aesthetics of the natural world. Seán Ó Tuama reminds us that “there is no sense of sexual sin” in most of Irish literature.
no priest or friar will I believe
that it’s sin to couple in love
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, no. 73
Since the sagas of early Ireland, throughout the learned writings of the Middle Ages, up to contemporary folksong, Irish poetry would seem to embrace a carnal comprehension of love. It often alludes to the physical act in the wilderness of the land itself.
Interestingly, this love of home-place was tied up with the landscape, the indigenous animals, the rivers and hills, and the local language itself. Thanks to the translation from Gaeilge to English, we can now listen to the thoughts and ideas of our ancestors even if we weren't lucky enough to study Irish in a good school that encouraged us to keep it up long enough to interpret ancient Irish poetry. With poetry, melody or mythology, we can better relate to people who historically lived in Ireland.
I do not like referring to people who lived in 19th or 17th or 15th century Ireland as “Irish” because I struggle to accept that we have enough in common with their culture to claim to be compatriots. As far as people can be connected from such a temporal distance, we do share a lot. But I share as much with the people who lived in Dublin as I do with my own great-great-great-grandfather. Very little. I share genes with my family. I share the physical experience of this city with its former residents. But the city has changed so much; almost unrecognisably in many parts. So is it really the same place? Not to mention the evolving cultural influences that have impacted the city’s shapes, sights, sounds, smells, etc. Thanks to the supremacy of American media, Dubliners now have more in common with the Kardashians than with their own grandparents' generation.
As William J Smyth said in 1985,
“sense of place is bound up with memory, identity, caring; with articulating the true nature of our past experiences so as to enable us, more creatively, to engage the present, and through that the future.
It is possible to share these past experiences through the songs and music of the past. We can use these memories to help us define ourselves. Only with an appreciation of what's gone before can we cast judgement on our own past and our own identity. If we can't engage with our own community, we're left alone to forge meaning and identity through other sources; like American media.
Who we are is much more complex than our family history. Likewise, where we're from is much more complex than the physical space in which we find ourselves. Like a map, a physical location is “static” and “does not capture the rounded sense of place as experienced by the insider”:
This experience involves all the senses – of seeing, feeling, of sound, or touch or taste. The map does not capture the Proustian smell of hayfields and the cowhouse, the ritual of the calendar feasts, of places saturated with pain and love, meanness and meaning. Neither does the map capture the excitement and roguery of the market, the squalor and the songs of the back streets, the variety of human life in city, town and kitchen.
It's these 'memory-moments' that make us who we are. They grant us our cultural references. I believe that culture is behaviour; we are what we do. Smyth said in 1985 that, "To know who you are as a people is vital to the balance of all our lives." We have to be careful to stave off the gradual dissolution of local memory and therefore local identity. This could easily happen if we don't remember the things that brought us to where we are. It has happened before. Indeed, it's already happened in large parts of western Ireland where songs, stories, language has been lost. Looking at Dublin in 2016, is the cult of progress is "eliminating part of our memory, part of our identity, part of our future"?
Folklore is a product of a people’s culture. Stories and songs are passed through generations to preserve the previous impressions of a community. These can be melodies, ideas, rhythms, stories or movements. Dancing and singing are age-old human pastimes. They are timeless. By participating in the traditional arts here in Ireland, we can share a moment of community with our ancestors (the people who lived here before us). Though removed in time, we are connected by place. A song can act as a time machine; or, as composer Michael McGlynn has said, songs exist “out of time”.
One of the reasons we enjoy the traditional arts relates to our constant search for identity. We crave a connection to people whom we perceive to be similar. Through the traditional arts, we can connect with people who are absent, who are gone, who have said what they wanted to say. By singing folk songs, we can feel a connection with such people in the past. Often, we pursue this connection backwards in time while ignoring or suppressing the social need to engage with others in the present, who might live and work and move around us every day.1
When we see artworks from another era, we can begin to imagine the culture of those peoples through their works of art. Therefore, we can have a more complex and personal understanding of the people. If these people come from our own place, we often feel we can better understand ourselves. Lore also has a narrative power when it takes the form of story and song (but can also be abstract) in that it allows us each to have an interpretation and thus add to the story as it is passed onto the next recipient. In this way, we are contributing to our own story, our own identity.
If we can participate in our own folklore, we are creating it in community with others. In practice, the artist constantly views the world around herself and, through imagination and a process of digesting the events of the day, produces work that represent the time she lives in. This way, the artist encodes the experiences of her own time. If we participate, we can also be a part of this process of encoding our own culture, actively making our own traditions.
On this point, I’d like to lay out a few of the fascinating ideas I’ve come across in my recent studies of philosophers John Dewey (“Art as Experience”, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934.) and Maxine Greene (“Releasing the imagination: essays on education, the arts, and social change”, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.).
It’s not that easy to participate in works of art - especially contemporary art forms. In the 1930s, Dewey wrote about the energy a person needs to apprehend art. It is not enough to merely walk through a museum. To have an aesthetic experience requires a personal commitment, an emotional and personal conviction, an effort to identify with the artwork. Maxine Greene refers to this as a “mind-opening” effect. Only when we ask questions of ourselves can we be receptive to a piece of art, a song, a painting. Greene believes that art opens us up to new ways of seeing the world. She advocated for “aesethic education” as an approach to open the minds of those people living at the margins of society, in order to present new possibilities for them of imagining new ways to exist in the world.
If so, we need certain things before we can engage. We need a reason to engage. We need a physical space in which we are comfortable enough to relate to the artwork, on our terms. It’s difficult to force people to connect to a performance if they are initially disinterested or disengaged; this may be as a personal response to the ideas presented, the space being used, or indeed the form being employed (ballet, sculpture, folksong).
Identity & the Other
Dewey writes that artworks can help us to appreciate and understand “otherness” and people who are outside of (or marginalised from) our own society. Dewey described art as “a continuity of experience” between people from different worlds; through a felt, imagined connection of individuals removed in time and place. Art can therefore be the source of a relationship with someone or something unfamiliar (a culture, person, idea). After an artistic experience, we can learn to see with someone else’s eyes, to hear with her ears.
In “Philosophy of Right”, Hegel wrote that each of us gains validity and finds satisfaction in others. In this way, we are very much social creatures. Hegel describes how individuals (the “particular person”) actually need others to accomplish their goals - whether in the context of work, friendship, family or love.
In his writings on civil society, John Keane reminds us of the inherit tensions of a pluralist, multiculturalist society. So we are presented with a picture of contemporary society as necessarily social yet inevitably conflicting.
Dewey wrote that “[moralities] are, or tend to become, consecrations of the status quo, reflections of custom, reinforcements of the established order”. I think this means that rules and standards can become engrained in culture to the extent that they end up being outdated. However, Dewey believed the artist can generate meaning in the world beyond the evidence we can actually observe (eg. generalised ideas of right and wrong).
An artist’s ideas about the future come from her “imaginative vision”; in Dewey’s words, “change in the climate of the imagination is the precursor” to real-life changes.2
Representation Through Art
So we as citizens can unleash our own imaginations as to what might be possible in our own worlds. Museums play a important role in this process in providing a hushed atmosphere for personal reflection on artefacts and artworks. Of course, lots of people don’t feel comfortable in museums, so we must ask: for whom are such institutions a barrier to seeing the world in a different way?
In recent decades, artists have accepted that, by experiencing art in a more comfortable atmosphere, the audience is more open to the ideas within. Otherwise, when artists are obsessed with more traditional modes of cultural dissemination, people who are deemed to be uneducated/uninitiated can feel excluded from the process.
Thus, an “authentic invitation” can disentangle an artwork from the prestige or prejudice of its context. This is very important for any artist, or any innovator attempting to introduce a new idea to any audience. So how can we extend this authentic invitation? How can we engage citizens in a genuine dialogue about human values? Dewey believed that art gives us the capacity to sympathise, to identify with others beyond a relation to the past, and can serve as a way to see and imagine possibilities in the present (as well as the future).
By this reasoning, music could be seen as a powerful approach to fostering ‘community amongst any group of people, especially people who are already connected by place.
1) I think we choose to sing these songs because there’s a security in that distance, and this temporal abstraction keeps us safe. Although the function of traditional music in Ireland is highly social, we operate in a modernist society; one in which “hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”, Huis Clos, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1944). Perhaps the cultural shift that occurred in Europe throughout the 20th century, alongside the boom in interpersonal technological relationships, has rendered incompatible our own understanding of social function of traditional music and song in Ireland today. Of course, to appeal to contemporary audiences, the traditional arts must evolve although this might seem to contradict a purist’s idea of tradition.
2) The infrastructure of statehood illustrates one model of conflict management on a large scale. An authority chooses its citizenry, which it protects with laws and international norms. If there are citizens, by definition there must be non-citizens. The state owes little to no obligation in law to these alien non-citizens. The state may act as it wishes towards stateless individuals, who exist without an authority to defend them. For citizens to retain the legal protection they enjoy, they/we must abide by the rules and laws of the state. If not, they/we risk ex-communication. In recent history, this has been documented in Guantánamo Bay and in refugee “camps” (so-called as per Giorgio Agamben’s theory on homo sacer) constructed at Europe’s borders.
Written by Michael George Crawford from Warrenpoint. First published by V. G. Havern [Warrenpoint] and printed by Outlook Press [Rathfriland] in “Legendary Stories of The Carlingford Lough District (1913)”
Adapted by Dónal Kearney (2016)
I. The Miller’s Daughter
On the shores of Mill Bay at the foot of the Mourne mountains, there stood a well-known hostelry named the “Wheatsheaf Inn”. It was owned and managed by a man called John MacCeon, who was also The Miller of Mill Bay. His mill gave work to the men of the place – MacCeon’s employees lived in the row of white-washed thatched cabins by the shore, with their beautiful flowery gardens before the doors. It might with truth be said that the little village was the mill and the mill was the little village.
Not far from Mill Bay lived a number of fishermen who sailed into the Irish Sea in their lug-sailed vessels. Casting their nets, they trawled for a rich harvest from the mighty deep. And a treacherous and relentless giant they found it - they call it Manannán, the son of the sea, with whom they had to fight hard and wrestle long merely to wring a simple livelihood from its dark, mysterious depths.
The fishermen knew by harsh experience all the sea’s varying moods and tempers. Its sound was ever in their ears; in fine weather lapping gently the sandy shore of Mill Bay, as harmless as an infant. But when aroused by the rough winds, it swirled fiercely up the beach and lashed the coast with fury. The sea sometimes caught hold of their fishing vessels, destroying them with pitiless cruelty. Such tragedies happened frequently, but still it must be risked to win bread for their families. If anything happened to the local fishermen over the years, it must be said that the miller was always first to bring relief to their widows and orphans.
Mary MacCeon was born on eleventh of January, the day before the annual January Fair Day in Greencastle. That winter, an old astrologer had come to the Fair to foretell events and spay people’s fortunes. He was staying in the Wheatsheaf Inn at the time. On hearing about the local birth, he arose and, wrapping his cotamore around him, went out in the night. Under the cold, clear winter sky, he studied the planets for some time attempting to cast Mary’s horoscope. Coming indoors after some time, he wrote his message from the stars on a slip of parchment and sewed it up in a little satchel. He told nobody about what the fates had in store for Mary but gave the little scroll to John MacCeon to keep until her twenty-first birthday. He warned John particularly not to open it himself, nor to let anyone else interfere with it until that day came around. Although they all felt curious to know her destiny, still they feared to go against the astrologer’s commands – and they were faithfully kept. The father locked the satchel up in his trunk to keep it from prying eyes. It was well they didn’t know its contents for, though we may plot against fate’s decree, we cannot evade or outwit it, nor prevent the doom pronounced by perverse destiny – no matter how hard we strive.
Two decades later, by the time we visit Mill Bay for the present story, John MacCeon’s wife had passed onto the next world, and his only child, Mary, had taken her place in the home. Mary attended the Wheatsheaf bar and was well-known to visitors to the Fair. She was the acknowledged belle of the village – and beyond! Indeed, the famous melody “The Maid of Mourne Shore” was composed in her honour by a local poet, who emigrated to American – one of her numerous admirers.
Ye hills and dales and flowery valesthat lie around Mourne shore
Ye winds that blow over Martin's Hills will I ever hear you more
Where the primrose grows and the violet blows and the sporting trout there plays
With line and hook delight I took to spend my youthful days.
Last night I went to see my love, to hear what she would say;
Thinking she would pity me lest I should go away.
She said: 'I love a sailor; he's the lad that I adore;
And seven years I'll wait on him; so trouble me no more.'
'Perhaps your sailor may be lost when crossing o'er the main,
Or otherwise has fixed his mind upon some comely dame.'
'Well, if the sea proves false to me, no other I'll enjoy;
For ever since I saw his face I loved my sailor boy.'
Farewell now to Lord Edmund's groves, likewise the Bleaching Green,
Where the linen webs lie clean and white, pure flows the crystal stream
Where many's the happy day I spent; but, now, alas! they're o'er,
Since the lass I loved has banished me, far, far from Mourne Shore.
Our ship she lies off Warren's Point, just ready to set sail,
May all Goodness now protect her with a sweet and pleasant gale,
Had I ten thousand pounds in gold, or had I ten times more,
I would freely share with the girl I love - the Maid of Mourne Shore.
II. The Fisherman
Mary was well-loved by all the inhabitants of the hamlet. In turn, she had a kind word for everyone and greeted customers with a smile for the benefit of the Inn. However, she herself was devotedly attached to a local young fishing-skipper. Young Joseph MacCunigem owned a fishing lugger and a farm on the road to Greencastle. He was all alone in the world, his father and brothers having paid the deep sea’s toll going down in a storm in the Irish Sea a few months previously. His mother died soon after, heart-broken at the loss.
The men of the Mourne sea-coast are toilers of the land as well as the sea, skilful with the nets and steady at the plough. Joseph worked hard at both to amass some money before marrying Mary. Though she was well-to-do, he wished his own affairs to be in a flourishing condition also, and good luck seemed to favour him in all his undertakings. He consistently made good and profitable catches of fish with his lugger, and the crops on the farm fetched high prices. As the year drew to a close, he felt proud of his efforts and dreamed of the not-so-distant day when the Maid of Mourne Shore should be his wife.
But “man proposes, God disposes”. Mary’s father was seriously ill on the day fixed for the wedding ceremony to take place. It was postponed until late January, after the excitement of the great winter Fair subsided in Greencastle. This postponement was fated to mean much, as events proved.
III. A Farewell
On the morning of the tenth January, Joseph went out trawling with the winter fleet for a final haul before his wedding. As the boats sailed off, he waved his had to Mary as she stood on the pier watching their departure. She thought of his final words to her: he promised to be home on the evening tide of the eleventh of January, the eve of the Fair – be the weather stormy or calm.
By dusk on the day the fishermen left, Manannán was beginning to stir from his calm and slowly started to conjure up a hurricane. Within an hour, the waves were high and fierce and the storm had come on so suddenly that the trawlers found themselves caught in the tempest. The fishermen made for the closest port possible.
When all the names of the returned trawlers were ascertained later that night, it was found that one boat was still missing: it was Joseph MacCunigem’s boat, which was rather small for the trawling trade. It was last seen when the storm struck the fleet, but the boats lost sight of each other in the gathering darkness. After word travelled across the coast, it was found that the missing vessel had not come in to any cove or sheltering harbour along the Mourne shore. Word spread as the truth was fully realised: young Joseph’s boat had foundered in the storm and the whole crew were lost.
IV. The Eve of the Fair
When the news reached Mill Bay on the morning of the eve of the Fair, Mary refused to believe the awful tidings. She could not accept that she had looked on her lover’s form for the last time on earth, nor that his boat would never again, like a bird on the billows, drift with the tide into the kindly shore of Mourne.
Throughout the day, Mary thought of Joseph’s parting words. He had told her that he would come home with the flowing evening-tide on the Fair-eve, calm or storm. He had always kept his word and Mary felt he would keep it today – on the eleventh of January, the day before the great Fair. As that long day drew on, she would not see anyone. She refused to step foot behind the bar in the Wheatsheaf Inn. Instead, she shut herself away and thought about how she would walk into Greencastle, arm in arm with her Joseph, laughing at children’s games and petting animals at the fair. Throughout the day, the winds raged and the waves rolled mountains high.
With Joseph’s final sentiment still fresh in her mind, Mary left the miller’s house and went down to the sea-shore with a gut instinct that something was about to happen. Believing it to be a natural sign of the homecoming of her lover, Mary made her way across the sands and eagerly scanned the incoming tide, flowing rapidly over the shore. Nearer and still nearer came the huge white-topped waves, until they reached where she stood. At that moment, one enormous billow dashed a dark object in to her very feet; something still and awful, with livid lips and wide staring eyes. It was the corpse of her lover. By one of those strange freaks of fate that sometimes puzzle us, Joseph was washed into his native bay at the time he had promised to return. Although a corpse, the man had hit the tide.
The shore was slightly raised where Mary knelt by her lover’s body. In her grief, she forgot about the high tide that was creeping slowly and stealthily past her on each side. The streams soon joined behind her, thus completely surrounding her as she knelt by her lover’s corpse. The sea continued to creep up on them and washed over the corpse, as if reclaiming Joseph for Manannán’s depths – to recover him to his brothers and his father. Only at this point did Mary feel the cold of the January water seeping through her dress, and she sharply realised the danger – but it was too late to escape. A wild rush of surf swept her off her feet and onto her back, clinging to Joseph’s bloated body, before dragging her under the deep. After a few minutes of unsettling calm, the sea smoothly receded from the shore and left behind the pair lying peacefully in the rocks.
From the crack of dawn, locals began to make their busy way across the shore to the Fair at Greencastle. Stopping at a nook in the rocks to play, a young girl peered down onto a horrifying scene with her tired morning eyes. Hearing her scream, the girl’s mother ran to her and they both gathered round the lovers, now nothing but figures half-strewn with wrack and sand.
The lovers were carried to the Inn, a crowd passing along in solemn procession; the terror-stricken faces indicated who had realised what had taken place. Silence accompanied the bodies as they moved slowly through Mill Bay. When they were lifted through the doors of the Wheatsheaf Inn, John MacCeon gave one shrill cry of horror before falling lifeless on the floor.
V. The Horoscope
A few days after the tragedy, the satchel was taken from the chest, where it had lain ever since the old astrologer had given it to the miller after casting the girl’s horoscope twenty-one years ago. An awed but curious crowd now gathered in the Inn to see what the mysterious paper contained. With great care, they cut the stitches on a small piece of parchment, folded neatly within. It was unfolded and spread out upon the table, where (after some difficulty) they were able to decipher its contents: the star-gazer’s prophecy for Mary’s life - “This girl shall be drowned on her twenty-first birthday.”
Over the next few months, I'll be adapting some old folk tales and posting them here. All the stories come from the area around my home, specifically Carlingford Lough. This is the first story I've adapted and comes from a book first published 103 years ago by Michael G. Crawford in Warrenpoint. It was originally called "The Quatre-Foil Gift Voice", but I've reworked it as "Fesba and the Fairies" and split it into seven titled sections. It's a profound tale of magic, beauty, and philosophy. I hope you enjoy it!
"The Quatre-Foil Gift Voice", written by Michael George Crawford from Warrenpoint. First published by V. G. Havern [Warrenpoint] and printed by Outlook Press [Rathfriland] in “Legendary Stories of The Carlingford Lough District (1913)”
Adapted by Dónal Kearney (2016)
I. The Standing Gossip
One of the many primitive beliefs that yet haunt our people’s minds is that the lucky finder of the rare plant of the Gaelic Gods - the four-leafed shamrock – has choice over four gifts: the wisdom of Lugh; the Riches and Power of Dagda; the Love-Gift of Angus Óg; or the gift of Poetry and Song of Dana of the Leannán Siadh.
One beautiful Spring morning, on the festival of Errach, when the spirit of the spring was renewing the earth with its creative breath, there was a christening in the cottage by the Forth of Lisnagushee, high on Aughnamoira Hill overlooking Narrow Water to the south.
Before the infant-girl was brought to the church to be christened, a young cailín served as “standing gossip” for her, to watch over the child and care for her as the family prepared for the ceremony - as the child's gossip, she would act as baptismal sponsor or godparent. Struck by an idea borne out of local legend, the young gossip left the cottage stealthily and entered the green circle of the Forth, which stood close by.
There, she stooped down and commenced to search anxiously through the grass. She looked under the plants, brushing the bright morning dew off the trefoil and clover leaves, scanning all the different varieties of shamrock to be found there. She was hoping to chance upon the magic four-leafed shamrock of the gods so that she may transfer the lucky charm to the little mite within. Again, she scanned the green forth with eager eye until, at last, with an exclamation of joy and glad surprise, she found and held aloft a Four-Leaved Shamrock, its magic petals still wet and glistening with the fairy dew, leftover from their nightly dances.
Returning to the cabin with her prize, the gossip took the infant to the inner room and placed the potent four-leaf under its tongue, wishing at that propitious moment – not for riches, love, happiness, or power for the babe, but for the invocation of the Leannán Siadh – that she might become the Child of Song, endowed with an enchanted voice and the gift of melody.
As she made the wish, a sudden change came over the aspect of the room, there was a faint, eerie noise and a misty vapour filled the atmosphere. Through this, the Leannán Siadh - very tall and gaunt - appeared by the gossip’s side and, laying a tender hand on the infant’s head, crouched down and spoke to her:
- "Have thou the gift of song."
She poured fairy-mel (the magical honey made by the spirits) into her mouth that her voice might be sweet, and through a tiny sea-shell, she blew a song in her ear for melody. Then, bathing her eyes with lusmore juice, the baby was introduced to the sights of the Siadh; from that moment on, the baby was permitted to see the fairies. The muse then touched her throat and the four-leaved shamrock that had been placed on her tongue manifested in the child’s flesh, plain and clear, indelibly printed on her throat as a sign of the gift of Song that was to be hers. It also marked that the babe now belonged to the Muse, whose symbol she would bear on her throat for the remainder of her life.
The dim vapour that had filled the room shortly dissipated, and Dana the Muse slowly faded away with it until she had utterly vanished from the cowering gossip’s sight. The apparition lasted just a few minutes, but to the gossip, it had seemed an age. She wondered to herself whether the experience had been real or a figment conjured in her own head. Had the phantom really visited, or had she merely imagined the scene? Somehow, she felt sure that the gift of Song had indeed been granted and that it may influence the child’s whole life for evil. Frightened by the magical power she had recklessly invoked without the faintest reckoning of the consequences, the gossip resolved to confess what she had done to the child's parents as soon as they returned. Though alarmed, the mother and father did all in their power to remove the muse’s symbol from their daughter’s neck, using strong herbs and water from the sacred well. However, such is the power of the Muse that the magical scar could not be effaced.
II. The Monodam Stems
Failing in their efforts to remove the leaf-mark, the family tried an educated fairy-doctor. Invoking a complex counter-charm, the doctor provided stems of the monodam to be worn always by the child, fashioned them into a necklace, and counselled the parents to be careful that this necklace was never removed for as long as the child lived. Should it fall off by any chance, the Leannán Siadh could gain possession of the babe. This counter-charm could do nothing to stop the the fairies getting their hands on the child. However, if the fairy chanced to meet a mortal before she reached the forth, she would be obliged to offer the babe back, provided the monodam-stems were unbroken. Such was the power of this counter-charm.
A few nights later, when mother and child were sleeping, the husband lay down on the settle in the kitchen after seeing to his cattle. The turf fire had burned down and subsided to a dull glow on the hearth while the kitchen candle flamed and spluttered in the sconce, throwing weird shadows on the wall. In this setting, he entered the gates of dreamland.
He awoke in affright; someone seemed to be rapping at the window. The room was now partially dark, but a beam of moonlight illuminated the kitchen floor. He peered into the garden but could see no one. He decided it a bush rattling against the glass from the garden, and lay down again to sleep.
After some time, he heard a tap, louder than before. He began to think that it was a warning of some sort. A third time it knocked on the glass and this time he fancied he saw a form outside the window. It might be some neighbour with a sick cow or horse seeking help, so he arose and opened the door.
There was nobody there. He looked up and down the yard and fields, but nobody came into sight. The moon was full and high by now, exposing the Aughnamoira landscape as brightly as daylight; every familiar feature of the hill stood out before him with wonderful clarity. To the south, he looked towards the shimmering Narrow Water and the Castle’s Keep standing guard. Beyond that, the mighty clearing of Carlingford Lough, its tide entranced in an intimate courtship with the rippling moonlight. The stars above the Cooleys appeared faint and pale and everything around him wore the white shroud of the moon, oddly resembling a world of ghosts.
He turned to move to his kitchen door, but some bizarre inclination made him stay at the bottom of the garden; he felt some unaccountable apprehension, something invisible and inaudible seemed wishing him to halt – an unspoken warning.
At that moment, his heightened attention was suddenly arrested by a very tall figure of the Leannán Siadh, a silvery vision in misty flowing raiment. This wisp was the most beauteous creature he had ever spied, though he knew also that she was no mortal and his abject wonder was tinted with horror. The Leannán Siadh glided softly round the end of the house clasping in her arms a child.
He drew back a step as she approached. Anguish filled his blood as he was engulfed with regret, grief and sorrow in that fleeting moment when he realised what was about to happen; Dana of the Leannán Siadh had come back for his daughter and she would now carry her to the Forth and into the realm of the fairies. He knew of old stories about children who had been abducted by the fairies, never to be heard of again. Fear gripped his heart and he froze, just as the hovering creature confronted him.
Rather than passing, she stooped and offered the child to him – like a flash, the herb-doctor’s warning came to his mind and he reached out and took the babe. Staring down into his eyes without blinking, the imprecise features of Dana seemed disappointed at what had transpired. She smoothly turned and disappeared through the Forth bushes beyond the garden. After watching the spirit leave, the father looked down at his fragile, vulnerable daughter and noticed the monodam-stems around her neck, intact and as powerful a counter-charm as ever he could have wished for.
His daughter safely in his arms, he hurried inside the house, locked the door behind them and called for her mother. Hearing the tone of his call, the mother immediately and unthinkingly ran to the baby’s cot, only to find it empty. With a profound and soul-aching cry, she dropped to her knees and decided at that moment never to forgive herself for losing her child to the otherworld. When she saw, through a parent’s tears, that her baby was safe and well – and still sound asleep – the fatigue of relief washed over her in an instant. The parents held each other, gave thanks for the restoration, and moved the cot closer to their own bed.
Nights brought fear and anxiety to the household by the Forth at Lisnagushee. They lived in constant dread, possessed with the presentiment of coming trouble. Now they were certain Dana was watching from the shadows, biding her time for her chance to descend and take the youngling to the land under the hills. The parents' vigilance must never relax; there was not an inch of the girl’s garments where something sacred was not sewn in an attempt to ward off mystic spirits.
They lived under an indefinite umbra of threats, more fearsome than mortal danger. It was intangible. There was nothing to confront, yet it was real and always looming. They felt they were accompanied by unseen beings, always watching for an opportunity to pounce.
III. A Spirit Child
The years rolled by and Fesba, as the baby was named, grew into a beautiful cailín. Slight and ethereal with a dreamy visage, surrounded by auburn hair that shone like sunlight. She had the curved lips of the singer, and fathomless blue eyes - the distant expression of Tír na nÓg in their depths, foretelling an short earthly span.
Reared on the lonesome hill at Aughnamoira, surrounded by forths and dullow bushes, and inheriting an atmosphere of traditions and beliefs, Fesba’s mind fed on the folklore that has floated over the border from the spirit-world. Hearing herself spoken of as the spell-child of the Leannán Siadh or as the inspired girl of Dana the Muse, Fesba's senses were possessed by magic to such an extent that she considered herself of the spirit-world and not of earth.
She could see the spirits everywhere: faces in flowers and souls in plants. A leaf whirling along the ground was a loughry-man jumping and the wind sweeping the road was an invisible host passing by. She was a dreamer living in a world of her own creation, apart from mortal existence. Her soul soared into the boundless unknown; no earth fog gathered around her eyes to obscure the magic sights, as it does with the rest of us. Fesba was an immortal – on the earth but not of it – ignoring its happenings to live in fairy dreams. Expecting some supernatural denouement and willing to fly at any time, Fesba was injected by a fairy ecstacy. In childhood, she fled from the neighbours’ children who would come seeking her to join their sport. The very grass felt different beneath her feet and no one else could understand when she tried to explain. Over time, she stopped confiding and chose to retreat into her difference. To keep her company, the gorgeous voice of the Leannán Siadh always played in her ear like the murmur of the sea-shell, calling her far from earth to follow shadows.
In the summer evenings, she would sit for hours under the fairy thorn, lulled into a bewitched sleep by the chorus of the silvery bell-branches. As the shadows deepened at dusk, unhuman voices sighed around her in melodious accents, soft and dim like lisp-o’-dreams. While the zephyr played at twilight, spirit-forms danced o’er the soft green rath. They danced for Fesba, to lure her away to the enchanted land.
In the silence of the night, she would arise in a trance-like sleep and leave her home, possessed by the influence of the quatre-foil, her eyes fixed and vacant in the gaze of the sleep-walker. Her dreams would lead her to circle the forth-ring amid scenes invisible to mortal eyes. When morning dawned, she would awake in bed with the enchanted light still gleaming in her eyes, the warmth of the fairies’ glow still on her cheeks.
Though the magic sights were everywhere around her, the old Forth was her favourite place, much to the woe of her parents. Try how they might to keep her from it, there they still would find her; enchanted dust would blind them, or Fesba would step invisibly by (carrying enchanted seeds of the mountain fern) in order to join the spirits who loved her. This was her other family. Amongst them, Fesba resembled an elfin figure as she revelled in unhallowed orgies of song and dance with her hair flowing on the wind. She appeared more like one of the Siadh than a being of flesh and blood.
IV. The Voice-Gift
Thanks to the Muse’s voice-gift, Fesba was the Spirit of Song incarnate. Its power was with her from the first; even as a child she lisped in numbers, and every breath was a note of music exhaled in harmony. The Spirit of Music had entered her being that fateful day of her christening, to thrill through her, to vibrate from her, to speak from her soul, and to play forth from her glorious voice. The child of song soared alone, unequalled, unrivalled. She gave pleasure to all who heard the stains rise from her lips, so sweet and honest. She was always singing, in joy or sorrow, and could no more keep silent than the wild birds of Iveagh in the springtime of the year. In joy, she carolled like the lark in clear air when he’s lost in the blue ether. In sorrow, her caoine was sad as the goltraí of the bean síadh for the departing nobles of the Gael.
Fesba was forced to make known her every feeling in song. As she sang, a frenzy seemed to convulse her – her face was transformed, her lips quivered, her eyes dilated – as the sign of the four-leaved shamrock swelled upon her throat. With such enthusiasm did she sing that her spirit floated up with the music into a paradise of ecstacies. With such delight did she fill the hearts of the listeners that her fame spread far and wide. All marvelled at the voice-gift and at the melodies in her heart. Of course, the leannán siadh was present in every tune, inflicting a restlessness upon anyone who heard. And as Fesba’s every song reached into her soul for inspiration, a part of her spirit would travel across the mystical border to Dana the Muse. Like a fee paid over in exchange for each amazing song, Fesba gave up her soul - little by little reimbursing the leannán siadh for the gift they had granted her.
The people of Aughnamoira and the surrounding areas down as far as Rinn Mhic Giolla Rua rejoiced more in the sound of her magic voice than they did in the songs of the birds. They listened as she roamed the hills singing, and the voice-gift tempted their ears as if calls of Niamh, the spirit-maid riding her white steed from Tír na nÓg.
The dying would entreat Fesba to sing at their deathbed and would listen with blanched faces. Awed into saintly mood with the sorrow of each unique song, it assuaged their grief; despair morphed into hope, rapture mingled with pain, and they were soothed by the soft cadences of her melodies. In Fesba’s lines, they experienced both the nostalgia of a life already spent as well as a foretaste of the paradise they were soon to enter. Borne aloft on the strains of her voice, soft with charity and love, they floated into bliss eternal, content to die if she only promised to sing at their wake. And when death inevitably came and sadness reigned, it was impossible to keep from weeping as a plaintive caoine emerged from Fesba’s lips with heart-felt sorrow in its tones. Its slumberous melody granted the departed soul eternal rest.
V. The Shepherd Youth
A wasting illness took hold of Fesba in her eighteenth year, causing her to become even more frail and shadowy than in her youth. Folks said she was “fairy-struck” and it was believed that the leannán siadh were impatient at Fesba’s tarrying in her mortal home. After countless thousands of songs, Dana’s fee was all but paid. Fesba wearied of mortals’ praise and felt she had squandered her life singing for them.
At this time, a shepherd youth heard Fesba sing on Aughnamoira hill. For ever after, he would hear nothing so beautiful as the gift-voice and could see nothing as beautiful as the maiden of the spell. In the days following that first audience, he would often leave his charge and wander forth to overhear Fesba perform to the fairies. At first, she welcomed him and entertained his affections for some days, but she soon realised that his attentions distracted her from her worship of the leannán siadh.
She had never before felt a connection with a mortal. She had only heard tell of how love may infest the human soul. She knew her wasting illness would soon bring her short life to a close; it was fading fast, how fast she felt keenly, and she was worried by the war of body and spirit. To linger any longer than necessary in this world was, to Fesba’s mind, a failure. So she told the shepherd boy to return to his flock and to forget about her. Of course, this was an impossibility for the doting youth.
- “Why do you stray by the haunted raths and springs? Why do you give up earthly joys and love to follow shadows?” asked the shepherd.
- “I am never alone; I commune with friends always, day and night. Earthly joy or love is not mine. I am not of this world. My gaze is fixed beyond the earth,” replied Fesba.
The shepherd told her that he was drawn from his flocks by her voice every day, and implored her to abandon the quest for the unattainable and not to sacrifice human affection for a dream – the shadow for the reality.
- “I have never felt earthly love. It is pale beside the glow of my fancy. Earth does not suit me. I must be set in the land of my desire. I will not renounce my gift, or allow the material to overcome the ethereal. The mortal life is unreal to me; the dream-life is reality.”
- “I too have followed fancy through space, I have followed the shadows in my dreams, and I will follow to the land of heart’s desire,” announced the smitten shepherd in defiance at Fesba’s philosophy.
Fesba looked into the eyes of the young man and saw for the first time the purity that can exist in humanity. In his face, she understood that he would care for her and respect her, every moment of every day. His eyes told her that he would give her everything and expect nothing in return. She knew he would warm her on cold nights and that his love would fulfil her. Fesba had never thought these things before, and as they materialised in her mind, she momentarily felt a wave of health start to comfort her. Briefly, she felt human.
VI. Fesba’s Swansong
The heavenly ceol-siadh suddenly sounded privately in Fesba’s ears, wooing her away from the temptation of the shepherd’s love. Such was the conquering power and sweetness of the fairy music that no mortal could resist the desire to follow it. The boy called after Fesba by name, screaming as his heart wrenched. As she walked away with her back to him, he longed after her until her image dissolved on the air and silence filled his ears. Such was his loss that he never heard a sound again, as if a mark of respect for the grace of Fesba’s voice.
Fesba followed to the Forth, whither the music led. Here, the witchery of Leannán Siadh surrounded Fesba, the most transfixing music came from all angles, and an irresistible desire to leave the earth seized her. She feared that she may lose everything if she lingered, and this yearning for immortality got the better of her. Her weak heart beat fast and her brain burned with impatience. The low voice of Dana whispered in her ear:
- “Now is the moment. Cast the counter-charm from you and you are free.”
Without hesitation, she flung the necklace bearing the monodam-stems from her, which she had worn without fail her whole life since it had been placed around her neck by the fairy-doctor. She felt a strange sensation and suddenly the symbolic scar retreated from her throat and imprinted on her brain. It was then that she saw for the first time the towering Muse before her, standing with outstretched arms. Inspired by such a maternal vision, Fesba sang her own swansong of death, sad and sweet, the most terrific melody ever heard. When its notes died away, she fell gently forward on the Forth and passed away from this world.
The loss of Fesba was too much for her bereaved mother to bear; after her only child’s death, she lay down in her bed and never rose again. Fesba’s father, now old and withered, sat daily on the forth-ring behind which his child was locked, waiting and watching for her to repent and come back to her mortal world. At last, after years of hoping, he heard Fesba’s voice singing his name, as if a memory of her childhood. Trembling with emotion upon the Forth, he fell down and died on the same ground where his daughter had fallen.
Since then, a voice is heard before a death in the local area, pronouncing the name of the person who is about to pass away. Often in the dead of night, the voice is heard singing in the air, above the forth of Lisnagushee (the Forth of the Fairy-Voice). It is the gift-voice of the quatre-foil, the voice of Fesba of the four-leafed shamrock, pouring out her captive soul in song for ever.
- Ed. In the words of W.B. Yeats, "the Leannán Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom". [Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), Walter Scott. p. 81]
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