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Ulster Folklore   By:

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[Illustration: PLATE I. [ R. Welch, Photo. HARVEST KNOT.]






In 1894 I was at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford, and had the good fortune to hear Professor Julius Kollmann give his paper on "Pygmies in Europe," in which he described the skeletons which had then recently been discovered near Schaffhausen. As I listened to his account of these small people, whose average height was about four and a half feet, I recalled the description of Irish fairies given to me by an old woman from Galway, and it appeared to me that our traditional "wee folk" were about the size of these Swiss dwarfs. I determined to collect what information I could, and the result is given in the following pages. I found that the fairies are, indeed, regarded as small; but their height may be that of a well grown boy or girl, or they may not be larger than a child beginning to walk. I once asked a woman if they were as small as cocks and hens, but she laughed at the suggestion.

I had collected a number of stories, and had become convinced that in these tales we had a reminiscence of a dwarf race, when I read some of Mr. David MacRitchie's works, and was gratified to find that the traditions I had gathered were in accordance with the conclusions he had drawn from his investigations in Scotland. A little later I made his acquaintance, and owe him many thanks for his great kindness and the encouragement he has given me in my work.

As will be seen in the following pages, tradition records several small races in Ulster: the Grogachs, who are closely allied to the fairies, and also to the Scotch and English Brownies; the short Danes, whom I am inclined to identify with the Tuatha de Danann; the Pechts, or Picts; and also the small Finns. My belief is that all these, including the fairies, represent primitive races of mankind, and that in the stories of women, children, and men being carried off by the fairies, we have a record of warfare, when stealthy raids were made and captives brought to the dark souterrain. These souterrains, or, as the country people call them, "coves," are very numerous. They are underground structures, built of rough stones without mortar, and roofed with large flat slabs. Plate II. shows a fine one at Ardtole, near Ardglass, Co. Down. The total length of this souterrain is about one hundred and eight feet, its width three feet, and its height five feet three inches.[1] The entrance to another souterrain is shown in the Sweathouse at Maghera[2] (Plate III.).

As a rule, although the fairies are regarded as "fallen angels," they are said to be kind to the poor, and to possess many good qualities. "It was better for the land before they went away" is an expression I have heard more than once. The belief in the fairy changeling has, however, led to many acts of cruelty. We know of the terrible cases which occurred in the South of Ireland some years ago, and I met with the same superstition in the North. I was told a man believed his sick wife was not herself, but a fairy who had been substituted for her. Fortunately the poor woman was in hospital, so no harm could come to her.

Much of primitive belief has gathered round the fairy we have the fairy well and the fairy thorn. It is said that fairies can make themselves so small that they can creep through keyholes, and they are generally invisible to ordinary mortals. They can shoot their arrows at cattle and human beings, and by their magic powers bring disease on both. They seldom, however, partake of the nature of ghosts, and I do not think belief in fairies is connected with ancestral worship.

Sometimes I have been asked if the people did not invent these stories to please me. The best answer to this question is to be found in the diverse localities from which the same tale comes... Continue reading book >>

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