Stories, Research & Projects
Fesba and the Fairies
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]
For more on fairy forts, visit: http://irishfables.com/tag/fairy-fort/
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