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Monday, March 10, 2008

Myth Monday: Irish Fairies

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Leprechauns

The name leprechaun may have derived from the Irish leath bhrogan (shoemaker), although its origins may lie in luacharma'n (Irish for pygmy). These apparently aged, diminutive men are frequently to be found in an intoxicated state, caused by home-brew poteen. However they never become so drunk that the hand which holds the hammer becomes unsteady and their shoemaker's work affected.

Leprechauns have also become self-appointed guardians of ancient treasure (left by the Danes when they marauded through Ireland), burying it in crocks or pots. This may be one reason why leprechauns tend to avoid contact with humans whom they regard as foolish, flighty (and greedy?) creatures. If caught by a mortal, he will promise great wealth if allowed to go free. He carries two leather pouches. In one there is a silver shilling, a magical coin that returns to the purse each time it is paid out. In the other he carries a gold coin which he uses to try and bribe his way out of difficult situations. This coin usually turns to leaves or ashes once the leprechaun has parted with it.However, you must never take your eye off him, for he can vanish in an instant.

The leprechaun 'family' appears split into two distinct groups - leprechaun and cluricaun. Cluricauns may steal or borrow almost anything, creating mayhem in houses during the hours of darkness, raiding wine cellars and larders. They will also harness sheep, goats, dogs and even domestic fowl and ride them throughout the country at night. Although the leprechaun has been described as Ireland's national fairy, this name was originally only used in the north Leinster area. Variants include lurachmain, lurican, lurgadhan.

Pookas

No fairy is more feared in Ireland than the pooka. This may be because it is always out and about after nightfall, creating harm and mischief, and because it can assume a variety of terrifying forms.

The guise in which it most often appears, however, is that of a sleek, dark horse with sulphurous yellow eyes and a long wild mane. In this form, it roams large areas of countryside at night, tearing down fences and gates, scattering livestock in terror, trampling crops and generally doing damage around remote farms.

In remote areas of County Down, the pooka becomes a small, deformed goblin who demands a share of the crop at the end of the harvest: for this reason several strands, known as the 'pooka's share', are left behind by the reapers. In parts of County Laois, the pooka becomes a huge, hairy bogeyman who terrifies those abroad at night; in Waterford and Wexford, it appears as an eagle with a massive wingspan; and in Roscommon, as a black goat with curling horns.

The mere sight of it may prevent hens laying their eggs or cows giving milk, and it is the curse of all late night travellers as it is known to swoop them up on to its back and then throw them into muddy ditches or bogholes. The pooka has the power of human speech, and it has been known to stop in front of certain houses and call out the names of those it wants to take upon its midnight dashes. If that person refuses, the pooka will vandalise their property because it is a very vindictive fairy.

The origins of the pooka are to some extent speculative. The name may come from the Scandinavian pook or puke, meaning 'nature spirit'. Such beings were very capricious and had to be continually placated or they would create havoc in the countryside, destroying crops and causing illness among livestock. Alternatively, the horse cults prevalent throughout the early Celtic world may have provided the underlying motif for the nightmare steed.

(Pookas are my favorite of all the fairies because I know one. At least, I think he's a pooka because my Bean calls him Pookie all the time. He does not look like a nightmare steed though.)

Banshee

The bean-sidhe (woman of the fairy may be an ancestral spirit appointed to forewarn members of certain ancient Irish families of their time of death. According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, the O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list.

Whatever her origins, the banshee chiefly appears in one of three guises: a young woman, a stately matron or a raddled old hag. These represent the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death, namely Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain.) She usually wears either a grey, hooded cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of the unshriven dead. She may also appear as a washer-woman, and is seen apparently washing the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die. In this guise she is known as the bean-nighe (washing woman).

Although not always seen, her mourning call is heard, usually at night when someone is about to die. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was approached by an Irish seeress or banshee who foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl. This is an example of the banshee in human form. There are records of several human banshees or prophetesses attending the great houses of Ireland and the courts of local Irish kings. In some parts of Leinster, she is referred to as the bean chaointe (keening woman) whose wail can be so piercing that it shatters glass. In Kerry, the keen is experienced as a "low, pleasant singing"; in Tyrone as "the sound of two boards being struck together"; and on Rathlin Island as "a thin, screeching sound somewhere between the wail of a woman and the moan of an owl".

The banshee may also appear in a variety of other forms, such as that of a hooded crow, stoat, hare and weasel - animals associated in Ireland with witchcraft.

Dullahan

The dullahan is one of the most spectacular creatures in the Irish fairy realm and one which is particularly active in the more remote parts of counties Sligo and Down.

Around midnight on certain Irish festivals or feast days, this wild and black-robed horseman may be observed riding a dark and snorting steed across the countryside.

W. J. Fitzpatrick, a storyteller from the Mourne Mountains in County Down, recounts:

"I seen the dullahan myself, stopping on the brow of the hill between Bryansford and Moneyscalp late one evening, just as the sun was setting. It was completely headless but it held up its own head in its hand and I heard it call out a name. I put my hand across my ears in case the name was my own, so I couldn't hear what it said. When I looked again, it was gone. But shortly afterwards, there was a bad car accident on that very hill and a young man was killed. It had been his name that the dullahan was calling".

Dullahans are headless. Although the dullahan has no head upon its shoulders, he carries it with him, either on the saddle-brow of his horse or upraised in his right hand. The head is the colour and texture of stale dough or mouldy cheese, and quite smooth. A hideous, idiotic grin splits the face from ear to ear, and the eyes, which are small and black, dart about like malignant flies. The entire head glows with the phosphoresence of decaying matter and the creature may use it as a lantern to guide its way along the darkened laneways of the Irish countryside. Wherever the dullahan stops, a mortal dies.

The dullahan is possessed of supernatural sight. By holding his severed head aloft, he can see for vast distances across the countryside, even on the darkest night. Using this power, he can spy the house of a dying person, no matter where it lies. Those who watch from their windows to see him pass are rewarded for their pains by having a basin of blood thrown in their faces, or by being struck blind in one eye.

The dullahan is usually mounted on a black steed, which thunders through the night. He uses a human spine as a whip. The horse sends out sparks and flames from its nostrils as it charges forth. In some parts of the country, such as County Tyrone, the dullahan drives a black coach known as the coach-a-bower (from the Irish coiste bodhar, meaning 'deaf or silent coach'). This is drawn by six black horses, and travels so fast that the friction created by its movement often sets on fire the bushes along the sides of the road. All gates fly open to let rider and coach through, no matter how firmly they are locked, so no one is truly safe from the attentions of this fairy.

Fun stuff... Benegans is allowing you sent a Lepregram using you own photo. Go to innerleprechaun.com for all sorts of fun stuff!

21 comments:

-d ma said...

excellent information. i did not know what a pooka was. i had heard of the word but knew nothing about its origins. i'm gonna call diego my lil pooka from now on.

Cecil the Cougar: said...

I do not mind a leprechaun as long as he does not disappear with me lucky charms!

Bounce, Lucy and Trixie said...

Wow there sure are a lot of fairies in Ireland! We have only heard of leprechauns and banshees but have never seen one!

Cheysuli and gemini said...

I hope that pookas are not allowed in the Black Cat Pub.

Daisy said...

That is some interesting stuff! I think I would enjoy being a Cluricaun because creating mayhem is fun. And also, "Cluricaun" reminds me of "Curly Clown"!

PB & J said...

Concatulations on winning the album Diamond!

And thanks for the information - we think Mommy won't be using "Pooka" anymore either.

Kellie The Orange Cat said...

My Mum says she has heard of some of these fairies from her Irish Grandma, but not all. Informative as always Diamond!

DEBRA said...

Pooka...I love that name! pooka...how cool...thanks for all the information, I learned a lot...
wow
Purrs
Abby

Tybalt said...

Thanks for another great Myth Monday! I knew most of those, but I wasn't sure about the Dullahan. He sounds a bit scary.

jan said...

Now we know: our cat Taki is a banshee.

Misty the alpha Poodle

Gretchen said...

Wow, I didn't know all that. A pooka where my mom bean lived once, is a shell with a hole in it. They make necklaces out of the pooka shells. So anything with a whole in it was called a pooka.

Those faeries are not nice ones, are they...

Hugs...G

Team Tabby said...

Wow, that is a lot of information about Celtic faeries! We sure enjoyed reading about them, tho.

Mindy & Moe

The Devil Dog said...

Wow, that is so cool. I think I will stay here, safe and sound.

Roxy (Lucky is too scared to come out, now)

Mickey said...

Great post!!! It's fun to come here on Mondays and learn cool stuff,even if it is about scary greatures ,heehee
Purrs Mickey

Artsy Catsy said...

Very interesting, Diamond! And thank you for being in our very first Carnival of the Cats yesterday. We all loved your picture!

Rocky & staff

Skittles, The Huntress said...

Thank you for a delightful and thoughtful presentation of Irish Folk History.

My Pet Human is Irish.

Luv,
Skittles, The Huntress

Kavan said...

That was very interesting! Both Tara and I have Irish names, so it was fun learning about some of the Irish fairies!

Kavan

michico*Adan said...

I am so glad I could learn something new from your blog, AGAIN!!

goldenshade said...

That was really interesting. There is a band here called Banshee and I can see why they chose that name!

Didn't know anything about those pookas.

Neat!

~Goldie

felinesopher said...

We learn new things from other cyberkitties...it's really a big world furr us:)

THE ZOO said...

yur bery smart black cat.
we hafe gnomes here that taked stuff like keys, and put them back when theys done wiff it, sometimes weekd later in a bery obvious place. its not us though. the beans swear too. its gnomes.