W. B. Yeats - Some Notes on Fairy Lore from Wind Among the Reeds (1899)

[Source: The following passages are cited as notes to The Countess Cathleen (1892, &c.), in Commentary on the Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats (Macmillan 1975). I have introduced indents to the longer quoted sections for reading convenience.]

Yeats’s note to “The Hosting of the Sidhe” [CP, 63], in Wind Among the Reeds (1899):
The powerful and wealthy called the gods of ancient Ireland the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, but the poor called them, and still sometimes call them, the Sidhe, from Aes Sidhe or Sluagh Sidhe, the people of the Faery Hills, as these words are usually explained. Sidhe is also Gaelic for wind, and certainly the Sidhe have much to do with the wind. They journey in whirling winds, the winds that were called the dance of the daughters of Herodias in the Middle Ages, Herodias doubtless taking the place of some old goddess. When the country people see the leaves whirling on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the Sidhe to be passing by. They are almost always said to wear no covering upon their heads, and to let their hair stream out; and the great among them, for they have great and simple, go much on horseback. If any one becomes too much interested in them, and sees them over much, he loses all interest in ordinary things. I shall write a great deal elsewhere about such enchanted persons, and can give but an example or two now.

A woman near Gort, in Galway, says:

“There is a boy, now, of the Cloran’s; but I wouldn’t for the world let them think I since of him; it’s two years since he came from America, and in. that time he never went to Mass, or to Church, or to fairs, or to market, or to stand on the cross roads, or to hurling, or to nothing. And if anyone comes into the house, it’s into the room he’ll slip, not to see them; and as to work, he has the garden dug to bits, and the whole place smeared with cow dung; and such a crop as was never seen; and the alders all plaited till they look grand. One day he went as far as the chapel; but as soon as he got to the door he turned straight round again, as if he hadn’t power to pass it. I wonder he wouldn’t get the priest to read a Mass for him, or something; but the crop he has is grand, and you may know well he has some to help him.”

One hears many stories of the kind; and a man whose son is believed to go out riding among them at night tells me that he is careless about everything , and lies in bed until it is late in the day. A doctor believes this boy to be mad. Those that are at times “away”, as it is called, know all things, but are afraid to speak. A countryman at Kiltartan, says,

“There was one of the Lydons – John – was away for seven years, lying in his bed, but brought away at nights, and he knew everything; and one, Kearney, up in the mountains, a cousin of his own, lost two hoggets, and came and told him, and he knew the very spot where they were, and told him, and he got them back again. But they were vexed at that, and took away the power, so that he never knew anything again, no more than another.”

This wisdom is the wisdom of the fools of the Celtic stories, that was above all the wisdom of the wise. Lomas, the fool of Fiann, had so great wisdom that his head, cut from his body, was still able to sing and prophesy; and a writer in the Encyclopaedia Britannica writes that Tristram, in the oldest form of the tale of Tristram and Iseult, drank wisdom, and madness the shadow of wisdom, and not love, out of the magic cup (WR; given in A. N. Jeffares & A. N. Knowland, A Commentary on the Collected Plays of W. B .Yeats, Macmillan 1975), pp.11-12.

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Yeats’s note to “A Host of the Air” [CP, 63], in Wind Among the Reeds:
Some writers distinguish between the Sluagh Gaoith, the host of the air, and Sluagh Sidhe, the host of the Sidhe, and describe the host of the air of a peculiar malignancy. Dr. Joyce says, “of all the different kinds of goblins ... air demons were most dreaded by the people. They lived among clouds, and mists, and rocks, and hate the human race with the utmost malignity.”

A very old Arran charm, which contains the words “Send God, by his strength, between us and the host of the Sidhe, between us and the boat of the air”, seems also to distinguish among them. I am inclined, however, to think that the distinction came in with Christianity and its belief about the prince of the air, for the host of the Sidhe, as I have already explained, are closely associated with the wind.

They are said to steal brides just after their marriage, and sometimes in a blast of wind. A man in Galway says, “At Aughanish there were two couples came to the shore to be married, and one of the newly married women was in the boat with the priest, and they going back to the island; and a sudden blast of wind came, and the priest said some blessed words that were able to save himself, but the girl was swept [away].”

This woman was drowned; but more often the persons who are taken “get the touch”, as it is called, and fall into a half dream, and grow indifferent to all things, for their true life has gone out of the world, and is among the hills and the forts of the Sidhe. A faery doctor has told me that his wife “got the touch” at her marriage because there was one of them wanted her; and the way he knew for certain was, that when he took a pitchfork out of the rafters, and told her it was a broom, she said, “It is a broom”. She was, the truth is, in the magical sleep to which people have given a new name lately, that makes the imagination so passive that it can be moulded by any voice in any world into any shape. A mere likeness of some old woman, or even old animal, some one or some thing the Sidhe have no longer a use for, is believed to be left instead of the person who is “away” - this some one or some thing can, it is thought, be driven away by threats, or by violence (though I have heard country women say that violence is wrong), which perhaps awakes the soul out of the magical sleep. The story in the poem is founded on an old Gaelic ballad that was sung and translated for me by a woman at Ballisodare in County Sligo; but in the ballad the husband found the keepers keening his wife when he got to his house. She was “swept” at once; but the Sidhe are said to value those the most whom they but cast into a half dream, which may last for years, for they need the help of a living person in most of the things they do. There are many stories of people who seem to die and be buried – though the country people will tell you it is but some one or some thing in their place that dies and is buried – and yet are brought afterwards. These tales are perhaps memories of true awakenings out of the magical sleep, moulded by the imagination, under the influence of a mystical doctrine which it understands too literally, into the shape of some well-known traditional tale. One does not hear them as one hears the others, from the persons who are “away”, or from their wives or husbands; and one old man, who had often seen the Sidhe, began one of them with “Maybe it is all vanity.”

Here is a tale that a friend of mine heard in the Burren hills, and it is a type of all:

“There was a girl to be married, and she didn’t like the man, and she cried when the day was coming, and said she wouldn’t go along with him. And the mother said, “Get into the bed, then, and I’ll say that you’re sick.” And so she did. And when the man came the mother said to him, “You can’t get her, she’s sick in the bed.” And he looked in and said, “That’s not my wife that’s in the bed, it’s some old hag.” And the mother began to cry and to roar. And he went out and got two hampers of turf and made a fire, that they thought he was going to burn the house down. And when the fire was kindled, “Come out now,” says he, “and we’ll see who you are, when I’ll put you on the fire.”And when she heard that, she gave one leap, and was out of the house, and they saw, then, it was an old hag she was. Well, the man asked the advice of an old woman, and she bid him go to a faery-bush that was near, and he might get some word of her. So he went there at night, and saw all sorts of grand people, and they in carriages or riding on horses, and among them he could see the girl he came to look for. So he went again to the old woman, and she said, “If you can get the three bits of blackthorn out of her hair, you’ll get her again.” So that night he went again, and that time he only got hold of a bit of her hair. But the old woman told him that was no use, and that he was put back now, and it might be twelve nights before he’d get her. But on the fourth night he got the third bit of blackthorn, and he took her, and she came away with him. He never told the mother he had got her; but one day she saw her at a fair, and, says, she “That’s my daughter; I know her by the smile and by the laugh of her,” and she with a shawl about her head. So the husband said, “You’re right there, and hard I worked to get her.” She spoke often of the grand things she saw underground, and how she used to have wine to drink, and to drive out in a carriage with four horses every night. And she used to be able to see her husband when he came to look for her, and she was greatly afraid he’d get a drop of the wine, for then he would have come underground never left it again. And she was glad herself to come to earth again, and not to be left there.”

The old Gaelic literature is full of the appeals of the Tribes of the goddess Danu to mortals whom they would bring into their country; but the song of Midher to the beautiful Etain, the wife of the king who was called Echaid the ploughman, is the type of all.

“O beautiful woman, come with me to the marvellous land where one listens, to a sweet music, where one has spring flowers in one’s hair, where the body is like snow from head to foot, where no one is sad or silent, where teeth are white and eyebrows are black ... cheeks red like foxglove in flower ... Ireland is beautiful, but not so beautiful as the Great Plain call you to. The beer of Ireland is heady, but the beer of the Great Plain is much more heady. How marvellous is the country I am speaking of! Youth does not grow old there. Streams with warm flood flow there; sometimes mead, sometimes wine. Men are charming and without a blot there, and love is not forbidden there. O woman, When you come into my powerful country you will wear a crown of gold upon your head. I will give you the flesh of swine, and you will have beer and milk to drink, O beautiful woman. O beautiful woman, come with me (WR; Jeffares & Knowland, op. cit., 1975, pp.13-15.)

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