Talk about your great reads for a quarter. I found a copy of Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, edited by William Butler Yeats. A big fat book full of great stories. And one of the great things about it is that these are not anything like most people’s idea of fairy tales.
They’re not neat. There’s no inspirational formula, no consistent triumph of good over evil, no guarantee of a happy ending, far from it, and the lessons learned, though powerful, are not neat either. They are like the lessons of life, and a hard life at that.
For one thing the trooping fairies are not always benevolent with regard to human beings. Why should they be? And some stories suggest they aren’t always on good terms with one another, either. They are said to steal children and paralyze people and livestock. Not that they don’t have their reasons.
A lot of people refer to the good people as Lepracauns [Yeats’ spelling], but that’s actually a more specialized term meaning shoemaker. The Lepracauns are rich because they make a lot of shoes (and presumably sell them). Then there’s the Cluricaun who gets drunk in wine cellars, the House spirit, the Water-sheerie, the Banshee, the Dallahan (headless phantom) and the Pooka.
The Pooka in the play and the Jimmy Stewart movie ‘Harvey’ is a six-foot-plus rabbit, but Pookas can be a lot of different animal spirits.
One thing I’ve noticed about all these spirits is that they all seem to be very up to date on everything that goes on among the human population. Whenever a human meets a fairy or a group of fairies, they all know him by name and they know his family and they seem to have read some kind of dossier detaiing everything he ever said or did.
Teig O’Kane, for example, a young rich hell raiser, is walking home very late one night and meets twenty tiny guys lugging a dead body and one of them says, “Isn’t it lucky we met you Teig O’Kane.”
“Teig, Teig,” the little man says, “you’re living a bad life, and we can make a slave of you now, and you cannot withstand us…” They give him some grief, make him carry the body around and bury it, but they let him off easy and he changes his ways.
Pat Driver, the tinker, sees four fairies carrying a body and gets scared and hides in a pile of straw. The fairies start arguing over whose turn it is to carry the body and one of them says, “There’s Pat Driver in under the straw. Why wouldn’t he tak’ his turn?”
Then there’s Jack Dogherty, who meets a Merrow (merman) on the beach. “Your servant, sir,” says Jack.
“Your servant, kindly, Jack Dogherty,” answered the Merrow.
“To be sure, then, how well your honor knows my name!” said Jack.
“Why, man, I knew your grandfather…”
Then there’s Daniel O’Rourke who gets “the same thing as tipsy, almost” and falls into a river and gets swept to an island and then gets stuck in a swamp.
“All of a sudden the moon grew black, and I looked up… and down it came with a pounce and looked me full in the face; and what was it but an eagle? as fine a one as ever flew from the kingdom of Kerry. So he looked at me in the face and says he to me, ‘Daniel O’Rourke,’ says he, ‘how do you do?'”
It’s like Cheers — everybody knows your name.