Emerald Isle

Ethne Leaves the Fairies

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

Dark temptations, Ethne Leaves the Fairies

Long ago when the fierce Milesians invaded Ireland and defeated the De Danann after many wars and battles, despite their sorceries and all their courage, skill and sciences, the folk of Danann made for themselves eldritch amulets and charms by which they and all their possessions became invisible to mortals, and so they continued to lead their old joyous life in the holy places of the land. Their palaces and dancing-halls and festive sites seem to us now to be merely green mounds or raths, or a lonely hillside, or a ruined shrine with nettles and foxglove growing up among its broken masonry.

After Angus Óg and his people had retreated behind the veil of the Otherworld, the steward of his palace had a daughter born to him whose name was Ethne. On the same day Fand, the wife of Mananan the Sea God, bore him a daughter, and since Angus was a friend of Mananan and much beloved by him, the child of the Sea God was sent to Brugh na Boyna, near to what we call Newgrange today. So Ethne became the handmaid of the young princess of the sea, and in time she grew into a beautiful maiden, loved by all.

In the hall of Angus there were two ancient magical treasures, an alehorn which could never be emptied and two swine - when one was roasted and eaten the other came back to life, and so they were, day and day about.

So there was always a store of fine fairy food, imbued with magical spells, and anyone who ate of them could never grow old or die. Some people noticed, though, that after Ethne had grown up she never ate or drank of the fairy food, or of any other, yet she seemed healthy and well-nourished. This was reported to Angus, and by him to Mananan, and Mananan by his wisdom discovered the cause of it.

One of the lords of the De Danann who was visiting Angus was overcome by the maiden's beauty, and one day he laid hands on her and tried to carry her away to his own home. Ethne escaped from him, but the fury of resentment at the insult that burned in her soul consumed her fairy nature, which knew not of good or evil, and the nature of the children of Adam took its place.

So she never again ate of the fairy food, which is forbidden to man, but she was nourished miraculously by the will of the One God. After a time it happened that Mananan and Angus brought from the Holy Land two cows whose milk could never run dry. In this milk there was nothing of the fairy spell, and Ethne lived upon it many long years, milking the cows herself, neither did her youth and beauty suffer any change.

On one very hot day the daughter of Mananan went down to bathe in the waters of the Boyne, and Ethne and her other maidens along with her. After they had refreshed themselves in the cool, amber-coloured water, they dressed themselves in their silken robes and trooped back to the hall again, but ere they entered it, they discovered that Ethne was not among them!

So they went back, scattering themselves along the bank and searching in every quiet pool of the river and in every dark hollow among the great trees that bordered it, for Ethne was dearly loved by all of them. But no trace nor tidings of her could they find, and they went sorrowfully home without her, to tell the tale to Angus and to her father.

Ethne had taken off off her clothes by the riverside, and then she had mislaid her fairy amulet, and turned into a mortal maid! Her companions were as invisible to her as they are to us, and the world was strange to her. The fairy track that had led to the riverside was overgrown with briars, the palace of Angus was nothing but a wooded hill!

She didn't know where she was, and overcome with sudden terror she ran wildly away, crying the names of those she had known in the fairy life, but which were now behind the Veil. After a while she came to a high wall set with a wooden gate, and through it she saw a garden full of sweet herbs and flowers, which surrounded a steep-roofed building of stone. In the garden she saw a man in a long brown robe tied about his waist with a cord. He smiled at her and beckoned her to come in without fear. He was a monk of the holy Patrick, and the house was a convent church.

When the monk had heard her tale, he marvelled greatly and brought her to St Patrick himself, who told her about the Faith, and she believed and was baptised.

But not long after, as she was praying in the church by the Boyne, the sky grew dark and she heard a sound outside like the rushing of a great wind, and in it were cries and lamentations, and her own name called again and again in a multitude of voices, thin and faint as the crying of curlews upon the moor!

She leapt up and looked around, answering, but nothing could she see, and at last the storm of cries died away, and everything was still again around the church except the singing voice of Boyne and the humming of the garden bees.

With that Ethne fainted, and the monks carried her out into the air, and it was long before her heart beat and her eyes opened again. She fell into a sickness from which she never recovered. In no time at all she died with her head on the chest of holy Patrick, and she was buried in the church where she had first been received by the monk.

The church was called Killethne, or the Church of Ethne, from that day forward until now. The church was near to the spot marked on the map, if you should care to visit.

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