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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
A wise man from not that long ago, John Fagan
It was known in times past in Ireland that there were men and women who could talk to the fairies, ask favours from them, and even live among them, and some used this acquaintance to work their will on the world, for good or for ill. Most famous, perhaps, among these people were the fairy healers of old.
Biddy Early is the best known of their kind, but there were others, and some who claimed to be fairy healers but were not! For there were gains to be made from credulous people, as it was the habit of the fairy healer to ask for food in payment, to be given to the good folk.
The food was intended - when put to its proper purpose - for those who had been taken, and were not yet passed from this world, but lived yet among the fairies, and were afraid to taste fairy food in case they might be stuck there forever after. Fairy healers would bring messages from the recently dead, and some even held that the fairies were themselves the spirits of those who had lived long, long before but remained a part of this world against the divine order.
There are those who say this is what was meant by the ancient legends which claim the Milesians gave half of Ireland to the Tuatha De Danann, but it was the half below the ground!
Although fairy healers are few and far between nowadays, if any remain at all, we still have an account written by a friend of WB Yeats, and Yeats himself, of an encounter with one John Fagan, a healer of good repute.
"On the bounds of Connemara I heard of this healer, and went to see his wife in her little rockbuilt cabin among the boulders, to ask if a cure could be done for Mr. Yeats, who was staying at a friend's house near, and who was at that time troubled by uncertain eyesight.
One evening later we walked beside the sea to the cottage where we were to meet the healer; a storm was blowing and we were glad when the door was opened and we found a bright turf fire.
He was short and broad, with regular features, and his hair was thick and dark, though he was an old man. He wore a flannel-sleeved waistcoat, and his trousers were much patched on the knees. He sat on a low bench in the wide chimney nook, holding a soft hat in his hands which kept nervously moving.
The woman of the house came over now and then to look at the iron tripod on the hearth. She, like the healer, spoke only Irish. The man of the house sat between us and interpreted, holding a dip candle in his hands. A dog growled without ceasing at one side of the hearth, a reddish cat sat at the other. The woman seemed frightened and angry at times as the old man spoke, and clutched the baby to her breast.
I was told by the man of the house, Coneely, “There's a man beyond is a great warrior in this business, and no man within miles of the place will build a house or a cabin or any other thing without him going there to say if it's in a right place.
It was Fagan cured me of a pain I had in my arm, I couldn't get rid of. He gave me a something to drink, and he bid me go to a quarry and to touch some of the stones that were lying outside it and not to touch others of them. Anyway I got well.
And one time down by the hill we were gathering in the red seaweed, and there was a boy there that was leading a young horse, the same way he'd been leading him a year or more. But this day of a sudden he made a snap to bite him, and secondly he reared as if to jump on top of him, and thirdly turned around and made at him with the hoofs.
And the boy threw himself to one side and escaped, but with the fright he got he went into his bed and stopped there. And the next day Fagan came and told him everything that had happened, and he said, "I saw thousands on the strand near where it was last night." ”
Fagan's wife said to me in her house. “Are you right? You are? Then you're my friend. Come here close and tell me is there anything himself can do for you?
I do the fortunes no more since I got great abuse from the priest for it. Himself got great abuse from the priest too - Father Haverty - and he gave him plaster of Paris - I mean by that he spoke soft and blathered him, but he does them all the same, and Father Kilroy gave him leave when he was here.
It was from his sister he got the cure. Taken she was when her baby was born. She died in the morning and the baby at night. We didn't tell John of it for a month after, where he was away, caring horses. But he knew of it before he came home, for she followed him there one day he was out in the field, and when he didn't know her she said, "I'm your sister Kate." And she said, "I bring you a cure that you may cure both yourself and others."
And she told him of the herb and the field he'd find it growing, and that he must choose a plant with seven branches, the half of them above the clay and the half of them covered up. And she told him how to use it.
Twenty years she's gone, but she's not dead yet, but the last time he saw her he said that she was getting grey. Every May and November he sees her, he'll be seeing her soon now. When her time comes to die, she'll be put in the place of some other one that's taken, and so she'll get absolution.
He has cured many. But sometimes they are vexed with him, for some cure he has done, when he interferes with some person they're meaning to bring away. And many's the good beating they gave him out in the fields for doing that.
Myself they gave a touch to, here in the thigh, so that I lost my walk; vexed with me they are for giving up the throwing of the cup.
A nurse she's been all the time among them. And don't believe those that say they have no children. A boy among them is as clever as any boy here, but he must be matched with a woman from earth. And the same way with their women, they must get a husband here. And they never can give the breast to a child, but must get a nurse from here.
One time I saw them myself, in a field and they hurling. Bracket caps they wore and bracket clothes that were of all colours.
Some were the same size as ourselves and some looked like gossoons that didn't grow well. But himself has the second sight and can see them in every place.
There's as many of them in the sea as on the land, and some-times they fly like birds across the bay.
The first time he did a cure it was on some poor person like ourselves, and he took nothing for it, and in the night the sister came and bid him not to do it any more without a fee. And that time we lost a fine boy.
They'll all be watching round when a person is dying; and suppose it was myself, there'd be my own friends crying, crying, and themselves would be laughing and jesting, and glad I'd go.
There is always a mistress among them. When one of us goes among them they would all be laughing and jesting, but when that tall mistress you heard of would tip her stick on the ground, they'd all draw to silence.
Tell me the Christian name of your friend you want the cure for. "William Butler," I'll keep that. And when himself gathers the herb, if it's for a man, he must call on the name of some other man, and call him a king - Rí - and if it's for a woman he must call on the name of some other woman and call her a queen that is calling on the king or the queen of the plant.”
Fagan said to W. B. Yeats and to me, “It's not from them the harm came to your eyes. I see them in all places - and there's no man mowing a meadow that doesn't see them at some time or other. As to what they look like, they'll change colour and shape and clothes while you look round.
Bracket caps they always wear. There is a king and a queen and a fool in each house of them, that is true enough - but they would do you no harm. The king and the queen are kind and gentle, and whatever you'll ask them for they'll give it. They'll do no harm at all if you don't injure them.
You might speak to them if you'd meet them on the road, and they'd answer you, if you'd speak civil and quiet and show respect, and not be laughing or humbugging - they wouldn't like that. One night I was in bed with the wife beside me, and the child near me, near the fire. And I turned and saw a woman sitting by the fire, and she made a snap at the child, and I was too quick for her and got hold of it, and she was at the door and out of it in one minute, before I could get to her.
Another time in the field a woman came beside me, and I went on to a gap in the wall and she was in it before me. And then she stopped me and she said: "I'm your sister that was taken; and don't you remember how I got the fever first and you tended me, and then you got it yourself, and one had to be taken and I was the one."
And she taught me the cure, and the way to use it. And she told me that she was in the best of places, and told me many things that she bound me not to tell. And I asked was it here she was kept ever since, and she said it was, but she said, "In six months I'll have to move to another place, and others will come where I am now, and it would be better for you if we stopped here, for the most of us here now are your neighbours and your friends." And it was she gave me the second sight.
Last year I was digging potatoes and a man came by, one of them, and one that I knew well before. And he said, "You have them this year, and we'll have them the next two years." And you know the potatoes were good last year and you see that they are bad now, and have been made away with. And the sister told me that half the food in Ireland goes to them, but that if they like they can make out of cow-dung all they want, and they can come into a house and use what they like and it will never be missed in the morning.”
The old man suddenly stooped and took a handful of hot ashes in his hand, and put them by his pocket. And presently he said he'd be afraid tonight going home the road. When we asked him why, he said he'd have to tell what errand he had been on.
He said one eye of W. B. Yeats' was worse than the other, and asked if he had ever slept out at nights. We asked if he goes to enquire of them (the Others) what is wrong with those who came to him and he said, "Yes, when it has to do with their business - but in this case it has nothing to do with it."
Coneely said next day, “I walked home with the old man last night, he was afraid to go by himself. He pointed out to me on the way a graveyard where he had got a great beating from them one night. He had a drop too much taken after being at a funeral, and he went there and gathered the plant wrong. And they came and punished him, that his head is not the better of it ever since.
He told me the way he knows in the gathering of the plant what is wrong with the person that is looking for a cure. He has to go on his knees and say a prayer to the king and the queen and the gentle and the simple among them, and then he gathers it, and if there are black leaves about it, or white ones, but chiefly a black leaf folded down, he knows the illness is some of their business; but for this young man the plant came fresh and green and clean. He has been among them and has seen the king and the queen, and he says that they are no bigger than the others, but the queen wears a wide cap, and the others have bracket caps.
He never would allow me to build a shed there beside the house, though I never saw anything there myself.”
John Fagan's house was near to the mark on the map below.
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