Emerald Isle

The Bean Feasa of the Eyeries

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Wisdom is a quiet knowing

Long ago in the Eyeries in County Cork, there lived a wise woman by the name of Máire Ní Mhurchú, which was Mary Murphy in English. Now when I say a wise woman, I don’t mean she was a woman wise in old sayings and folksy ways – although she had no shortage of those either – I mean she was a bean feasa, one of those women touched by the otherworld and the mysterious beings who lived in that eerie realm.

Not only that but they could travel to the borders of the otherworld themselves, and maybe even cross over!

In Ireland of old when the doctor’s medicines didn’t work and the ministrations of the priest proved ineffective, people went to the bean feasa to see could she do anything.

Máire was a kindly and affable little woman and well liked by her neighbours, for all that she had a bit of an uncanny reputation. Her simple house in Baile na nAoraí, long since gone to ruin, was a place of comfort and healing for many, although the local priest had little time for her and would denounce her from the pulpit should the mood take him.

That was until one day he was riding home and crossed a bridge, when the wind whipped the hat clean off his head – then returned and landed firmly back where it had been! This happened three times, and when he met Máire later she told him it had been her hand that replaced the hat after the fairies took it away.

Afterwards the priest said not a word against her, but helped her when he could.

Being in more than one place at once was said to be among her powers, as well as travelling swiftly through the land when the sun had set, far more swiftly than any mortal had a right to go in those days, maybe riding the back of the púca.

She happened to be in Cathair Caim one evening with the women who were cutting and stripping flax. They liked a good puff on their clay pipes but were killed out complaining about how long the merchants were taking to return from Cork, so much did they miss their smoke.

When the midnight hour came, they heard a banging at the door and Máire went outside, not returning until the first dewy dawn light of morning, and herself dripping with sweat and exhausted. She said nothing of her adventures and nobody asked, but instead brought her to the fire and gave her a sup of milk, which she received gratefully.

Sitting back, she reassured them the merchants and their wagons would be here the next day, for she had passed them in her night-journeying. Some were doubtful, and who could blame them, but sure enough the carters drew up early the next morning.

There was a woman of the O’Sheas who fell sick with some unknown illness, but the O’Sheas were always seen as a bit odd, for they were descended in part from the line of a seal woman who married a mortal man and gave him children before returning to the green waves of the ocean.

When her husband at last ran out of other ideas, he went to Máire and was chastised for taking as long as he had to come to her. She told him that she was half-minded not to give him any help at all, for he had long been bitter towards her, whispering behind her back, but for the sake of his wife she would do what she could.

His wife, she continued, lay not in her sick-bed in his house, but had been swept from his family by Sidhe in a place called Dóinn in county Kerry, not too far off. They had left only a simulacrum of her behind, and when it expired his wife would be gone for good.

She told him to cross the bay on Tuesday night, and he would see the fairy host galloping west from Kenmare under the wan light of the gibbous moon. His wife would be on the horse just after the leader of the party, and he was to pull her off the horse and drag her into a circle of water sprinkled from a bottle Máire gave him.

Well, the following Tuesday that’s exactly what they did, the O’Shea and some of his more courageous neighbours rowed across the bay and lay in wait for the fairy host to pass. They didn’t’ have to wait long, although the hair stood on the backs of their necks, for no sound did the horses of the Sidhe make, and dread indeed were the hollows of their eyes which regarded the mortal world.

He spotted his wife riding behind a creature on the second horse, and nervously reached out to take her away with him, but he fumbled and they rode off without a backwards glance. Empty handed and filled with a strange wondrous horror, they all returned home.

Next week on the same night they again lay hidden, determined not to miss their chance, for they might not get another, and out from the bushes leaped the husband, taking his wife clean off the fairy saddle and into the circle prepared beforehand!

The figures rode around in some confusion for a time before riding off again, and it was then that Máire told them to make haste and pull the woman to the boat, for as soon as they left the circle the Sidhe would know their business.

They ran as fast as their legs could carry them to the boat and began rowing hard, urged on by Máire who looked nervously at the storm clouds building hard behind them, and the rising wind.

“Haste, haste, oh make haste!” she said “for we are pursued!”

But as soon as they reached halfway across the bay, the wind eased and she began to breathe a little easier, for they has passed the borders from one ancient realm into another, and were in no danger of pursuit at that moment.

When they got home, they found the bed where the sick figure had been laying was empty, and only her bedclothes lay scattered about. Mrs O’Shea returned to the land of the living and stayed with them a good twenty years or more, having a large family – but for ten of those years her husband had not a scrap of good fortune, all of his livestock dying and his affairs otherwise suffering.

This tale is as true, they say, as the sun coming up every morning.

Pictured:  Nan (Anne) O'Toole of the Claddagh in Galway city, who was born in 1877 and was one of the last of the old bean feasa.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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