3. Away with the fairies

Chris Lawlor

Diversion 3.Today’s diversion is slightly different, since it comes from the world of folklore rather than ‘pure’ history. When the idea of a fairy trail was proposed for Dunlavin, and when it was decided that fairies would feature in last year’s Festival of Arts, I was asked to write up a story from a reference to fairies in Dunlavin which I had found during my historical research. The reference was found in the Shearman Papers in the Russell Library of Maynooth University.[1] Fr John Francis Shearman (curate in Dunlavin at the time) recorded this piece of local folklore in 1863, and it provides a window on beliefs and superstitions in the area then, when fairies were perceived as having a capacity for malevolence, and when a local fairy man was believed to have the gift of being able to speak to (and plead with) the fairy hosts. Today, the story is more likely to appeal to children. Although it is a bit violent, I have not changed the substance of the tale from Shearman’s account. However, I have made the odd embellishment in an effort to interest younger readers and listeners, and I have tried to keep it short, and to use simple language (and some repetition) throughout. I hope you enjoy it.

Away with the fairies

A long time ago, many people in Dunlavin, and all over Ireland, believed that fairies lived in ‘the otherworld’. This meant that humans could not see them but they were there. Sometimes fairies could be good and reward kind deeds by humans, but sometimes fairies could be bad and take little children away from their parents. Fairies could also bring disease on crops and animals, and make milk go sour and butter taste bad. This was very important in places like Dunlavin, where there were many farms, and most people had cows and sowed potatoes in their gardens. People ate what they produced on the land because they didn’t have much money to buy things in the shops back then.

A strange thing happened in Dunlavin one day

A strange thing happened in Dunlavin one day. All the cows around Tournant and in the fields above the village stopped giving milk. Farmers tried to milk the cows, but no milk came. This went on for a few days, and then the cows started to break out of their fields and run away. They would stampede down through Dunlavin and run out the Logatrina road and across the little River Griese, until they came to Ratharigid, near Gormanstown. The farmers and their wives and children would go to round up the cows and bring them back to their own fields, but the animals would break out and run away again the very next day. This kept on happening day after day.

Something had to be done

Something had to be done, and the people thought that the fairies were causing the cows to run away, so they decided to ask the Fairy Man of Dunlavin for help. We do not know the Fairy Man’s name, so we will call him Patrick. Patrick was a very special man because he could see into the otherworld and talk to the fairies. Patrick told the people that the fairies lived on hills and mounds in the countryside. From these high places they could see everything going on around them. Patrick said that the fairies of Ratharigid wanted to control the cows around Tournant and they were attacking the fairies of Tournant. Even though they could not see into the otherworld, the cows could sense the battles going on in the sky above them. This was why they were running away.

The people were upset and asked Patrick what they could do. Patrick told them to gather all the women and children of Dunlavin together. Many of them were by now very hungry because there was no milk, butter or cheese to eat. All the women and children did as they were asked and then Patrick told them to come with him to Tournant Moat, where the fairies lived. When they got there Patrick closed his eyes and spoke in a strange voice. Some people were a bit afraid, but it was only the special voice Patrick used when he was speaking directly to the fairies. Patrick asked the Tournant fairies to help the people of Dunlavin and protect the cattle against the fairies of Ratharigid. He seemed to listen for a while and then he smiled and told everyone to go home.

The next day, at milking time

The next day, at milking time, the cows were restless and ran away as usual. Down through the town of Dunlavin they went, and the people thought that Patrick had failed in his task. However, this day was different. The cattle got as far as the little river Griese in Logatrina and then they stopped. They were restless. They bellowed. They pawed the ground. They shuffled about, bumping into each other… but they did not cross the river. As this was happening, the people who had followed the cattle saw a whirlwind in the sky above them and a big cloud of dust rose up from the ground, covering the whole herd of cows. The wind storm went on for over an hour and then all grew calm again. When the dust settled, the cows turned around and allowed themselves to be brought back to Tournant by the people. The cattle were quiet and peaceful and, when they were milked, there was a huge amount of milk in every farmer’s bucket. The people of Dunlavin were delighted.

Tiny red drops of fairy blood!

Many people went back to Patrick and asked him what had happened. ‘Come with me’ he said. ‘I want to show you something’. He brought them to where the cattle had stopped and the whirlwind had been, at the little River Griese. There were tiny red drops all over the ground. Patrick told the people that these drops were fairy blood, because the fairies of Tournant had waited for the fairies of Ratharigid at the river. There had been a huge fairy battle in the otherworld at that place. The cows sensed the battle and would not go across the river because of it. The fairies of Tournant had brought their full force to the river and had won the battle. The fairies of Ratharigid had to run away back towards Gormanstown. The victorious fairies went back to Tournant.

From that day onward

From that day onward, the cows never ran away again. They gave loads of milk and the butter that was made from their milk tasted lovely. The people were happy and Patrick was happy too, because he had helped the people of Dunlavin. The victorious fairies of Tournant were protecting the animals in the fields around them. The fairies of Ratharigid lost the battle and they had had enough. They would never go back to try to take control of the cows around Tournant and Dunlavin again. Things were right again in the world… and in the otherworld, so everyone was happy again.


[1] Dunlavin Lower (N.U.I. Maynooth, Shearman papers, vii, ff 32-5)

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