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Fairy Nurse


There lived a woman in Innish Shark -- one of the group of islands on the eastern coast -- named Biddy Mannion, as handsome and likely a fisherman's wife as you would meet in a day's walk. She was tall, and fair in the face, with skin like an egg, and hair that might vie with the gloss of the raven's wing.

She was married about a twelvemonth, when the midwife presented her husband, Patsy-Andrew M'Intire, with as fine a man-child as could be found between Shark and America, and sure they are the next parishes, with only the Atlantic for a mearing between them. The young one throve apace, and all the women and gossips said the Biddy Mannion was the lucky woman, and the finest nurse seen in the island for many a day.

Now the king of the fairies had a child about the same age, or a little older. But the queen was not able to nurse it, for she was might weakly after her lying-in, as her husband had a falling-out with another fairy potentate that lives down one side of the Giant's Causeway, who, by the force of magic and pishrogues, banished the suck from the Connaught princess for spite.

The gentry had their eye upon Biddy Mannion for a long time, but as she always wore a gospel round her neck, and kept an errub and a bit of a burnt sod from St. John's Night sewed up in her clothes, she was proof against all their machinations and seductions. At long run, however, she lost this herb, and one fine summer's night the young gaurlaugh [infant], being mighty cross with the teeth, wouldn't sleep in the cradle at all, but was evermore starting and crying, as if the life was leaving him, so she got up at last, determined to take him to bed to herself, and she went down to the kitchen to light a candle.

Well, just as she was blowing a coal, three men caught a hold of her before she could bless herself, and she was unable to shout or say a word, so they brought her out of the house quite easy, and put her upon a pillion, behind one of themselves, on a fine black horse that was ready waiting outside the door. She was no sooner seated behind one of the men than away they all galloped, without saying a word. It was as calm and beautiful a night as ever came out of the sky, just before the moon rose "between day and dark," with the gloom of parting twilight softening every break upon the surrounding landscape, and not a breath of air was to be felt.

They rode on a long time, and she didn't know where they were going to; but she thought to herself they must be on the mainland, for she heard the frogs croaking in ditches. [There are no frogs in these small islands.] The bunnaun lena [bittern] was sounding away in the bogs, and the minnaun airigh [clocking snipe] was wheeling over their heads. [Neither of these birds are found in the small islands of the west.]

At last the horse stopped of itself all of a sudden before the gate of a big house at the butt of a great hill, with trees growing all round it, where she had never been before in her life. There was much light in the house, and presently a grand looking gentleman dressed all in scarlet, with a cocked hat on his head and a sword by his side, and his fingers so covered with rings that they shone like lassar lena [ranunculus flammea, a brilliant yellow flower] in a bog-hole, lifted her off the pillion as polite as possible, handed her into the house, and bid her a cead mile failte, just the same as if he had known her all his lifetime.

The gentleman left her sitting in one of the rooms, and when he was gone she saw a young woman standing at the thrashal of the door, and looking very earnestly at her, as if she wanted to speak to her.

"Troth, I'll speak, anyway," says Biddy Mannion, "for if I didn't, I'm sure I'd burst." And with that she bid her the time of day, and asked her why she was looking at her so continuously.

The woman then gave a great sigh, and whispered to her, "If you take my advice, Biddy Mannion, you'll not taste bit, bite, or sup, while you are in this house, for if you do you'll be sorry for it, and maybe never get home again to your child or husband. I ate and drank my fill, forrior geraugh [an expression denoting great regret], the first night I came, and that's the reason that I am left here now in this enchanted place, where everything you meet is bewitched, even to the meat itself. But when you go home, send word to them that's after me, Tim Conneely, that lives one side of the Killaries, that I am here, and may be he'd try what Father Pat Prendergast, the blessed abbot of Cong, could do to get me out of it."

Biddy was just going to make further inquiries, when in the clapping of your hand the woman was gone, and the man with the scarlet coat came back, and the same strange woman, bringing a young child in her arms. The man took the child from the woman, and gave it to Biddy to put it to the breast, and when it had drank its fill he took it away, and invited her into another room, where the queen -- a darling, fine-looking lady as you'd meet in a day's walk -- was seated in an armchair, surrounded by a power of quality, dressed up for all the world like judges with big wigs, and red gowns upon them. There was a table laid out with all sorts of eating, which the man in the cocked hat pressed her to take. She made answer that she was no ways hungry, but that if they could give her a cure for a little girl belonging to one of her neighbors, who was mighty dauny, and never well in herself since she had a fit of the feur-gurtagh [literally, "hungry grass," a weakness, the result of sudden hunger, said to come on persons in consequence of treading on a particular kind of fairy-enchanted grass], while crossing the Minaune Pass in Achill, and to send herself home to Shark, she would be forever obliged to them.

The king, for that was the gentleman with the cocked hat, said he had ne'er a cure.
"Indeed, then," said the mother of the child, "as I was the cause of your coming here, honest woman, you must get the cure; go home," says she, speaking for all the world like an Englishwoman, "and get ten green rishes from the side of the well of Aughavalla [a holy well in the barony of Murrisk, not far from Croagh Patrick]. Throw the tenth away, and squeeze the juice of the rest of them into the bottom of a teacup, and give it to the colleen to drink, and she will get well in no time."

The king then put a ring on her finger and told her not to lose it by any manner of means, and that as long as she wore this ring no person could hurt or harm her. He then rubbed a sort of an ointment on her eyes, and no sooner had he done so that she found herself in a frightful cave where she couldn't see her hand before her.

"Don't be any ways afraid," says he. "This is to let you know what kind of a people we are that took you away. We are the fallen angels that the people up above upon the earth call the fairies."

And then after a while she began to see about her, and the place was full of dead men's bones, and had a terribly musty smell. And after a while he took her into another room where there was more light, and here she found a wonderful sight of young children, and them all blindfolded, and doing nothing but sitting upon pookauns [mushrooms, fairy-stools, or puff-balls] These were the souls of infants that were never baptized, and are believed "to go into naught." After that he showed her a beautiful garden, and at the end of it there was a large gate, which he opened with a key that was hung to his watch chain.

"Now," says he, "you are not far from you own house," so he let her out; and then says he, "Who is that that is coming down the boreen?" And when she turned her back to look who it was, behold the man with the red coat and the cocked hat had disappeared.

Biddy Mannion could not see anybody, but she knew full well the place where she was in a minute, and that it was the little road the led down to the annagh [a cut away bog] just beside her own house, and when she went up to the door she met another woman the very moral of herself, just as fair as if she saw her in the looking-glass, who said to her as she passed, "What a gomal your husband is that didn't know the difference between you and me."

She said no more, but Biddy went in and found her child in a beautiful sleep, with his face smiling, like the buttercups in May.

[W. R. Wilde, Irish Popular Superstitions (1852)]


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Ian Topham
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Re: Fairy Nurse

'Inishark, Death of an Island' by Dixon Scott, Daily Mirror, Thursday, October 27th, 1960

The sun shone beautifully. The breeze came softly from the east and the Atlantic only rippled instead of roaring. It was a perfect day for the death of an island.
 
Shark Island -Inishark in the Gaelic- lies seven miles off the Connemara coast of Ireland. A pretty sight. Since men first began to toil, hardy folk have tortured a living out of Shark's thousand acres of rocky pasture and the sea around it.
 
The farming and fishing community used to be counted in hundreds. I have just watched the last twenty-three survivors -members of six families- moving out of Shark like a garrison surrendering after a life time's siege. The Atlantic beat them. It hammered them into submission...cutting them off from the outside world for weeks, sometimes months, on end. Too often and too easily their tiny landing bay was whipped into a perilous cauldron by even the weakest winds. And over the years, as family after family emigrated, the survival problem of those who stayed grew more desperate.
 
Two years ago a Shark man died from appendicitis because no word of his plight could be got out for five days. That death sealed Shark's fate. The Islanders asked the Government: "for pity's sake, take us off here for ever". So, on this rare, fine morning, four fishing smacks left the neighbouring island of Bofin on the last mercy mission to Shark. The fleet -St.John, St.Winifred, Topaz and Lilly- was commanded by young Father Flannery, the island's priest, acting as agent for the Government. Off came Father Flannery's dog collar and jacket as we stepped on to Shark's landing stage. "Right, lads, let's get moving!" he said. Soon men, women and children were staggering along the stony 500 yards between their cottages and the landing stage with their burdens, back-breaking, bizarre, and one, at least, bonny... A huge, home-made wardrobe lashed to the shoulders of fifty-three-years-old Michael Cloonan. A dark brown cat in an old blackened cooking pot, with the lid half tied down... Eleven-months-old baby Anne Lacey in the arms of her mother... Anne Murray's geraniums, hens in baskets, geese in sacks, straw brooms and string-tied suitcases, iron bed-steads and  baths... Thirteen cows, twelve dogs, ten donkeys. eight more cats, scores of hens, a hundred sheep, a stack of hay -and a tear in the eye of Thomas Lacey, the elder. They all came down to the water's edge of Shark for the last time. "Why should I not be happy to be going?" said Thomas, 73, grandfather of baby Anne Lacey and "father" of the island.
 
"I'll not be grieving for it. I've wanted to leave for years. This island has had its share of my life. I was born here. I built this house with my own hands". His voice trembled and his eyes glistened. "It gave me only poverty and it took two of my sons," he said. "Look yonder at that strip of cheating water between the islands. I've seen it every time I came to this front door. That is where my sons drowned eleven years ago..." No regretful farewell, then, from the old one: his tear came out of the past. And the younger ones? Ten-years-old Philomena Murray lingered to the last in the schoolroom she shared with four other island children before teacher Rose McGarry went sick to the mainland a month ago. But her search on the big map of Ireland over the fireplace was for the spot in Connemara where her new home would be... "This is a happy day for us," she said simply. Her brother George, 20, knew why -in detail. He told me: "During last November and December there were only six days when it was possible to leave or land on Shark. We were without tea, sugar and paraffin for six weeks. Nights are long when you have only the light of the peat fire to see by. Christmas came and went like that." I sailed in the Noah's Ark armada with old Thomas Lacey's third son, Thomas Joseph, and his wife and baby. We sat on a wardrobe and watched the twelve inhabitable but untenable houses of Shark fade out of life. "That island is finished", said Thomas Joseph, turning his back on it and pulling noisily on his pipe. His baby whimpered. At Cleggan, on the mainland, I watched him accept the key to the new life which the Irish Government has provided for each of the six Shark families.
 
There was a brand new bungalow by the sea, eight acres of land, a share in the grazing rights on a mountain and a shave of a bog for digging peat. It was cheaper for the Government to do this than to sink many thousands of pounds into a new harbour for Shark. Thomas Joseph looked so pleased it seemed that the sea, even in victory, had somehow been cheated. BUT SHARK IS, OF COURSE, DEAD.



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