Fairy Glens in Ulster
September 30, 1913
“Peter Pan’s” question, “Do you believe in fairies?” the average man would would hardly expect to find answered in the affirmative by the shrewd, dour, hard-headed Presbyterians of Ulster.1 Yes, as will be seen from Mr. Machen’s story of his experience in Ulster, these northerners have this belief in common with their Celtic fellow-countrymen.
As we went along I saw that the country was not only fertile and well husbanded, but also of a very wild and strange beauty. It swelled up into rounded heights, and here the grey rocks burst through it into grim crags, here it fell all about into the hollow of a little lake. And far away there rose a great lovely mountain land. Here evidently was a region of glamour, and just as I might have asked if there were many county families about, I asked if there were many fairy castles in the neighbourhood. The question was treated as an absolutely commonplace and sensible one.
“There are not many raths2 in this immediate neighbourhood; you find more of them round Antrim way. And I can tell you that the farmers, a lot of dour Presbyterians of Scotch descent, would never dream of cultivating a Danish Fort”—is Danish a corruption of Danaan fairy?3—“if it were very richest land in Ulster. Build on a rath? Indeed they would not, not for any money that you might be offering them.” Mr. Robinson, of Robinson and Cleaver,4 would never dream of touching fairy land.
“They’re just the same here. Look at that thorn tree.”
On broken land, in the midst of a stony field that sank down to wet and reedy places, stood a very ancient thorn tree, solitary in a lonely place.
“What about it?” I said.
“That’s a Fairy Bush, a fairy thorn. The fairies dance round about it, and the farmer would as soon cut off his right arm as touch a bough of it. Yes, they’re all Presbyterians, but they’re superstitious like that.”
Presently I remarked that the mountain ash seemed a favourite tree in the county Down; there were rowans planted by every house.
“Do you know why? Because there’s nothing better than the rowan for keeping off the fairies. As a matter of fact I have planted a good many of them round that little place of mine that we’re going to.”
My host smiled as he spoke. I should be sorry to say that he, an extremely prosperous and acute business man of the city of Belfast, believed in the Little People; but I believe he thought it as well to be on the safe side.
1 Presbyterians of Ulster. The region of Ulster is better known today as Northern Ireland. In contrast to the remainder of Catholic Ireland, Ulster had been heavily settled by Protestant immigrants from Scotland.
2 Rath. A fairy rath, or fairy fort, is circular earthwork that may be remnants of Iron Age structures. A rich body of fairy folklore grew up around these ancient sites. For more, see this article.
3 Danaan Fairy. The Tuath Dé Danann comprised the pantheon for ancient Irish mythology. It is believed that over time, this group of abandoned deities mutated into the fairy folklore of the island, the Aos Sí. In the article, Machen produces an uncertain, or perhaps archaic, spelling.
4 Robinson and Cleaver. Opening in 1874, Robinson & Cleaver built a solid reputation for selling quality Irish linens and furs.