Lady Gregory Speaks

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lady gregory 1892

Editor’s Note: This is the account of lively fairy belief in the west from a woman who would later become an expert in the subject: the painting was made three years before. The letter was written and published in the Spectator in the aftermath of the Brigid Cleary murder.


Here in the West the belief in fairies, always of a malevolent sort, is still very deeply rooted. A dispensary doctor, whose district lay some miles from here on the Clare coast, told me that he had one day met the funeral of a young man he had some time before attended for lung-disease. He was surprised, as he had been given to understand the patient no longer required medical visits. He stopped one of the mourners and asked for an explanation, and why he had not been called in again. She was unwilling to speak, but at least whispered mysteriously, ‘Sure, you could do nothing for him, Doctor; nor could doctor upon earth. Sure, it’s well known what happened. Him such an elegant dancer; never home from a wedding or a wake till 3 o’clock in the morning., and living as he did beside an old church, what chance had he? Sure the fairies has him swep’.’ Good dancers are well known to be coveted by the fairy host, to join their revels. At another time a woman brought her son for advice, but without much hope for its efficacy. ‘For sure’ she said, ‘he is weak in his head ever since one time he was out with the men working, an’ he fell asleep an’ slep’ for four hours in a rath, and the fairies have his wits stole since then.

Drinking water form a holy well, out of a skull, was a more favourite remedy for most ills than drugs. A new priest spoke against it, and removed the skull, but another had appeared there next day. The old ring-shaped raths or forts are always fairy-haunted. I remember one day searching in vain for one we had been told of. We asked a countryman riding by if he knew of it, but he could not recognise it by any description till my husband said on chance, ‘A place the fairies come to.’ ‘Oh, the place where the fairies do be; I know that well enough,’ he said, and pointed out the way. Though wandering from the subject of fairies to that of ‘the New Woman’, I may be forgiven for adding that this man told he was on his way back from ‘burying his first cousin’s wife’, but seemed resigned to her loss, as she was from the County Clare, ‘and the Clare women are a great deal cleverer that the Galway women, and that makes them a great deal crosser.’ A few years ago, within a month of the death of a member of the Galway Hunt, a fox twice ran to earth within sight of his house. The country people declared it was his spirit which had taken that form, and for the rest of the season refused to allow the earths in the neighbourhood to be stopped.

I am Sir. &c [Gregory 1895]

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