‘An old fairy lullaby’

03 Feb

Here we have some timely Candlemas lore and an ‘old fairy lullaby’ that, aside from being interesting (in my humble opinion…), shows just how valuable songs can be in preserving lore that might otherwise go unnoticed or be underappreciated. The quarter days in Ireland, Scotland and Man are seen as days when the Good Folk might go ‘flitting’ from one síd mound to another. Anyone who might cross their path at these times is especially at risk of been taken along with the fairy host, never to be seen again, but according to some tales the days can also provide opportunity for the missing to be recovered. There are other times and situations as well that might lead to abduction as well – an unbaptised baby, or an unkirked mother (a woman who had yet to go to church after giving birth) who are left unattended, for example. 

The lullaby given here is reprinted from George Petrie’s ‘Ancient Music of Ireland’ – which itself is well worth a read but I’ve been unable to find a copy online that is as easily accessible and readable as or Google online books are usually able to provide. This retelling here pulls together some extra commentary as well, which comes in handy, but Petrie’s original also provides the Irish and is well worth a look to fully appreciate it:

Dr. George Petrie, in his Ancient Music of Ireland, prints a wonderful old fairy lullaby, sung to a Gaelic poem, of which Eugene O’Curry writes: “This rare and remarkable poem contains…more of authentic fairy fact and doctrine than, with some few exceptions, has been ever before published in Ireland.”

Here is a prose rendering of the original.

O Woman below on the brink of the stream. Sho hoo lo!
Do yon understand the cause of my wailing? Sho hoo lo!
A year and this day I was whipt off my palfrey. Sho hoo lo!
And was carried into Lios-an-Chnocain. Sho hoo lo! Sho-heen,
Sho hoo lo!

There is here my beautiful great house. Sho hoo lo!
Abundant is new ale there and old ale. Sho hoo lo!
Abundant is yellow honey and bee’s wax there. Sho hoo lo!
Many is the old man tightly bound there. Sho hoo lo! Sho heen,

Many is the curling brown-haired boy there. Sho hoo lo!
Many is the yellow-haired comely girl there. Sho hoo lo!
There are twelve women bearing sons there. Sho hoo lo!
And as many more are there beside them. Sho hoo lo! Sho-heen,

Say to my husband to come to-morrow. Sho hoo lo!
With the wax candle in the centre of his palm. Sho hoo lo!
And in his hand to bring a black-hafted knife. Sho hoo lo!
And beat the first horse out of the gap. Sho hoo lo! Sho-heen,

To pluck the herb that’s in the door of the fort. Sho hoo lo!
With trust in God that I would go home with him. Sho hoo lo!
Or if he does not come within that time. Sho hoo lo!
That I will be queen over all these women. Sho hoo lo! Sho-
heen, etc.

“The incident here clearly narrated,” writes O’Curry, “was believed at all times to be of frequent occurrence. It was for the last sixteen hundred years, at least, and is still, as firmly believed in as any fact in the history of this country that the Tuatha de Danann, after their overthrow by the Milesians, had gone to reside in their hills and ancient forts, or in their dwellings on lakes and rivers that they were in possession of a mortal immortality and that they had the power to carry off from the visible world men and women in a living state, but sometimes under the semblance of death.

“The persons taken off were generally beautiful infants, wanted for those in the hill who had no children, fine young women, before marriage and often on the day of marriage, for the young men of the hills who had been invisibly feasting on their growing beauties perhaps from childhood; young men, in the same way, for the languishing damsels of fairyland; fresh, well-looking nurses for their nurseries…”

This poem refers to all the classes of abducted persons abducted young men now grown old, comely young
men and maidens and married women, like the speaker, needed for nurses. She describes a period before wine and whiskey were in use, and therefore more than three hundred years past, in Irish of, at any rate, the fifteenth century. By her own account she was snatched from her palfrey, and must, therefore, have been a woman of consequence. She sees from within Lios-an-Chnocain, or the Fort of the Hillock, a neighbour, perhaps, washing clothes by the brink of the stream which runs past the fort, and, in the intervals of her hush-cries to her fairy nursling, she gives instructions to her friend how to secure her freedom.

The bit of wax candle which her husband was to carry in the centre of his palm would be, no doubt, a candle
blessed on Candlemas Day, and the black-hafted knife was the only mortal weapon feared by the fairies.

Its use, as called for in the poem, was to strike the leading horse of the woman’s fairy chariot when she left the
fort the following day, and thus render her visible to her rescuing husband, who was then to possess himself of the herb that grew at the fort door, whose magical properties would guard her from recapture by the fairies.

From Alfred Graves, Irish Literary and Musical Studies, 1914, p147-149.


Posted by on February 3, 2012 in Uncategorized


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4 responses to “‘An old fairy lullaby’

  1. Leeh B.

    February 3, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Hello Seren!
    I’m loving your blog! Wonderfull texts.
    Please, dont stop this amazing work!

    • Seren

      February 8, 2012 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks Leeh! It’s good to see you here 🙂

  2. Laurel

    February 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Your timing couldn’t be better because I just borrow The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland {edited by David Cooper} from my local library. I figured crowing out {a singing voice I have not!} the songs to my honey might be a good way to help learn a little more Gaelic. 😉

    • Seren

      February 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      I’m tone deaf myself, so I know exactly what you mean! There’s some good stuff in there, I can’t imagine a better way to get some Irish practice in.


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