One of Ankhie’s favorite hang-outs back in her student-y days was a grim little bar called The Sligo. The beer was cheap, the floor was sticky, and everything in it was glazed in decades of nicotine residue. I loved it for its name. I had been to Ireland as a teenager and remembered a brief stay in Sligo fondly. The whole of Ireland was a revelation to me, but the trip had been plagued by weather that, although gothically atmospheric, did little to allow for full appreciation of the landscape. Sligo was different. The sun shone brightly through fast-moving clouds. Flowers bloomed. People smiled. Driving there, I found myself eager to stop the car and run through brilliant green fields, explore the dark stands of trees that rose like deciduous islands, untended, begging to be explored. I was told in no uncertain terms by the driver that should I embark on such an adventure I would be struck dead, or worse, and would not be welcomed back into his company. What!!? Fairy rings, my friends. This one in particular was a grove of oak, others were single trees, or earthen mounds, distinguished by the fact that they were left uncultivated in the middle of farmed fields or meadows. They were not to be disturbed, by plow, scythe, or ridiculous American teenager. I was disappointed (it looked so cool, so inviting, so creepy!) but heeded the drivers advice. Thus began a lifelong fascination with the Sidhe, William Butler Yeats, and (by association) flat beer and surly bartenders.
The following is an excerpt from Magical and Mystical Sites: Europe and the British Isles, by Elizabeth Pepper and John Wilcock
The prosperous town of Sligo was the birthplace in 1865 of William Butler Yeats, the poet who devoted so much of his life to studying the occult. The area in which he was born is rich in antiquities, the raths, dolmens, caorns, and tumuli with which fairies are so often associated and which local legend often credit with having been constructed in one night.
One such, the Heapstown cairn (turn right at the village of Castle Baldwin on the road to Lough Arrow) is twenty feet high and consists of literally hundreds of thousands of small stones piled atop one another. It probably contains a passage grave, but like so many others of this type has never been excavated.
There are traditions in these parts that such tumuli shelter not ancient bones but rather living, breathing elves or fairies whose subterranean palaces are lavishly decorated and are the scene of constant revelry, which only the luckiest of mortals can share. The small, antique tobacco pipes that have been found in the vicinity of such places are supposed to belong to that species of elf known as the cluricaine, whose major pleasures are smoking and drinking and who is believed to have learned the secret the Danes brought into Ireland of making beer from heather.
Clurricaines have sometimes been seen in the daytime, if we are to believe the tales, and they usually make their appearance as aged little men with antiquated, pea-green coats, large metal buckles on their shoes, and cocked hats in the old French style.
Yeats, who spent several years in London associating with Aleister Crowley and other occultists of the Society of the Golden Dawn, was enticed back to his native land by Ireland’s growing renaissance movement. From an early age he had been fascinated by fairy legends and although he must have been one of the most incongruous figures ever to enter politics (he served in the Senate from 1922 to 1928), he remained an artist, like his father and brothers. Much of his poetry reveals his deep interest in occult matters. In his book Irish Fairy and Folk Tales he referred to the fairies as “gentle people.”
Dermot MacMannus, author of a more recent work on Irish fairies called The Middle Kingdom, says they are gentle only when not crossed and that some Irish housewives are still cautious enough to leave a saucer of milk or a bit of soda bread outside their cottage door for their diminutive visitors. Fairies were frequently familiars of witches, the author explains, and assisted their mentor “in her hurtful activities against her neighbors.”
MacMannus includes testimonials from various people of intelligence and education living in Ireland today who have sworn to seeing fairies, usually friendly, around four feet tall and wearing a turned-up hat and sometimes a bright red coat. Others have seen black-clothed figures of human size, standing motionless in a circle, only to have them reappear some distance away almost immediately.
“The thorn bush is locally reputed to be under fairy protection,” MacMannus avers, “but there are many popular misconceptions about the tree and innacurate generalities have too often crept into those versions of local folklore which are held by people not close enough to the earth to distinguish between fact and fiction.” The bourtree, the blackthorn, birch and broom are localities for fairies and any tree growing inside or near a fairy ring, or a lone thorn tree in an otherwise rocky and isolated field, can be assumed to be “protected.”
MacMannus says his grandfather met with much local opposition when he tried to move a thorn tree from a fairy fort in Killeaden and suffered great misfortune in the years after he did move it to his garden. It is now in the grounds of the author’s house, and wrens and robins, both “fairy birds,” nest in it. The fairy fort from whence it came, Lis Ard, has long been known for another fairy phenomenon: the bewitched sod or piece of earth that causes whoever steps on it to lose his or her way.
Although Sligo itself is closely associated with Yeats – there is a collection of his manuscripts in the local museum… and a full blown Yeats Society quartered in a magnificent house near the riverside Silver Swan Hotel – he is probably better know for his immortalization of a tiny spot about 200 yards from the southwest shore of Lough Gill along a dead-end road. Lines from his famous
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
Which epitomized the dream of so many, are on a board at the edge of the lake. A beautiful spot.