Banner: sunset over Knocknarea.
Dernish Island, image from Bing maps.
Dernish, the fairy-haunted island off the coast of north Sligo.

Evans Wentz in north Sligo, 1908


The Ben Bulben country in County Sligo is one of those rare places in Ireland where fairies are thought to be visible, and our first witness from there claims to be able to see the fairies or 'gentry' and to talk with them. This mortal so favoured lives in the same townland where his fathers have lived during four hundred years, directly beneath the shadows of Ben Bulbin, on whose sides Dermot is said to have been killed while hunting the wild-boar. And this famous old mountain, honeycombed with curious grottoes ages ago when the sea beat against its perpendicular flanks, is the very place where the 'gentry' have their chief abode.

Even on its broad level summit, for it is a high square table-land like a mighty cube of rock set down upon the earth by some antediluvian god, there are treacherous holes, wherein more than one hunter may have been lost for ever, penetrating to unknown depths; and by listening one can bear the tides from the ocean three or four miles away surging in and out through ancient subterranean channels, connected with these holes. In the neighbouring mountains there are long caverns which no man has dared to penetrate to the end, and even dogs, it is said, have been put in them never to emerge, or else to come out miles away. One day when the heavy white fog-banks hung over Ben Bulbin and its neighbours, and there was a weird almost-twilight at midday over the purple heather bog-lands at their base, and the rain was falling, I sat with my friend before a comfortable fire of fragrant turf in his cottage and heard about the 'gentry':—

Encounters with the' Gentry'.—

'When I was a young man I often used to go out in the mountains over there (pointing out of the window in their direction) to fish for trout, or to hunt; and it was in January on a cold, dry day while carrying my gun that I and a friend with me, as we were walking around Ben Bulbin, saw one of the gentry for the first time. I knew who it was, for I had heard the gentry described ever since I could remember; and this one was dressed in blue with a head-dress adorned with what seemed to be frills. When he came up to us, he said to me in a sweet and silvery voice, "The seldomer you come to this mountain the better. A young lady here wants to take you away."

Then he told us not to fire off our guns, because the gentry dislike being disturbed by the noise. And he seemed to be like a soldier of the gentry on guard. As we were leaving the mountains, he told us not to look back, and we didn't. Another time I was alone trout-fishing in nearly the same region when I heard a voice say, "It is ------ bare-footed and fishing." Then there came a whistle like music and a noise like the beating of a drum, and soon one of the gentry came and talked with me for half an hour. He said, "Your mother will die in eleven months, and do not let her die unanointed." And she did die within eleven months. As he was going away he warned me, "You must be in the house before sunset. Do not delay! Do not delay! They can do nothing to you until I get back in the castle."

As I found out afterwards, he was going to take me, but hesitated because be did not want to leave my mother alone. After these warnings I was always afraid to go to the mountains, but lately I have been told I could go, if I took a friend with me.'

'Gentry' Protection.—

'The gentry have always befriended and protected me. I was drowned twice but for them. Once I was going to Dernish Island, a mile off the coast. The channel is very deep, and at the time there was a rough sea, with the tide running out, and I was almost lost. I shrieked and shouted, and finally got safe to the mainland. The day I talked with one of the gentry at the foot of the mountain when he was for taking me, he mentioned this, and said they were the ones who saved me from drowning then.'

'Gentry' Stations.—

'Especially in Ireland, the gentry live inside the mountains in beautiful castles; and there are a good many branches of them in other countries. Like armies, they have various stations and move from one to another. Some live in the Wicklow Mountains near Dublin.'

'Gentry' Control Over Human Affairs.—

'The gentry take a great interest in the affairs of men, and they always stand for justice and right. Any side they favour in our wars, that side wins. They favoured the Boers, and the Boers did get their rights. They told me they favoured the Japanese and not the Russians, because the Russians are tyrants. Sometimes they fight among themselves. One of them once said, "I'd fight for a friend, or I'd fight for Ireland."'

The 'Gentry' Described.—

In response to my wish, this description of the 'gentry' was given:—

'The folk are the grandest I have ever seen. They are far superior to us, and that is why they are called the gentry. They are not a working class, but a military-aristocratic class, tall and noble-appearing. They are a distinct race between our own and that of spirits, as they have told me. Their qualifications are tremendous. "We could cut off half the human race, but would not," they said, "for we are expecting salvation."

And I knew a man three or four years ago whom they struck down with paralysis. Their sight is so penetrating that I think they could see through the earth. They have a silvery voice, quick and sweet. The music they play is most beautiful.

They take the whole body and soul of young and intellectual people who are interesting, transmuting the body to a body like their own. I asked them once if they ever died, and they said, "No; we are always kept young." Once they take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them for ever. They are able to appear in different forms. One once appeared to me, and seemed only four feet high, and stoutly built. He said, "I am bigger than I appear to you now. We can make the old young, the big small, the small big."

One of their women told all the secrets of my family. She said that my brother in Australia would travel much and suffer hardships, all of which came true; and foretold that my nephew, then about two years old, would become a great clergyman in America, and that is what he is now. Besides the gentry, who are a distinct class, there are bad spirits and ghosts, which are nothing like them. My mother once saw a leprechaun beside a bush hammering. He disappeared before she could get to him, but he also was unlike one of the gentry.'


Our next witness, who lives about three miles from our last witness, is Hugh Currid, the oldest man in Grange; and so old is he that now he does little more than sit in the chimney-corner smoking, and, as he looks at the red glow of the peat, dreaming of the olden times. Hugh knows English very imperfectly, and so what he narrated was in the ancient Gaelic which his fathers spoke. When Father Hines took me to Hugh's cottage, Hugh was in his usual silent pose before the fire. At first he rather resented having his thoughts disturbed, but in a few minutes he was as talkative as could be, for there is nothing like the mention of Ireland to get him started. The Father left us then; and with the help of Hugh's sister as an interpreter I took down what he said:--

The Flax-Seller's Return from Faerie.—

'An old woman near Lough More, where Father Patrick was drowned, who used to make her living by selling flax at the market, was taken by the gentry, and often came back afterwards to her three children to comb their hair. One time she told a neighbour that the money she saved from her dealings in flax would be found near a big rock on the lake-shore, which she indicated, and that she wanted the three children to have it.'

A Wife Recovered from the 'Gentry'.—

'A man's young wife died in confinement while he was absent on some business at Ballingshaun, and one of the gentry came to him and said she had been taken. The husband hurried home, and that night he sat with the body of his wife all alone. He left the door open a little, and it wasn't long before his wife's spirit came in and went to the cradle where her child was sleeping. As she did so, the husband threw at her a charm of hen's dung which he had ready, and this held her until he could call the neighbours. And while they were coming, she went back into her body, and lived a long time afterwards. The body was stiff and cold when the husband arrived home, though it hadn't been washed or dressed.'

A TAILOR'S TESTIMONY Our next witness is Patrick Waters, by trade a tailor, living in Cloontipruckilish, a cross-road hamlet less than two miles from Hugh Currid's home. His first story is a parallel to one told about the minister of Aberfoyle who was taken by the 'good people':--

The Lost Bride.—

'A girl in this region died on her wedding-night while dancing. Soon after her death she appeared to her husband, and said to him, "I'm not dead at all, but I am put from you now for a time. It may be a long time, or a short time, I cannot tell. I am not badly off. If you want to get me back you must stand at the gap near the house and catch me as I go by, for I live near there, and see you, and you do not see me." He was anxious enough to get her back, and didn't waste any time in getting to the gap. When he came to the place, a party of strangers were just coming out, and his wife soon appeared as plain as could be, but he couldn't stir a hand or foot to save her. Then there was a scream and she was gone. The man firmly believed this, and would not marry again.'

The Invisible Island.—

'There is an enchanted island which is an invisible island between Innishmurray and the mainland opposite. It is only seen once in seven years. I saw it myself, and so did four or five others with me. A boatman from Sligo named Carr took two strange men with him towards Innishmurray, and they disappeared at the spot where the island is, and he thought they had fallen overboard p. and been drowned. Carr saw one of the same men in Connelly (County Donegal), some six months or so after, and with great surprise said to him, "Will you tell me the wonders of the world? Is it you I saw drowned near Innishmurray?" "Yes," he said; and then asked, "Do you see me?" "Yes," answered Carr. "But," said the man again, "you do not see me with both eyes?" Then Carr closed one eye to be sure, and found that he saw him with one eye only. And he told the man which one it was. At this information the fairy man blew on Carr's face, and Carr never saw him again.'

A Dream.—

'My father dreamt he saw two armies coming in from the sea, walking on the water. Reaching the strand, they lined up and commenced a battle, and my father was in great terror. The fighting was long and bloody, and when it was over every fighter vanished, the wounded and dead as well as the survivors. The next morning an old woman who had the reputation of talking with the fairies came in the house to my father, who, though greatly disturbed over the dream, had told us nothing of it, and asked him, "Have you anything to tell? I couldn't but laugh at you," she added, and before my father could reply, continued, "Well, Jimmy, you won't tell the news, so I will." And then she began to tell about the battle. "Ketty!" exclaimed my father at this, "can it be true? And who were the men beside me?" When Ketty told him, they turned out to be some of his dead friends. She received her information from a drowned man whom she met on the spot where the gentry armies had come ashore; and, in the place where they fought, the sand was all burnt red, as from fire.' As the narrator reflected on this dream story, he remarked about dreams generally:--

'The reason our dreams appear different from what they are is because while in them we can't touch the body and transform it. People believe themselves to be with the dead in dreams.' During September 1909, when I had several fresh interviews with Patrick Waters, I verified all of his 1908 testimony such as it appears above; and among unimportant anecdotes I have omitted from the matter taken down in 1908 one anecdote about our seer-witness from County Sligo, because it proved to be capable of opposite interpretations.

Patrick Waters, however, like many of his neighbours, thoroughly supports Hugh Currid's opinion that our seer-witness 'surely sees something, and it must be the gentry'; and of Hugh Currid himself, Patrick Waters said, 'Hugh Currid did surely see the gentry; he saw them passing this way like a blast of wind.' Patrick's fresh testimony now follows, the story about Father Patrick and Father Dominick coming first:--

Father Patrick and Father Dominick.—

'Father Patrick Noan while bathing in the harbour at Carns (about three miles north-west of Grange) was drowned. His body was soon brought ashore, and his brother, Father Dominick Noan, was sent for. When Father Dominick arrived, one of the men who had collected around the body said to him, "Why don't you do something for your brother Patrick?" "Why don't somebody ask me?" he replied, "for I must be asked in the name of God."

So Jimmy McGowan went on his knees and asked for the honour of God that Father Dominick should bring Father Patrick back to life; and, at this, Father Dominick took out his breviary and began to read. After a time he whistled, and began to read again. He whistled a second time, and returned to the reading. Upon his whistling the third time, Father Patrick's spirit appeared in the doorway. '"Where were you when I whistled the first time?" Father Dominick asked. "I was at a hurling match with the gentry on Mulloughmore strand."

"And where were you at the second whistle?" "I was coming over Corrick Fadda; and when you whistled the third time I was here at the door." Father Patrick's spirit had gone back into the body, and Father Patrick lived round here as a priest for a long time afterwards. 'There was no such thing as artificial respiration known hereabouts when this happened some fifty or sixty years ago. I heard this story, which I know is true, from many persons who saw Father Dominick restore his brother to life.'

Cartronplank Giant's Grave by William Wakeman, 1880.
Cartronplank Giant's Grave by William Wakeman, 1880.

A Druid Enchantment.—

After this strange psychical narrative, there followed the most weird legend I have heard in Celtic lands about Druids and magic. One afternoon Patrick Waters pointed out to me the field, near the sea-coast opposite Innishmurray, in which the ancient menhir containing the 'enchantment' used to stand; and, at another time, he said that a bronze wand covered with curious marks (or else interlaced designs) was found not far from the ruined dolmen and allée couverte on the farm of Patrick Bruan, about two miles southward. This last statement, like the story itself, I have been unable to verify in any way.

'In times before Christ there were Druids here who enchanted one another with Druid rods made of brass, and metamorphosed one another into stone and lumps of oak, The question is, Where are the spirits of these Druids now? Their spirits are wafted through the air, and the man or beast they meet is smitten, while their own bodies are still under enchantment. I had such a Druid enchantment in my hand; it wasn't stone, nor marble, nor flint, and had human shape. It was found in the centre of a big rock on Innis-na-Gore; and round this rock light used to appear at night. The man who owned the stone decided to blast it up, and he found at its centre the enchantment-just like a man, with head and legs and arms. Father Healy took the enchantment away, when he was here on a visit, and said that it was a Druid enchanted, and that to get out of the rock was one part of the releasement, and that there would be a second and complete releasement of the Druid.'

The Fairy Tribes Classified.—

Finally I asked Patrick to classify, as far as he could, all the fairy tribes he had ever heard about, and he said:—

'The leprechaun is a red-capped fellow who stays round pure springs, generally shoemaking for the rest of the fairy tribes.

The lunantishees are the tribes that guard the blackthorn trees or sloes; they let you cut no stick on the eleventh of November (the original November Day), or on the eleventh of May (the original May Day). If at such a time you cut a blackthorn, some misfortune will come to you.

Pookas are black-featured fellows mounted on good horses; and are horse-dealers. They visit racecourses, but usually are invisible. The gentry are the most noble tribe of all; and they are a big race who came from the planets - according to my idea; they usually appear white.

The Daoine Maithe (though there is some doubt, the same or almost the same as the gentry) were next to Heaven at the Fall, but did not fall; they are a people expecting salvation.'


Our next witness is Bridget O'Conner, a near neighbour to Patrick Waters, in Cloontipruckilish. When I approached her neat little cottage she was cutting sweet-pea blossoms with a pair of scissors, and as I stopped to tell her how pretty a garden she had, she searched out the finest white bloom she could find and gave it to me. After we had talked a little while about America and Ireland, she said I must come in and rest a few minutes, and so I did; and it was not long before we were talking about fairies:—

The Irish Legend of the Dead.—

'Old Peggy Gillin, dead these thirty years, who lived a mile beyond Grange, used to cure people with a secret herb shown to her by her brother, dead of a fairy-stroke. He was drowned and taken by the fairies, in the big drowning here during the herring season. She would pull the herb herself and prepare it by mixing spring water with it. Peggy could always talk with her dead relatives and friends, and continually with her brother, and she would tell everybody that they were with the fairies. Her daughter, Mary Short, who inherited some of her mother's power, died here about three or four years ago. 'I remember, too, about Mary Leonard and her daughter, Nancy Waters. Both of them are dead now. The daughter was the first to die, as it happened, and in child-birth, When she was gone, her mother used to wail and cry in an awful manner; and one day the daughter appeared to her in the garden, and said, "The more you wail for me, the more I am in torment. Pray for me, but do not wail."'

A Midwife Story.—

'A country nurse was requested by a strange man on horseback to go with him to exercise her profession; and she went with him to a castle she didn't know. When the baby was born, every woman in the place where the event happened put her finger in a basin of water and rubbed her eyes, and so the nurse put her finger in and rubbed it on one of her eyes. She went home and thought no more about it. But one day she was at the fair in Grange and saw some of the same women who were in the castle when the baby was born; though, as she noticed, she only could see them with the one eye she had wet with the water from the basin. The nurse spoke to the women, and they wanted. to know how she recognized them; and she, in reply, said it was with the one eye, and asked, "How is the baby?" "Well," said one of the fairy women; "and what eye do you see us with?" "With the left eye," answered the nurse. Then the fairy woman blew her breath against the nurse's left eye, and said, "You'll never see me again." And the nurse was always blind in the left eye after that.'


The Carns or Mount Temple country, about three miles from Grange, County Sligo, has already been mentioned by witnesses as a 'gentry' haunt, and so now we shall hear what one of its oldest and most intelligent native inhabitants says of it. John McCann had been referred to, by Patrick Waters, as one who knows much about the 'gentry' at first hand, and we can be sure that what he offers us is thoroughly reliable evidence. For many years, John McCann, born in 1830, by profession a carpenter and boat-builder, has been official mail-carrier to Innishmurray; and he knows quite as much about the strange little island and the mainland opposite it as any man living. His neat little cottage is on the shore of the bay opposite the beautiful fairy-haunted Dernish Island; and, as we sat within it beside a brilliant peat fire, and surrounded by all the family, this is what was told me:--

A 'Gentry' Medium.—

'Ketty Rourk (or Queenan) could tell all that would happen—funerals, weddings, and so forth. Sure some spirits were coming to her. She said they were the gentry; that the gentry are everywhere; and that my drowned uncles and grandfather and other dead are among them. A drowned man named Pat Nicholson was her adviser. He used to live just a mile from here; and she knew him before he was drowned.' Here we have, clearly enough, a case of 'mediumship', or of communication with the dead, as in modern Spiritualism. And the following story, which like this last has numerous Irish parallels, illustrates an ancient and world-wide animistic belief, that in sickness—as in dreams—the soul goes out of the body as at death, and meets the dead in their own fairy world.

The Clairvoyance of Mike Farrell.—

'Mike Farrell, too, could tell all about the gentry, as he lay sick a long time. And he told about Father Brannan's youth, and even the house in Roscommon in which the Father was born; and Father Brannan never said anything more against Mike after that. Mike surely saw the gentry; and he was with them during his illness for twelve months. He said they live in forts and at Alt Darby ("the Big Rock"). After he got well, he went to America, at the time of the famine.'

The 'Gentry' Army.—

'The gentry were believed to live up on this hill (Hill of the Brocket Stones, Cluach-a-brac), and from it they would come out like an army and march along the road to the strand. Very few persons could see them. They were thought to be like living people, but in different dress. They seemed like soldiers, yet it was known they were not living beings such as we are.'

The Seership of Dan Quinn.—

'On Connor's Island (about two miles southward from Carns by the mainland) my uncle, Dan Quinn, often used to see big crowds of the gentry come into his house and play music and dance. The house would be full of them, but they caused him no fear. Once on such an occasion, one of them came up to him as he lay in bed, and giving him a green leaf told him to put it in his mouth. When he did this, instantly he could not see the gentry, but could still hear their music. Uncle Dan always believed he recognized in some of the gentry his drowned friends. Only when he was alone would the gentry visit him. He was a silent old man, and so never talked much; but I know that this story is as true as can be, and that the gentry always took an interest in him.'


I was driving along the Ben Bulbin road, on the ocean side, with Michael Oates, who was on his way from his mountain-side home to the lowlands to cut hay; and as we looked up at the ancient mountain, so mysterious and silent in the shadows and fog of a calm early morning of summer, he told me about its invisible inhabitants:—

The 'Gentry' Huntsmen.—

'I knew a man who saw the gentry hunting on the other side of the mountain. He saw hounds and horsemen cross the road and jump the hedge in front of him, and it was one o'clock at night. The next day he passed the place again, and looked for the tracks of the huntsmen, but saw not a trace of tracks at all.'

The 'Taking' of the Turf-Cutter.—

After I had heard about two boys who were drowned opposite Innishmurray, and who afterwards appeared as apparitions, for the gentry had them, this curious story was related:—

'A man was cutting turf out on the side of Ben Bulbin when a strange man came to him and said, "You have cut enough turf for to-day. You had better stop and go home." The turf-cutter looked around in surprise, and in two seconds the strange man had disappeared; but he decided to go home. And as soon as he was home, such a feeling came over him that he could not tell whether he was alive or dead. Then he took to his bed and never rose again.'

Hearing the 'Gentry' Music.—

At this Michael said to his companion in the cart with us, William Barber, 'You tell how you heard the music'; and this followed:--'One dark night, about one o'clock, myself and another young man were passing along the road up there round Ben Bulbin, when we heard the finest kind of music. All sorts of music seemed to be playing. We could see nothing at all, though we thought we heard voices like children's. It was the music of the gentry we heard.' My next friend to testify is Pat Ruddy, eighty years old, one of the most intelligent and prosperous farmers living beside Ben Bulbin. He greeted me in the true Irish way, but before we could come to talk about fairies his good wife induced me to enter another room where she had secretly prepared a great feast spread out on a fresh white cloth, while Pat and myself had been exchanging opinions about America and Ireland. When I returned to the kitchen the whole family were assembled round the blazing turf fire, and Pat was soon talking about the 'gentry':—

Seeing the 'Gentry' Army.—

'Old people used to say the gentry were in the mountains; that is certain, but I never could be quite sure of it myself. One night, however, near midnight, I did have a sight: I set out from Bantrillick to come home, and near Ben Bulbin there was the greatest army you ever saw, five or six thousand of them in armour shining in the moonlight. A strange man rose out of the hedge and stopped me, for a minute, in the middle of the road. He looked into my face, and then let me go.'

An Ossianic Fragment.—

'A man went away with the good people (or gentry), and returned to find the townland all in ruins. As he came back riding on a horse of the good people, he saw some men in a quarry trying to move a big stone. He helped them with it, but his saddle-girth broke, and he fell to the ground. The horse ran away, and he was left there, an old man'.

A SCHOOLMASTER'S TESTIMONY A schoolmaster, who is a native of the Ben Bulbin country, offers this testimony:—

'There is implicit belief here in the gentry, especially among the old people. They consider them the spirits of their departed relations and friends, who visit them in joy and in sorrow. On the death of a member of a family, they believe the spirits of their near relatives are present; they do not see them, but feel their presence. They even have a strong belief that the spirits show them the future in dreams; and say that cases of affliction are always foreshown in a dream. 'The belief in changelings is not now generally prevalent; but in olden times a mother used to place a pair of iron tongs over the cradle before leaving the child alone, in order that the fairies should not change the child for a weakly one of their own. It was another custom to take a wisp of straw, and, lighting one end of it, make a fiery sign of the cross over a cradle before a babe could be placed in it.'

W. Y Evans Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911.

Ardnaglass megalithic monument and Benbulben.
Ardnaglass passage grave on the north side of Benbulben.