The Elves in Ireland

By Thomas Crofton Croker

1. The Good People

The Irish expression for Elf in this signification is Shefro; and this in the original is the name of the first division; but it does not occur elsewhere, nor is there any explanation of it. She or Shi, without doubt, means Elf; compare Banshi and the Scotch Doane-shi and Shian.

The Elves, which in their true shape are but a few inches high, have an airy, almost transparent body; so delicate is their form, that a dew-drop, when they dance on it, trembles indeed, but never breaks. Both sexes are of extraordinary beauty, and mortal beings cannot be compared with them.

They do not live alone, or in pairs, but always in large societies. They are invisible to man, particularly in the day-time; and as they can be present and hear what is said, the peasantry never speak of them but with caution and respect, terming them the good people, or the friends; as any other name would offend them. If a great cloud of dust rises on the road, it is a sign that they are about to change their residence and remove to another place, and the invisible travellers are always saluted with a respectful bow. They have their dwellings in clefts of rocks, caves, and ancient tumuli. Every part within is decorated in the most splendid and magnificent manner; and the pleasing music which sometimes issues from thence in the night has delighted those who have been so fortunate as to hear it.

During the summer nights, when the moon shines, and particularly in harvest-time, the Elves come out of their secret dwellings, and assemble for the dance in certain favourite spots, which are hidden and secluded places, such as mountain-valleys—meadows near streams and brooks—churchyards where men seldom come. They often celebrate their feasts under large mushrooms, or repose beneath their shade.

In the first rays of the morning sun they again vanish, with a noise resembling that of a swarm of bees or flies.

Their garments are as white as snow, sometimes shining like silver; a hat or cap is indispensable, for which purpose they generally select the red flowers of the foxglove, and by it different parties are distinguished.

The secret and magic powers of the Elves are so great as scarcely to know any bounds. They can assume in a moment, not only the human, but every other form, even the most terrific; and it is easy for them to convey themselves in one second a distance of five leagues.

Before their breath all human energy fails. They sometimes communicate supernatural knowledge to men; and if a person is seen walking up and down alone, and moving his lips as one half distraught, it is a sign that an Elf is invisibly present and instructing him.

The Elves are above all things fond of music. Those who have heard their music cannot find words to describe the power with which it fills and enraptures the soul: it rushes upon them like a stream; and yet the tones are simple, even monotonous, and in general resembling natural sounds.

Among their amusements is that of playing at ball, which they pursue with much eagerness, and at which they often differ so as even to quarrel.

Their skill in dancing far exceeds the highest art of man, and the pleasure they take in this amusement is inexhaustible. They dance without interruption till the rays of the sun appear on the mountains, and make the boldest leaps without the least exertion.

They do not appear to require any food, but refresh themselves with dew-drops which they collect from the leaves.

They severely punish all who inquisitively approach or tease them; otherwise they are friendly and obliging to well-meaning people who confide in them. They remove humps from the shoulder; make presents of new articles of clothing; undertake to grant requests; though in such cases, good-humour on the applicant’s part seems to be necessary. Sometimes too they appear in human form, or allow persons who have accidentally strayed among them during the night to join in their dances; but there is always some danger in this intercourse. The person becomes ill in consequence, and falls into a violent fever from the unnatural exertion, as they seem to lend him a part of their power. If he forgets himself, and, according to the custom, kisses his partner, the whole scene vanishes the instant his lips touch hers.

The Elves have another peculiar and more intimate connexion with mortals. It seems as if they divided among themselves the souls of men, and considered them thenceforth as their property. Hence certain families have their particular Elves, to whom they are devoted, in return for which, however, they receive from them help and assistance in critical moments, and often recovery from mortal diseases. But as after death they become the property of their Elves, the death of a man is to them always a festival at which one of their own body enters into their society. Therefore they require that people shall be present at funerals, and pay them reverence; they celebrate an interment like a wedding, by dancing on the grave, and it is for this reason that they select churchyards for their favourite places of resort. A violent quarrel often arises whether a child belongs to the Elves of the father or of the mother, and in what churchyard it is to be buried. The different parties of these supernatural beings hate and make war on each other, with as much animosity as nations among mankind; their combats take place in the night, in cross-roads, and they often do not separate till daybreak parts them. This connexion of men with a quiet and good tribe of spirits, far from being frightful, would rather be beneficial: but the Elves appear in a dubious character; both evil and good are combined in their nature, and they show a dark as well as a fair side.

They are angels expelled from heaven, who have not fallen into hell, but are in fear and doubt respecting their future state, and whether they shall find mercy at the day of judgment. This mixture of the dark and malevolent is visibly manifested in their actions and inclinations. If in remembrance of their original happy condition they are beneficent and friendly towards man, the evil principle within them prompts them to malicious and injurious tricks. Their beauty, the wondrous splendour of their dwellings, their sprightliness, is nothing more than illusive show; and their true figure, which is frightfully ugly, inspires terror. If, as is but rarely the case, they are seen in the day-time, their countenances appear to be wrinkled with age, or, as people express it, “like a withered cauliflower;” a little nose, red eyes, and hair hoary with extreme age.

One of their evil propensities consists in stealing healthy and fine children from their mothers, and substituting in their room a changeling who bears some resemblance to the stolen infant, but is in fact only an ugly and sickly Elf. He manifests every evil disposition, is malicious, mischievous, and, though insatiable as to food, does not thrive. When the name of God is mentioned, he begins to laugh, otherwise he never speaks, till being obliged to do so by artifice, his age is betrayed by his voice, which is that of a very old man. The love of music shows itself in him, as well as extraordinary proficiency; supernatural energies are also manifested in the power with which he obliges every thing, even inanimate objects, to dance. Wherever he comes he brings ruin: a series of misfortunes succeed each other, the cattle become sick, the house falls into decay, and every enterprise proves abortive. If he is recognised and threatened he makes himself invisible, and escapes; he dislikes running water, and if he is carried on a bridge, he jumps over, and sitting upon the waves plays on his pipe, and returns to his own people. He is called in Irish Leprechan*.

* The word, properly written Prèachán or Priachan, is said to signify a raven.

At particular times, such as May eve, for instance, the evil Elves seem to be peculiarly active and powerful; to those to whom they are inimical, they give a blow unperceived, the consequence of which is lameness; or they breathe upon them, and boils and swellings immediately appear on the place which the breath has touched. Persons who pretend to be in particular favour with the fairies, undertake to cure such diseases by magic and mysterious journeys.

2. The Cluricaune

In this quality the Elf is essentially distinguished from the Shefro by his solitary and awkward manners; the Cluricaune is never met with in company, but always alone. He is much more corporeal, and appears in the day-time as a little old man with a wrinkled countenance, in an antiquated dress. His pea-green coat is adorned with large buttons, and he seems to take a particular delight in having large metal shoe-buckles. He wears a cocked hat in the ancient French style. He is detested on account of his evil disposition, and his name is used as an expression of contempt. People try to become his master, and therefore often threaten him; sometimes they succeed in outwitting him, sometimes he is more cunning, and cheats them. He employs himself in making shoes, at the same time whistling a tune. If he is surprised by man when thus engaged, he is indeed afraid of his superior strength, but endowed with the power of vanishing, if he can contrive to make the mortal turn his eyes from him even for an instant.

The Cluricaune possesses a knowledge of hidden treasures, but does not discover them till he is pressed to the utmost. He frequently relieves himself when a man fancies that he is wholly in his power. A common trick of his is infinitely to multiply the mark showing where the treasure lies, whether it be a bush, a thistle, or a branch, that it may no longer serve as a guide to the person who has fetched an instrument to dig up the ground.

The Cluricaune has a small leathern purse with a shilling, which, however often he may pay it away, always returns, and which is called the lucky shilling (sprè na skillenagh). He frequently carries about him two purses; the one contains the magic shilling, and the other a copper coin; and if compelled to deliver, he cunningly presents the latter, the weight of which is satisfactory, and when the person who has seized it is examining whether it is correct, he watches the opportunity, and disappears.

His enjoyments consist in smoking and drinking. He knows the secret, which the Danes are said to have brought into Ireland, of making beer from heather. The small tobacco-pipes of antique form, which are frequently found in Ireland in digging or ploughing, especially in the vicinity of those circular entrenchments, called Danish forts, are supposed to belong to the Cluricaunes; and if they are discovered broken, or in any way damaged, it is looked upon as a sort of atonement for the tricks which their pretended owners are presumed to have played*.

* There is a representation of such a pipe in the Anthologia Hibernica (Dublin, 1793), i. 352, and in the original of these tales, p. 176.

The Cluricaune also appears connected with men, and then attaches himself to a family, with which he remains as long as a member of it survives, who are at the same time unable to get rid of him. With all his propensity to mischief and roguery, he usually has a degree of respect for the master of the house, and treats him with deference. He lends a helping hand, and wards off secret dangers; but is extremely angry and enraged if they forget him, and neglect to put his food in the usual place.

From Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, part III., by Thomas Crofton Croker.
London: John Murray, 1828.

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