Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY

FRANK MARTIN AND THE FAIRIES

William Carleton

   Martin was a thin, pale man, when I saw him, of a sickly look, and a constitution naturally feeble. His hair was a light auburn, his beard mostly unshaven, and his hands of a singular delicacy and whiteness, owing, I dare say, as much to the soft and easy nature of his employment as to his infirm health. In everything else he was as sensible, sober, and rational as any other man; but on the topic of fairies, the man's mania was peculiarly strong and immovable. Indeed, I remember that the expression of his eyes was singularly wild and hollow, and his long narrow temples sallow and emaciated.
   Now, this man did not lead an unhappy life, nor did the malady he laboured under seem to be productive of either pain or terror to him, although one might be apt to imagine otherwise. On the contrary, he and the fairies maintained the most friendly intimacy, and their dialogues--which I fear were woefully one-sided ones--must have been a source of great pleasure to him, for they were conducted with much mirth and laughter, on his part at least.
   "Well, Frank, when did you see the fairies?"
   "Whist! there's two dozen of them in the shop (the weaving shop) this minute. There's a little ould fellow sittin' on the top of the sleys, an' all to be rocked while I'm weavin'. The sorrow's in them, but they're the greatest little skamers alive, so they are. See, there's another of them at my dressin' noggin.1 Go out o' that, you shingawn; or, bad cess to me, if you don't, but I'll lave you a mark. Ha! cut, you thief you!"
   "Frank, am't you afeard o' them?"
   "Is it me! Arra, what ud' I be afeard o' them for? Sure they have no power over me."
   "And why haven't they, Frank?"
   "Because I was baptised against them."
   "What do you mean by that?"
   "Why, the priest that christened me was tould by my father, to put in the proper prayer against the fairies--an' a priest can't refuse it when he's asked--an' he did so. Begorra, it's well for me that he did--(let the tallow alone, you little glutton--see, theres a weeny thief o' them aitin' my tallow)--becaise, you see, it was their intention to make me king o' the fairies."
   "Is it possible?"
   "Devil a lie in it. Sure you may ax them, an' they'll tell you."
   "What size are they, Frank?"
   "Oh, little wee fellows, with green coats, an' the purtiest little shoes ever you seen. There's two of them--both ould acquaintances o' mine--runnin' along the yarn-beam. That ould fellow with the bob-wig is called Jim jam, an' the other chap, with the three-cocked hat, is called Nickey Nick. Nickey plays the pipes. Nickey, give us a tune, or I'll malivogue you--come now, 'Lough Erne Shore'. Whist, now--listen!"
   The poor fellow, though weaving as fast as he could all the time, yet bestowed every possible mark of attention to the music, and seemed to enjoy it as much as if it had been real.
   But who can tell whether that which we look upon as a privation may not after all be a fountain of increased happiness, greater, perhaps, than any which we ourselves enjoy? I forget who the poet is who says--

  "Mysterious are thy laws;
The vision's finer than the view;
Her landscape Nature never drew
  So fair as Fancy draws."
   Many a time, when a mere child, not more than six or seven years of age, have I gone as far as Frank's weaving-shop, in order, with a heart divided between curiosity and fear, to listen to his conversation with the good people. From morning till night his tongue was going almost as incessantly as his shuttle; and it was well known that at night, whenever he awoke out of his sleep, the first thing he did was to put out his hand, and push them, as it were, off his bed.
   "Go out o' this, you thieves, you--go out o' this now, an' let me alone. Nickey, is this any time to be playing the pipes, and me wants to sleep? Go off, now--troth if yez do, you'll see what I'll give yez tomorrow. Sure I'll be makin' new dressin's; and if yez behave decently, maybe I'll lave yez the scrapin' o' the pot. There now. Och! poor things, they're dacent crathurs. Sure they're all gone, barrin' poor Red-cap, that doesn't like to lave me." And then the harmless monomaniac would fall back into what we trust was an innocent slumber.
   About this time there was said to have occurred a very remarkable circumstance, which gave poor Frank a vast deal of importance among the neighbours. A man named Frank Thomas, the same in whose house Mickey M'Rorey held the first dance at which I ever saw him, as detailed in a former sketch; this man, I say, had a child sick, but of what complaint I cannot now remember, nor is it of any importance. One of the gables of Thomas's house was built against, or rather into, a Forth or Rath, called Towny, or properly Tonagh Forth. It was said to be haunted by the fairies, and what gave it a character peculiarly wild in my eyes was, that there were on the southern side of it two or three little green mounds, which were said to be the graves of unchristened children, over which it was considered dangerous and unlucky to pass. At all events, the season was mid-summer; and one evening about dusk, during the illness of the child, the noise of a hand-saw was heard upon the Forth. This was considered rather strange, and, after a little time, a few of those who were assembled at Frank Thomas's went to see who it could be that was sawing in such a place, or what they could be sawing at so late an hour, for every one knew that nobody in the whole country about them would dare to cut down the few white-thorns that grew upon the Forth. On going to examine, however, judge of their surprise, when, after surrounding and searching the whole place, they could discover no trace of either saw or sawyer. In fact, with the exception of themselves, there was no one, either natural or supernatural, visible. They then returned to the house, and had scarcely sat down, when it was heard again within ten yards of them. Another examination of the premises took place, but with equal success. Now, however, while standing on the Forth, they heard the sawing in a little hollow, about a hundred and fifty yards below them, which was completely exposed to their view. but they could see nobody. A party of them immediately went down to ascertain, if possible, what this singular noise and invisible labour could mean; but on arriving at the spot, they heard the sawing, to which were now added hammering, and the driving of nails upon the Forth above, whilst those who stood on the Forth continued to hear it in the hollow. On comparing notes, they resolved to send down to Billy Nelson's for Frank Martin a distance of only about eighty or ninety yards. He was soon on the spot, and without a moment's hesitation solved the enigma.
   "'Tis the fairies," said he. 'I see them, and busy crathurs they are."
   "But what are they sawing, Frank?"
   "They are makin' a child's coffin," he replied; "they have the body already made, an' they're now nailin' the lid together."
   That night the child died, and the story goes that on the second evening afterwards, the carpenter who was called upon to make the coffin brought a table out from Thomas's house to the Forth, as a temporary bench; and, it is said, that the sawing and hammering necessary for the completion of his task were precisely the same which had been heard the evening but one before--neither more nor less. I remember the death of the child myself, and the making of its coffin, but I think the story of the supernatural carpenter was not heard in the village for some months after its interment.
   Frank had every appearance of a hypochondriac about him. At the time I saw him, he might be about thirty-four years of age, but I do not think, from the debility of his frame and infirm health, that he has been alive for several years. He was an object of considerable interest and curiosity, and often have I been present when he was pointed out to strangers as "the man that could see the good people".

Footnotes

1. The dressings are a species of sizy flummery, which is brushed into the yam to keep the thread round and even, and to prevent it from being frayed by the friction of the reed.

Aran Islanders, J. Synge [1898] (public domain photograph)