In Inishowen, Co. Donegal there are numerous stories associated with the mischievous mythical race of fairies, artistically re imagined above, with Ringforts, hawthorn bushes and certain trees found in the countryside. Fairies are described in Irish folklore as underground hosts of the Tuatha De Danann, another powerful mythical race. A Ringfort, pictured below, is an archaeological monument commonly found throughout Ireland. Popularly they are known as Fairy Forts, Raths, or Fairy Mounds. A reason many of these monuments are intact today is from a fear amongst farmers and landowners to anger fairies, thought to dwell around these structures.
Ringforts and Fairies
On what we now call Halloween (31st October) originally the pagan festival of Samhain, many believed that not only could the ghosts of the dead return to their earthly homes, but fairies wandered freely. At Halloween, it was believed that they could move between our world and theirs via these ancient Ringforts, often lights were seen going from one fairy fort to another.
To date there have been countless publications in Ireland and Europe relating to fairy lore but particularly important to Inishowen is the stories recorded in Mabel R. Colhoun’s publication; The Heritage of Inishowen: Its Archaeology, History and Folkore. Mabel, pictured above, had recorded local stories and folklore associated with the region and was particularly interested in fairy lore. This is reflected in her survey of natural and archaeological features described locally as a ‘Fairy Thorn’, ‘Fairy Rock’, ‘Gentle Bush and Rock’ and ‘Fairy Fort’.
Fairies on The Isle of Doagh, Inishowen
The Isle of Doagh, pictured above, located on the North-Western point of Inishowen Peninsula, is a region that has strong links with fairy lore. Mabel wrote in 1945 that “Fairies are believed to have remained on the island until comparatively recently”. In an extract from her publication Mabel describes how locals had seen fairies; “carrying lights and many a row of lights could be seen crossing Trawbreaga Bay” (pictured below). Mabel herself had playfully wondered “whether the fairies flew, or walked, picking their way over the stepping stones which are strategically placed in the bay for convenience of the Islanders crossing to and from the mainland when the tide is out”.
The King of The Fairies and Trawbreaga Bay
Another historian, Maghtochair wrote in 1897 that “all the land around Trawbreaga Bay was “regarded time out of mind, as fairy or gentle ground”. He also tells the legend of Trawbreaga, of the quarrel between the Fairy King of the district, Niall-Na-Ard (Neil of the heights) and the God of the sea Manannan, in which the former behaved very badly to the latter who getting his revenge said “For that lie which you imposed upon me, this place shall henceforth be called Tra-Na-Breaga” (The lying strand).
Often in fairy lore this race was described as tricksters and many feared that they would try to lure them into their world. Often they were reported to play havoc with those walking close to Ringforts or fairy paths at night. In spite of the sometimes bad reputation associated with Fairies, Mabel recorded (1942) at Roosky, an area close to the ancient graveyard of Fahan, on the Western side of the Inishowen Peninsula, a story highlighting the generous nature of fairies; “The local farmer’s wife said that her husband spoke of his granny putting bread at the fairy thorn in the evenings and finding money there in the mornings. But when she told someone about it there was never any more money”.
Whether friend or foe, this Halloween, keep an eye out for the lights of this mythical race in the Inishowen countryside…
More To Come…
Stay tuned for more of our Mabel Colhoun series, as we learn about Folklore and Heritage in the Inishowen Landscape.
Mabel’s publication can be viewed in reference libraries in County Donegal. Mabel R. Colhoun., 1995. The Heritage of Inishowen; Its Archaeology, History and Folkore. Published by the North West Archaeological and Historical Society.