Fairy Reel (3) (The)

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FAIRY REEL. Irish, Reel (2/4 time). A Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). AA'BB'. A distanced version of "Fairy Reel (1) (The)." It was well-known in the northwest of County Donegal at the turn of the 20th century, notes Padraig Mac Aodh O'Neill (1904) and went with a specific dance called The Fairy Reel. This story was printed with the tune in Songs of Uladh (1904, p. 14)

It used to be—and, for that matter, still is—the custom in Eire to light fires on the evening of St. John's Day (23rd June) of every year. They were kindled on conspicuous hills (called in Gaelic Ard-na-dtennail, i.e., "bone-fire heights"), and the people of the countryside for miles around would repair thither, to dance and sing about the fire to the accompaniment of the fidil or pipes, and to make matches and tell stories.

It is not my concern here to enter into a minute enquiry on the origin and meaning of this practice. Enough for the ordinary reader to know that it is a Christian-ised survival of an ancient Pagan custom of our fathers, vis., to light fires on the eves of May-prime and Mid-summer in honour of some particular deities of theirs, whose festivals happened to fall on those days. These fires were called in the first instance Bel-teine, i.e. "goodly fires," for the reason that they were used by Druids in certain incantations connected with the preservation of cattle "against the diseases of each year"; and in the second instance Teine-sigem, i.e., "forced fires," or "fires of necessity," for they were produced at great trouble by the rubbing of dried faggots together, this method of lighting being essential to the success of the particular charms performed over them. When Padraic came to Eire he sought to overthrow these rites. But the people clung tenaciously to them—come down, as they were, from a remote ancestry—very essentials of their national religion. And so the good apostle Padraic was compelled, perforce, not to destroy but to build anew on the old foundation. Where a Pagan festival coincided with a Saint's day, he summarily annulled the former and substituted the Christian feast in its stead. But if he found that his enthusiastic neophytes showed any great reluctance to abandon the ritual of their heathen god, where not flagrantly objectionable he identified it with the saint. And that is how the ancient Gentile custom of fire-kindling on Midsummer Eve came to be identified with the festival of St. John. 'Esto in Hibernia perpetua'!

But to come to the main point of our story. Such a gathering as I have described above continues to be held annually on an eminence near Caislean-na-dTuath, in northern Dun-na-nGall—a district rich in all sorts of folk and fairy lofe, and where stories are often told of the visits of the Good People. On one particular St. John's Night about fifty or sixty years ago, when the fire was waning low, the dancing nearly over, and the sturdiest steppers getting tired, a stranger came among the people, announcing himself in the words: "Sonas! sonas!—luck on all here! The music called me, and I going to bed." He said no more. He was attired only in his night-garments. Much consternation was caused by his curious appearance and behaviour, the more so as he was quite unknown to the festive-makers. He went around asking the young girls to dance with him, but out of fifty or more assembled there he found but one (and she, happily, was not a native of the district) who expressed herself willing to accept his invitation. There were three or four fiddlers there, and one piper, and he called them to turn on the "Fairy Reel." But not one of them knew it. Every man of them declared that the air and the name was new to him. Whereupon the mysterious stranger snatched the fidil out of the hands of Mac Fhionnlaoich, the Falcarrach man, who was nearest him, and flourishing his bow with the grace of a master, turned on the tune himself, the people standing around with their mouths wide open in wonderment. "Now," he said to Mac Fhionnlaoich when he had finished the wonderful tune, "there's your fidil for you. Turn on the 'Reel'. Play it after me; for you're the only man in the Five Kingdoms can do that same.

So Mac Fhionnlaoich complied—somewhat reluctantly, it must be said—and played the "Fairy Reel" through from beginning to end without a break, while the weird stranger and his fair partner danced, all the people looking on. When he had finished dancing withthe girl, he slipped a gold piece into her hand, and turning solemnly towards the people said, "Remove the fire seven paces to the North, and enjoy yourselves till daybreak. "Sonas! sonas!—luck with all here!" And so saying he strode off into the darkness, disappearing as mysteriously as he had come.

I give this story pretty much as I got it from my fried Padrain Mac Aodh O'Neill, who got it from Proinseas Mac Suibhne, the schoolmaster of Losaid, in Gartan. It is interesting to note that the "Fairy Reel," as traditional in Dun-na-nGall, is danced by two boys and four girls. Why the change was made form the original "figures" of the story, I leave it to others more competent to decide.


Source for notated version: collected by Herbert Hughes from fiddler Frank Sweeney of Fawans, Barony of Kilmacrenan, Donegal, in 1908 [JIFSS, vol. 1]; Proinseas mac Suibhne of Fain the parish of Cill-mac-nEnain [Mac Aodh O'Neill].

Printed sources: Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, vol. 1, p. 19. Padriag Mac Aodh O'Neill (Songs of Uladh), 1904; p. 14.

Recorded sources:




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