Goldenbridge poem: ~ The Fairies ~ by William Allingham


(Poem #919The Fairies
 Up the airy mountain
      Down the rushy glen,
 We daren't go a-hunting,
      For fear of little men;
 Wee folk, good folk,
      Trooping all together;
 Green jacket, red cap,
      And white owl's feather.
 Down along the rocky shore
      Some make their home,
 They live on crispy pancakes
      Of yellow tide-foam;
 Some in the reeds
      Of the black mountain-lake,
 With frogs for their watch-dogs,
      All night awake.

 High on the hill-top
      The old King sits;
 He is now so old and grey
      He's nigh lost his wits.
 With a bridge of white mist
      Columbkill he crosses,
 On his stately journeys
      From Slieveleague to Rosses;
 Or going up with music,
      On cold starry nights,
 To sup with the Queen,
      Of the gay Northern Lights.

 They stole little Bridget
      For seven years long;
 When she came down again
      Her friends were all gone.
 They took her lightly back
      Between the night and morrow;
 They thought she was fast asleep,
      But she was dead with sorrow.
 They have kept her ever since
      Deep within the lake,
 On a bed of flag leaves,
      Watching till she wake.

 By the craggy hill-side,
      Through the mosses bare,
 They have planted thorn trees
      For pleasure here and there.
 Is any man so daring
      As dig them up in spite?
 He shall find the thornies set
      In his bed at night.

 Up the airy mountain
      Down the rushy glen,
 We daren't go a-hunting,
      For fear of little men;
 Wee folk, good folk,
      Trooping all together;
 Green jacket, red cap,
      And white owl's feather.

— William Allingham

Viewed against the Blytonised, Disneyfied and generally "made to sound all
soft and sappy / just to keep the children happy" version of fairies and
elves that is currently prevalent, today's poem strikes a rather discordant
note. Where, after all, does the "fear of little men" come in? What could
one possibly have to fear from little, gauzy-winged creatures resplendent in
primary colours?

The following, somewhat tangentially related quote from Pratchett comes to

  Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
  Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
  Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
  Elves are glamourous. They project glamour.
  Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
  Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

  The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if
  you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their

        --Terry Pratchett, "Lords and Ladies"

However, in Irish folklore, the primary characteristic of the sidhe is not
that they are *evil*, per se, but that they are powerful and capricious, and
have ways of thought and action not altogether human.

  Who are they? "Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad
  enough to be lost," say the peasantry. "The gods of the earth," says the
  Book of Armagh. " The gods of pagan Ireland," say the Irish antiquarians,
  "the Tuatha De Danan, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with
  offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a
  few spans high."

        -- William Butler Yeats, "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry"

The third verse of today's poem is an excellent illustration; the almost
casual playfulness of the wee folk -  "they took her lightly back" contrasts
starkly with the plight of the hapless child, who is, unbeknownst to her
captors, "dead with sorrow".

In almost dissonant contrast to the "fear of little men" note is the light,
tripping metre of the poem; a reminder that the wee folk are indeed wondrous
and magical, and a harbinger, in its nursery-rhyme sing-song, of a time when
they would dwindle in significance to "fairy tales".


  Born in Ballyshannon, Co.Donegal, where he was in the Customs Service,
  Allingham published his first book of poems in 1850. He visited London in
  1847, and in 1851 began a lifelong friendship with Tennyson, the star of
  the Diary ­ Tennyson talking and walking, airing his prejudices, reading
  his poems. Browning and Carlyle in London feature prominently, and Leigh
  Hunt, Thackeray, Emerson, George Eliot, William Morris, the Rossettis,
  Patmore, William Barnes, Froude, Palgrave, Burne-Jones, Turgenev are other
  dramatis personae of a diary covering nearly half a century.

  Allingham's poem The Fairies ­ Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy
  glen... ­ continues to be widely known and loved, whilst his verse-novel
  Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland was admired, not least by Turgenev.

  He died in Hampstead, London, in 1889; his urn lies buried in the
  churchyard at Ballyshannon.

        -- "William Allingham's Diary 1847-1889"
        [broken link]


  'Fairies' was set to music by Sir Arnold Bax:

  An excellent collection of Celtic folklore and mythology
    [broken link]

  See, especially, Yeats on the Trooping Fairies:
    [broken link]

  "Some Disturbing Thoughts About Fairies" - long, but interesting essay

Read by Murray Lachlan. Young Audio created by Robert Nichol. Audio Productions all rights reserved.

I learned this poem off by heart as a wee child in Goldenbridge. I can still reel it off by heart today. The poems children learned were absolutely drummed into them, that they had no choice but to remember them. However, I think it is such a magical poem. I adore rendition of reader.


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