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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
Up the airy mountain,
and down the rushy glen,
We dare not go a-hunting,
for fear of little men
The Donegal poet, William Allingham wrote these lines in 1850, and set off a wave of fear and excitement about the little tricksters and fairy people who have haunted our folklore for centuries. Down in the hollows, hiding just out of sight, the wee folk are watching our every move. And despite their size, these little beings can bring about an incredible amount of destruction.
But were the wee folk always thought of as so sinister? And is it possible that they could think of humans as being just as magical as we think of them?
I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
The tales of King Iobdan and King Fergus, the little and large kings who met in Ulster, are some of the first references to the clever little beings that would eventually be called the leprechauns. Leprechauns as we know them today didn’t become an established part of the folklore about Ireland until the mid 19th Century. When the Irish folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker wrote about them in the 1820s, most areas of Ireland had a different name for this trickster – there was the Cluricaune of county Cork, the Luricaune of Kerry, the Lurigadaune of Tipperary, the leprechaun of Leinster and the Loghery man of Ulster.
The reason for this is simply down to how stories spread in oral tradition – if a person listening to a story misunderstands or mishears a phrase they’ll repeat what they think they heard when they tell the story themselves. Pretty soon whole areas had their own title for the fellow.
And as well has having different titles, each community had distinctive ways of describing the leprechaun figure, the clothes he wore and the ways he acted. Cluricaune was said to come from cliobar ceann, meaning merry head, which gave the fellow his fondness for drinking. It was said that leprechaun came from leath brogan, or half a shoe, which led to him being depicted as a shoemaker, much like the elves in the Grimms’ fairy stories. The leprechaun stories also had similarities with the tales of Scottish Brownies and Robin Goodfellow of England.
When manuscripts first made mention of the little men however, they simply preferred to them as luchorpán – little body. Lúchorpáns were said to be a race descended biblically, from Noah’s cursed son Ham, along with the fomorian giants and an array of other monsters. However, some scholars now believe that even this phrase was a medieval misunderstanding, and that the real origin of the word may go all the way back to Roman times.
In most of the famous stories, Leprechauns had one purpose – guarding a store of riches that a person could take for themselves if they outsmarted them. Ireland loves tales of hidden treasure – unsurprising given just how much gold has been plundered and hidden in the times of the Vikings and monasteries. Some stories of leprechauns said that they guarded these hidden gold stores. Others told that leprechauns had in their possession a little purse, that would never be empty no matter how many times you plucked a coin from it. If you could succeed in catching a leprechaun, and not letting him out of your sight, untold wealth would be yours.
But leprechauns never made it easy for you. The magical never-empty purse would be switched for a normal one as quick as lightning, and as soon as you took your eye off him, he would vanish, never to be found again. One story told of a Kerryman, Tim O’Donovan, who captured a Leprechaun in his bog and made him reveal the location of his treasure. As he had no spade, Tim marked the spot, driving his stick into the ground and resting his hat on it, so that he would know where to dig the next day. The following morning, Tim returned, spade in hand – but he got a nasty surprise. Everywhere he turned, for as far as the eye could see, were hundreds and hundreds of hats just like his, balanced on sticks just like the one he had used to mark the ground. Try as he might, he couldn’t tell which spot was the real one, and had to leave, cursing the leprechaun who of course was long gone.
And of course, hiding gold wasn’t the only mischief the wee folk could get up to. They were fairies after all – and the fairies of old folklore could be pretty sinister little beings. William Allingham’s poem of little men goes on in less well-known verses to talk about much more frightening tricks the wee folk could play:
They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.
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 up them in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.
Stories like these warned people against greed, and carelessness, and against disturbing the landscape around them. The vengeance of the fairies was not something you ever wanted to bring about.
But like many things in life, it’s all a matter of perspective. Perhaps, when you’re as small as a fairy or leprechaun, it’s pretty scary to have your home or fort wrecked by a lumbering being so much bigger than you are. In other, earlier tales, the wee folk were said to believe themselves to be the largest people in world, and thought of human folk with fear – as the strange powerful giants who could attack their homes.
The story of King Iobdan, King Fergus, and the famous Ulster Porridge Pot, was first written in 1517, based on an earlier 8th Century story that was written for some reason, in a set of legal manuscripts. It is a tale of two societies who fear each other coming together at last in understanding. In it, we get to see the story, for once, from the wee folk’s eyes. It’s a tale that shows that the luchorpan beings are much more complex than our folk-tales depict them, and that magic and wonder is really all in how you view things.
King Fergus Mac Leti of Ulster ordered a great feast at his fort in Émhain Mhacha. But it happened that on that very day and hour, another king was preparing a banquet, in another feasting hall, in another kingdom. Iobdan, king of the Leprecauns or Wee Folk, of the land of Faylinn, was preparing a great assembly of his lords and princes , with his heir-apparent, Beag son of Beg, and Queen Bebo and her maidens, and his strong man Glower, famous through the land, for he could knock down a thistle with just one stroke of his axe.
King Iobdan’s guests feasted on great haunches of roast hares and ribs of field-mice, and as the wine flowed they toasted King Iobdan and his wonderful kingdom. Perhaps the wine went slightly to Iobdan’s head, for his heart began to swell with pride, and he soon stood up and called out to his company.
“Come now,” he said, “have any of you ever seen a king more glorious and powerful than I?”
“Never,” they cried.
“Or horses or warriors better than those who tonight are here in this hall?”
“Never O King,” they said.
“Or a stronger man than my strong man, the giant Glowar, who can knock down a thistle with one stroke of his axe?”
“By our words,” they cried, “we never have.”
Iobdan looked around smugly. “Truly,” he said, “Anyone who would try to attack Faylinn would find it a hard task – so fierce and mighty are we!”
The great cheer that went around the room was interrupted suddenly by a loud peal of laughter. It was the king’s chief poet, Eisirt. Iobdan called on him to explain the reason for his mirth.
“I’m sorry, O King,” said Eisirt, “But I know of a province in Ireland just one man of whom would be enough to capture our kingdom. And the King who rules there would fit you, and I, and all the people in this great hall inside his porridge pot, with room to spare.”
King Iobdan was furious. “Sieze the poet!” he cried, “and vengeance be upon him for his bragging speech!”
It’s a pretty great opening to the tale, and not a bad reminder to the listener: just because we believe ourselves to be the biggest and most important people in our own little world, doesn’t mean that there aren’t outside powers larger than we could ever even imagine.
As he was being dragged away by the guards, the poet Eisirt made a prophecy that terrible things will come as a result of his arrest. He swore that he would go to Ireland and bring back proof of this giant race. And so King Iubdan released him and Eisirt set off for the journey.
At the gate of Emhain Mhacha, the King Fergus’s guards were very surprised to encounter a tiny nobleman, dressed in elegant silk tunic and scarlet cloak, and carrying poet’s rod of white bronze, barely the size of a needle. The gatekeeper ran to tell King Fergus.
King Fergus actually already had a little person in his court – a man called Aedh who was a wise man of science, and the chief poet for King Fergus. So he asked whether the tiny visitor was smaller than his poet, Aedh. “Oh yes,” said the gatekeeper. In fact, he could stand on the palm of Aedh’s hand, with room to spare.” With laughter and wonder, the lords and ladies trooped out to see Eisirt, and carried him into the banquet hall.
Who are you? King Fergus asked. “I am Eisirt, son of Beg, chief poet, bard and rhymer of the luchra and lupracan.”
Eisirt soon charmed King Fergus and his noblemen with wondrous tales of the land of Faylinn, and they piled gifts in front of him, which he refused. After three days and three nights, he was ready to leave.
“I will go with you,” said Fergus’s poet Aedh. Aedh was such a small man that he could lie on the chest of the Ulster warriors, but by Eisirt’s side he was a giant, and he wished to see this land filled with people smaller even than him.
They set off, and soon reached the sea-shore, where a creature came toward them, skimming over the surface of the waves. “What do you see?” asked Eisirt. “A red-maned hare” answered Aedh. “That is Iubdan’s horse,” said Eisirt. Away they sped over the tops of the waves until they reached Faylinn.
There, the Wee Folk who waited on the shore were filled with wonder and fear at the sight of Aedh.
“Have you brought this giant with you to slay us?” cried King Iubdan.
“He is no giant,” said Eisirt, “but a learned man and a poet from Ulster – and in all that realm he is the smallest man.”
King Iubdan, as you can imagine, was quite dismayed at the sight. Here at last was proof that Eisirt the poet been right – the whole kingdom of Faylinn, which he had been so proud to rule over – was tiny in comparison to the other kingdoms in the world. And worse, he knew that now that Eisirt had returned, the next person to have to venture to this fearsome land of Irish giants, would be him.
Eisirt put a warrior’s challenge to Iubdan, daring him to go to Ulster and taste the King’s famous royal porridge. So Iubdan and his wife Queen Bebo mounted their noble hare that night and set off for the human realm. They crept into King Fergus’s palace early in the morning, when all the Ulstermen were still asleep in their beds, and they found the great cauldron of porridge that Eisirt had told them of. They had never seen anything like it. The rim of the pot was so high that Iubdan could not reach it from the ground, so he clambered up on his horse and pulled himself up. Then, he reached his tiny arm forward to the silver ladle – but just as his fingers were about to touch it, he slipped. Down he tumbled into the pot, and the porridge was so thick around him that he couldn’t move hand or foot.
There are lots of fairy tales about magical pots that make too much food, and swimming in porridge is actually a pretty common motif in folklore. But what’s fascinating about this story is that this porridge pot, which seems so fantastical, so magical, to the tiny King Iobdan and his wife, is in fact just ordinary human porridge, with nothing special about it. I guess it all depends on how you look at things.
Poor King Iubdan was in a pretty sorry state at this point, with the Ulster people on the point of waking. He tried to sing a tragic lament of his plight to his fair maiden, Queen Bebo, just as any chivalrous hero would do. But, it’s hard to seem romantic rather than ridiculous, when you’re a tiny man stuck in a pot of porridge!
“O Bebo, O Bebo!” sang Iubdan. “Morning is at hand, and fast in the doughy remnant sticks my leg – Flee away, O fair-haired woman, O woman with fair hair! If here thou stay, thou art but foolish, O Bebo!”
But Bebo was not going to abandon her husband so easily. “Never say it,” she answered. “I will not leave your side until I see what turn things take for thee.”
So, when the Ulstermen woke and came down for their breakfast a short while later, they found Iubdan stuck fast in the pot of porridge, and Queen Bebo sobbing at his side.
Laughing in surprise, the men plucked Iubdan out of the pot and carried him away to King Fergus.
“You aren’t the little fellow that was here before” said Fergus. “Who are you, wee man?”
“I am king over the Luchra folk,” said Iubdan, “and this woman is my wife and queen, Bebo.”
Fearing fairy mischief, Fergus ordered Iubdan to be taken away and guarded, but Iubdan pleaded that he had never in his life broken his word. So Fergus relented. He would not let Iubdan leave, but he gave him a fair chamber in the palace, and allowed him to share his fairy knowledge with the court. Iubdan, despite his size, came to be a valued member of the palace, for his unique perspective on the human world.
Still, the wee folk of Faylinn weren’t going to let Ulster keep their king forever. Soon they too arrived at Fergus’s palace – seven battalions strong, demanding King Iobdan be released.
“For what ransom?” asked Fergus.
Every year we will cover your fields with corn, answered the wee folk. But Fergus refused, and so the wee folk set about wreaking havoc through Ulster each night that Iubdan remained in captivity. They drained the milk from every cow in the province, dirtied the wells and river-mouths, snipped the ears from the corn. Finally, when all their mischief brought no result, they threatened to shave the head of every man and woman in Ulster. “If ye do that,” said Fergus, “I will slay Iubdan.”
Hastily, Iubdan intervened. He called on his subjects to put right what they had spoiled, and sent them away. Then, he went to Fergus, and offered him a choice of his treasures in exchange for his release.
Iubdan had many treasures – a spear that could beat a hundred warriors, a cloak that would always look new, a belt that would protect against illness, a cauldron that could turn stones into meat.
The little poet Aedh, too, had returned from his travels to Faylinn, and also told of the wonders to be found there. Every door was made of gold, he said, with pillars of crystal and columns of silver and cotton. Aedh had heartily enjoyed his time as a giant. He spoke of his friend Eisirt’s pretty wife, so small she could sleep in Aedh’s rounded glove. Seventeen maidens of the wee folk could sleep on Aedh’s chest, and four men in his belt, and still more could creep into his beard without him knowing. Everywhere he went, the people of Faylinn would call after him “Enormous Aedh, O very giant!” “A wondrous adventure has befallen me” said Aedh dreamily.
Having heard these lists of treasures and wonders, King Fergus made his decision. He agreed that he would take King Iubdan’s magical shoes, which allowed the wearer to travel under the lakes and seas. Having accepted his gift, Fergus told Iubdan he was free to go, and there ends the part of the luchorpans or wee folk in King Fergus’s story.
The Luchorpáns are far less tricksy in this story than they became in the later tales I have told. The attacks that they make are done from desperation rather than malice, and King Iobdan is even more afraid of the Ulstermen than they are of him. It’s a story of two very different kings learning of totally different worlds, and coming to treat each other with respect and share their wisdom. However, the gift that king Iobdan gave to Fergus did end up leading to Fergus’s death.
King Fergus used the shoes often to explore the underwater realms of Ireland. But one day, he went to Loch Ruadraige, the one place where the luchorpans had warned him never to go. There, a terrible monster called the muirdris rose out of the water and attacked the king. The wounds left the king crooked and scarred – with his mouth twisted round to the other side of his face. While Fergus rested, unaware of his changed appearance, his charioteer hurried back to the palace and warned everyone of what had happened. Quickly, the wise men of Ulster removed all the mirrors and glass from the house, and for seven years afterward, they made sure no one would reveal to the king that he was no longer the handsome man he once was.
Then, one day, the servant girl came to wash Fergus’s head. Thinking she was being too slow, Fergus lashed out at her with his whip, and in response, the angry girl raised up the bowl of water and showed Fergus his disfigured reflection. Immediately, Fergus realised what had happened, and he swore to kill the muirdris monster once and for all. He ran to Loch Rury and charged at the beast. With his trusty sword, the caladbolg, Fergus hewed the monster to pieces, and he emerged from the blood-filled lake holding her head. But his own body had as many wounds as hers, and as he gasped out to the watching Ulstermen “I am the survivor,” he sank down to the ground and breathed his last.
King Iubdan and the luchorpans didn’t exactly cause Fergus’s death – in fact they tried to warn him of the dangers. Even in earlier tales where King Iobdan isn’t named, the worst thing the wee folk do is prophecy his death. But somehow, these medieval depictions have been distorted and changed over time. Without the wee folk to tell us their side of the story, we settle into mishearings and misunderstandings that make us feel the most comfortable with our place in the world. Appearances and self-deception are a major theme in both halves of the tale – we see what we want to see, and none of us can trust the people we love to give us the honest truth about ourselves.
And, perhaps that’s the true challenge of the tale. It makes us question whether we really know our role in the wider world. Are we as powerful as we think we are, or are there far more powerful kingdoms just out of our sight? We are giants to some, and tiny to others, and little men aren’t necessarily to be feared. It’s all in how you look at things – but in order to realise that, you have to be brave enough to look.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the stories and sources for this episode in the shownotes on my website, Unrealpodcast.com. I also recently updated the website with some tips and links for anyone who would like to start researching folklore themselves – so do take a look. You can also find links to the music from today’s episode – the tune you are listening to right now is The King of the Fairies by Alan Stivell, and I also used a version by The Dubliners earlier. Follow the show on twitter or facebook at Unrealpod for updates, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to the people who have been leaving ratings and reviews – it really helps to spread the word.
I’ll be back soon with another story to tell – and until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.