The Patter of Tiny Feet

I was part, just for a short time, of an Irish dynasty.

They were a great extended family which dwelt on the edge of a vast bay. Story was a living, breathing thing to them: it walked their streets still, when I walked them about 25 years or so ago.

The stories: you should have heard them. Tiny vignettes and great extended heroic tales, ancient and modern: the Bay had them all.

Like Fred the jack russell.

Fred, the story goes, did not stay meekly at home when his owner went down the hill into the village to work at the Video Store for the day. He just took himself off on his systematic daily rounds.

Fred used to pass the time of day with each shopkeeper in turn, probably receiving who knew how many treats and tidbits. He was a businessdog: he knew how to secure his dues.

One day, as he was out from the Video Store on business, his owner met Fred on his rounds. “Hello, Fred!” he saluted his Best Friend, cheerily.

Never mix work and pleasure. The small dog cut him dead. He trotted straight past, on the way to his next appointment.

They were still spinning new stories while I was there. During a big family wedding in the village, ย among the ushers was a village lad, known for his madcap antics. The morning after, they were already spinning the tale aboutย the usher who had drunk enough alcohol to stun your average sized elephant, ambled aimiably home singing, and sought refuge in his mother’s kitchen.

Whereupon he went to the fridge, took every item out, lined it lovingly up on the floor and went to sleep next to it.

And another story: two women, made close through marriage, sat up late talking. And they heard a strange cry outside the dark house.

They could not identify it: but shortly afterwards, one of them died. And I cannot remember who first whispered the name ‘banshee’ in my ear.

Fairy folk, the banshee are said to be: dressed in white or grey and combing their hair, they are said to cry and wail when someone is about to die.

I have never really got on with the whole fairy-pixie-elf raft of mythology. Happy and accustomed to ghost stories, I can’t see the need for another tier, flesh and blood impish beings with special powers.

Yet there they caper in so many mythologies, with a rich stream of tales attached to them.

The Cornish have many small folk: and I stumbled upon the story of a woman who took the strangest measures to rid herself of one such race: for her house turned out to be the meeting place of the Spriggans.

The spriggan is as ugly as the banshee is beautiful, and as practical and pragmatic as she is impotent. For the Spriggan is a bodyguard of treasure: he is Security. Spriggans are said to guard barrows and ruins and buried treasure.

But they are also incorrigible thieves.And they can grow impossibly large, being, as they are, what has come of the old race of giants.

Once, it is said they picked the isolated house of a miner’s widow and began to meet there regularly. She always pretended to sleep while they met, and at the end of every meeting a gold coin would be placed on the table.

This made the old woman financially comfortable, with money to spare. But she wanted a greater share of their considerable loot.

There was a simple charm which was used to repel fairies: all you did was turn your nightie – or shift, as they called them in those days – inside out.

So the widow waited until a really big haul was brought in. And then she turned her shift inside out and jumped up from her bed, putting her hand on the nearest gold goblet and saying “Thee shusn’t hae one on ’em!”

The Spriggans ย jumped six feet in the air and did not stay to fight their corner.But as they fled one Spriggan turned , furious, and cursed her shift.

Well, the widow became a gentlewoman and moved into a plush big house in St Ives. But every tme she put that shift on, she would be wracked with cramps; and in her heart of hearts, she knew it was the revenge of the Spriggans.

Why have so many cultures invented small people?

Small industrious creatures like these must explain so many little domestic mysteries: strange sounds, disappearing objects, tasks undone or completed. We still puzzle over life’s little inconsistencies today: but we have long since given the Spriggans and their like their cards.

I wonder if we should ask them back?


37 thoughts on “The Patter of Tiny Feet

  1. Very informative Kate ๐Ÿ˜‰ My grandmother was Irish so we love the wee folk at the bottom of the garden. I didn’t know you could use them for an excuse though – haha – will have to try that one.

  2. I suspect there is something in the air in Ireland. Stories from friends who lived there were enough to make one laugh and fear going there.

    I think there must be something to the stories of little people, these things that appear all over the world, quite independently must have some basis in common. Quite what it is, I’d love to know.

  3. You know what I don’t understand about the whole banshee thing? How does anybody know enough to know they exist? You hear a banshee; you die. No witnesses. Peculiar.

  4. Well, now I shall have more fitful dreams as you have introduced me to new ways to be leery of things unknown. I could use one of those nice little gold coins so the Spriggans can pop by as they wish.

  5. Trouble is, Kate, you might find them accompanied by orcs and goblins.
    It looks like June will come home tomorrow, but the drawback is that she will bring me with her.
    We will keep in touch by txt.
    Love Dad

  6. I just love thinking about little creatures–faeries and nymphs, who give us little gifts and surprises, and I’m not quite as fond of the more sinister ๐Ÿ™‚ And I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story of the Spriggans! In our household we often attribute the missing eye glasses, lost keys and disappearing paperwork to the gremlins! I really do think we must have them nearby! I love your dad’s comment about keeping in touch by txt. So glad your mom is coming home…my dad is doing great and we won’t have hospital duty that much longer I don’t think, but we’ve been talking about what did we all do before cell phones and in particular texting! ๐Ÿ™‚ Debra

    1. Debra, so pleased to hear your Dad is improving, and so sorry to have taken so much time to reply to you. Hope he continues to go from strength to strength.

      And of course, you in America have gremlins. How could I forget! ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. My mother would blame the Borrowers for all the things that went missing, and it still makes sense to me, Those buttons and small things don’t just vanish… But I wonder if your Dad doesn’t have a point about inviting the fey back into the fabric of everyday human life…

  8. I wonder why it is that the ‘wee folk’ seem to mainly inhabit the lands of the Celts?
    On another matter close to your heart, or may be your nose – flatulence. I have just read that dinosaurs may have been partly to blame for climate change in their time because their diets meant they emitted vast clouds of methane, a powerful global warming gas.
    The key culprits were the giant plant -eating sauropods, which spent 150m years plodding around eating ferns and burping and farting methane. Collectively they would have produced 520m tons of methane a year.

    1. ๐Ÿ˜€ Rosemary, what priceless information: you have quite made my day, though I’m late in picking up your comment. 520 million tons of methane. Gracious..

  9. In the Southwest US, we have a saying that comes from the Milagro Beanfield War; we blame it all “el brazo de Onofre” (brazo = arm) and Onofre is he one-armed man in the village.

  10. Dear Kate, . . . first permit me to apologize for being away again from your blog for several days. This moving business is tricky and perhaps the Universe is trying to show me something. Or maybe it’s those sprites and pixies and spriggans.

    To wit: Within the last ten days I had to buy a new garbage disposal, the dishwashing machine went kablooey and inundated the kitchen with suds, the self-cleaning oven discolored its door, my computer refused to give me mail or let me send it and my web browser kept giving me a window that covered up the screen, and finally the air conditioner shuddered off its coil and refused to breathe cold. So these past ten days have been expensive and time consuming.

    Anyway, I hope to get back to your blog on a more regular basis. I so enjoy the trails and burrows and mazes of your mind.


    1. No socks day. Whatever next….
      You know these old tales. Every time you hear it you want to change what the characters do; but they just go ahead and do what has been written in the story…

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