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, among the ushers was a village lad, known for his madcap antics. The morning after, they were already spinning the tale about 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 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?