The Man Of The Roads - 2nd Dec 1944


The Man Of The Roads: Text Version


"An t-e bhionn suibhaltach bionn se sgealtacht." So says the proverb. And who will deny that the man of the roads is a story-teller, be he just a poor bacach, a 'mhala or a timid commercial traveller. His road leads him into a magic world that the stay-at-home never dreams of; adventure and high romance wait for him round every corner; all the eccentric characters, all the good people and the bad, he knows them all inside out.

Only once was I disappointed by a man of the roads or rather a pair of them. It happened in a bus. There were two commercial travellers occupying the seat in front of me and unblushingly I'll admit that for a full fifteen minutes I sat with ears turned into their conversation. Never once, during all that time, did they relate a single hotel anecdote, but they were freaks.

One glorious summer evening some years ago, I met a jolly-hearted beggar-man tramping along a dusty country road. We fell into conversation. He was from a Munster Gaeltacht and how thrilling it was to listen to the pure flood of Gaelic pouring from his lips as he recounted the immortal tales of Fionn and his invincible Fenian hosts. A born story-teller he!

Is the art of story-telling dying? Most people will agree that it is. All the fine old traditional story-tellers are gone. Gone are the Kitty the Hares and the Peig Labhraises and vacant is the seanchaidhe's chair. Where now will you find a crowd of neighbours gathered round a winter's fire listening to tales of headless coaches and pookas, of charms and pishogues, of leprechauns and changelings, of phantom riders and banshees?


Talking of leprechauns reminds me of something that was last moving towards the limbo of forgotten things. We all had great respect for this reputed honourable tradesman until he saw fit to play a mean trick on us a few years ago near Knockfierna. He appeared once and gave to understand that further appearances were to be expected and then the double-crossing littler cobbler refused to show himself any more, even to the hundreds who had come quite appreciable distances up – up to twenty miles or so just to get one look at him. What though in their enthusiasm they burst through fences and gates in Panzer division fashion, no responsive chord was touched in whatever ersatz ticker throbbed in his breast and hidden he remained satisfying his strange warped sense of humour by peeping at the expectant multitudes and secretly laughing at their disappointment from behind geosadans and buachallan buidhes in the side of Donn Firinne's sacred hill.

Every leprechaun was equipped with a fine purse of gold, but he was an elusive customer and no one ever seems to have succeeded parting him from his money. If people were anxious to meet a leprechaun they certainly did not want to have anything to do with a changeling. The belief that healthy mortals, especially babies and young maidens were frequently taken away and sickly ones put in their places was current in Ireland until recent times. There is in Irish a beautiful little poem which tells of a heart-broken mother whose little son was taken away by the Good People. Every day she came to a fairy spring vainly craving for the return of her lost child.

"Do thainic bean go sruth cois leasa,

Le h-eírghe 'n lae ag gol 'sa caoidh,

So mar dubhairt sí bualadh a bas, 'sa

Glaodhach os ard ar rioghan na sigh;

'Cad fa 'r mheall tu leat mo leanbh,

A chur fe dhraoidheacht le cealg suiridhe,

Taim-se' nois 'san saoghal gan taithneamh,

Cad fa 'r fhuadais searc mo chroidhe.

The English translation runs like this:-

"A mother came when stars were paling,

Wailing round a lonely spring;

Thus she cried while tears were falling,

Calling on the fairy king:

Why with spells my child caressing,

Courting him with fairy joy,

Why destroy a mother's blessing,

Wherefore steal my baby boy?"

The Bean Sidhe is by far the most popular figure in the Irish spirit world. Even today few doubt that some strange unexplained ghostly cry has bid many a son of the Gael prepare to meet his God. There are a number of people of my acquaintance – men and women whose word I'd be slow to doubt – who assert that they have heard a weird unearthly wail before the of members of certain families, often in broad daylight. The Bean Sidhe is distinctively Irish.


She only comes to warn the high Milesian race – the Os and the Macs. In a poem by Piaras Feíriteir, full of contempt and scorn, he ridicules the Saxon churls, who, having heard the wail of the Bean Sidhe, feared greatly, because they thought she wailed for them. The picture of the frightened foreigners, believing that the Fairy Woman was crying for them, drew from the depth of Piaras's proud Gaelic soul such a terrible flood of scorn and sarcasm as was never before contained in the narrow limits of a line of poetry.

"Ní chaoinid mna sidhe an sortsoin" he wrote –

"Not for the likes of them waileth the Bean Sidhe."

No translation can do justice to the original seven Irish words Mangan translated the vitriolic poem by Piaras into a much longer English poem, which goes:

"Self-conceited idiots! Thus Ravingly to prate!

Not for base-born, higgling Saxon tricksters,

Ring laments like those from shore to sea:

Not for churls with souls of hucksters

Waileth our Banshee."

Certainly not! Her mournful wail might call away the spirits of the O'Connors, the O'Donoghues and the MacCarthys, but surely not those of Cromwell's stable-boys who lorded it over their stolen lands.

previousPrevious - The Lore of Reading
Next - The Merry Pedlar - 13th Oct. 1945next