The Fairy Fire

A graduate of Queens’ College, Cambridge, T. H. WHITE published his first novel, Loved Helen, in 1926 when he was a young schoolmaster at Stowe. He scored his first major success in this country with The Sword in the Stone; and then, when he had resumed writing after the war, he again hit the target of the Book-of-the-Month Club with his novel, Mistress Masham’s Repose. In Who’s Who he gives as his recreation “Animals"; and one will see why after reading the story which follows.

by T. H. WHITE

WILD-FOWLING used to be one of the few sports left in Britain which were still done the hard way. It might mean getting up at four o’clock in the morning, with gummy eyes, driving the car for twenty miles to where one thought the geese were going to cross the coast line, plodding for a couple of miles in winter darkness across the sea-marsh at risk of one’s life (from the tide), digging oneself a shallow grave in the freezing sand and lying in its icy-harsh water for half an hour or more, like a doll in a cardboard box. Then you saw the lovely battalions pass out of range, drove home for breakfast, and spent the daylight hours spying for the creatures with binoculars, with a view to the next sortie. You went down to the salt-marsh again for the evening flight and possibly had one glass too many after dinner at the Inn.

Goose-shooters used to resemble the White Knight in Alice in Wonderland. They had his idealism. They seldom shot any geese. They were hung about, like him, with gadgets. No goose man ever went out without a magnum shotgun, or some even more cumbrous firearm of vasty caliber, which went off with a Boom and whose recoil gently but firmly pushed the shooter over backwards, when it was discharged. There were hand-made cartridges for the same in all sizes of shot, a goose-bag into which the dead goose was in theory going to be put — and for sitting on, in the puddles, for it was oiled to be waterproof—a tide-table, a compass, an electric torch, a flask of spirits, and a small shovel for digging the grave. These were the minimum needs.

It was possible to pursue this fantasy in the West of Ireland, among the boundless bogs of the County Mayo. Geese were more difficult there, because they did not necessarily cross the coast at all. They might fly from bog to lake or vice versa. But there was a rare variety of whitefront at a certain place which had better not be named. These weighed 25 per cent more than other whitefronts, and, in my opinion, did not migrate. I was mad to shoot some, to weigh them for statistics.

To get the feeling of the story, one seems to need some picture of the West.

When Cromwell ev icted the native Irish from the more fertile lands, to settle his own adventurers, he told them to get to Hell or Connaught. Perhaps he himself did not actually equate Hell with Connaught; but any cockney, New Yorker, or society figure would do so, even now. In those days, the almost prehistoric sotliements were inaccessible by road. There were no roads. The treacherous parts of the bog, on routes known only to the inhabitants, like the footpaths of animals, could only be crossed by throwing down brushwood. The culture of the huge district was prehistoric — like a La Tène culture of lake dwellings. It is still possible to drive fifteen or twenty miles on a modern road across the level, russet plain without seeing more than a dozen dwellings. Round the great provinces of turf and heather, whose peat-soil, when wet, is a gleaming roast-coflee blancmange, the abrupt, lonely mountains make an eternal sky-line. On the coast, the anfractuous cliffs are dotted with a series of promontory forts made long before the dawn of history. The earth is hospitable only to the potato, the fuchsia, and the rhododendron. A fisherman from Belmullet, so Jack told me, once walked t he endless miles lo Ballina. When he saw his first tree, he fell down and worshiped it.

In winter, this was a hardy, starving territory, a melancholy steppe. On the few sunny days of summer, it was so beautiful that one’s gorge rose in the bosom — coming across a lovely tarn, bluer than the sky, solid cobalt, a secret jewel dropped from heaven, and bluer than heaven. At sunset, in some atmospheric conditions, the horizontal rays would for a few moments turn everything saffron — but everything. The earth, the sky, the turf stacks, the whitewashed cottage, all momentarily would glow into glory, like the bars of an electric fire warming up, and the same color.


ON THIS particular evening in the winter, we drove to the furthest settlement — it could hardly be called a village — at the most isolated fold of the vastest bog there was. It was called, in Gaelic, the Cow Bog. Although it was fifteen miles away, Jack knew the people as usual. He was popular with them. They spoke their own language habitually. One or two of the very old ones could not speak English. They were as hardy as snipe.

We arrived before darkness, a freezing evening, with the Atlantic wind unchecked by a single perpendicular between t here and America. There were half a dozen thatched cot tages, with their black turf ricks. There was a kind of track between them.

The people of Shanataggle received us with stately almost Spanish courtesy. The music-hall caricature of an Irishman as a sort of funny gorilla, with a pig on a string and a clay pipe stuck in his hat — which is now fiercely resented by the real Irish—is their own fault. The people of the east coast clowned it like that about a hundred years ago, to diddle the English, and now the picture has stuck to them. But the true Gael was never so. A spare, gaunt hidalgo of a. figure, reserved and sensitive and subtle and wicked in many ways; talkative only when drunk or in emotional release or to mask an anxiety neurosis by buffoonery; innocently brutal or beautiful by turns — in direct, not artificial, immediate response to circumstances; rightly despising the blunt, uncomprehending codes of the Saxon. An intuitive, realistic, feminine ferocity in his mind — for women arc ruthlessly real — the Gael was a Spaniard, a Malvolio, no comic. For that matter, when the Armada was driven north around the coasts of Scotland, some galleons did come to wreck among the stony fangs of western Ireland. Who could tell what sallow don, escaping massacre, had left his fiery blood among the blackhaired, blue-eyed, stately savages of Shanataggle?

They ushered us into the best house and set us down with ceremony to drink strong tea, incomparably brewed in a metal pot with the turf ashes raked around it. The tea had a faint, pleasant tang of peat. It was obvious that there was only one egg in the house. This was presented to the visitor, lightly boiled, with home-baked bread and sweet butter. It would have been churlish not to accept the egg, or to have made even the most allusive attempt to pay for it. If one had given a shilling or two to the smallest child present, under the pretense of making a gift, it would have been identified at once as a trick, an ungentlemanly and obtuse rejection of the hospitality meant by the egg. Also, it would have been churlish not to sit down to the unwanted meal, although the daylight was slipping away and we still had far to walk. Everything in Eire always was late, so the best thing was to accept the fact.

A certain amount of nonsense gets written about the hospitality of peasants. The true reason for it, if one faces it. without being sentimental, is that a stranger is precious to them. The entertainment, the novelty, the something-to-think-about, the mental pabulum, the refreshment of a new ingredient in the cud of one another — which was all they had to chew through winter nights from birth to death — these made me well worth an egg to them. The hospitality was an effort to detain me, and, though it may seem that they were conferring something, it was I who was really conferring a refill of subject matter for their strong, starved, intelligent minds. I was like a new book to some scholar, marooned away from libraries. This was why it would have been unthinkable not to linger with their egg, submitting to be absorbed by hungering brains.

Jack soon had the flow of talk in motion, relating how, on a previous visit some years since, after a whole bottle of poit299;n, the octogenarian of the neighborhood had leapt a ten-foot rivulet, his coattails flying. This led to anecdote and speculation, to politics and legend and philology, while every eye watched every motion of the Englishman, a cynosure, to store him up for future nourishment. On the subject of eggs and Gaelic, which I was doing my best to learn, I gleaned one piece of information.

It seems that the great Irish pirate-queen, Grania O Mhaille, once attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth — to whom, incidentally, she tried without success to refuse any form of homage. Grènia’s headquarters before capture were at a stronghold on Clare Island in Clew Bay. Elizabeth, interested by her savage rival, made inquiries about the Irish and their tongue. An illustration of the barbaric language was given to her, thus: d’it damh dubh ubh amh ar neamh. She thought it sounded very peculiar; not so peculiar, however, as Gránia O Mhaille considered a similar English sentence: Beg a big egg from Peg.

A thin boy of about nineteen came in, while we were conversing on subjects of similar interest, and sat down in the corner without speaking. He was evidently exhausted by his day’s work, and was given a hunk of bread to revive him.

He was a person of startling beauty. He had those lovely, curved shins — skeletal — which made one long to be a timber wolf and gnaw them in some den, or an archaeologist to unwrap them from a mummy. They curved like a Persian bow. His lengthy, fragile fingers were ducal: no, they were princely. The blue-black hair fell over sapphire eyes. He was tired, hungry, so shy in his dignity that I do not think he looked at me or spoke directly to me the whole evening. He was a Masai warrior, He should have leaned on a spear in a leopard skin, drinking bullock’s blood, with one leg curled round the other, his body painted a rusty color, like the turf ashes. He was the son of the house, and was to be our guide.

Jack was the merry fellow who got on well with everybody. The Masai trusted him, just enough to speak to him in monosyllables. Such conversation us he was willing or able to exchange with me had to be carried on through Jack, as if the latter were an interpreter. Probably the boy did not understand a word I said, having hypnotized himself into the belief that he would be unable to do so. Once, driving into Galway with an Irish speaker next to me in the long Jaguar, we had drawn up beside one of those black-hatted peasants in a bainīn, to ask the way. Although spoken to in his own language by a compatriot, he had understood nothing, being convinced by the sight of the car that he would not be able to understand. Besides, with our spearman, there was the vaulting ambition and su perkily of youth, which made him self-conscious, confused, proud and ashamed, friendly and resentful. He had that struggling look of somebody who is sulking and does not want to sulk, the eyes saying tormentedly, I am stuck in this: please help me out. He was a nobleman in hated chains.

When the decencies had at last been observed, I managed to get the party on foot toward the small mountainy lake at which we hoped to ambush the geese, it was late. We could not be there by twilight. We had a mile or more to walk, skipping from tussock to tussock over the chocolate bog.

They stowed me away at last in a neat round hole in the turf, which had the shape of a large keg or small barrel. And rightly was it shaped so, for it. had been dug to house a barrel.

In the old days, when poitīn was illegally brewed in Eire, the makers had to conceal their kegs of the true, smoky, water-colored, dangerous, vintage whisky— which was best taken either hot from the still or else, so rarely possible, after being matured. In between these dates, it was a lethal drink, which made people drunk for the second time if they took a glass of wider for their thirst next morning. There was a slight blueness in its color, like the faintest wood smoke. The best way to hide the kegs from the excisemen and the guards was to dig a hole in some hundreds of square miles of bog, and to bury them. I was squatting in such a hole. It was next to the tarn at which wo expected the geese, and it made an excellent ambush. My comrades went to other places of concealment.

Incidentally, there was a good economic reason for illicit brewing in distant parts. If one had a patch of corn fifteen miles from the nearest market, across bad tracks, and had to carry one’s harvest there on one’s shoulders, it was convenient to reduce its bulk. Brewed down at home, it could be carried in one keg on one journey as spirits: in sacks as grain, il might take four journeys.

The geese did come; in fact they had come. But it was pitch dark by now, without a trace of moon. We could hear their wings, their gabbling on the. little pocket-handkerchief of water, but we could not see an inch of them. I was furious with our party of three, including myself, for being quarter of an hour too late. We could have poniarded those geese by touch, hut we could not pistol them. They were invisible.

Like a mad terrapin in a mud-puddle, I glared into the frozen darkness in all directions, my implements clattering about me. And, oh, it was cold! In the midwinter poitīn-hole, with my shooting mittens and various dodges, I was somewhat protected from the icy air; but what of Jack and what of that foodless warrior, who had no hole to protect them? The boy had such a thin suit over his bird bones, his best one: a Spartan with long fingers under his armpits, at whose slim breast the fox of January gnawed unprotested.

Eventually they came to fetch me. Jack said with chattering teeth: Come along now, we can go. It is too late. Nothing can be done now.”

They extended gelid hands to help me out of the keg, while I unbent my bone-blue joints, like the round knobs which butchers hack with hatchets, and muttered about the geese. The setter Brownie, who had been trembling in it with me, was released to scamper.

“We must come again. We must come before sunset, properly. Did you hear them?”

“Yes, yes.”

Me blew out our words, beating our arms for circulation.


IT WILL be important to tell the next part of this story with clinical accuracy. It is not a fairy-story, and not fict ion.

Evidently Jack and his bashful prince of the Gaels must have noticed the phenomenon as they came to collect me. But the first of them had heard of it and the second had seen it before, so they must have decided to find out what effect it would have on the pragmatical and prating Saxon.

As we tottered the first uneven paces from that agonizing hidey-hole, Jack said, with exaggerated concern and a touch of mischief: “Look, what is this? Look at this!" He pointed, half teasing, half scared himself, to our feet; and there, a crumbling series of phosphorescent green worms — about as bright as the end of a cigarette, but green instead of red — were tumbling back into the soggy footprints. They were a miniature landslide of light, like a football crowd of crumb-sized spectators pouring out of the exits, all on fire.

It is alarming, whatever one may say, to find that one’s footprints have turned into glowworms, in the black night, in the red bog, fifteen miles from anywhere. I said: “Well, it might be anything. Come along; let’s go home.”

We were in a country which believed in fairies — not fairies with gauzy wings sitting on toadstools, but supernatural beings, largely malevolent. When one’s individual unconscious is submerged in the subconsciousness of a place and race, it tends to be influenced by its surroundings.

The nervousness of me, the materialist, grew contagious. The other two, a prehistoric believer and a more modern half-believer, now caught the scare. What had started as one of Jack’s jokes turned into a subdued, silent panic. We began to hop and shamble away, from tussock to tussock, in the direction of the darkling settlement where human beings lived.

But, after a hundred yards or so, shame and the scientific attitude triumphed.

They were ahead, more nimble and more accustomed to the moorland. I called to them: “Jack, wait for me. Stop a minute. Don’t leave me alone. I must find out about it.”

They stopped to wait, and we turned.

For a hundred yards back, exactly like the black footsteps of good King Weneeslaus in the white snow, there were three chains of glowworm footsteps in the sable night. We looked from side to side, and now there circled or arced us at a distance a cantering, high-stepping circumference of green fire. It was made by the feet of my beautilul setter bitch, and it moved with her.

“No, wait. Don’t go away. We must find out.”

I lifted my boot: it was on fire.

I put my finger to the welt of it and scooped a piece: it. stuck to the finger, without burning it.

I smelled it: it did not smell, except of bog.

I gingerly licked it: it tasted of wet turf, nothing else. It was tasteless, scentless, soundless, warmthless, visible.

We stumbled off through the oceanic night, leaving these same footprints behind us, circled by the flaming setter, gradually going quicker and quicker. We joked at ourselves, partly clowning our uneasiness, but feeling inside a real wish to get out of here, out of the whelming winter darkness and the pursuing fire. We took to the bed of a burn, where the going was better than on the hummocky heather. W’e were in a hurry. We slid anti tripped and fell.

Towards the relief-giving end of this eerie trek, whose direction in the ink of evening depended on our guide, I did manage to pass a few messages through Jack to the grandee.

“Do you often get this?”


“Is it the will-o’-the-wisp?”

“No. That one is a different thing. Often we see him too, but he is more like a tower of flame.”

“What do you call it?”

“We call it. the solas sidh (the Fairy Fire).”

And the gauche, courtly, resentful cahallero looked distantly, with dignity, into the darkness, He was afraid I was going to make a mock of him.

We went to the car, not to the dwellings. It was parked at the foot of the track which led to them. We wanted to go away.

No tip was given to our proud conductor. Perhaps, when sufficient time had elapsed to make it decent, he could be entertained on his next visit to market, with drink or smokes.

We switched on the inside light of the car, like royalty going to the theater, but for us it was to banish the night. We wanted a bright, small, cosy interior: a shell of civilization to defend us against prehistory, against the principalities of races long defeated. Ireland is a melting pot of conquered cultures, of stone men and bronze men and iron men, of Celts and Vikings and Anglo-Normans, driven remorselessly westward by the volcano ot European history, pressed finally together against the rim of the Atlantic in their promontory forts, between the devil of the New Weapon and the deep sea. Their gods went with them. Duk-Duk dancers and Druids, Fir Bolg and Tuatha De Danann, Baal and Bell nine, Crom Crunch and Cromwell, the conquered conquerors, enslaved, revengeful, charged with ancient powers — they pressed heavily in the wind against the weak, fit. windows of our motor, tight, shut.

We took some whisky from the flask, and drove home thoughtfully, in silence at first.

There seems to be a theory that the solas sidh is some kind of phosphorescence — like the lights in tropical oceans — and that it depends on atmospheric conditions. It is not caused by methane or marsh-gas — which may account for the other “tower of flame” which the boy mentioned — since it does not burn or smell. It is no good going to the Cow Bog in the hope of viewing it, because it only comes when the conditions happen to suit, each other. Then it is there, glowing like a forgotten kipper in the darkened pantry, but much more so; stepping with the wayfarer, step for step; galloping with his dog in cusps and curlicues of ice-green fire; not showing itself dispersedly, but only on the foot or where the foot has been; cold, corpse-lit, and brighter than the figures on wrist watches which have been painted with luminous paint.

On other nights, which are the usual ones, no frightful fiend doth tread so closely behind the wild-fowler.