Children Stolen by Fairies and Tháinig Bean Cois Leasa

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  • Teideal (Title): Children Stolen by Fairies and Tháinig Bean Cois Leasa.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 781516.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): lore; song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Cynthia Thiessen.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 07/03/1978.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): Fredric Lieberman.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Now, I want to get onto the fairies again. Well, the fairies, now — I’m not talking about fairies, I’m talking about ‘good people’ they call them, who live in a big — inside the big rocks, called a lios. There’s a myth that, if somebody gets drowned in a spring well, the fairies — especially if that person is very young, which always happens to young little boys — that the fairies wants to take the form of a young person, and live again; and put their own form, which could be a hundred years old, into the little boy they take away.

Now, there’s a Gaelic one and there’s an English one1. The Gaelic one is about the woman, she was out washing clothes by the river. And the week before, her little boy was killed, and dead and buried. And there was a woman standing at the other end of the river, and the woman was a taibhse… you know, a sort of a spirit. And the woman said, ‘Your child is inside that rath, and the man who stole your child will be passing this way tonight.’

And now, when you’re going to kill an evil spirit, you’re supposed — the knife you use is supposed to have a black handle. No other handle will do. And she said, ‘When… you see two leaves dropping off the tree on top of the stile’ — a stile is a step, and it steps over a fence, on both sides — ‘stick your knife in that leaf; and when you go home, your little boy will be sitting beside the fire.’

So the story goes on to say that that actually happened — in the Gaelic one; in the English one it doesn’t. They are not related, but… almost the same. And the Gaelic one goes like this. Lios is the Gaelic for rath — that’s where the fairies supposed to have their headquarters. That’s where all the meetings and seminars take place.

Tháinig bean anuas cois leasa, seoithín, seoithín
Tháinig bean go moch cois leasa, seoithín, seoithín
A bhean úd thall ar chois an tsrutháin, seoithín, seoithín
Tá do leanbh istigh sa gcarraig, hó, seoithín
Teara anocht chuig bun na staighre, hó-ín, seoithín
Scian cois-duibhe a thabhairt i do láimh leat, seoithín, seoithín
Fan go socair, fan go macán[ta]
Fan go socair ag an gcú [?]
Teirigh abhaile, beidh do mhaicín
Ina shuí ag tine, a’ failliú-leó
Seoithín, seoithín, seoithín, seoithín-seó.


A woman came down early to the foot of the lios.
‘Oh woman over there at the end of the stream,
your child is inside the rock.
Come tonight to the bottom of the stile,
with a black-handled knife in your hand.
Wait patiently and politely, wait patiently at the [meaning unclear];
go home, your child will be sitting at the fireside.


1. The ‘English one’ Joe is referring to is The Fairy Boy.

A number of Joe’s songs and stories relate to the belief in changelings.

This song appears to be related to a Scottish song, A Bhean ud Thall, which it resembles in terms of both structure and — superficially, at least — content. In many Scottish Gaelic waulking-songs, a refrain element consisting of meaningless vocable syllables occurs at the ends of the lines, as here. In terms of content, the line beginning A bhean úd thall ar chois an tsrutháin, as well as the overall setting (by a body of water) and narrative situation (a conversation between two women, one of whom needs the other’s help) suggest a relationship with the international ballad The Twa Sisters (Child 10). Here are some lines from a Scottish version (K. C. Craig,Orain Luaidh Màiri Nighean Alasdair (Glasgow, 1924), 1.):

A bhean ud thall, hù gó
an cois na tràghad, hù gó
Sìn do chas dhomh,hao ri ho ró
Sìn do làmh dhomh, hù gó.

A version of this song migrated to Donegal (L. Ó Muireadhaigh, Amhráin Chúige Uladh. Revised, C. Ó Baoill (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2009), 81.)…

A bhean udaidh thall, a thíogadh,
Atá ag siubhal ‘na trágha, a thógadh,
Nach truaigh leat bean ag cealgadh ceoigh?
‘Sí dul d’a báthadh, maille leo!

…where it ultimately became a hit for Altan.

Oh woman yonder at the edge of the strand,
Extend your foot to me, extend your hand to me.

Oh woman yonder walking the strand,
Have you no pity for a woman about to be drowned?

Still another version, The Fairy Lullaby, was recorded in West Cork by Máire Ní Shúilleabháin for Alan Lomax in 1951; see Columbia Records’ LP The World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: Vol. 2 — Ireland (Columbia AKL 4941; Rounder 1742).

Unlike these versions, however, the song Joe sings draws not upon the story of two sisters contesting over the same man, but rather upon the traditions surrounding the abduction of mortals — especially young children — into the fairy otherworld. Dónal O’Sullivan gives a version in Songs of the Irish in which a husband is given instructions — including the use of a black-handled knife — in order to rescue his young wife from captivity in a lios, where she is being held as a foster-mother for fairy children (Songs of the Irish, Dublin, 1960, pp. 18–20).

For a discussion of the connection between the Irish and Scottish versions, see Alan Bruford, ‘The Sea-Divided Gael’ in Irish Folk Music Studies (1972–3), Vol. 1, pp. 13–18. The structural similarities are discussed in V. S. Blankenhorn, Irish Song-Craft and Metrical Practice Since 1600 (Lampeter, 2003), 293–4. Other songs in Joe’s repertoire that illustrate this atypical refrain structure are Eileanóir na Rún (probably related to the Scottish song Robin Adair) and An Tiarna Randal (Child 12).

This song was recorded while Joe was Artist in Residence at University of Washington.