The Lianhan Shee*
Will Carleton, 1888
In Irish folklore the Lianhan Shee is a vampiric, seductive, muse-like female spirit. The name comes from the Gaelic word “leannan“: a sweetheart, concubine, or favourite; and sídhe, “of the fairy (barrow) mounds” (i.e., burial mounds/graves). Also called a lianhan sidhe (pronounce “shee” or “shay”), leanan sídhe, liannan shìth, and leanhaun shee, she is one of the “faery folk” from ancient Irish folklore. Amoral at best, she typically appears in the form of a beautiful woman who takes a human lover and becomes his muse—ironic, because, unlike the muse of Greek mythology, the Irish lianhan shee’s interest in her mortal lover is often fatal for him. While she very well may inspire him, artistically, in actuality she “feeds” off his life, his purpose, his spirituality—until he has nothing left but shadows of his formal self..
One summer evening Mary Sullivan was sitting at her own well-swept hearthstone, knitting feet to a pair of sheep’s gray stockings for Bartley, her husband. It was one of those serene evenings in the month of June, when the decline of day assumes a calmness and repose, resembling what we might suppose to have irradiated Eden, when our first parents sat in it before their fall. The beams of the sun shone through the windows in clear shafts of amber light, exhibiting millions of those atoms which float to the naked eye within its mild radiance. The dog lay barking in his dreams at her feet, and the gray cat sat purring placidly upon his back, from which even his occasional agitation did not dislodge her.
Mrs. Sullivan was the wife of a wealthy farmer, and niece to the Rev. Felix O’Rourke; her kitchen was consequently large, comfortable, and warm. Over where she sat, jutted out the “brace” well lined with bacon; to the right hung a well-scoured salt-box, and to the left was the jamb, with its little gothic paneless window to admit the light. Within it hung several ash rungs, seasoning for flail-sooples, or boulteens, a dozen of eel-skins, and several stripes of horse-skin, as hangings for them. The dresser was a “parfit white,” and well furnished with the usual appurtenances. Over the door and on the “threshel,” were nailed, “for luck,” two horse-shoes, that had been found by accident. In a little “hole” in the wall, beneath the salt-box, lay a bottle of holy water to keep the place purified; and against the cope-stone of the gable, on the outside, grew a large lump of house-leek, as a specific for sore eyes and other maladies.
In the corner of the garden were a few stalks of tansy “to kill the thievin’ worms in the childhre, the crathurs,” together with a little Rose-noble, Solomon’s Seal, and Bu-gloss, each for some medicinal purpose. The “lime wather” Mrs. Sullivan could make herself, and the “bog bane” for the Unh roe, (red water) or heart-burn, grew in their own meadow drain; so that, in fact, she had within her reach a very decent pharmacopoeia, perhaps as harmless as that of the profession itself.
Lying on the top of the salt-box was a bunch of fairy flax, and sewed in the folds of her own scapular was the dust of what had once been a four-leaved shamrock, an invaluable specific “for seein’ the good people,” if they happened to come within the bounds of vision. Over the door in the inside, over the beds, and over the cattle in the outhouses, were placed branches of withered palm, that had been consecrated by the priest on Palm Sunday; and when the cows happened to calve, this good woman tied, with her own hands, a woollen thread about their tails, to prevent them from being overlooked by evil eyes, or elf-shot by the fairies¹, who seem to possess a peculiar power over females of every species during the period of parturition. It is unnecessary to mention the variety of charms which she possessed for that obsolete malady the colic, the toothache, headache, or for removing warts, and taking motes out of the eyes; let it suffice to inform our readers that she was well stocked with them; and that, in addition to this, she, together with her husband, drank a potion made up and administered by an herb-doctor, for preventing forever the slightest misunderstanding or quarrel between man and wife. Whether it produced this desirable object or not our readers may conjecture, when we add, that the herb-doctor, after having taken a very liberal advantage of their generosity, was immediately compelled to disappear from the neighborhood, in order to avoid meeting with Bartley, who had a sharp lookout for him, not exactly on his own account, but “in regard,” he said, “that it had no effect upon Mary, at all, at all;” whilst Mary, on the other hand, admitted its efficacy upon herself, but maintained, “that Bartley was worse nor ever afther it.”
Such was Mary Sullivan, as she sat at her own hearth, quite alone, engaged as we have represented her. What she may have been meditating on we cannot pretend to ascertain; but after some time, she looked sharply into the “backstone,” or hob, with an air of anxiety and alarm. By and by she suspended her knitting, and listened with much earnestness, leaning her right ear over to the hob, from whence the sounds to which she paid such deep attention proceeded. At length she crossed herself devoutly, and exclaimed, “Queen of saints about us!—is it back ye are? Well sure there’s no use in talkin’, bekase they say you know what’s said of you, or to you—an’ we may as well spake yez fair.—Hem—musha, yez are welcome back, crickets, avournenee! I hope that, not like the last visit ye ped us, yez are comin’ for luck now! Moolyeen (cow without horns) died, any way, soon afther your other kailyee, (short visit) ye crathurs ye. Here’s the bread, an’ the salt, an’ the male for yez, an’ we wish ye well. Eh?—saints above, if it isn’t listenin’ they are jist like a Christhien! Wurrah, but ye are the wise an’ the quare crathurs all out!”
She then shook a little holy water over the hob, and muttered to herself an Irish charm or prayer against the evils whic crickets are often supposed by the peasantry to bring with them, and requested, still in the words of the charm, that their presence might, on that occasion, rather be a presage of good fortune to man and beast belonging to her.
“There now, ye dhonans (delicate little thing) ye, sure ye can’t say that ye’re ill-thrated here, anyhow, or ever was mocked or made game of in the same family. You have got your hansel, an’ full an’ plenty of it; hopin’ at the same time that you’ll have no rason in life to cut our best clothes from revinge. Sure an’ I didn’t desarve to have my brave stuff long body (old-fashioned Irish gown) riddled the way it was, the last time ye wor here, an’ only bekase little Barny, that has but the sinse of a gorsoon, tould yez in a joke to pack off wid yourself somewhere else.
Musha, never heed what the likes of him says; sure he’s but a caudy, (little boy) that doesn’t mane ill, only the bit o’ divarsion wid yez.”
She then resumed her knitting, occasionally stopping, as she changed her needles, to listen, with her ear set, as if she wished to augur from the nature of their chirping, whether they came for good or for evil. This, however, seemed to be beyond her faculty of translating their language; for—after sagely shaking her head two or three times, she knit more busily than before.²