A Brief Discussion About Fairy Music

By Tobias Wayland

It’s cold and wet like only Wisconsin in late winter can be when Emily and I set out to walk to Brocach on Madison’s capitol square.  It’s not a long walk from our apartment, but the deep chill seemingly doubles the distance as we shrug our shoulders high for warmth, and hurry to our destination.  The eventual sight of the Irish pub is a welcome one, and I look forward to both food and drink to melt the frost from my bones.  We’ve come here this evening to interview The Currach Irish Trio about their favorite Irish myths, but right now I’m only looking as far ahead as my first Irish coffee. 

Our shepherd’s pies and hot Irish coffees arrive just in time for the music to begin.  The Currach Irish Trio plays traditional Irish music, and the lilting harmony they produce is at once haunting and invigorating.  Their show is vibrant, interactive, and fun—and if you ever get the chance I’d recommend seeing them.  They've wrapped up their set by the time we've finished our meals and I’ve settled into an after-dinner glass of whiskey, so I amble over to the band and politely introduce myself. 

They’re pleasant men, and when I tell them who I am they point me towards Sheila, with whom they’d been playing this evening.  Sheila greets me warmly, and conducts herself quite well during our conversation; although I can’t quite help but feel that she may have been put on the spot.  I tell her why I’m there—to find out if they have any favorite Irish myths and legends—and she tells me about one with which, to my surprise and delight, I am not yet familiar. 

Now, I’d heard of fairy music before, certainly.  Legend has it that if one must travel out alone at night that one must beware any strange lights or music, because to allow oneself to be distracted by such stimuli could lead to a most dreadful interaction with the fairy folk—stories exist that tell of men being struck blind for interrupting fairies dancing in their ring, or even literally dancing themselves to death.  I had not heard, though, that it’s told some who have witnessed such melodies had not only lived to tell about it, but recorded and passed the songs onto the mortal realm. 

Sheila, pictured left, knows a little something about enchanting music.

Sheila, pictured left, knows a little something about enchanting music.

So, I sit listening intently as Sheila tells me about fairy songs with a twinkle in her eye.  It seems it takes a special sort of person to possess—or perhaps be possessed by—the music of the good folk.     

“Passionate musicians sometimes hear something that drives them crazy,” she says.  “And afterwards they try frantically to remember.” 

We begin with a song she calls “Paddy’s Rambles through the Park.”  According to legend, there was once a man walking home late at night, and as he passed a graveyard he heard music of a most enthralling nature.  The man was immediately obsessed, and followed the song into the cemetery. 

The man memorized the melody, and wrote it down as soon as he was able.   

It’s a popular song, I’m told, and one that’s freely available online.  Be warned, however, that Sheila describes it as “haunting, spooky, and unusual.” 

I’ve taken the liberty of doing some research, of course, and I have found one other version of the story, wherein the man stumbles through a fairy fort as opposed to a graveyard, but is enchanted by the music all the same. 

The other song we speak of is called the “Fairy Reel.”  This piece of otherworldly composition is both a song and a dance that are commonly found together.  The origin of this one is a little murkier, but it involves a man who encounters a strange gentleman one night.  

“Out of the shadows comes a guy that says ‘I’m going to play a tune you’ll never forget’,” she asserts. 

The man frantically tries to remember it, as that seems to be what one does when encountering the music of the fey people, and the Fairy Reel was built out of that.   

Sheila describes this tune as having an “enchanting quality.” 

“It sets my hair on edge,” she laughs.  “When I first heard it I said ‘that’s a fairy tune, of course it is.’” 

Fairy music is said to have the ability to beguile the hearts of men, and if you're not careful you can lose an entire night to it, or in some cases even years.     

Given its dangerous attributes, I'm surprised to learn from Sheila that fairy music is something the Irish see as relatively normal.  

"It's just another genre of music," she explains.  "To them it's just sort of 'every day'."    

I take some comfort in that acknowledgment of the otherworld’s normality, and I promise that if I’m ever in a situation where it comes up, I’ll do my best to remember any fairy music I hear—with the obvious caveat that I’m about as musical as an empty bucket falling down stairs.  Luckily, it isn’t an issue on the way home as Emily and I head back into the frigid Wisconsin air.  I imagine it’s too cold outside for fairies.