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Ceol-Sidhe: the Music of the Sidhe, Fairies, and the Tylwyth Teg

Updated on September 4, 2017
James Slaven profile image

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

The Harp of Erin (1855 engraving)
The Harp of Erin (1855 engraving)

Close your eyes and listen. Can you hear it? That just-out-of-range hum that promises joy and happiness? An unearthly music that mimics the music of the spheres, created out of magic from the Otherworld? It can lead a man astray and cause madness to those who hear it. Beware, for its beauty is misleading and will ensnare you before you realize it is too late!

Ireland – The Tuatha De Danaan and Warriors of Old

Well before they became the People of the Mound, the Tuatha De Danaan (People of the goddess Danu; aka Tuath De “tribe of the gods”) ruled Ireland. There is Brigit, the goddess of light who became a saint. The Morrigan is well known, at least for her dark aspects if not her light. Nuada, Lugh, and Manannan mac Lir appear as leaders of the Tuath De. However, in regards to music, none top The Dagda.

The Dagda, the good god, is also known as the All Father. He is one of the ancestral deities of Ireland and his tales, along with those of The Morrigan, are considered to be the oldest and involve little or no “foreign” inclusions, such as those of Lugh. The Dagda was the master of the harp and owned the oaken magic harp Uaithne, which he would play in order to keep the seasons in order. It was also used to issue commands while in battle, The Dagda himself being one of the kings of the Tuath De. His harp, also known as Coir Cethar Chuin, the Four Angled Music, was once stolen by the Fomorians after the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Along with Lugh and his brother Ogma, The Dagda rescued his harp, calling to it so that it came flying through the air to him, killing nine of the Fomor along its way.

Sometimes Uaithne is given as the harper of The Dagda, who has three sons. This is not true, though, as the three sons of the harp are the musical forms of the Tuath De: sad music (Goltraighe), the lullaby (Suantraighe), and merry music (Gentraighe).

Uaithne
Uaithne

In line next to The Dagda in musical prowess is his son, Aengus Mac Og, whose mother is Boann, goddess of the River Boyne, whose uncle is The Dagda (mythology can be a little creepy to our modern understanding of incest – it’s best to just go with it, especially if you read Greek mythology). Aengus was one of the most beautiful gods and is surrounded by birds flying about his head. He had a harp on which he created irresistible music and his lyre would draw all around him to his side. At the Feast of Samhain, his love was turned into a swan along with 149 other women, and he was able to pick her out of the group. He transformed himself into a swan in order to be with her.

Also among the Tuath De is Ailean, who resided in a Sidhe mound of Sliabh Cuilluin in Ulster. Every Samhain he would approach Tara, the seat of the Irish king, and lull the guards and all the occupants to sleep using one of the Irish forms of music. Even women in labor would succumb to his skill and fall asleep. While all were asleep, he would burn Tara down, repeating this every year until Fionn Mac Cumhaill put a stop to it.

Aengus Mac Og
Aengus Mac Og

Fionn is involved in another tale of Sidhe music. In fact, his favorite musician was Sidhe. While hunting at Slieve-nam-ban, Fionn and the Fianna came upon a turf-build grave. Looking up, he say a small man, about four feet in height, with light yellow hair hanging to his waist and playing music on his harp. Fionn found the music to be the best he had ever heard, and the entire Fianna could not fall asleep, but rather stayed awake listening to the musician play. When Fionn asked where he and his sweet music came from, he responded, “I am come out of the place of the Sidhe in Slieve-nam-ban, where ale is drunk and made; and it is to be in your company for a while I am come here.” The Fianna found this to be lucky for Fionn, and thus the musician, called Little Nut by the group, joined them. He was good at speaking and would forget no thing he heard, and there were none to compare with his music, being so good, some thought he must be the son of Lugh Lamh-Fada, that is Lugh of the Long Hand. Little Nut, from the Sidhe Mound in Slieve-nam-ban, then also taught the five musicians of the Fianna the music of the Sidhe, for there was never any better music on earth than this.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill
Fionn Mac Cumhaill

Ireland – the Sidhe in the Mounds

Even long after the Tuath De went from being the rulers of Ireland, burrowing into their mounds and becoming the Sidhe of the Otherworld, their tales of music continued.

While Sidhe music is many things, both joyful and sad, and can be used for both good and evil, from the perspective of humans, it is always enchanting. This one aspect is found in all encounters with the Shining Ones and their music. The music still takes the three main forms (more modernly known as the grave, the soothing, and the gay) as brought down from the ancient days and can make one fall asleep or dance uncontrollably, but unless there is some form of protection against it, it will always enchant the listener.

Fairy music, whether serious or not, always had a strain of grief underneath, whether it is heard or just felt. Their music would sing of hope and then sadness and then become merry once again, but still had the underlying tendency of Irish musicians to keep the national narrative of sadness underpinning all aspects of life. Perhaps it is this mingling of the morose with the joyous that makes the music of the Sidhe so wondrous to hear, and is perhaps, from where the funeral wail of keening comes. Musicians can learn fairy music if they visit the places of the fairies: mounds and earthworks, and also near the sound of water. Fairies themselves have two types of music: that which they share and teach humans, such as traditional jigs and reels, and their own, which is ethereal and strange, coming from the Otherworld.

Fairy Music (Arthur Rackham)
Fairy Music (Arthur Rackham)

There are many old mounds around in which music is often heard. The smith of Ballinasloe, his father heard the music as he was passing and could not stop dancing until he collapsed. The local steward wanted the opening closed up, but could find no one who would take on this task. Eventually a young man volunteered, but was dead of exhaustion by the end of the week, from dancing to the fairy tunes.

A boy near Ballinderreen was walking late one night and, passing the nearby Sidhe mound, came across a monstrous dog who was howling in pain. When the boy went to investigate, the canine disappeared, but out of the mound came the most beautiful music. A woman came out with the music, and the young man feared that she was a Banshee, come to keen at his upcoming demise. She wore a red petticoat, a striped jacket, and had a white band around her waist. Rather than keen, however, her singing continued in its beauty, although the lad could not work out what she was trying to express. He followed her as she walked, until they happened upon another opening into the mound, behind a row of bushes. She went into the mound and he was blinded by bright lights that erupted from therein. He hurried home and collapsed, and was having fits until his mother laid a Rosary upon his chest and prayed over him.

Even keeping away from the mounds was no guarantee of safety, as there are ales of living near the sea, where mothers would hear music playing at night, soft and sweet and full of melancholy, after which her children would all passed away, one by one, although without any pain or discomfort. Girls were warned not to sing by lakes if she is by herself, as the fairies will draw her down to sing for them in their palaces beneath the waves.

Bean Chaol a Chot Uaine 's na Gruaige Buidhe (the slender woman of the green kirtle and of the yellow hair)
Bean Chaol a Chot Uaine 's na Gruaige Buidhe (the slender woman of the green kirtle and of the yellow hair)

Across the countryside, there is the tale of Bean Chaol a Chot Uaine 's na Gruaige Buidhe (that is, “the slender woman of the green kirtle and of the yellow hair”), who can bring forth music from a simple reed that lulls anyone to sleep who hears it, regardless of how active their brain and body. She can also rouse those same listeners to mirth and merriment and to dance, no matter how lethargic they may be. This was not her only magic, either, as she could convert water into a rich red wine and could sew the threads of a spider into beautiful tartan plaid.

The best thing to do is leave when you hear their music. Two men were hunting rabbits one evening when they heard a tambourine and drum. Upon closer inspection, the sound of a fiddle came through as well, and they realized it was coming from beneath the ground. They rushed home, foregoing any further rabbit hunting that night, but at least were safe and sound.

Dancing Fairies (Arthur Rackham)
Dancing Fairies (Arthur Rackham)

Even St. Patrick himself was not immune. Writings tell us that when blessed Patrick of the Bells walked Ireland, he did not refuse the promise of heaven to those who belonged to the mounds, of those who were of the old divine race for whom Mannanan himself had chosen these hidden dwellings. It was one of their musicians who played to the holy Clerks till Patrick himself said, “But for some tang of the music of the Sidhe that is in it, I never heard anything nearer to the music of heaven.” That music is heard yet from time to time; and it was one of those hill dwellings that the father of McDonough the Galway piper, my friend, was taken till the Sidhe had taught him all their wild tunes and so bewitched his pipes that they would play of themselves if he threw them up among the rafters. On a related note, even Patrick himself marveled at the beauty of the women of the Sidhe, wondering at their white skin and yellow hair, and was impressed that they would not simply leave their human lovers, even when he would become withered, bent, and grey.

St. Patrick
St. Patrick

The Tylwyth Teg of Wales

Although we have focused on Ireland, Wales has a plethora of similar folklore regarding this beautiful music, such as the death of Nefydd. Upon his death, was taken to the sea. There he jumped out of his coffin and boarded a ship, where the most enchanting music was playing. The ship only softly touched upon the tips of the waves, showing itself to be of Otherworldly origin.

A story is told of the piper who, crossing the moors one evening, came to a lonely grey hillside. As he rounded the hill, he was startled to hear music. Turning around, the abandoned hillside now contained a large castle, with lights and music pouring out of the doors and windows. He approached with no apprehension and walked inside, where he was caught by guards, fairies no less, and taken to the main hall. There, the fairies were dancing and feasting, and the piper was made to play music for the party goers for two days. As he started to become anxious, his captors promised freedom if he would play their favorite song. Able to keep the tune fast and energetic, the fairies were true to their word and allowed him to leave. As he started to walk around the hill again, he turned around (quite the slow learner, this piper!), but the castle was gone. When he arrived at his village, there were none around that he knew. Sitting by the fire in the pub, he discovered he had become a legend himself, the piper who went missing. His two days in the fairy castle had become 100 years in his own lands.

Tylwyth Teg
Tylwyth Teg

In a similar Manx tale, a man was traveling across the mountains when he came upon a feasting hall. Attracted to the building by the enchanting music, he was allowed in and escorted into the main hall. There he noticed several people from the surrounding area. Although he waved at them, none returned the greeting and even ignored him until he was given a goblet of ale. At this point, they finally spoke to him, quietly warning him not to take a drink. The man threw the cup on the ground, at which point the building vanished and the music ceased, at which point he remembered one should never accept fairy food or drink, or else one will be their captive.

The fairies of Llanfabon were known to be hideous and thought to be just as bad with their attitudes towards humans. They would play music all night, not allowing anyone to sleep, and would also use their music to lure people into desolate disease ridden bogs.

Tylwyth Teg
Tylwyth Teg

Also known as the Tylwyth Teg, Welsh fairies are fond of entrancing humans to dance. One such story is that of Shui Rhys, a beautiful girl of seventeen. A poor farmer’s daughter, her ivory skin and black curly hair were known throughout the area. Every day she would have to milk the cows, a job she was not fond of, at all. One night she did not return home, however, causing trouble with her mother, as the cows were left to themselves. The girl blamed the Tylwyth Teg, as they enraptured her with their music and would not let her stop dancing until the morning. Her mother did not believe this story of little men dressed in green, playing music on tiny harps, but after hearing the lyrics her daughter repeated, relented and believed her daughter. Sadly, nothing was to be done and the girl finally disappeared one day, never to come back.

Shui Rhys
Shui Rhys

Two farm hands, Rhys and Llewellyn were returning home one night at twilight, when Rhys heard music. Telling Llewellyn, who could hear nothing, to go on without him, he ran across the hills, dancing as he went. When he never returned, Llewellyn explained to everyone what had happened, but nobody believed him. Rather, they assumed he had murdered Rhys and was trying to hide his guilt. A farmer, who was learned in fairy-lore, overheard the story and insisted they all go to where Rhys was last seen. There, Llewellyn finally heard the music. He touched David, who was a member of the group, who could also then hear the music, and it was in this way all of them could eventually listen to the entrancing music. Before them appeared a great number of little people dancing around a ring, and Rhys was in the midst of them, dancing like a madman. Llewellyn grabbed him as he whirled past, dragging him out of the circle. Confused, Rhys asked why they had interrupted him after just five minutes of dance, and would not believe them when he was told he had been missing for days. He was from that time forever touched and soon after passed away.

Much like Irish tales, the music of the Tylwyth Teg has a subtle sadness, mixed with its intangible harmonies. Although they are said to prefer the harp, any instrument would be used to entice humans to dance, even if the person was an invalid.

Corwen Moel Ty Uchaf
Corwen Moel Ty Uchaf

Conclusion

So regardless of which Celtic country you are in and whether you’re by the mounds or the sea, unless you want to spend a forever-day dancing for the Sidhe, it is best to run away when you hear their music. Their sweet, melodious, enchanting music that puts all other music to shame. Now to end, here are two snippets of poetry on the matter.

“No son of a bright Gaedhil shall get

The harp of O’Brien of the flowing hair;

No son of a foreigner shall obtain

The graceful, gem-set, fairy instrument!”

(“The O’Brien” Mac Conmidhe)


“Gray and glossy are their garments,

Twisted and fair is their flowing hair.

Wounded men would sink in sleep,

Tho’ ever so heavily teeming with blood,

With the warbling of the fairy birds

From the eaves of her sunny grianan.”

(The house of Crede)


“Healer of each wounded warrior,

Comforter of each fine woman,

Guiding refrain over blue water,

Image-laden, sweet-sounding music!”

(Book of the O’Conner Don)

The Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara

Further Reading (references):

Pre-Christian Ireland (Ulick Joseph Bourke)

Traditional Music and Irish Society: Historical Perspectives (Martin Dowling)

Fairies and Folk of Ireland (William Henry Frost)

Running with the Fairies: Towards a Transpersonal Anthropology of Religion (Dennis Gaffin)

Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Lady Augusta Gregory)

Gods and Fighting Men: the Story of Tuatha De Danann and of the Fianna of Ireland (Lady Augusta Gregory)

On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish: a Series of Lectures (Eugene O’Curry)

The Characteristic Traits of Irish Music (Charles W Pearce, esq.)

Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx (John Rhys)

British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythology, Legends, and Traditions (Wirt Sykes)

The Fairy−Faith in Celtic Countries (W.Y. Evans Wentz)

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde)

Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association (Vol 23)

The Dagda (on the Gunderstrup Cauldron)
The Dagda (on the Gunderstrup Cauldron)

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