The Sidhe dwell in the Sifra, or fairy palace of gold and crystal, in the heart of the hill, and they have been given youth, beauty, joy, and the power over music, yet they are often sad; for they remember that they were once angels in heaven though now cast down to earth, and though they have power over all the mysteries of Nature, yet they must die without hope of regaining heaven, while mortals are certain of immortality. Therefore this one sorrow darkens their life, a mournful envy of humanity; because, while man is created immortal, the beautiful fairy race is doomed to annihilation.
One day a great fairy chief asked Columb-Kille if there were any hope left to the Sidhe that one day they would regain heaven and be restored to their ancient place amongst the angels. But the saint answered that hope there was none; their doom was fixed, and at the judgment-day they would pass through death into annihilation; for so had it been decreed by the justice of God.
On hearing this the fairy chief fell into a profound melancholy, and he and all his court sailed away from Ireland, and went back to their native country of Armenia, there to await the coming of the terrible judgment-day, which is fated to bring the fairy race certain death on earth, without any hope of regaining heaven.
The West of Ireland is peculiarly sacred to ancient superstitions of the Sidhe race. There is poetry in the scenery that touches the heart of the people; they love the beautiful glens, the mountains rising like towers from the sea, the islands sanctified by the memory of a saint, and the green hills where Finvarra holds his court. Every lake and mountain has its legend of the spirit-land, some holy traditions of a saint, or some historic memory of a national hero who flourished in the old great days when Ireland had native chiefs and native swords to guard her; and amongst the Western Irish, especially, the old superstitions of the fore-fathers are reverenced with a solemn faith and fervour that is almost a religion. Finvarra the king is still believed to rule over all the fairies of the west, and Onagh is the fairy queen. Her golden hair sweeps the ground, and she is robed in silver gossamer all glittering as if with diamonds, but they are dew-drops that sparkle over it.
The queen is more beautiful than any woman of earth, yet Finvarra loves the mortal women best, and wiles them down to his fairy palace by the subtle charm of the fairy music, for no one who has heard it can resist its power, and they are fated to belong to the fairies ever after. Their friends mourn for them as dead with much lamentation, but in reality they are leading a joyous life down in the heart of the hill, in the fairy palace with the silver columns and the crystal walls.
Yet sometimes they are not drawn down beneath the earth, but remain as usual in the daily life, though the fairy spell is still on them; and the young men who have once heard the fairy harp become possessed by the spirit of music which haunts them to their death, and gives them strange power over the souls of men. This was the case with Carolan, the celebrated bard. He acquired all the magic melody of his notes by sleeping out on a fairy rath at night, when the fairy music came to him in his dreams; and on awaking he played the airs from memory. Thus it was that he had power to madden men to mirth, or to set them weeping as if for the dead, and no one ever before or since played the enchanting fairy music like Carolan, the sweet musician of Ireland.
There was another man also who heard the fairy music when sleeping on a rath and ever after he was haunted by the melody day and night, till he grew mad and had no pleasure in life, for he longed to be with the fairies again that he might hear them sing. Soon one day, driven to despair by the madness of longing, he threw himself from the cliff into the mountain lake near the fairy rath, and so died and was seen no more.
In the Western Islands they believe that the magic of fairy music is so strong that whoever hears it cannot choose but follow the sound, and the young girls are drawn away by the enchantment, and dance all night with Finvarra the king, though in the morning they are found fast asleep in bed, yet with a memory of all they had heard and seen; and some say that, while with the fairies, the young women learn strange secrets of love potions, by which they can work spells and dangerous charms over those whose love they desire, or upon any one who has offended and spoken ill of them.
It is a beautiful idea that the Irish airs, so plaintive, mournful, and tear-compelling, are but the remembered echoes of that spirit music which had power to draw souls away to the fairy mansions, and hold them captive by the sweet magic of the melody.