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The White Fairy Horse

As told by Dermott MacManus

The Gweestion is a typical east Mayo river, as it winds its way quietly between long, low stonewalled hills overlooking low-lying pastures, too often flooded, til it reaches its mother, the great Moy. Its banks are thick with wild flowers and waving water-reeds, with stretches of clean, pebbly bottom, and its meadows a home for many birds, the plaintive cries of the curlew and pilibin (Green plover) dominating all.

In one place the stream widens out into a large pool, which soon gives way to a lovely stretch of clear running water over gravel, where the trout can be seen lazily feeding as though all time were before them. This bit of the river is called Coolilan, or perhaps it should be Coolilinn, the "back of the pool". Being quiet shallow it was a favourite place for paddling and even bathing in hot weather, whilst when the salmon came up the poachers would be there by nights with their spears and flaming sods. The fields were good places, too, for the lads to lark and play their rough games. But the best field of all was further up, just by the big pool, the centre of which was carefully avoided, even in a boat, as it was so deep, no one knew how deep. It had the ominous name of Linne a Bhaite - the "pool of the drowning man". As no one could swim that far under water, for all one knew it might reach down to the very depths, perhaps even to the caverns of the mysterious water-spirits, a dangerous branch of the Sidhe, the Fairy-folk.

One warm summer many, many years ago a group of fifteen or more lads were romping in this field, using bent sticks as hurleys to knock stones and homemade wooden balls about. They stopped for a few moments to rest and talk in a corner of the field far from the river, when suddenly one of them called out and pointed to the bank. There they saw a white horse clambering ashore from the river. It was a magnificent animal, strong and well-made, with a long white mane decorating its arched neck and a flowing white tail its muscular quarters. The lads stood gazing in admiration. Whose could it be, was their first thought. Between them they knew every horse for miles around but no ordinary country man or farmer could own such a wonderful animal without it becoming famous everywhere. Meanwhile it took no notice of the boys, but quietly grazed, moving steadily further and further from the river as it did so.

The boys drew nearer to examine it more closely and still it took no heed of them. After a while the bolder spirits went up to it, patting its neck and withers and, as it still ignored them, they were soon feeling and admiring its legs and pasterns. Eventually one actually mounted it, but quickly slid off again and another took his place. Then another boy, rather a bully, pulled him off and got on himself. It still went on grazing, so he kicked it with his heels, when it raised its head, walked a short way and went on grazing again. Seeing his companions begin to laugh, he got angry and kicked it again as hard as he could, and this time it began to trot.

Suddenly, with a loud neigh, it swung round and began to canter, which quickly became a wild gallop as it headed straight to the river. Its rider, in alarm, tried to dismount but to his dismay found he could not, his legs seeming glued to its sides. Frantically he called for help from the other horrified and now frightened boys, but they were powerless to act as it all happened so quickly and unexpectedly. The white horse reached the bank, but instead of walking into the stream in the way it had come out, it gathered its powerful quarters under it and gave a huge leap into the air, coming down in the centre of the deep pool. It plunged in head first just like a diving man, carrying the unfortunate lad with it into the depths and still firmly locked to its sides. The boys looked on horrified as they saw the swirling water where both horse and rider had disappeared. Soon even this vanished and all that was to be seen was the smooth water of the stream flowing quietly and endlessly as if nothing had happened, and that was the last ever seen of either horse or lad - or that ever will be as far as the lad is concerned.

This affair was, of course, discussed widely and at length all round the countryside, and so the details have come down to us. The elders and all those who were 'fey' and had psychic powers unanimously held that the lad had been carried down to the caverns of the water-spirits, there to toil eternally in their service, tending the horses in their mystic stables. And so the tradition continues. Who can tell or say 'yea' or 'nay"?