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The Humble Ulster Brownie

It will surprise some, but not all, that when in the 18th Century so many of Ulster’s sons and daughters travelled across the Atlantic ocean to make a new home in the Colonies, that along with them came other beings. While not often talked about here in the 21st Century, Ulster has long been the home to races that belong to the realm of Faerie. This article will be about the Gruagach or humble Ulster House Brownie. There are of course several races of beings that live in the Faerie of Ireland and the British Isles. No doubt more than one of them have colonised and settled in the New World, but it was Gruagach, the Ulster House Brownie, that did so particularly well. They came in the ships along with the first settlers and are still here to this day.

The Ulster Brownie

The humble Ulster Brownie has several names by which he is called, a Ulster House Fairy, a Grogan, a Pecht, etc., but the real word for this diminutive fellow is a Gruagach (said, groo-gach). I will point out here, as a rule of thumb, it is always better to call a Fairy by his real name, safer too. The first Gruagaigh (plural form, said Groo-gee) arrived in the Colonies in the mid 1600s, but they were few and far between. The date that they came in numbers was 4 August 1718 when several families of them came as stowaways on two ships from Coleraine that landed in Boston harbour that day. According to Gruagaigh lore these were the house brownies of the McKeen family from the Bann Valley and that of their in-laws the McGregors. It is a matter of great pride in the current Gruagaigh community to have Bann Valley roots. The McKeen family were prominent; James McKeen becoming the first magistrate in a new colony in what is now New Hampshire. From this new colony the Gruagaigh spread, sending families south to the Pennsylvania Colony, especially around the Marsh Creek Settlement, where present day Gettysburg is. These Brownies became numerous there by the 1740s, so much so as to cause concern and great befuddlement to the locals.

Like the Anglo-Celtic settlers on the frontier, the Ulster Brownies were spreading to points south and west by the 1750s. They followed the Great Wagon Road down through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and into northern Georgia. They were with Daniel Boone as he led groups of settlers through the Cumberland Gap into Tennessee and Kentucky. From 1780s onward they spread through the Southern Hill country and Uplands and remain there to this day.

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th Century they were a fixture in many of the older communities in the Southern Uplands. Still believed in they enjoyed a certain elevated status in those communities that keep traditions in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, in the wooded hill country of Mississippi and north Alabama, and is spots in the Appalachian Mountains, especially in the western Carolinas. A factor that is probably a related point is all these communities have a number of people with the Second Sight, called An Taibhsearachd in the old language. Those with the Second Sight have the ability to see things, such as spirits, ghosts, and even into Faerie, so they could see these Brownies. One family I know of, the Tweedys originally of County Cavan, but now found in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, were noted for having the Second Sight and were knowledgeable about the local Brownies. The Second Sight is also a burden as those with it could also see spirits that were portents of death in their community. For this reason the Tweedys, like many families with An Taibhsearchd, sought solitude and quiet out of the way places to live.

It is very likely many readers have seen a Gruagach at some time in their lives. You often get a fleeting glimpse of one moving through a doorway or opening of some sort, at such times they are briefly visible even to the average person. It is difficult to get people to acknowledge much less talk about Brownies these days, even when they see them. One certain sign that you have a Gruagach about is when you start missing things that you know you placed somewhere. It is the nature of a Gruagach that he finds great mirth in picking up your car keys, carrying them into another room and putting a magazine over them. If you have noticed a pattern of tricks such as this in your home, it is very possible you have a Gruagach living with you.

Despite the tricks they play upon a family, the Gruagach is a good thing to have around. First, they protect a home from other unpleasant, even evil, spirits that roam the earth; always a good thing. It you suspect you have one living in your house you should do what you can to make the fellow happy. Now some people may be bothered by the apparent heathen aspects of encouraging a Gruagach to live in one’s house. This actually is not a concern. It is unique, but the pre Christian gods, demi-gods and assorted members of the Faerie never had any great angst against the New Faith. The Gaels of Ireland and Scotland and the Cmyru of Wales just evolved into the New Faith without much fuss and there never was any conflict in their psyche about this evolution. Perhaps the beings of the Celtic Faerie also saw no conflict. I have even heard of Church Brownies so that would suggest some sort cooperation, but these are matters for theologians and philosophers, outside the topic of this short article on the humble house Brownie.

Philadelphia Wagon Road Map

The Philadelphia Wagon Road Map
(Click on Map for Larger Version)

The Gruagach will do simple cleaning chores around a house, at night usually. He will find things for you, often placing them in some obvious spot that you have examined many times in a search, causing great amazement that the object was overlooked. He will prevent accidents; look after your house while you are away. His needs are few, a small stool by the fire, a quiet spot, perhaps the back of a little used room or attic or cellar. You can attract them by playing traditional music. They are fond of the fiddle, whistles and bodhrán and absolutely love harp music. They enjoy ale, whiskey and porridge, which they consume the essence of these things, sometimes leaving the actual physical form of them.

Do not make a fuss over a Gruagach as he likes to be left alone as a rule and will make himself apparent to you on his terms only. Never mock or in anyway mistreat one. It can turn into a Boggart, which is a Gruagach that has turned bad. With a Boggart you can expect trouble, food will rot, milk spoil, things you need will disappear permanently, or worse, accidents and illness.

When you think of the Diaspora, do not limit yourself to our people entirely. There were our customs, the physical bits and pieces of our culture such as our breeds of livestock, or flora and fauna, etc. and our folkways and lore and even the odd Brownie. This article has only touched the tip of the iceberg on this topic. There are other members of the Ulster Faerie in the New World, the Púca, called a Jackro in the Upland South to name one. There are other wonderful beings such as the Aos-Sí. There is a tendency in modern people to think of Faerie as inhabited by diminutive beings such as brownies, wee folk and all that, but the Aos-Sí are tall, fair, wonderful beings of light, they are the old gods and demi-gods of the Gael, also called the Tuatha De Dannan. They are not to be trifled with, a now sad race with growingly infrequent interaction with man. There are only a dozen accounts of any one of them visiting North America, only Manannán and Dagda seem to take any interest in the Gaels on our side of the Atlantic. It is an interesting concept that these beings live among us even to this day; something for us to think about. One thing is certain, the Ulster Faerie participated in the great Migration, so have a care a Gruagach may be a close to you as your cat.

Barry R McCain © 2008

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