Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 2
Who is the King of the Faeries?
Any Irish dancer knows what we’re talking about, and everyone else thinks we sound like we’re about to tell a bedtime story, so we’ll clue everyone in: King of the Faeries is one of Irish dance’s 38 traditional set dances. Traditional set dances are named for the music they’re set to (i.e. the trad set “Blackbird” is set to music titled “Blackbird”) and are unique from solo dances as they each have a relatively consistent set of choreography (though each school has its own, slight variation.) While dancers in the lower grades perform these trad sets at a fast-paced tempo, Champion dancers perform at a significantly slower pace to better show off their control and technique.
It’s believed that the trad set dance, “King of the Faeries” stems from a Scottish, Jacobite song titled “Bonny Charlie” (after Charles Edward Stewart, the “Rebel Prince” who attempted to reclaim his throne after his father was exiled) and also ironically made the rounds in the 1700s as “King William of Orange” and “Briton’s Glory” on English soil. Even in its original publication as a trad set in 1840 in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs did it have a different title—the long and baffling “Your Old Wig is the Love of My Heart.” By 1927 it had evolved in the more understandable title “The Lonesome Wedding,” and as late as the 1950s it was popularized in American-Irish communities as “Scollay’s Reel” after a Shetland fiddler of the same name. However, the Irish dance has long known it as “King of the Faeries” and lore evolved around the tune—it’s said to be a summoning song and that if played three times at a feis, the King will appear!
But the question remains…which faerie king will answer the call? Give it a listen here or here and let it play in the background while you read about the possibilities. We have quite a few options…let’s investigate some of the most interesting ones!
Our first contender is Finvarra (generally pronounced phonetically these days, meaning “fair-haired,”) King of the Daoine Sídhe (descedents of the god-like Tuatha Dé Danann,) and called “King of the Faeries of Connacht.” The best comparison to more familiar mythology would paint him as a Hades character—he is also considered the King of the Dead, is generous with favors to those who please him…and abducts the occasional mortal woman. We’re unsure what his beautiful Fae queen, Una/Oona, has to say about that! Their home is said to be Knockmaa in Co. Galway, and Finvarra is believed to be responsible for negotiating with the invading Milesians to save his people—though his peace treaty did force them to stay in the Otherworld, underground. This particular King of the Faeries is the reason no one wants to disturb a Fae mound in Ireland, as it’s rumored that under his leadership the Sídhe built many beautiful cities in their new home—don’t want to disturb them!
Next we have Ailill (pronounced all-yill, meaning “beauty” or “elf,”)—more of a King Consort than a king in his own right, as he was chosen by Queen Maebh (i.e. Maeve, most likely the inspiration for the bane of all ) to rule beside her because he was “a man without meanness, fear, or jealousy, a match for [her] own greatness.” (Though he had to pay his own dowry for the honor of becoming the Milesian Faerie King of Leinster, despite also having claims to the Connacht throne.) Ailill is usually depicted as an extremely tall man with a ruddy complexion and a gold diadem. The full story of the couple after they initially fell in love is one of jealousy and sadness, but you can learn more about it if you wish here.
We could also consider lubdan (pronounced as it looks, meaning “leprechaun,”) who’s probably more of your idea of a faerie than any of the others. lubdan was the Faerie King of Ulster and the “Wee Folk” (aka the Faylinn) with his Queen, Bebo, and is best known for his boastful nature and diminutive size (a common trait among the Faylinn.) His best known story was his attempt to prove his bravery and worth by stealing some of the giants’ (aka the average-sized inhabitants of Ulster) porridge. The attempt failed and to escape his captors, lubdan had to relinquish his prized possession—enchanted shoes that allowed the wearer to walk on water. Read another tale about his exploits here.
And lastly: Midhir (pronounced roughly like mi-dear, meaning “to judge or measure”)—son of Dagda, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, though Midhir continued to live aboveground (in current day Co. Longford) after the Tuatha were defeated by the Milesians. Though Midhir is often credited as the creator of all the rivers and lakes that keep the Irish countryside so green, he’s more often referred to as a ruler than a god-like figure. He’s best known for what the Irish do best--a tragic love story that echoes Zeus and Hera’s relationship in Greek mythology. Midhir was quite the ladies’ man, though he was married to his Queen, Fúamach. There are many stories of Fuamach turning the faerie Midhir most favored—Étain—in to various creatures (usually something that flies, as Midhir is associated with birds) to punish her husband.
Kingship might not generally be a democracy by definition, but we’re American over here…who’s got your vote? Let us know in the comments!
This post is part of a series. Read our last folklore post, a general overview of the Fae's love of dance, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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