The Fairy Washerwoman, also called the Washer of the Night, Washer at the Ford and Singer of the Night, is well established in Scotland and Ireland. She has been seen in Wales, very frequently in Western France, less often in other parts of France and Switzerland; even far Korea knows her. In Ireland she appears as a bit of mythological folk-lore before the end of the 10th century. The hero-tale, Bruiden-da-Chocae, narrates the adventures of, among others, King Cormac Conloingeas, the eldest son of Conchobar mac Nessa deceased, and his followers. “They went to Druim Airthir, which is now called The Garman. There they unyoked their chariots. As they were there they saw a red woman on the edge of the ford washing her chariot and its cushions and its harness. When she lowered her hand, the bed of the river became red with gore and with blood. But when she raised her hand over the river’s edge, not a drop therein but was lifted on high; so that they went dry foot over the bed of the river.” They asked her what she was doing there. “And then, standing on one foot, and with one eye closed, she chanted to them, saying : `I wash the harness of a King who will perish . . . !’ The messenger came to Cormac and told him of the evil prophecy which the Badb had made for him.” Cormac himself then interrogated her, and learned that the blood-stained equipment did indeed represent his own and his men’s. (Extracted from a translation in the Revue Celtique, xxi. 157.)
A similar incident occurs in The Battle of Gabhra, in which heroic tale Oscar and his 300 Fians meet with a fairy woman washing clothes at a river. There is blood on the clothes and blood is showing on the water. She foretells the disaster and slaughter which ensue. The reciter of a Highland version (The Fians; Argyllshire Series, IV, chap. ii.) said that the tradition of the Washer’s fatal character arose from this vision of Oscar’s; before then she “had not been an omen of evil.” Cuchulain likewise saw this apparition washing his bloodstained gear. (Hull, Folk-Lore, xii. 64). In another adventure he meets, also at a ford, a chariot drawn by a red horse, which is driven by a red woman with red eyebrows and red clothing. Alongside her walks a huge man wearing a red cloak. The woman prophesies that she will entangle Cuchulain’s feet in his coming combat at the ford of Ardee, in the shape of a water-snake (Leahy, Heroic Romances, ii. 132ff.). In this incident there is no mention of washing.
In mediæval times the Washer reappears as Brõnach Boirne, the Mourner of Burren Head, in Co. Clare. She foreboded the great slaughter at Corcomroe Abbey in 1318 by washing skulls and bones at the edge of Lough Rask (Wood-Martin, Elder Faiths, i. 366). The deaths in battle of Prince Donchad O’Brien and all his kindred were foreshadowed by a vision of her at the same lakeside, busily washing “human limbs and heads, with gory weapons and clothes,” so that the lake was defiled with blood (Westropp, Folk-Lore, xxi. 187-8). An English army encountered the same apparition washing armour and rich robes in the river Fergus. Through an interpreter she told the invaders that her name was Bronach and she “lodged in the green fairy mounds of the land.” Next day de Clare, his sons, and most of his troops, lay dead near the ford of Dyscrt. Before any grave disaster happened in her own territory, Aoibhill, the fairy queen of South Munster, used to show herself with twenty-five attendants, washing clothes in a lake near Inchiquin. Yeats, in his Secret Rose, page 73, introduces the Washer in an episode which is probably a genuine legend. Five English troopers see her washing a corpse at a river in Sligo, and each man recognises his own features in those of the dead. Misled on their further way by her consort they ride over the edge of a cliff, and all five are killed.
So recently even as 1907 the Washer at the Ford has foreshadowed calamity in Clare; see Westropp, loc. cit.
Modern Wales seems to have forgotten her, but in 1556 the dogs of Llanferras in Denbighshire had a habit of gathering at a ford in the parish and barking at a fairy woman washing clothes there. She told Urien Rheged, “I am the daughter of the King of Annwn,” which amounted to saying that she was a princess of the Land of Shadow. Nevertheless, she was a source of life, not of death, for a son and a daughter were born to her and King Urien (Aberystwyth Studies, vol. iv, where Miss Gwenan Jones adds a conspectus of the subject of the Washer). Lhwyd the antiquary related in 1693 that a young woman used to be seen coming out of a lake above Bettws-y-Coed to wash clothes, which she folded up and took back into the lake (Celtic Folklore, page 133). Rhys identifies the lake as the Llyn Glaslyn of the maps.
In Cromarty a tall female was once seen beetling more than 30 bloodstained smocks and shirts on a river-stone and spreading them along the grassy bank. That evening the roof of Fearn Abbey fell in and killed 36 worshippers (Miller, Scenes and Legends of the N. of Scotland, page 297). On the Isle of Mull she sang a beautiful melody while cleansing bloody garments before a man’s death in battle (MacCormick, The Island of Mull, page 87). Recently collected Highland folk-lore depicts her washing the shroud of the fated one and singing his dirge, as she sometimes does in Brittany. If she can be intercepted she will grant a wish in exchange for her liberty, like a mermaid. She is not everywhere a forerunner of calamity. In the Reay district of Ross-shire she left descendants, as she did in Denbighshire. A typical Highland specimen of her is described in MacCulloch’s Misty Isle of Skye, page 242, and a more innocent one in the Trans. of the Gaelic Soc. of Inverness, xxii. 205. See also Folk-Lore, xxv. 87ff.
There is a note on early French lavandiëres de nuit in the Revue Celtique, iii. 421, and on a modern form of the belief in Souvestre’s Le Foyer Breton, i. 144, where they appear in a company, and do not predict death but inflict it. In Sébillot’s Folk-lore de France other varieties of the Washer are recorded. Most of them belong to Brittany, where, if you accept an invitation to help with the wringing, your arms are screwed round and broken. Garments and lace washed by the more harmless fairies are often of miraculous fineness, and lucky to steal. Breton Washers tend, like most Breton apparitions, to become revenantsspirits of the dead who have sins to expiate. In France the lavandiëres are generally white, and wash their own linen. The red ones, a minority, wash the garments of those about to die. A very few are black, and males are equally rare. Some of the women, perhaps deprived of their ancient fords, wash under bridges. All kinds may be seen in daylight, but the night is their favourite season.
In one at least of the modern French stories of the Washer she might easily pass for her Irish forerunner of a thousand years ago. When a boy was passing a place on the bank of the river Indre which had the reputation of being haunted by her, a tall female figure, all of a red colour, rushed out at him, wringing a handful of bloody linen.
The Manx fairy’s candle is not a property of typical Washers elsewhere. It may be due to an assimilation of her to Will o’ the Wisp, as in a district of Western France, where the feu follet has become a spirit which does laundry work at the little bridges. To placate it a small article of dress should be thrown over the parapet as one crosses, and next morning it will be found there, carefully washed and neatly folded. In the Department of Ille-et-Vilaine “a kind of light” is seen under old bridges when the Washers are at work there (Sëbillot, ii. 353). The Manx view of the Washer as a bringer of bad weather is paralleled only, so far as I am aware, in Provence, where she squats on Mont Ventoux and wrings out torrential rains (Sëbillot, i. 230). There is, however, the popular saying, not confined to the Isle of Man, that when rain falls in sunshine the fairies are doing their washing.
In Yorkshire, as in the Isle of Man and parts of the Highlands, the superstition has lost its atmosphere of fatality. At a well near Kettleness in the West Riding the fairies were well known to wash their clothes by night, and the thumps of their “battledores” were heard even at Runswick (Atkinson, Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, page 53).
So far away as Korea a spirit in the form of a woman is seen washing clothes in the rivers. Anyone who ventures too near her is caught and drowned (FolkLore, xi. 332). Possibly she is what botanists call “an escape.”
Surely the washing fairy is one of the oddest of all the odd creatures inhabiting the Celtic wonderland! Even as a goddess of battle and death in battle she was addicted to imitating a prosaic human occupation, and this became her chief characteristic when she emerged into Christian times as a banshee in the popular sense of the word, heralding death and singing the dirge of the dead-to-be. But the Manx Washer, as will be seen, is the tamest and least picturesque of the sisterhood.
The fairy-washerwoman of Maughold haunted a crossing-place on the Struanny-Nice named Boayl-ny-Nice, “Place of the Washing,” q.v., Part One, chap. vi.
A local man, R. L., calls this spectral laundress a Liannanshee, and says she held a lighted candle in one hand while she beat the clothes, or whatever it was she had, with her sladhan held in the other. A still older native of the district, named K–, whose father actually saw her, and was not frightened at all, says she was “a lil red woman, and used to have a candle stuck in the bank beside her ” (which was more sensible and convenient than holding it). In both versions she came out of the river, and to see her was a sure sign of dirty weather at hand, but of nothing worse. (I enquired carefully about that.) The Washer may not have been thought to be always the same personage, or a party of fairies may sometimes have been seen, for I have heard the Boayl-ny-Nice casually alluded to as “the place where the fairies washed their clothes.” But I could meet with no more than the two accounts just given.
In other places in the Island it was always in parties that they did their washing. There was a flat stone, not now discoverable with certainty, in the Rhenab river a little way below where the lodge now stands, and at this the fairies were both heard and seen at night and early in the morning, washing clothes.
At the side of the Gretch river in Lonan, in a spot called “the Fairy Ground,” the fairies used to be seen washing their babies. These solicitous mothers, like the Maughold laundresses, always wore red costumes.
Three other fairy washing-places, which have been mentioned in print but are not included in any volume of folk-lore, may be added here.
At a river-crossing in Glen Rushen the fairies soaked, beat, and shook out their garments, and hung them on the gorse-bushes to dry. One article, a beautifully-made cap which was too small for the smallest child in the glen, was brought home by a man who saw it being put on a bush; but his mother made him take it back, “for fear the fairies would be afther it, an’ there wouldn’ be res’ in the house on the night ” (Lioay Manninagh, iv. 161).
Again, at an unnamed place in Arbory the fairies were often heard ” beetling and bleaching their clothes down at the stream.”
(source: A Third Manx Scrapbook by W Walter Gill (1963); artwork is ‘Washer at the Ford’ by Bill Dean, and is available to purchase on ebay)