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Red Cap and Red Man

October 31, 2008

As promised, this month’s post – just in the nick of time, on Halloween or Samhain to you purists – concerns the relationship between the Redcap of Scots Borders folklore (discussed last month) and the Red Man (Far Darrig, Fear Dearg), a solitary fairy of Irish folklore. Was the Redcap merely a translation of the original Irish character into a new setting across the Irish Sea? The short answer: probably not, unless you are prepared to look at very general Indo-European fairy prototypes..

W.B. Yeats Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry is a key source for the Red Man and is encyclopedic in nature: The Far Darrig (fear dearg), which means the Red Man, for he wears a red cap and coat, busies himself with practical joking, especially with gruesome joking. This he does, and nothing else.

That’s pretty much all Yeats had to say on the subject, and that’s what you’ll find paraphrased all over the internet, with additional details (such as the fact that farmers consider meeting him very lucky) added here and there, often for the purpose of using him in role-playing games. There are no stories in Yeat’s text about the Red Man, except for the curious Far Darrig in Donegal, an amusing tale of fairy deception that makes no specific reference to red men, red caps or any other identifying features of this type of fairy, and so we must assume that it was the nature of the deception that promoted Yeats (or his source) to call the tale by this name.

The Red Man also appears in the work of that other luminary of Irish folklore, Thomas Crofton Coker. In the Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland he states that the Red man and Red cap are probably the same, but also draws parralels between the red cap worn by the Merrow, to Robin Hood, Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck), and to the German Hobgoblin and Kobold, and to the Norman English ‘Follet’. Following the logic of this passage, pretty much any trickster figure wearing a red hat in medieval or early modern thought could be said to be a counterpart of the Far Darrig. (It is noteworthy that the Redcap of Borders lore is also called Robin).

Few internet sites mention a direct link between the two creatures, and those that do cite no original reference. I suppose it is easy enough to say that the Redcap is the Scots equivalent of the Irish Fear Dearg without a direct reference, because the two sound similar in some characteristics; both are wizened men wearing red cap who delight in playing tricks. But there are many differences, too – the Fear Dearg wears a green cloak, has no association with churches or castles, and is not said to dye his cap in blood, and so on.

Should we be looking more at similarity than difference?

I think the only real conclusion to be drawn here is not regarding a translation of the Red cap from Ireland to Scotland, but of the general prevalence of the colour red in both Celtic and Germanic folklore as a symbol of the otherworld, and often, of deceit.

The story-teller, wishing to alert his audience to the fact that the character in question was a trickster spirit or a death messanger, would include the detail of a red cap, possibly stained with blood or made of an otherwordly plant, in order to make sure his listeners got the point. I suggest that the use of the red cap in this way is much the same as a modern spy character wearing a dark cloak and sunglasses; it sets them up as a ‘type’, but it does not necessarily mean that one such usage of the ‘type’ is a direct memory or translation of the other.

NOTE: Another type of Far Darrig, The Red-Headed Man, is described in various tales of humans trapped in fairy-land. It is with his help that they escape. Examples are found in Examples are to be found in Lady Wilde’s ANCIENT LEGENDS OF IRELAND, VOL. I, ‘Fairy Music’ and ‘Fairy Justice’. This is taken from the Encyclopedia of the Celts. I think we can rule out this character as being quite a different trope to our Red Man of deceit.

Happy Samhain,

S J. McKenzie.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2008 6:30 pm

    Hi Steve, sorry for the off-topic post. :-)

    Our webserver crashed today – we’ve fixed it but I’m afraid a casualty of the crash was your login details and the posts and comments you submitted. You made some valuable, informed contributions to our site and we welcome you to re-register and re-submit your posts/comments.

    Regards,
    Neil.

  2. October 31, 2008 11:22 pm

    Oh.

    I guess I';ll head over tonight and do it all again.

    Sigh.

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