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World and I, March 1998 v13 n3 p186(8)
Twilight places: Ireland's enduring fairy lore. Steenie Harvey.

Abstract: The Emerald Isle in Ireland is thought to possess the ancient lore between the visible and the unseen world. Everything is charged with symbolizing the supernatural, gentle, and magical. The place has the reputation for being a fairy place, haunted by ancient memories, gods, and cultures. The portal dolmen are estimated to be at least five thousand years old and shaped by supernatural forces.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 News World Communications, Inc.

In the 1940s, Irish writer Sean O'Faolain recounted how a Cork woman had been asked whether she believed in fairies. "I do not," she replied after pondering the question, "but they're there." The Emerald Isle has been left spellbound by Celtic enchantments, and the notion of a barrier between visible and unseen worlds often seems but a fancy. Stick the proverbial pin into an Irish map and there's every chance of homing in on some locality that resonates with the jumbled messages of ancient lore. From the black hexagonal highway of the Giant's Causeway to the witchy fingers of Kerry's Dingle Peninsula, the pre-Christian age of wonders always threatens to break from the bounds of storybook and legend.

Girdled in pagan traditions, this is a landscape where time stands still, the darkness at the edge of town pulsates with eerie magic, and westerly winds carry a fading whisper of otherworldly voices. Anything and everything is charged with the supernatural: standing pillars, dolmens, the mysterious earthen burial mounds known as raths; river crossings, sea caves, turreted craggy outcrops; lakes, islands, and sunken grassy pathways; even the solitary blackthorn bush. All have the reputation of being "gentle" places, fairy places, haunted by apparitions of the land.

And while it's rumored that the door between past and present remains forever ajar, that gateway creaks fully open on the high days of the old Celtic calendar. According to folk belief, Halloween, May Eve, and Midsummer's Eve are hazardous times to wander crooked trackways. These are nights when magic is afoot, and the unquiet spirits of the otherworld walk in the mortal realm.

Even in our technologically obsessed age, fairy beings such as the banshee remain firmly rooted in Ireland's psyche. Beyond the cities, the veneer of modernity is as thin and fragile as gossamer. Electricity didn't illuminate the rural west until the 1950s, and many older folk remember spending gloomy winter evenings in the local "rambling house." Here people gathered to sing the old songs and hear the seannachie, the storyteller, embroidering the legends of momentous events and of those who had passed this way before.

The seannachie thrilled his audience with elaborate creation myths and stories of heroic victories achieved with the aid of magical weapons. He told of doomed love affairs between mortal men and fairy women; of lone warriors like Cuchulainn battling against malign supernatural forces; of the four children of Lir, turned into swans by a jealous stepmother. He also spun vivid yarns about spirits like the shape-changing pooka, the crafty leprechaun, and fish-tailed merrows, who hoarded the souls of drowned fishermen inside lobster pots.

The Good People

Many tales revolve around the Tuatha de Danaan, the People of the Goddess Dana, Ireland's pantheon of shadowy Neolithic deities who were banished into an underworld existence by the hero gods of the invading Celts. Greatly reduced in size and power, these immortals lived on as the sidhe (pronounced "shee"), an Irish word for fairies. In his Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry, W.B. Yeats concluded that once the old gods were deprived of their worship and offerings, they were diminished in the popular imagination. Eventually they evolved into fairies.

A much-noted nineteenth-century theory was that fairies were fallen angels, or alternatively, the heathen dead. Unable to attain heaven, not wicked enough to deserve hell's torments, they were confined to earth's twilight places. According to the Victorian folklorist Thomas Keightley, Irish fairies were "very uneasy respecting their condition after the Final Judgment."

Many stories claimed they dwelled inside raths (fairy forts), but the far west also told of cave fairies and phantom islands such as Hy-Brasil, which traditionally shimmers on the Atlantic horizon for one day every seven years. Others said the fairy realm was Tir na n'Og, the Land of Youth, which could sometimes be glimpsed in the depths of a lake, down wells, or beneath the ocean.

Rural superstition agreed on one point: Sidhe neighbors demanded respect. These weren't the winsome sprites of English picture books, flitting around foxgloves and making daisy chains. Sometimes known as the People of the Mounds, or in placatory terms as the Good People, Ireland's spirit creatures had the power to bring prosperity to a farm--or, conversely, to withhold their favors.

If neglected, the sidhe could prove spiteful. Thanks to pishogues (fairy spells), hens refused to lay eggs; milk went sour; livestock wandered astray. Both farmer and cattle alike would sicken if struck by fairy darts, tiny Neolithic arrowheads that continue to be found today. Naturally, every spell had its counterspell: The four-leaved shamrock, a motif of good luck, is thought to guard against fairy bewitchments.

To the gossipmongers, accidents and untimely deaths were proof that the sidhe had been badly slighted in some way. A grievous insult was to build a new house across a fairy path, an act guaranteed to bring misfortune. In 1891, Yeats wrote with all seriousness of two farmers being killed by the sidhe for the crime of tearing up a fairy thorn bush.

In Irish lore, a lone tree growing in the middle of a sheepfold, beside a well, or on a hilltop is protected by environmentally conscious spirits called lunantisidhe. The blackthorn, or fairy thorn, is especially sacred; not even dead branches should be removed. Rumor whispers that a fairy thorn in Ulster was chopped down to make way for the DeLorean car plant, an ill-fated venture if ever there was one.

In a more credulous age, some superstitions may well have led to darker tragedy. Two centuries ago, for instance, midwives warned against leaving baby boys unguarded in their cradles; in some districts it was recorded that boys wore petticoats until reaching the age of six or seven. This fooled the fairies into thinking they were girls--unwanted mortals--and thus made it unlikely they'd be snatched away.

Not that cradles remained empty: Careless parents invariably found a sickly fairy child left in exchange. Various black arts might indicate whether a suspect child was a changeling. In a stow about fairy kidnapping he calls "The Brewery of Eggshells," the nineteenth-century folklorist T. Crofton Croker recounts how a "bit of a shrivelled-up fairy" replaces a bonny baby boy. A wisewoman instructs the grieving mother to "take the red-hot poker and cram it down his ugly throat."

Lady Wilde's Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland brutally suggests that an infallible method of reversing such fairy theft is to lay the changeling in a blazing fire. A particular incantation is chanted: "Burn, burn, burn--if of the devil, burn; but if of God and the saints, be safe from harm." The changeling then vanishes up the chimney with a horrendous shriek, and the stolen baby is miraculously restored.

Leprechauns and banshees

A mainstay of Irish souvenir shops, the figure most associated with fairy folklore is the miserly leprechaun. As everyone knows, he's the fairy shoemaker who tricks greedy mortals out of a promised treasure. Often depicted as wearing a red frieze (rough, woolen) coat and cocked hat, his original name in Irish is lobaircin, meaning "small-bodied fellow."

Youngsters still reel off the tale of Tom Fitzpatrick, a farmer's son who spies a leprechaun mending shoes behind a hedge. Knowing that once you take your eyes off a leprechaun he'll vanish like smoke, Tom grabs the manikin and employs dire threats to discover the whereabouts of his crock of gold. The leprechaun shows Tom a vast field of yellow ragwort plants and the particular flower under which the treasure lies. As Tom doesn't have a spade, he marks the plant by tying a red garter around its stalk.

Forgetting the warnings about fairy trickery, Tom unwisely releases the leprechaun. Racing home for a spade, he returns to find every ragwort in the field now carries red garters. There are far too many plants to dig up and his prospects of riches have gone, as has the leprechaun.

Possibly the same spirit in different guise, the fear dearg is the otherworld's malevolent practical joker. Red is the color of magic, and his name means "red man." Yeats heard a Sligo seannachie telling of a fear dearg who tricked famished travelers into cooking a corpse on a spit. If in a good mood, the silver-tongued scoundrel can be summoned to release trapped humans from the dim caverns of fairyland.

Some legends feature the cluricaun, a household spirit with an appetite for raiding larders and wine cellars. On moonlit nights, he enjoys drunken sprees through the countryside on the back of a sheepdog. The only benefit of having a cluricaun in the home seems to be his ability to ward off other potential thieves.

Some figures of Irish folklore are more ominous. One of the most terrifying is the bean si (banshee), whose appearance and eldritch wail near a dwelling supposedly herald a death in the family. Sometimes manifesting herself as a beautiful young woman in fine clothes, sometimes as a grizzled crone draped in a winding-sheet, the banshee escorts dying individuals to the sid, the otherworld. At Irish wakes of times past, mourners keened for the dead by echoing the banshee's cry.

Most of the old Irish families are said to possess their own banshee. Writers often emphasize the hereditary nature of these ancestral spirits, suggesting that the banshee evolved from ancient ideas of a land goddess as patroness of chieftains. Reports of banshee lamentations still occur in towns as well as rural areas.

Bean si translates as woman of the otherworld. Their queen is Aine, a name synonymous with the pagan goddess Dana. Her traditional southern stronghold is Cnoc Aine (Knockainey), a hill overlooking Lough Gur in County Limerick.

Published in 1879, D. Fitzgerald's Popular Tales of Ireland recounts how local people gathered on the hill for the summer solstice, lighting bonfires in Aine's honor. On one occasion, some young girls stayed late and were astonished when Aine herself appeared among them. After thanking the girls for their visit, she bade them return home as her people wanted the hill for their own festivities. The bravest girls then peeped through Aine's ring and were rewarded with a glimpse of the invisible realm's fairy host.

The friends had a lucky escape, for the banshee queen also apparently appeared in the 1870s to another local man, James Cleary, at a Lough Gur landmark called the Housekeeper's Chair. As it was believed those who saw Aine were driven witless by her beauty or came to an unpleasant end, Cleary's neighbors were largely unsurprised when his boat sank on the lough a few days later. A coincidental drowning, the irresistible call of the banshee, or a sacrificial victim of the old pagan goddess? Legend tells that this sacred lake claims a life every seven years.

Nightmarish apparitions

Sightings of the deathly pale beannighe, the Washerwoman at the Ford, were especially disastrous. In heroic myths, warriors fated to perish in battle encounter her beside river crossing places, wailing and rinsing out bloodstained clothing. Ireland's High King, Brian Boru, seemingly met Aibhill, the bean-nighe of Clare, on his way to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Although the Irish triumphed over the Norse invaders, Brian Boru was killed in the battle.

A particularly ghastly apparition is the dublachan, a headless phantom usually seen driving the black and coffin-topped silent coach, the coitse bodhar. Yet another omen of doom to any house where it stops, it travels along green lanes, the sunken trackways of Ireland's ancient road network. According to Croker's informants, those who opened their door to the silent coach got a basin of blood thrown at them.

Nineteenth-century peasant superstition is one thing, but in 1972 the Irish Folklore Commission found villagers around Lough Gur who still spoke of the Dead Hunt. Phantom dogs, heard but never seen, chased their invisible quarry from this world to the next. It was suggested that only older people could hear the hunt; the following day inevitably brought them news of a local death.

A tash or thevshi is a ghost. Sometimes held here by anger against the living, sometimes rejected by the banshee, these lost souls are said to be the restless spirits of suicides or murder victims. Attached to particular houses or localities, some attract attention to their unhappy plight by antics such as moving furniture around.

A thevshi sometimes appears in animal guise. In Lady Wilde's story "The Black Lamb," a wandering ghost is accidentally scalded by boiling water. That night it enters a farmhouse in the shape of a badly burnt lamb. Collapsing at the fireside, it emits piteous moans and proceeds to die. Although the remains are buried, the same lamb appears night after night. Only when a priest is summoned to perform an exorcism is the ghost finally laid to rest.

In the 1840s, the fear gorta (Hungry Man) reputedly stalked the blighted potato fields. The harbinger of famine, this emaciated spirit was believed to have arisen from the Hungry Grass--patches of land where an unshriven corpse had lain. Hapless individuals who tread on the Hungry Grass are stricken with insatiable and everlasting hunger.

Another malign phantom is the leanhaun sidhe, the fairy mistress who seeks the love of mortal men. She targets bards and poets, vampirically feeding on their life-force until they waste away. She is often described as the Celtic Muse, and her lovers can only escape by finding another to take their place. Ancient myths tell of the bard Oisin, taken to Tit na n'Og by his fairy lover, Niamh. Pining for his companions, Oisin returns from the Land of Youth to find his comrades all dead and forgotten. The moment his foot touches Irish soil, he ages by three hundred years.

No roll call of nightmarish apparitions is complete without the pooka, or puca. "A drunkard's sleep is his kingdom" says Yeats of this shape-changing demon that can take on various beastly forms. His favorite guise is that of a black horse, but pookas can be bulls, goats, and dogs, too. In horse form, his usual trick is to offer a weary traveler a welcome ride, which results in a demented gallop across boggy countryside. The petrified rider is then ignominiously dumped in a ditch miles from anywhere.

Last century, a Kerry boy told Croker that "pookas were very numerous in the times long ago. They were wicked-minded black-looking bad things that would come in the form of wild colts with chains hanging about them." To this day, children are told not to eat blackberries once the seeds appear because that's a sign the pooka has spat upon them.

The next generation

Many of Ireland's old superstitions simply refuse to go away. Maybe it's a case of for whom the bell tolls, but some people worry about walking through bluebell woods: To hear a bluebell ring is to hear the sidhe signaling your impending demise. Another curious custom that survives among elderly women in County Roscommon is that of sprinkling primrose petals on the doorstep on May Day morning. This is done so "they" will bring good luck.

Each generation has its own visions and stories, its own dreams and magic. In the wider context, Ireland's fairy lore hasn't yet been entirely supplanted by the current flirtation with beings from outer space. Sidhe kidnappings, alien abductions. Don't they strike the same mythic chord?

Look for similarities and imagination soon finds them. Fairies and aliens alike are credited with an ability to invisibly infiltrate this world. Both are said to frequent lonely places, both make contact with believers, both wait to take the earthbound on soaring flights of sheer fantasy.

Whether those fantasies are of Tir na n'Og or some far-flung galaxy doesn't really matter. Like our forebears, there are times when we too yearn to let go of the leaden balloon of reality.

Steenie Harvey is a freelance writer based in Ireland.

 
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View other articles linked to these subjects:

 Legends
Legends  View 200 Periodical references 200 Periodical references
 History, Ancient - Ireland
History, Ancient - Ireland  See also 36 other subdivisions 36 other subdivisions
 Ireland - Myths and Legends
Ireland - Myths and Legends  View 11 Periodical references 11 Periodical references
Ireland - Myths and Legends  See also 116 other subdivisions 116 other subdivisions

 World and I, Mar 1, 1998
World and I, Mar 1, 1998  View other articles in this issue other articles in this issue


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