Folklore: Big Fairy, Small Fairy, Good Fairy, Bad Fairy!!

Sligo(sidhe)

Yesterday afternoon, I had two fairy-related incidents within a few minutes of one other. The first – a somewhat laboured and exaggerated incident, I admit – was listening to Michael O’Súilleabháin’s traditional music piece “Sí Beag, Sí Mór” (Small Fairy, Big Fairy). Shortly afterwards, leaving the house for a reflective walk around the Wilton Bush, I had my second incident when I was struck by a ‘fairy wind’.

A ‘Fairy Wind’ is a sudden and unexplained squall on an otherwise calm day. It is, of course, a very natural occurrence but when it happens in an area where there’s dead leaves and other detritus scattered about, the effect can be quite impressive (essentially, a kind of mini-tornado that ends up showering anyone nearby with a spray of leafy/woody debris). This is, quite possibly, where the expression ‘fairy dust’ comes from. Having seen a few, it’s easy to understand why our forefathers might have assigned it a special significance.

The ‘fairies’ or Na Sidhe (from síd – the ancient name for the burial mounds they were associated with) have always formed an important part of folklore and belief, not only in Ireland but in many other countries as well. In Ireland, however, many of the more intrinsic beliefs of ‘fairies’ were retained much more strongly than elsewhere where, over time they were reduced from an expression of dead ancestors to a kind of midget, flower-hopping creature with wings (think Tinkerbelle, the famous Cottingley Fairies and so on).

In the last two or three decades, the common expression of fairies has morphed yet again, predominantly as a result of poorly researched mass media fiction (books, television and film). Nowadays, a fairy isn’t a real fairy without the wings, the emaciated model-like looks, the pout, and a few special powers thrown in. In fact, they now tend to look more like a sexualised version of an elf – a reflection of current media preoccupation and impact.

Back in the day, Na Sidhe were a force of nature – literally – and topographically. Their actions served, not only to reflect an interpretation of unusual natural phenomenon but to make sense of strange or unusual topographical features. One such feature is the flat rock in the picture above taken at Mullagmore in County Sligo. According to ancient local folklore, the flat rock is a ‘Fairy Door’– one of those sites where Na Sidhe can emerge out onto our world.

The English word “fairies” always used to bug me – and if I’m being honest, it still does, actually. The word feels inappropriate, a bit like calling a sailboat a ‘ship’. The problem is that it links to a concept (the tiny “Tinkerbelle Model”) that really has no meaningful context in Ireland. Back home, we just never really had that model of ‘fairy’. In Ireland, our fairies – Na Sidhe – were as big and as beautiful and as ugly as normal people. There were ‘Good Fairies’ and there were ‘Bad Fairies’, just like there are Good People and Bad People. Because, of course, they originally were people.

Just dead ones!

Folklore: Mis-steps of an Irish Cultural Icon

Giants' Causeway4

Whenever people talk of ‘must sees’ in Ireland, the Giants Causeway in country Antrim tends to be at the top of everybody’s list. As a natural topographical feature alone, the place is certainly unique but combined with the beauty of the rugged Antrim coastline and (the more recent) local filming of the Game of Thrones, it’s become something of a ‘tourist destination par excellence’ over the last decade’. I’ve walked over those strange rock formations on several occasions and must admit that, on each occasion, I’m freshly struck by just how impressive they are.

In Irish, the Giants Causeway is generally known as Clochán an Aifir (in Rathlin Island Gaelic) or Clochán na bhFomhórach  (the Stepping Stones of the Fomorians).  It was also known as Tóchar na dTréanfhear (Causeway of the Strongmen). Because of the shape of the overall rock formation, the Giants Causeway has consistently been associated with the concept of a stepping stone or causeway of the Gods (or other mythological creatures/heroes) and most of the folklore tales tend to be linked in some way with this striking physical characteristic.

The most well-known tale associated with the site is also the most comical – Legendary Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhal (in this version described as a giant) is challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant. After accepting the challenge, Fionn builds the causeway across the North Channel to Scotland. When the Scottish giant arrives, however,  Fionn realises how enormous his opponent actually is and, terrified, he runs back to his wife to hide. Fionn’s wife disguises him by making him put on some baby clothing and tucks him into a cradle. When the Scottish Giant arrives, he plays with the ‘baby’ while waiting for his father to return and pokes it with his thumb. Out of fright or bravado, Fionn clamps his teeth on the other giant’s thumb and bites it off. The startled giant, terrified at the thought of how brutal the “baby’s” full-grown father must be, flees Northern Ireland and rips the causeway up behind him so that he cannot be followed.

This particular tale is noteworthy in that it’s the first recorded comic or derogatory depiction of the famed Irish mythological hero, Fionn mac Cumhal. It’s fascinating, but it appears that Fionn was held in such reverence by the native Irish population, that no other comic depiction of him existed prior to the printing of this version of the tale in the mid eighteen-hundreds. It probably comes as no surprise to find that this legend was actually reworked by an Anglo-Irish writer called William Carelton (whose patron, Caesar Otway, seemed overly keen on travestying traditional narratives).

These days, the National Trust (the British One) control both the Causeway and all of the surrounding land and in July 2012 opened a new visitor centre there. Unfortunately, the new visitor centre resembles a shopping mall and a cafeteria more than an interpretation centre or museum and seems predominantly focussed on selling cartoon figurines of Fionn mac Cumhal and other plastic doo-dahs. The National Trust is widely disliked by many local people because it has essentially restricted access to the national site by depriving visitors of anywhere to park. The only parking site available (controlled by the Trust) requires you to also pay a substantial entry fee for the ‘MacDonalds of local culture’.

It’s hard to see where things are going to go with this particular cultural site. Certainly, the Giants Causeway is worth a visit but the price, both on your pocket and your sense of fair play, might be too high.  There’s also a definite sense that the National Trust and their commercial partners lack any true respect for the original cultural heritage of this area and are more interested in skin-deep history and its use as a touristic cash cow.

 

 

Folklore: Irish saints in Cork

Back in Cork a few years back, I did a quick trip to see my cousin in Aghabullogue. During the visit, we took a side-trip out to Coolineagh which is where I first came across the stories of St Lachtín and St Olann. These two saints were said to be great competitors and were always arguing or fighting over something and some of the stories associated with them are quite hilarious.

St Olann was the patron saint of the local parish and the ecclesiastical site he’s associated with (now, the Coolineagh graveyard) is also associated with a ring fort near Dromatimore (to the south-west of Aghabullogue). This pretty much follows the pattern of most recorded Christian sites (i.e. they are established on important or sacred pre-christian sites).

When Christianity came to Ireland (from the mid-4th century onwards), in order to absorb the local population and get them on board, the Church also had to absorb many of the existing belief systems (including sacred sites, rituals etc.) which they later attempted to remove and sanitise with varying degrees of success. St Olan’s is another classic example of that

The photo in this post is that of St Olan’s Stone and if you look closely you’ll see two small depressions which are said to be the footprints of St Olann, himself. Inquisitive guy that I am, I couldn’t resist standing on the stone to test the size of the prints and, frankly, they were not really life-sized (unless, St Olann was a leprechaun, which in an earlier version of the tale, he might have been).

In technical or academic terms footprints like these are referred to as petrosomatoglyph footprints. A petrosomatoglyph is an image in a rock that’s interpreted as resembling a human or animal body part. These have been used in the past by most early cultures and often served as an important form of symbolism for religious or ritual ceremonies (the crowning of kings, sacrificial ceremonies etc.). Some, such as this one, are regarded as artefacts linked to saints or cultural heroes (Brian Boru, Fionn ma Cumhal etc.).

The St Olan’s Stone in Coolineagh cemetery was traditionally said to mark his grave but, in fact, it was moved into the graveyard from its original location (to the north of the graveyard) in 1985. It formed one of the stations of the St Olan’s Day ‘pattern’ (see my last post) along with St Olan’s Well (down the road) and St Olan’s Cap (which will be covered in the next post).