(Irish Folklore) Shite that W.B. Yeats says!

Yeats1

When it comes to Irish Folklore, a useful rule of thumb to apply is to avoid anything ‘factual’ written by W.B. Yeats. Lovely man I’m sure, grand poet but, God, he was a complete flake when it came to his writing on Irish folklore.

Despite much of his ‘academic’ work being dismissed many years ago , he’s still revered as an authority in certain circles. His work on Irish ‘fairies’ in particular is constantly quoted on the internet continuing that great tradition of misinformation.

To understand WB’s limitations with respect to Irish culture though, you really have to take the man’s life into context. An important point of context is that WB was of Anglo-Irish descent and a member of a very privileged Protestant aristocracy. Nothing specifically wrong with that of course, but it’s important to consider as back in the day this would essentially have meant Yeats:

(a) was disconnected from the lives of the Irish peasantry (from who he mined much of his folklore and inspiration)

(b) couldn’t speak Irish (again, another significant barrier to accessing folklore)

Yeats also spent quite a substantial period of his life in England which, once again, would have restricted his connection to authentic sources of information on Irish culture and folklore.

Yeats introduction to Lady Gregory in 1986 was probably his most important break when it came to accessing genuine Irish culture and folklore. A strong nationalist, Lady Gregory encouraged him to focus on writing that was ‘identifiably Irish’ in content but, more importantly, she also introduced him to a new generation of up and coming Irish authors such as Synge and Sean O’Casey who were able to offer insights and personal experience on aspects of folklore he would not have known about.

Another important access point for Yeats was the output of academic scholars who were translating ancient Irish manuscripts at that time or doing their best to conserve the Irish language (e.g. Douglas Hyde, also a Protestant but a fluent Irish speaker). These translations introduced the whole country to previously unknown mythological sagas and Ossianic poetry from Ireland past’s and its probable that Yeats was more comfortable with this kind of source material than the more contemporary folklore.

The truth is that although Yeats managed to get a foot in the ‘Irish folklore door’ through his contacts, his background and his inability to speak (or apparently learn) Irish were something of a barrier. When dealing with the little people (the Irish peasantry as opposed to the ‘f-f-faeries!!), he was often dependent on others to translate for him or to provide abridged details. There’s a sad kind of humour to be found, for example, when reading his efforts to list and classify Irish fairies in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. Not only did he completely misunderstand what ‘fairies’ were, one cant help getting the impression that his sources were either forelock-tugging peasants desperately making up any old shite to please him or local smartarses taking the mickey out of the ‘bigwig’ from the capital.

The biggest problem with Yeats however was not so much the barrier of his background as his fascination with spiritualism/mysticism and the occult (magic). This passion very much coloured his interpretation of Irish folklore, as it did with much of his writing throughout his life. Not only was he a member of occult groups such as ‘The Ghost Club’ (a kind of paranormal research organisation formed in 1862 but still going, apparently) and the ‘Golden Dawn’ (an organization devoted to the study and practice of the occult) he also studied and was influenced by many of the self-proclaimed ‘wizards’ and ‘magicians’ of his day.  In 1892, he wrote:

“If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist.”

Which explains a lot. Mind you, although Yeats based the play on a supposed Irish legend, later tracing of that legend identified it as a French work

In fairness, though, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales and other works by Yeats were very much a product of their time. Yeats, no doubt, had his own artistic and reputational agenda but there’s no denying his passion for his subject. In addition, with the rise of nationalism you can be sure that certain Irish elements were more than happy to have an internationally recognised poet and a sanitised national cultural history for them to wave about as a flag in support of their cause.

The Secret Life of Irish Fairies

irish fairy sid

The nice thing about fairies is that anyone can be one.

No, seriously! If you actually look at the modern day interpretation of the ‘fairy’ you’ll find it incorporates not only elements of ‘Ye Olde English folklore’ but Germanic elves, Scandinavian leshyi, classical Romano-Greek nymphs and satyrs, a mish-mash of Tolkien and of course Disney’s plastic, sugar-coated Tinkerbell!

So, where you might ask are the Irish fairies in all this?

Weeelll … That’s kind of a long story.

The first thing you should know is that you should never actually use the word ‘fairy’ when referring to creatures of Irish mythology. Those namby-pamby, flower-hoppers with wings that adorn the Enid-Blyton books of old were never part of Irish culture. If you’re talking about Irish mythological creatures it’s always better to use the Irish term ‘’ (pronounced ‘shee’) or ‘síog’ or – in plural form – ‘Na síoga’ or ‘Na Sidhe’.

The word ‘sí’ actually comes from an ancient Celtic word ‘síd’ – the giant mounds making up the tumuli or passage graves in which our far distant ancestors buried their dead (the example in the picture was taken at Knowth). This is why ‘Na Sidhe’ in Ireland – until the last century or two – were often thought to be representations of the dead.

In pre-medieval Ireland, Na Sidhe were usually understood to be a kind of mirror image of humanity. They spoke like us, looked like us and, generally, they seemed to act like us, showing all the usual traits – positive (loving, passionate, etc.) and negative (murderous, vengeful etc.) – of your normal human population. The two key things that differentiated them from their human equivalents were that they (a) lived in the Otherworld and (b) had access to magic arts and powers. In the surviving pre-1600 Gaelic literature, although Na Sidhe mostly dealt with their own kind, when they did interact with humans they were generally portrayed doing so as equals, if not superiors.

The common interpretation of Na Sidhe changed slowly (but dramatically) in Ireland from the 1600s onwards due to the increasing influence of the Christian church but more importantly to the expanding power of the English Crown – two parties with a strong self-interest in suppressing the earlier belief systems of the native people. As the Gaelic power structure (feudal lords) was eroded this had the additional effect of undermining the traditional mechanisms for the transfer of Gaelic cultural knowledge between generations (the poets, Gaelic-based education systems, etc.).

By the late 18th century, a significant proportion of lore about Na Sidhe was already lost or being misinterpreted by the majority of the native Irish population. Little material was being conserved or transferred in written form (as Irish Catholics – the majority of the population – were excluded from education) although some knowledge continued to be transferred through the storytellers (the remnants of the poets). Transfer of traditional Sidhe lore also suffered from disruptive events like the Great Famine and the subsequent weakening of the Irish language as native speakers died or immigrated in great numbers. Knowledge of Na Sidhe was also eroded by the Church who saw belief in such entities as ‘competition’ at best, expressions of evil at worst. Most of the stories with negative connotations associated with Na Sidhe developed from this time on.

Oppressed on all sides, Na Sidhe also took on an increasingly derivative form, shrinking (metaphorically and descriptively) in the stories in which they occurred.

Ironically, while lore of Na Sidhe diminished in Ireland, reduced expressions of what they represented began to flourish in England (based predominantly on their equivalent in English folklore tradition). A broken version of Na Sidhe appeared in medieval romances, initially as otherworldy enemies to the protagonists but, later, in a more alluring and less menacing form. In this new, sanitised form, Na Sidhe/’Fairies’ started turning up in literature such as Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Later, during the Romantic Period (at its peak from around 1800 to 1850), when older cultural tropes were mined for inspiration purposes, they became even more popular.

The famous Strand Magazine article on the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ (1920) changed the portrayal of the earlier mythological creatures forever. From that point on ‘fairies’ became the common term to describe tiny, winged creatures who hung out in nature hot-spots but who still had a bit of mystery/allure associated with them. Following that Strand article, the associated imagery became prettier as time progressed (prompted by the famous ‘flower fairies’ pictures produced by Cicely Mary Barker and others (these are the ones on the Enid Blyton books I referred to earlier). Nowadays, that’s the image that most people are familiar with.

Back in Ireland, cut off from its original interpretation, the Sidhe (now reduced to the more diminutive síoga) became increasingly associated with and influenced by the newer representation of their English counterpart.

The funny thing is that the interpretation of ‘fairies’ or ‘Na Sidhe’ is changing yet again as a result of new media distribution forms and narrative tales. Over the last decade, or so I’ve watched with some bemusement as fairies (and sometimes they even use the old Irish name) have gradually transformed to a generic kind of sexualised, metrosexual Spock (feminine types, complete with pointed ears, short skirts and a pout). I suppose I should have a bit of a disgruntled stomp about the whole ‘lack of cultural authenticity’ business but the truth is that the current representation is vastly closer to the original than the pretty flower-stompers ever were.

Which has to be good.

[Update: Apr 2016 – For those who are interested, a more substantial explanation of fairies, where they came from and how they became what we know today, is available in the ebook: Celtic Mythology Collection which you can obtain for FREE here (on this site or at your favourite ebook store).]

Irish Folklore: Magic Fairy Rocks

Magic Rock2

After a recent post on Adrigole I was reminded about a local feature that we used to pass on the road as kids (and still do as adults). This is just one of those many features that adds that ‘resonance of connectedness’ or ‘familiarity’ to the land that I mentioned last time.

This particular feature is a carraig draíochta (a magic rock) and we’ve certainly got plenty of rock down Beara way so some of it must be magic!!!

Basically, it’s a white rock situated about two thirds of the way up on the hill overlooking Adrigole harbour and clearly visible from the road if you’re travelling from Glengarrif towards Castletownbere or Kenmare. The ‘magic’ part is that the closer you get to the base of the hill, the higher the rock travels up the hill until by the time you reach the hill it’s sitting happily on top.

Magic!

In essence, of course, it’s the most basic of optical illusions but real facts shouldn’t really interfere with the story. According to the story version I’ve heard, na Sidhe (the fairies) carry the rock uphill just to baffle travellers. I’ve never actually stopped to examine the rock in more detail as I always seem to be honing through but, if I remember correctly, there’s also a larger rock up there that’s said to be one of the Sidhe paths – a kind of door to the Otherworld. If anyone’s heard another version, it’d be lovely to hear about it.

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!