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).

Folklore: Following The Pattern

In its most general term, a pattern is a religious devotion that usually occurs around the feast day of a patron saint in Ireland. These days, the practice is nowhere near as popular as it used to be but you can still find places where the ritual takes place if you make the effort to look. In the attached photo, you can see one such site based on a small lake island in West Cork where St Finbar (Cork’s patron saint) is celebrated. On the right hand side of the photo, are a number of white crosses which have been etched into the gateway stone over many years. This marks this area as one of the ‘prayer stations’ in the pattern.

The word ‘pattern’ is actually a derivation of the Latin word patrun (or patron – as in ‘patron saint’). Despite the use of the Latin term, the ritual is very much older than that. In fact, patterns usually take place in sites that were sacred for pre-Christian Irish religious rituals (predominantly around holy wells and springs). When the Christian church came to Ireland – as with many other places – it simply incorporated the existing religious festivals and rituals such as the deiseal (walking a circle of patterns that followed the movement of the sun) and adopted them as Christian events. Any of the magical elements traditionally associated with these sites (such as healing powers) were subsequently attributed to Christian saints.

Patterns were a very popular rural tradition in Ireland not because of the religious element but because of the very powerful social element. Pattern Days’ attracted huge crowds of people who, having completed their religious devotion, would immediately partake in activities such as drinking, singing, dancing, and horse racing. Some of these ‘patterns’ could last for days. From the early 1600s (and possibly before), the patterns’ started to lose support from the Church (who didn’t appreciate the earlier pagan rituals or the non-pious behaviour of the festivities after the pattern). This was why, at the Synod of Tuam in 1660, a decree was announced as follows:

“Dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places are forbidden….”
The English administration who, essentially ran most of the country from the 1600s onwards, also saw ‘patterns’ as a potential threat to their authority in that the gatherings provided a hotbed of opportunity for rebellious incitement. As a result, they instigated specific clauses in the Penal Laws to forbid such activities.
For the most part, both the Penal Laws and the Synod of Tuam decree were pretty much ignored. This was noted by Thomas Croften Croker (who visited this particular West Cork site in 1813) in a fascinating description of the Pattern Day festivities from his book ’Researches in the South of Ireland’:
“After having satisfied our mental craving, we felt it necessary to attend to our bodily appetites, and for this purpose adjourned to a tent where some tempting slices of curdy Kerry salmon had attracted our notice. In this tent, with the exception of almost half an hour, we remained located from half-past seven in the evening, until two o’clock the following morning, when we took our departure from Cork.
After discussing the merits of this salmon, and washing it down with some of “Beamish & Crawford’s Porter” we whiled away the time by drinking whiskey-punch, observing the dancing to an excellent piper, and listening to the songs and story-telling which were going on about us.
As night closed in, the tent became crowded almost to suffocation, and dancing being out of the question, our piper left us for some other station, and a man, who I learned had served in the Kerry militia, and had been flogged at Tralee about five years before as a White-boy, began to take a prominent part in entertaining the assembly by singing Irish songs in a loud and effective voice. These songs were received with shouts of applause, and as I was then ignorant of the Irish language and anxious to know the meaning of what had elicited so much popular approbation, I applied to an old woman near who I sat, for an explanation or translation, which she readily gave me, and I found that these songs were rebellious in the highest degree. Poor old King George was execrated without mercy; curses were also dealt out wholesale on the Saxon oppressors of Banna the Blessed (an allegorical name for Ireland); Bonaparte’s achievement were extolled, and Irishmen were called upon to follow the example of the French people.”

Although the dissolution of such activities was a goal that both the Irish Church and the British Colonial Administration were keen to achieve, in the end, it was the Famine and subsequent emigration that did for the ‘patterns’. With entire regions laid waste by starvation and ‘pestilence’, survivors had neither the energy nor inclination to celebrate or venerate the saints who were meant to be protecting them. Although, over time, the country recovered, the subsequent emigration and pressure from Crown and church authorities continued to force its decline.
These days when I visit the pattern sites, I’m always impressed by the overlap of Christian and pre-Christian elements I find there. The crosses and rosary beads are always easy to find but the water rituals and blessings for the dead are anything but Christian. It’s as though, even after all this time, the local communities are reluctant to relinquish the old – the very old – ways.

Mise (Me): Drawing From the Well

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Sometimes when you live abroad, the alien nature of where you’re located can come in at you from the side. Sometimes it’s incremental – particularly if you’re living in an English-speaking culture that’s not too different from Ireland – sometimes a bit less so. It’s at such times the homesickness kicks in, a kind of ache in your gut for family, friends, the sound of accents similar to your own and old, familiar sites you grew up in.

These days, living overseas is nowhere near as bad as it was for those who went before us. We can get the RTE Player online to keep up to date with the news, we can skype with loved ones, there are even more flights home than ever before and prices haven’t really changed that much in the last 20 years (even in a place as distant as New Zealand). In most places, there are usually plenty of other Irish emigrants around to share the craic with, traditional music, GAA and so on.

What is missing, though, is that inherent sense of place, of culture. This isn’t exactly something you can recreate or reproduce, even with the technology available to us today. Sometimes you just have to go home, to walk the land and ‘draw from the well’ to get the fix you need to keep on going.

In ancient times, wells and springs – anywhere that water issued forth from the earth in fact – were considered places of significance. The ancient Celts (and probably a number of other cultures) saw wells and springs as conduits for knowledge from the Otherworld to the physical world. This is where ancient motifs such as the Salmon of Knowledge originate, it’s also why, even today, people carry out ‘patterns’ around a water source, rituals and traditions that have lost their original meaning over time and have been replaced by Christian interpretation (baptism, water conversion etc.). Its also why archaeologists tend to find so many ‘offerings’ in such areas (interpreted these days as a wishing well, for example).

Even living on the other side of the planet, I can still derive pleasure from water sources but the experiences are never as fulfilling as they would be back home. A lot of that’s because such places lack the historical or cultural context we take for granted. These places are visitor sites because they’re ‘pretty’ or ‘scenic’ but they lack the associated stories that make them relevant and meaningful. Except when it comes to local Maori of course. The natives of New Zealand have their own stories but much of these are poorly transferred for tourism purposes and, subsequently, lack authenticity. Like Irish people, they have a healthy, subcutaneous paganism beneath the veneer of civilization. When I visit these places with Maori, that is when I truly feel that I have drank the water.

Folklore: A Great Leap of Faith

beara6

Down on the Beara peninsula in West Cork, if you look hard you’ll find this beautiful spot called ‘The Priest’s Leap’ (although you’ll have to try hard as it’s poorly signposted). According to local tradition, a priest on horseback was being chased across these mountain by English soldiers and, from this particular rock, his horse made a gigantic leap that carried him all the way to another rock outside the town of Bantry. Given that this second rock isn’t visible in the photo, you’ll have worked out this is quite a long way.

Some locals claim that the priest involved in this incident was a Fr Dominick Collins who was later killed by the English forces during a siege at the (relatively) local Castle Dún Baoi, stronghold of the O’Sullivan-Beara clan. Others claim it was a different priest called Fr James Archer who also has associations with Dún Baoi. The truth, in fact, is that the tale (or rather its associated tradition) predates both of these religious men and, indeed, the entire Christian religion.

Down in the Beara peninsula with its impressive mountains, valleys and formidable topographical features, it was not unusual for our early ancestors to tell stories about the landmarks that they saw every morning on rising and before they went to bed at night. This region – and, indeed, many other parts of Ireland – abounds with tales of individuals or creatures that carried out gigantic leaps across vast precipices, valleys and wide bays.

Linking such heroic-scale acts of endeavours to the land that surrounded them was a means for our ancestors to explain – but also to come to terms with – the great natural forces that surrounded them. These stories were a means of ‘taming’ the land, making it more familiar and comfortable to interact with. Back in the day, a person’s survival depended on his/her ability to interact with the natural world. Closeted as we are today with such a significantly larger human population, technology and increased knowledge, it is difficult for us to comprehend that relationship.

Initially, therefore, our ancestors’ stories concerned mythological creatures and heroes (such as the Hag of Beara and Fionn mac Cumhal). Later, as the land became more settle and ‘civilised’, those great feats were assigned to more local, more human figures (such as the two priests in the story above).

Today, however, we no longer need such close interaction with our local topography. Many of us now live in artificially constructed environment or change the area or country that we live in at least once in our lives, further diluting that connection. Despite this, the stories that go with the land still exist in our social and cultural subconscious which is why, in later years, those of us who’ve left home (and our own descendants) find ourselves longing for something we don’t quite understand. Fortunately, although we all know you can’t return to your past or reclaim your childhood, you can go back and access the stories that filled it.

And sometimes, that is enough.

 

 

Folklore: Stone Confessions

Actually, I have a bit of a confession to make.

I am not proud …

But the truth is …

I am a closet stone freak, a Dolmen nerd.

Oh, yes! Stone circles, standing stones, cairns, barrows, hillforts. If I had my way, I’d be out there clambering all over them every weekend, grabbing photos, jotting down stories, associated mythologies and folklore. The truth is, though, that in many Irish rural areas these ancient monuments form a key part of the landscape. They’re familiar features that we’ve grown up with, played by, and in some cases identify with and the stories associated with them are passed down from generation to generation in local families.

Take this boulder for example, located in Kileenduff, over a mile west of Easky (County Sligo).

split rock

This monument is known as ‘split rock’ ( the English name suggesting this was only applied after the late 1800s) and it’s set not too far inland from the coast. According to a Sligo County Council Geological Site report, the boulder was taken from the nearby Ox mountains and deposited in its present location by large sheets of ice during the last glaciation (about 30,000 – 10,000 years ago). As part of this process, the crack or ‘natural fracture’ occurred. Local legend, however, has a different interpretation of events that has been passed down from generation to generation. According to this, the boulder was cast down by Fionn mac Cumhal as part of a boulder-casting competition with a friend called Cicsatóin (literally: Kick in the Ass). Fionn’s attempt at throwing the boulder was a very poor miscast and he was so enraged he actually ran down the mountain and slashed it in two with his sword.

These days many people stop and pass through he crack but the legend also says that if you pass through it three times (circling the rock on your right), the two internal faces will close in and crush you on the final pass. Everyone scoffs at the legend but you’d be surprised how many people actually give up on the final pass and in any case it’s a great story to tell to your kids.

Which, from an Irish perspective, is often more important than the actual facts!