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'I won't defend Danny Healy-Rae's politics but I will defend personal belief in fairies'

There’s not a village in the country that doesn’t have these fairy stories, writes Michael Fortune.

Michael Fortune Folklorist and filmmaker

I’M COMING LATE to the Danny Healy-Rae fairy story as I’ve been in Brittany in a campervan for the past four weeks with three little girls under the age of seven, so believe me I know all about “the little people” and the damage they can bestow on your mental and physical well being when crossed.

Like us Irish, the Breton also have a type of fairy, or a “korrigan” as it’s known in their folklore, and similar to “our lads” they are known to cause damage when bothered or upset.

A fairy in Irish folklore 

But before I even start talking about “the fairies” I want to clear something up. A fairy in Irish folklore is not some little Disney Tinkerbelle yoke that would fit through a scutty little fairy door or some dainty little girleen with wings that you’d buy off an English woman in a health food shop in West Cork.

No, I’m talking bad little f***ers. Lads that could do you harm. Ones that will burn down your house, make your child sick, kill a priest, harm your animals, cut your brake lines or blow out an ESB supply. These are the types of stories, ancient and contemporary, which you get when you cross the fairies in Ireland.

Now let’s be clear, I don’t really put too much pass on what the Healy-Raes say and I’m sure there are many more cute hoors in Leinster House than these Kerry men: a lot of them with fine, well spoken accents too I must add. And no matter what the national media think of them, a large majority of people in Kerry think differently.

Silly season stuff 

My first impression on hearing this supposed news was “What’s the story here folks?” There is no story. It’s silly season stuff with lashings of a Dublin-centric view of “life outside the M50″ as the Healy-Raes would put it themselves, aimed at making smug people feel even smugger.

Now, there are two easy targets in this story: The Healy-Raes and The Fairies. I won’t try and defend the politics of Danny Healy-Rae but I will try and defend personal belief and put forward a case for the poor old fairies and their sacred places.

You see, there’s not a village in the country that doesn’t have these fairy stories. Our folklore tell us that they inhabit certain places: bushes, stones, corners of fields and especially old enclosures which number 40,000 plus around the country.

These enclosures date from the 3rd to the 14th century and go by many names: raheens, raths, forts, dúns and lios, depending on what part of the country you live in. The older native Irish enclosures were circular ring forts made of clay or stone, while there are also numerous square/rectangular enclosures from the early Norman period.

A quick look at an OSI map will quickly identify most of these spaces while many of our Gaelic placenames with easily tell us where these enclosures once stood: Lis, Dún, Rath, Caher etc.

I don’t care whether you believe or not 

Whether you believe the fairies or not, I don’t really care, but I will argue that if not for the folklore and superstition surrounding them that we’d have a far poorer built heritage and landscape in Ireland. Due to a combination of fear and respect, people never meddled with these places regardless of faith or social standing and if you did, there would almost definitely be consequences.

It’s generally claimed that we have lost some 10,000 since they were first mapped in the 19th century and this is mostly due to mechanisation and developments in agriculture, land reclamation etc. Growing up on the coast of Wexford my own late father brought me to every raheen in our area, while in the same breath showed me the spots where others once stood and most importantly, told me who was involved in removing them and the consequences they suffered.

And here is the bit I don’t get with this whole sensational story. If the account in the Irish Times had read “Plant Hire King Vows To Level Every Fairy Fort in Kerry” there would be uproar.

However, the man simply expressed his own belief which showed a respect/fear of meddling with these spaces and for his honesty he gets lampooned. Even the most cynical of us will walk on the side of caution. “It’s not worth the risk,” I repeatedly hear from farmers.

 ”Where you see one, you’ll see three”

There’s also an old saying which I come across on a regular basis which states that “Where you see one, you’ll see three”. This refers to when you stand in one fort, you will almost always be able to count two more. This theory not only highlights how plentiful they were, it also tells us how these farmsteads/enclosures were all interconnected on a communal and defensive level.

So when the landscape changed due to developments in agriculture and field formation over the centuries, these physical spaces were left behind, untouched and this is where your fairy paths come into play.

Danny’s issue with a fairy path is old news really as we literally have thousands of stories relating to the consequences of building/interfering on such paths recorded in our archives or alive in the stories of communities around the country. (See film link below).

Source: Michael Fortune/YouTube

Houses abandoned due to torment by the fairies

It is generally believed these paths were simply the old routes that existed between these enclosures and if you were unfortunate to build on these lines you’d get nothing but hardship from the said fellas. You’d go to bed at night and the house would be ransacked in the morning.

Doors would never stay shut as they were in the way of the fairies walking from one fort to another at the night. The accounts are endless and usually could be fixed with a bit of DIY: a wall knocked out and a new door fitted, or an offending corner of a house knocked off so as to not block their way.

In extreme cases I’ve seen houses abandoned due to the torment brought on by the fairies. And if your DIY skills couldn’t fix it, you’d call for some outside expertise and I’m not talking Dermot Bannon here with his concepts of light and open spaces. No, more along the lines of those those ancient Druid like fellas with their prayers, magic water and long flowing cape ie the local parish priest.

Although Rome mightn’t have agreed with their actions, there are numerous accounts of priests being brought in to perform exorcisms of sorts on such houses all over the country. In my own village in Wexford one such story still survives of a priest who was brought into a house which the fairies visited every night and after “driving the fairies out, he died three weeks later as a result of his efforts”. Such was the power of the fairies.

We have an unusual belief system

You see, in Ireland we have an unusual belief system. Like my own late parents many people believe in God but they also had an understanding of the fairies, of sacred places, the banshee and the omens of good luck and bad luck. Both exist side by side.

Folk belief is a hard one to explain. Unlike factual history or organised religion where you can make arguments for and against, folk belief is much more organic and has an ever changing set of rules depending on the believer. Beliefs change from person to person, family to family, area to area.

Although there are many shared characteristics such as the case in point of building or interfering with a fairy path, these stories existed outside of the formal framework of education and religion and are open to interpretation.

Ridicule is nothing new 

This ridiculing of folk belief as highlighted here is nothing new. All over the country a general narrative was created which regarded these stories as nonsense or old pisheogs. Non-controlled folk belief was always seen as a threat to mainstream religion and instead of trying to rid the people of their old ways, we did a lot of “rebranding” in Ireland.

Saints’ days were strategically fixed onto the older dates in our pre-Christian calendar, so you’d have All Souls and All Saints at Hallowe’en, or the Virgin Mary and her May Altars took over from the eggshells of The May Bush etc.

So it’s no surprise when talking about folk belief that I regularly get asked the question “This is just nonsense surely?” And my reply is “Would you ask a Christian, Muslim or Jewish cleric a similar question about God?” Probably not.

So why is it so ridiculous? Do I have to remind you that a majority of our politicians voted to keep the religious prayer in the Dáil some months back?

Now as a “superstitious” non-believer such as myself, I could go on about the fairies all day long but I’ll end with a dark connection to these raths which was never mentioned as the reporting was sensational and lacked depth.

You are not just upsetting the supernatural

It’s a rather sad account and one that I’ve heard repeated in my own family and from numerous older men and women in communities from Mayo, to Tipperary to Wexford. Now this isn’t a story that would have been spoken freely of in the Schools Folklore Scheme of the 1930s and it’s obvious why. Many of these raths were left untouched as they were used for the burial of babies. Unbaptised babies, babies born out of wedlock and babies born in secret.

These accounts are remembered from a time when the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow such babies to be buried in consecrated ground. Instead these dead infants were carried off, mostly in the middle of the night by family members and brought to these ‘sacred places’ to be buried. And here they remained, only remembered by their immediate family or their neighbours who knew.

And so, these forts, these old graveyards and these little nooks in fields were guarded and protected by the people who lived close to them. You see when these places are meddled with, you are not just upsetting the supernatural, you are also upsetting those who are living and those who are dead.

Michael Fortune is a filmmaker/folklorist from Co Wexford. Since 2016 he has been presenting a regular slot on the Sean O’Rourke Show on RTE Radio 1 regarding the ancient and contemporary folklore, customs and rituals existing within Ireland today. To view some of his work online please visit www.folklore.ie.

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About the author:

Michael Fortune  / Folklorist and filmmaker

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