BEFORE Christianity appropriated this time of year, the winter solstice on Dec 21 was one of the important dates in the Irish calendar.
This year, Dec 21 also marks the end of the Mayan calendar, so some people believe the world will end today.
In ancient times, Dec 21 marked the turning of the year, the end of the dark days and the confinement of winter, and the promise of a new spring.
In our brightly lit world, we are largely divorced from seasonal and agricultural patterns, and the spiritual beliefs of our ancestors no longer hold sway. But beneath the veneer of Christianity, superstitions remain.
The destruction of two ‘fairy forts’ in Kilmurry, Co Cork, was punished this year by fines and penalties of €20,000, and followed a €25,000 fine for a farmer in Kerry for the same offence.
These cases show that fairy forts are sacrosanct, protected by cultural traditions entwined within Irish rural life. Even the most ambitious farmer, talking big in the pub, would likely hesitate before removing a fairy fort. It would be more daunting than he had supposed.
Sitting in the cab of a JCB, the bucket poised, a nagging doubt or a cold trickle of fear is a definite possibility for the farmer, who might think it safer to just let the land be; after all, a quarter acre is a small sacrifice for peace of mind.
As rural Ireland changes, is this self-imposed prohibition failing?
Owen Driscoll is an agricultural consultant in West Cork and has worked with thousands of farmers. Driscoll says this taboo remains. “I think that 99% of farmers would be very slow to cause damage to a fairy fort or even a fairy tree,” he says.
“I don’t see any change in that with younger farmers. There is a sense that if you mess with the devil, then he may mess with you.
“You will still be told stories of a farmer who damaged a fort or removed a whitethorn tree and then died within a short time, or suffered some other tragedy. For an older generation, the idea that fairies existed went beyond a belief. It was considered absolute fact.”
Jenny Butler is based in the department of folklore in UCC and is interested in traditions associated with the supernatural. Butler says that, informally, people say such beliefs belong in the past, but their behaviour suggests otherwise. “I think people are very hesitant about admitting to a belief in fairies,” she says. “I have done some research into new-age beliefs and people are more comfortable admitting to a belief in angels, for example. Yet, very few farmers will remove a fairy fort.”
People are hesitant talking about fairies because the traditional means of dealing with them could be severe. “The myth of a changeling is common in folk traditions across Europe,” Butler says. “In Ireland, there was a concept that fairies needed humans to maintain their bloodline and they would swap an old fairy man for a young baby. Or, they might substitute a baby with a stock; which is an illusion of a baby that soon withers and dies.”
It was believed that fairies, as creatures of nature, were frightened of iron and fire and also that they hated dirt. These elements could be used to force out a changeling.
“These beliefs persisted into recent times,” says Butler. “For example, in 1895 Michael Cleary convinced his family and community that his wife, Bridget, was a changeling. This was confirmed by a traditional fairy doctor, who attempted a herbal cure. When that didn’t work, they threatened her with fire, doused, and finally burned her to death.
“There is also a record from the previous year of two women up in court for placing a young boy on a hot shovel to try and burn the fairy out of him. There are also stories of changeling children being left on dung heaps overnight; the fairies would see one of their own being mistreated and swap back the child they had taken. Another method of exposing a changeling was to do something unexpected; if the fairy noticed, or made a comment, it would have revealed itself.”
Kerry seanchaí Eddie Lenihan came to international prominence in 1999, when he fought for the protection of a lone whitethorn bush in County Clare. It was reputed to be the meeting place for the fairies of Munster and Connaught and the road was subsequently rerouted to protect it. His book, Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland, is a collection of stories that might otherwise have perished with the rural generations that believed in them.
Most of these stories are matter of fact and the existence of fairies is taken as an accepted truth. The fairies play hurling, they dance, they have funerals; they are seen as a community that coexists with our own, and only occasionally interacts with us.
The fairies may be malign or benign, but, for the most part, they are largely indifferent to our presence.
Sometimes, they need us for something specific — for example, to referee a hurling match or carry a coffin. The stories are not parables or morality tales; if anything, they provide practical advice on how to deal with a given, fairy-related situation, should it arise.
However, one element of the tales remains consistent; if you interfere with their paths or their forts, they will exact revenge.
“It was believed that a fairy could take any shape they wished; you could be sitting across the table from one, at this moment, and never know,” says Lenihan. “That is quite an unsettling idea. Revenge for disturbing their chosen places ranged from never again having another good night’s sleep to the man who gradually dissolved and fell apart. It is not a chance worth taking and that is why, even with large-scale, modern farming, you will still see individual, whitethorn bushes untouched.”
Of course, it is tempting to tag such beliefs with convenient, sociological labels: To believe that these superstitions evolved to explain unusual phenomena, or to perceive that past generations believed in changelings as an explanation for congenital birth defects. Communal, local stories have been replaced by generic television and valid, scientific explanations are provided for cycles and events in the natural world that would have once been opaque and mysterious.
Tonight may be the longest night of winter, but very few of us will experience true darkness. We move from brightly lit houses to cars and few of us walk more than short distances on dark country roads.
As primarily visual creatures, we are more comfortable in daylight and so less susceptible to subconscious fears and imaginings, and less likely to be startled by an unexplained rustling in the hedgerow or a shadowy figure on the periphery of our vision.
Yet, as Lenihan says, whenever the subject of fairies is raised in his travels around the country, and when the joking has subsided, genuine sceptics are thinner on the ground than you might expect. Perhaps these residual beliefs will be sufficient to preserve ring forts in the future, and perhaps the fairies still enact their revenge on people who disturb them; even if, nowadays, it takes a more conventional monetary form.
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