Thursday, August 12, 2010

Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland

Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland By Eddie Lenihan and Anne Green 2003

Eddie Lenihan is one ornery looking dude. He is also one of the last remaining professional storytellers, (seanchi in Irish Gaelic) in Ireland. Most of the stories are from the last three centuries and many from the last 50 years. There are many stories here of the strange interfaces with the ‘Good People’ as they are often called - although many do not have happy endings. He gives a short commentary after each story.

As there are apparently many old ruins in Ireland referred to as Fairy Forts or Fairy Raths - these are the subject of many of the stories. In Ireland it goes without saying that you don’t mess with a fairy fort - stories abound where those who have cut the brush or dozed one out have endured unpleasant fates. A lone Whitethorn, or Hawthorn Tree is said to be an entrance to a Fairy House. Also- fairy paths such as between two forts are not to be built upon. Fairies are said to be unable to cross running water - yet there are stories of banshees following families to America.

Apparently the Irish fairies like to play sports like football and hurling -always at night- so there are stories about such events. It is said that those born near or past midnight have a better chance of ‘meeting the other crowd.’ But if one does get taken into their realm - at all costs avoid eating and drinking - for then they will have you. Horses are very valuable to them - thus the fion lar, or fairy horse- and sometimes too cows or black dogs can see them (or be them) too.

There are a few stories of the si gaoith, or fairy wind - which tends to be a destructive wind of unknown origin during calm weather. A few ‘changeling’ stories are here too where healthy babies are exchanged for weaker fairy babies. Women who died in childbirth and infant mortality was blamed on them - they were said to be taken or ‘carried’ by the fairies.

There are some stories of Biddy Early - a red-haired woman a few hundred years ago who was said to be given a blue bottle by the fairies that she used for healing - she was credited with the power to heal difficult cases much to the chagrin of the clergy. There are a few stories of priests being able to see the fairies but mostly they played along with the old beliefs as much as it served them. Here is quote from a commentary:

“This story leaves us no doubt as to why Biddy is remembered so vividly (and affectionately, for the most part) even today: Hers was a helping mission, whereas too often the clergy were more concerned about the power of the Church as an institution than about the individuals who made up that same church --- as is obvious here from the way they whip them like animals.”

There are also stories showing that the Other Folk were honorable and would return favors. Conversely, they did not take insults lightly. So there is the potential of both rewards and dangers by being ‘in the fairies’ as they say.

There are stories of Banshees who follow certain families warning of an impending death in the family. Fairies have qualities of nature spirits, ghosts, distant ancestors, fallen angels, and demi-gods. One gets a good glimpse of the Irish imagination of the last few centuries - from the Catholic-instilled belief that freemasons were sinister - to the general habits and beliefs of the peasantry.

Here is another interesting commentary quote:

“In an age when belief in the fairies was, for many, as vivid as religious faith, people with unusual natural gifts - of healing, memory, music,etc. -were presumed to have acquired those gifts from sources outside the everyday. (Biddy Early was a prime example.) Not surprisingly so, in a relatively static community, where relations and ancestors could be traced back for many generations. These gifts could only come from God, the Devil, or the fairies. The problem was to distinguish among them. But people’s attitude was very much “by their fruits shall you know them.”

Overall this was a fun book to read and I look forward to his “Tales of the Tain” - a mystical Celtic Warrior Saga. I leave you with one more quote to ponder:

“For no matter whether the fairies are seen metaphorically or as real beings inhabiting their own real world, a study of them shows us that those who came before us (and many of that mindset still survive) realized that we are - no matter what we may think to the contrary - very little creatures, here for a short time only (“passing through” as the old people say) and that we have no right to destroy what the next generation will most assuredly need to also see itself through.”

“If only we could learn that lesson, maybe someday we might be worthy of the wisdom of those who knew that to respect the Good People is basically to respect yourself.”

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