A day with the fairies

Mon, Jan 7, 2013, 00:00

A range of encounters with the supernatural is described in a collection of stories and songs from Irish folklore

The world of the fairies may seem like a long way from our world of skinny lattes and social media. But open the pages of the book The Otherworld, and listen to the two CDs that come with it, and you’ll find yourself carried off – as if by magic – to another realm.

This enchanting selection of songs, tunes, black-and-white photographs and snippets of story is taken from the National Folklore Collection held at University College, Dublin. The musicians and storytellers describe a wide range of encounters with the supernatural, from the smile-inducing to the seriously spine-chilling.

Beautiful women appear and disappear. A banshee takes the form of a frog. A fiddler on his way to a wedding, unhappy because he can only play two mediocre tunes, meets a mysterious but sympathetic man on the road; the man examines his fiddle and hands it back; when the musician arrives at the wedding and begins to play, his two tunes have turned into music of unearthly variety, beauty and power.

Does “fairy music” come in a particular key, or invoke certain harmonies, or use particular rhythms? “I don’t think there’s any specific marker where you could say ‘that’s a fairy tune’ rhythm, or key, or shape,” says Tom Sherlock, one of the editors of The Otherworld.

“There are some remarkable pieces of music. Some of them are included here, like the seven-part jig The Gold Ring, but you can’t say musically that these are distinct pieces.”

Co-editor Rionach Úí Ogáin, who lectures in Irish folklore at UCD, says the explanation that a tune had been learned from the fairies was, oddly enough, a kind of rationalisation. “It was a way of giving recognition to the fact that somebody was particularly talented in the area of music,” she says.

Sometimes, too, there is an advisory element to supernatural stories. “Much of what’s mentioned here happens late at night. So there are words of advice as well. Don’t stay out too late, maybe. Or, don’t drink too much. There might be consequences.

“Things might happen to you that are not necessarily benign,” she says.

But the stories also reflect a real belief system. “That parallel world was very, very real for people,” says Sherlock. “It was not to be trifled with or made fun of. So there’s ambiguity and ambivalence when you’re touching on these matters.”

This is, he points out, reflected in the oblique language used in many of these stories and songs. “The fairies might ‘put in on you’. You can be ‘struck’. Beautiful verbs. ‘Swept’. She was ‘swept’. Now, what does that mean? So much of what’s going on here reflects very important aspects of what it means to be human – not all of it positive. There’s a code, almost, for loss and tragedy. Changelings. Women abducted by the fairies.

“Well, is that where they really went? Were they really taken into a fort in the mountain? The elements of tragedy are touched on, but presented in an indirect way.”

It may be indirect, but the impact on the listener is extraordinarily immediate. This form of art is, above all, entertainment: music to dance to, stories to pass the time. The associated lore functions almost as a kind of 3D; a way of adding value and immersing the audience in the experience.

The Otherworld aims to reflect this multilayered process in the way it is structured and laid out. Each chapter of the book corresponds to a CD track. The text of the song or story is given, in Irish and English.

There are details of the musician, and of the collector who made the recording. There’s also a piece of associated folklore – another version of the song or story from another part of Ireland, perhaps, or some other variation on the theme.

The book and CD also celebrate the dedication of collectors such as Tom Munnelly, a legend in his own right, who spent 30 years collecting material from singers, musicians and storytellers all over Ireland. An especially evocative photograph shows another collector, Leo Corduff, negotiating a stony grey laneway in Co Monaghan in 1965, pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with recording equipment.

Still others transcribed stories and lore in page after page of meticulous handwriting. “This is just a tiny fraction – a few little snippets that we’ve taken from the collection here at UCD,” explains Uí Ogáin, “and the collection itself is only a tiny snippet of something much, much vaster.”

Like much else in 21st-century Ireland, the archive is in dire need of funding so that its content can be digitised and made available online, both in Ireland and abroad. Staff at the National Folklore Collection are working on this project, but their numbers are tiny and the amount of material is enormous – so progress is, inevitably, slow.

As to whether we really need to keep these musical fairy stories for posterity, the final track on the second CD makes a pretty definitive case. The 84-year-old fiddler John Doherty tells the tale of a piper called Paddy Ban Quigley. The story features the deadly féar gorta – the hunger weakness – a boat full of terrified fishermen, an apparition on an impossibly sheer cliff. Doherty goes on to play a reel, The Boys of Malin Head, a tune that Quigley liked to play on the pipes.

The gentle, almost apologetic voice, the Donegal accent, the hypnotic loops in the telling – “he was a proud kind of a man, and he had a proud notion and it was all walking that time, there were no cars, there were no cars . . .” – combine with the consummate skill of the musical performance to make this a truly memorable few minutes. Even in a brightly lit room, with the CD in the computer and a cup of coffee in the hand, it’s enough to raise the hairs on the back of the neck.

But not from fear of the supernatural. John Doherty, who was born in 1895, died just a year after the recording was made. Had it not been stored safely in the National Folklore Collection, this modest but irreplaceable slice of Irish cultural history might have vanished into engulfing nothingness, never to be heard by human ears again. And that’s a seriously scary thought.

Pick of the pucks

It has taken editors Rionach Uí Ogáin and Tom Sherlock more than 25 years to put together the compilation that is The Otherworld. The idea was born in the late 1980s, when they worked together on a CD of music from the Blasket Islands. One of the tunes on that CD was Port na bPúcaí, the Tune of the Fairies. It features on The Otherworld and it’s Uí Ogáin’s favourite.

“It appeals to me very much. I knew Muiris Ó Dálaigh, who plays it here, and recorded him many, many times. This tune is said to come off the air, or off the wind, or sea – various versions are told.

“So that has a great appeal for me, that closeness to the landscape. The association with the sea and the mountains, with loneliness and light.”

Sherlock has a particular fondness for An Mhaighdean Mhara (the Mermaid). “It’s an international tale of the fisherman who marries a mermaid,” he says. “They set up house and have a family. He hides her sealskin cloak in a box, and nobody is allowed open it. The children find the box and when she spies her cloak she has to go back to the sea, and deserts her children. The song depicts the conversation the children have on the shore with her out in the sea. The song isn’t literal. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But this is what’s going on. It’s very beautiful. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it.”


The Otherworld, edited by Rionach Uí Ogáin and Tom Sherlock, is published by Four Courts Press. It costs £25 and all profits from sales of the book and CD will be invested in the conservation and publication of the National Folklore Collection. For details see ucd.ie/irishfolklore