A day with 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.