A day with the fairies
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.