Away with the faeries

Faeries were once feared and feted in equal measure but does anyone still believe in them?

The Elf Hill by Harry Clarke. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

The Elf Hill by Harry Clarke. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland


F or centuries we Irish have believed in and lived with the Little People; we’ve gone out of our way to avoid annoying them, not bringing foxgloves into the house, maintaining fairy forts, etc. It’s not long since WB Yeats was communing regularly with them. Our first president, Douglas Hyde, admitted to seeing “a strange horse run round a seven-acre field and change into a woman”.

We all know people who crossed them and suffered the consequences. Even, the ultimate pragmatist, Samuel Beckett, claimed to have spoken with a fairy man in Trinity College’s front square. Our first taoiseach, Éamon de V alera, was not a noted fairy man, but his wife, Sinéad, was a renowned expert on the subject and it was on her instigation that he established the Folklore Commission to research the phenomenon.

But what about now? Does anyone still believe in them?

I would have thought not, until my bank manager, while discussing my property portfolio (a shack and some gnarly woodland), asked me whether there were fairies on the land. I laughed politely, but he insisted that back home in Mayo their best section of bog was still set aside for them. I told this to another bank employee and she admitted that her aunt had been trapped in a field for a day by fairies until her grandmother broke the spell with a mirror.

I realise that banks are now part of the Underworld, glorified leprechauns guarding vanishing pots of gold, but do they tend to believe in the Little People more than others?

I contacted Bank of Ireland, AIB and Ulster Bank to gauge their policy on fairies and their employees’ belief in them. AIB and Ulster Bank ignored my request, but a consumer media relations manager at Bank of Ireland had the decency to reply.

“Unfortunately, we have to decline to comment. We would be precluded from making even anecdotal reference to customer peculiarities.”

I suspect she may not have taken my enquiry seriously, but it is a genuine concern. You don’t mess with the fairies. Did anyone think to invite them to the Gathering? For, as any seanchaí will tell you, one bars fairies from a party at one’s peril.

I couldn’t find anybody in Fáilte Ireland willing to give me a straight answer, so I turned to the AA instead, as it struck me that fairies generally occupied marginal areas – wild lands, unfamiliar territory, dark roads. I wanted to know whether the AA ever received reports of them from motorists.

“The AA does not have an official policy on faeries,” replied their spokesman, Conor Faughnan, in an email, but his use of the more authentically folkloric spelling of the word suggested he knew more about it. On further quizzing, he admitted that in his own opinion “faeries had more to do with the human brain’s tendency towards pattern recognition. We see images in ink-blobs, we see faces in shapes and shades because we are pre-disposed to recognise patterns even when they don’t exist.” He reckoned their demise was mostly as a result of rural electrification chasing away darkness, literally and figuratively. “Things that went bump in the night became more susceptible to non-supernatural explanation. If society suffered a Mad-Max style collapse how long would it take for fresh superstitions to re-evolve? It would happen quickly I think.”

I decide to contact the ESB about this, but their spokesperson was still upset with me for revealing that the Ard na Crusha turbines pulverise thousands of eels each year and didn’t reply. I turned instead to an ESB worker climbing a pylon near my woodland shack, but he was adamant that the ESB bore no responsibility for anything: the fate of the fairies lay firmly at the feet of RTÉ who killed off our innocence by introducing an international dimension to life in the 1960s and widening our perspectives. The switch from fireside storytelling to listening to the wireless and watching television marked the death knell of folklore.

Harsh words from someone up a ladder, I thought. It was only fair to contact RTÉ to allow them rebut the slur. But their Information Office ignored my enquiry, so I went above their heads to the chief communications manager:

“I was hoping that I wouldn’t need to bother you about this, but it seems that certain people are blaming the demise of our belief in fairies on RTÉ,” I wrote. “Thus, I feel it only fair to offer the organisation a right of reply.”

She emailed me back as a matter of urgency saying that John Bowman was the ideal man to answer my query: having “done considerable work documenting and analysing the history of RTÉ. I am happy to check his availability with regard to this query.”

Progress at last, I thought, but a few days later I was demoted to dealing with an underling who said, “we thought John Bowman, given his knowledge of RTÉ would be best placed to respond, alas, I haven’t been able to contact him. Apologies that I haven’t been able to have been more assistance on this occasion, please feel free to drop us a line anytime.”

What?!! How can RTÉ not be able to contact the presenter of a weekly radio programme? Does he just appear and disappear? Is he some type of will-o’-the-wisp, himself – appearing through the ether on the airwaves each Sunday morning before disappearing again? Things were becoming increasingly murky. I felt I must be on to something, but I got side-tracked then as the National Roads Authority (NRA) replied to my request for information on their own attitude to fairies which had come under scrutiny during the construction of the N3 motorway near the Hill of Tara and in particular in light of the claims that our economic collapse was caused by the desecration of a site deemed sacred by denizens of the underworld.

The NRA had previously been mired in fairy controversy with the €90 million road scheme in Latoon, Co Clare, back in 1999. The folklorist/seanchaí, Eddie Lenihan, had campaigned at the time to save a whitethorn bush which he claimed was an important meeting place for supernatural forces of the region, and warned that its destruction would result in death and great misfortune for motorists travelling on the proposed new road. The NRA ended up rerouting the Ennis bypass around the tree.

It appears the NRA may now have learnt their lesson, as their spokesman, Sean O’Neill, admitted to me in an unofficial capacity that, “you don’t mess with the Fairies. In the words of the great Aretha Franklin . . . Respect . . . the Fairies!”

Lenihan had tried bringing the issue to court, which made me wonder what the Bar Council of Ireland’s standpoint was. Jeanne McDonagh, their spokeswoman, was as circuitously cautious as you’d imagine a member of the legal profession: “With a membership of more than 2,300 barristers, the Bar Council had difficulty getting consensus as to the existence of fairies but we fully support their right of access to justice.”

Eddie Lenihan is still a courageous voice fighting for fairy rights in a hostile world. He told The New York Times that the unseen menaces that concern us now, like radiation from cell phones, Sellafield’s nuclear waste and alien abductions are merely an updating of the ancient beliefs in hostile invisible forces.

Seanchaithe (story-tellers) are as endangered a group as fairies. They have been replaced by television producers and playwrights. With this in mind, I contacted the Abbey, the Gate and Screen Producers Ireland for comment, but none got back to me. Druid Theatre did say that “An Ireland without our fairy forts and fairy folk would be a less interesting land for sure – and we don’t say that in jest!”

Reassuringly, the chief spokesman for the Arts Council of Ireland, Seán MacCarthaigh, made it clear that, “While as far as I know we have not so far received applications from other worldly beings, the Arts Council as an official body would not rule out processing such applications if they appeared.”

This seems like great news for the fairies, although the general manager of Siamsa Tíre, Catríona Fallon, took me severely to task for using that term: “You should never openly refer to them as ‘Fairies’. They are to be known as the Good People or even the Little People. You risk their displeasure otherwise. As I have no personal evidence to prove they do not exist, I am inclined to go along with my 7-year-old daughter’s theories who is convinced of their existence and is yearning to meet one.”

Ríonach Uí Ógáin, director of the National Folklore Collection (the current iteration of de Valera’s Irish Folklore Commission), agreed that it was risky of me to use the term fairy. Appellations such as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine uaisle (the gentry) or bunadh na gcnoc (the people of the hills) are preferable. She pointed out that belief in an otherworld existence is universal – it adds tension and excitement to the human experience.

When I asked her if she thought our belief in them would die out entirely, she said that aspects of the vernacular imagination are retained as long as they are relevant and that while there are now those who would dismiss belief in the supernatural, there are still many who believe.

Her colleague, Bairbre Ní Fhloinn, said, “It’s a passive belief, but it still includes a lot of young, well-educated people. There is a reluctance to interfere in things which have an association with the fairies or with the other world. We would all rather be safe than sorry. People are not taking unnecessary chances. Life is complicated enough.”

Amen to that.

I’m still no clearer about whether there are actually fairies living on my property, but if the bank manager does come back to me insisting on an answer, I will make sure to insist that he uses their proper nomenclature when referring to them. Na daoine maithe.

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