An Irishman's Diary
The suspicion that the devil has all the best tunes is particularly strong in blues circles, as witnessed by the famous story about Robert Johnson, acquiring guitar virtuosity from a stranger at a Mississippi crossroads, and in the process mortgaging his soul.
But as a new book called The Otherworld – Music Song from Irish Tradition suggests, the devil does not have a monopoly on all genres and instruments. Brilliance on the traditional fiddle, for example, may be in the gift of an at least slightly more benign force: the fairies. And you’re more likely to meet them in a field than at any crossroads.
A legend in point concerns the great Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman, who, while walking with his brother near their home in the early years of the last century, is said to have found himself one day in an otherworldly landscape.
Inspired, the brothers sat on a stone and, having their instruments with them, began playing the most beautiful music either had ever heard. It faded quickly. But like a supernatural masterclass, it left them a permanent legacy.
Years later, the location was identified by a local man in an interview with RTÉ. It was the site of an ancient ring fort and therefore, by tradition, the home of fairies who might lead intruders astray but also, occasionally, confer genius on them.
Presumably the site can still be located. If I owned it, I’d rent it out for music classes.
The Coleman Brothers’ experience features in the aforementioned publication, which is jointly edited by music promoter Tom Sherlock and Prof Ríonach uí Ógáin, director of the National Folklore Collection, from which much of the material is drawn.
Accompanied by two CDs, the book is a fascinating study of how the supernatural impinges on Irish life. Or, at least, how it was once thought to impinge, although a keynote of the text is a continuing equivocation towards the legends, even among sceptics.
People might not believe in the magical powers of a fairy fort or tree, but most still prefer to leave such things undisturbed anyway (which may indeed be wise, since in many cases the structures are protected, if not by invisible little people, then by three-dimensional humans from the Department of the Environment).
Witness the ambivalence of Edward Kendellan, from Stoneybatter in Dublin, recorded as part of an urban folklore project in 1979 and asked about the banshee. “I could tell you a banshee [story], as a matter of fact – if there is such a thing,” he says. “I’ve heard it twice. If there is such a thing.” The banshee, by the way, might be considered more a rural phenomenon. But as the book shows, the wraith-like female figure who foretold deaths in certain Irish families also used to have a strong presence in the capital city.
Another of the 1979 interviews suggested she was active in Ringsend; although there, and in many city suburbs, her distinctive cry seems to have been supplanted since by the wailing of unattended burglar alarms.
Even today, there is a tendency to consider people of great artistic talent have been “touched” by something. In past times, the Coleman legend aside, it was often deemed to have happened in the cradle. A prodigious talent might even be considered a “changeling”, a fairy left in the place of the real child.
In his introduction, Sherlock mentions a story from Clare about a celebrated uilleann piper, Garrett Barry, who was left to mind a year-old child one day. Thinking the baby asleep, he started playing the pipes. Whereupon a voice spoke from the cradle, saying: “You’re good, but I’ve heard better.” That malevolent spirit, the Puca, is also famously active in traditional music circles. And when he’s not fully occupied with the blues, the devil himself has been known to make an appearance, although he sometimes finds that his would-be victims are protected by a magical substance known as humour.
Hence a variation on the Robert Johnson story, told by music historian Caoimhin MacAodh, concerning a Derry fiddler named Mooney. Harangued by his music-hating wife, Mooney leaves home and tramps the roads forlornly, until approaching a crossroads – at midnight, naturally – he meets a cloaked stranger.
The stranger asks to borrow his fiddle and plays it so brilliantly that Mooney, impressed, demands to know his name. Then the mysterious fiddler throws off his cloak and reveals a horned head. Whereupon Mooney extends a friendly hand. “Meet your relation,” he says. “I’m married to your sister.”
The Otherworld: Music Sing from Irish Tradition is published by Four Courts