Dan Baines

Fairy Rings and Monstrous Things

Filtering by Tag: Jordskott

For fear of little men...

Not a week passes in the rural UK without an article or feature about the folklore surrounding parts of our landscape.  In an almost last ditch attempt to protect if from development we seem to be reaching back into the annals of history in hope that some good old fairy fueled fear will make us consider the consequences of our actions.  As I've mentioned on previous blog posts, nobody admits they believe in fairies until you introduce the threat of bad luck or even death.  Then and only then do you make their normally skeptical unpointed boring ears prick up and listen.

Thomas the Rhymer, the famous thirteenth century Scottish mystic and poet, once met the Faery Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Faery Underworld for a brief sojourn, but upon reemerging into the world of mortals he found he had been absent for seven years. Themes of people being waylaid by the faery folk to places where time passes differently are common in Celtic mythology, and the hawthorn was one of, if not the, most likely tree to be inhabited or protected by the Wee Folk. In Ireland most of the isolated trees, or so-called 'lone bushes', found in the landscape and said to be inhabited by faeries, were hawthorn trees. Such trees could not be cut down or damaged in any way without incurring the often fatal wrath of their supernatural guardians. The Faery Queen by her hawthorn can also be seen as a representation of an earlier pre-Christian archetype, reminding us of a Goddess-centred worship, practised by priestesses in sacred groves of hawthorn, planted in the round. The site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorney Island after the sacred stand of thorn trees there.

But no one believes in fairies anymore, do they? Of course not. Ask most people and they will say that it's all old superstition that has no place in the modern world of the 21st century.

Yet when you delve deeply in to our inherited mindset, you find beliefs that defy logic yet are very much part of who we are. A great example of this occurred a few weeks back when I was standing in a field with Declan Little, our local fencing contractor, discussing the location of a new fence to protect yet another small wood I hope to plant shortly.

Standing alone and right on the path of the proposed fence line was an old thorn tree. It has been there as long as I can remember and while blown over by a past storm, it is still very much alive and growing strongly.

As we gazed at it we both knew that it was in the way but I also knew that nothing would induce me to remove it. Now Declan is a much younger man than I am so I asked him to please not laugh at me when I said I wanted the tree to remain as it was, untouched.

Not only did he not laugh but he added that he was hoping I wasn't going to ask him to cut it as he would have had to refuse.

Relieved that we were of one mind, we then recalled the famous incident in 1999 when construction on a national route from Limerick to Galway was delayed and eventually rerouted to protect a fairy thorn tree that stood in its path.

Stories abound of misfortunes visited on those who risked disturbing lone thorns and there have been many incidences in the past where digger drivers have refused, despite threats of sacking, to touch them.

These trees have a remarkable power about them.

A gnarled thorn, often growing in harsh rocky ground, survivor of wind, weather and grazing, somehow possesses its own unique aura.

Rural electrification

Despite whatever feelings we might have regarding old beliefs and superstitions, such trees deserve our respect. I have heard it said that rural electrification killed off the fairies, especially in the West of Ireland.

The theory was that if you were outside at night and heard a noise you couldn't explain, then immediately your imagination summoned up images of spirits from another world and with it a fear of disturbing them.

When you could turn on a light and see that perhaps it was just a cat or whatever, then at least the sound could be rationally understood.

The screeching of an owl or a vixen late at night must have also had a chilling effect on anyone walking or cycling alone in the countryside.

When I was a child my family always took an annual holiday in the west and I will never forget the stories of fairies or "the little people" that the hotel staff regaled us with.

There is a hill at the back of the hotel that I still feel has magical properties thanks to all those lovely tales of the otherworld and what might happen to you if you got lost there at night.

While walking in Sligo in the early 1900s, WB Yeats asked an elderly man he met on the road if he believed in fairies. "I do not," replied the man, "What do you take me for? What kind of eejit would believe in the little people or in witches and goblins and leprechauns? Don't be ridiculous. I do not believe in them. Not at all..." There was a pause. "But they're there," the man concluded.

The thorn tree which prompted these musings is one of many that are respected throughout Ireland and regardless of how others might scoff, no-one damages what might well be a meeting place of the fairies. Hawthorn trees are believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

Hopefully mine will survive for many years to come.


Woe betide he or she who fells a fairy tree...

Since watching Jordskott I've been fascinated by the fact that most people scoff at the existence of fairies however, if you introduce a life threatening superstition people suddenly show some genuine fear and belief.  Take this article from The Irish News which discusses fairy trees and the dire consequences of cutting one down.  It once again highlights that a primal fear still exists in most of us that nature and its possible elusive guardians are a force not to be messed with. 

ONE of the first stories I reported on more than 20 years ago as a trainee journalist was about a fallen tree.

It had been partially uprooted in a storm and was lying across a footpath and on to the road. Pedestrians had to step out on to the road to get past and even cars had to swerve into the opposite lane to avoid it.

It lay there for more than three weeks so I phoned government departments and the local council offices who all insisted that it was someone else’s problem.

Finally, I put the question: "Was the reason that the tree had not been moved because the workmen were afraid of being cursed by the fairies?"

Needless to say the response was met with bluster, derision and even contempt. But no-one could explain why a fairly routine operation to move a fallen tree that was clearly causing a hazard to pedestrians and motorists had still not taken place.

I went to look at the tree on a number of occasions. It was a hawthorn (known in many parts of Ireland as a fairy thorn) and while it was badly damaged it was still alive, part of its split trunk still rooted in the ground.

Superstitions about fairy thorns are deeply rooted in Ireland. My grandmother used to regale us with stories about the horrors that befell farmers and builders who cut down fairy thorns, usually entailing them being decapitated after the axe they were using to hack the tree hit a rock, bounced back and seemed to hang in mid-air before making the fatal cut, being torn apart by wild animals or meeting some other unexplained but gory end.

Even today if you drive down a country road you will inevitably come across a ploughed field with a lone hawthorn standing in the middle of it.

On a purely practical level trees are essential to human survival on this planet, turning carbon monoxide that mammals exhale into oxygen which we then breath in.

No trees, we all suffocate – yet this has not stopped humanity as a species decimating our forests and jungles. It is estimated that the equivalent of 50 football pitches of woodland are destroyed every minute.

Ireland is one of the most deforested countries in the world, with just 10 per cent of woodland, the second lowest coverage in Europe. When humans first arrived here around 10,000 years ago the island was a huge woodland broken only by loughs and mountains.

Despite the mass destruction, trees and forests still retain an archetypal significance for us. The superstitions surrounding the fairy thorn are just one manifestation. A walk in a forest, sitting under a tree or just looking at the leaves of an oak swaying in a breeze can be hugely restorative to a world-weary mind.

In the past three years I have planted around 200 native Irish trees, mostly in a small neglected field, trying to create my own woodland. Mountain ash, birch, alder, willow, apple, oak, Scots pine and a yew tree. Sapplings, that cost around 40p each and barely came past my knee are now as tall as I am and in a few more years will begin to reach maturity – though I may not be around to see the oak in their full glory.

I worked with the charity One Miliion Trees in One Day to secure more than half the sapplings and they are planning another tree-planting day in two weeks' time (February 20).

In my little, still fragile woodland, there are six hawthorns, and a curse on anyone who even thinks about trying to destroy them.

Tony Bailie

The Irish Cottage Haunted by Violent Fairies

LIXNAW, Ireland — All is not well in the cottage at the edge of the Ballynageragh bog.

The simple home lies on the outskirts of this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village in west Ireland’s County Kerry.

During the last two decades, no fewer than five inhabitants of the tiny white public-owned building died suddenly in tragic and unusual circumstances.

The unsettling events have tapped into a culture of legend and supernatural belief that continues to color life here.

One man dozed off with a lit cigarette and succumbed to smoke inhalation. Another hanged himself shortly after moving from the house. One inhabitant died in a car accident, and a fourth was stabbed to death while traveling in Wales.

Was this cottage built on a fairy funeral path?

Was this cottage built on a fairy funeral path?

Then in November 2013, neighbors found the body of Susan Dunne, 62, in one of the cottage’s bedrooms.

She had moved in 18 months earlier with her autistic teenage son, who stands accused of her murder. Patrick Dunne, 19, is being held in a Dublin mental hospital until his trial in April.

Dunne’s murder was the last straw. Villagers buttonholed Kerry County Councillor Robert Beasley during local election campaigns in May to say they wanted the county-owned house destroyed.

Although Beasley says he raised the motion at council meetings, several factors have delayed a decision about the cottage’s fate.

Among them, no action will be taken until the county has arranged with Susan Dunne’s family to remove her belongings, which remain in the house.

But for all those who want the house leveled, there are also many who argue that the deaths were just a coincidence that doesn’t justify the demolition of a perfectly good dwelling.

Ireland’s devastating financial collapse in 2008 and prolonged recession forced the local authorities to slash budgets. As a result, County Kerry has been slow to replenish its public housing stock. Waiting lists are long.

Some would be happy to live with the cottage’s bloody legacy as long as they have a roof over their heads, locals say.

“There’s a lot of people who would love to have it,” says Paddy Quilter, proprietor of Quilter’s pub in Lixnaw. “All this bullshit about knocking it down — ah.”

Quilter says he doesn’t believe in ghosts. A clutch of locals drinking at the bar nod in agreement. But all are familiar with the host of legends, superstitions and fairies that once populated late-night tales in rural Ireland — and that still have real-world implications for many people.

“In the old days, they called it piseog,” Quilter says, a Gaelic term (pronounced pi-shawg) meaning superstition, voodoo or anything suggesting a supernatural power at hand. “There were a lot of piseogs and ghosts before electricity came in.”

It’s a word someone might use to explain an unusual or unsettling phenomenon — the mysterious deaths of five residents of a single cottage, for example.

Industrialization weakened Ireland’s belief in the fairy world but didn’t stamp it out completely, says Criostoir Mac Carthaigh, an archivist at the National Folklore Collection in Dublin.

As a result, he says, many people adopt a better-safe-than-sorry stance. Some farmers continue their forebears’ habits of not plowing certain parts of a field said to be favored by fairies, while disavowing belief in the supernatural themselves.

“Even down to today, there’s kind of a residual belief and it’s not articulated, it’s not spoken about,” Mac Carthaigh says. “’Leave well enough alone,’ is a phrase you sometimes hear people say.”

Sometimes it goes farther than that.

In 1999, the National Roads Authority was notified that a proposed bypass in western Ireland would destroy a hawthorn bush that played an important role in fairy military history. (You read that correctly.)

Irish fairies are no Disneyfied pixies. They hold grudges. Destroying the bush could result in violent fairy retribution — faulty brakes, mangled cars, death.

The government rerouted the highway and built a protective fence around the bush as an offering to the spirits.

The fairies’ main lobbyist in the human world in that case was Eddie Lenihan, a grizzle-bearded folklorist in western Ireland’s County Clare.

He began his career as a "seanchaithe," or traditional storyteller, when he was completing field research for a masters degree in linguistics and found himself more interested in the stories old folks told than the accents they told them in.

Lenihan says he’s contacted almost weekly by people who want to placate fairies on their property or suss out their feelings about upcoming construction.

His questions about the Lixnaw cottage have nothing to do with council budgets or housing demand.

“Was the house built in a place where it shouldn’t be?” he wonders. “Is there a fairy fort [a remnant of an early Christian structure] nearby?”

“It might be built on a fairy path or a funeral path, which would be a problem,” he adds. “It’d be lunacy to be on one of those. According to the old people, if you’re on a fairy path, you’ll never have peace or luck in a house like that.”

No fairy paths are evident near the cottage today. The low-slung structure, abandoned for almost a year now, stands at the end of a dirt drive blocked by a rusting gate.

Overgrown hedges encircle the property. As storm clouds closed in on a recent windy afternoon, the branches rustled with an insistent sound, like the footsteps of someone or something approaching.

The house next door is for sale. 

Article taken from The Global Post

© Dan Baines 2016