Irish fairies in decline?

By contributor Sean Carey

Some years ago, when I was an undergraduate I took an annual holiday in Ireland. My friends and I made our pilgrimage to Fouhy’s bar in Glanworth, a village around 30 miles from the seaside town of Youghal, where we always stayed. The pub was situated halfway along the main street, and despite fierce competition always drew a good crowd, especially at the weekends.

Irish grave decoration. Wikimedia Commons/Ardfern

Unlike the other nine pubs in the village, however, not all customers were locals. I remember walking through the door on one occasion, and seeing the legendary British businessman and horse racing owner Robert Sangster and his wife, Susan, sitting at the bar drinking Jameson’s Irish whiskey.


Why was Sangster and his Australian socialite wife in Fouhy’s? His horses had won two Epsom Derbys, four Irish Derbys, two French Derbys, three Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes and a Melbourne Cup. The venue, a typical village bar with sawdust on the floor, was undoubtedly a far cry from the couple’s more usual, opulent haunts in the Isle of Man and Barbados, where they lived as tax exiles.

Part of the answer is: Sangster owns a major share at a nearby thoroughbred stud and was on one of his periodic visits to check on his investments.

The main reason was that the couple were there for the same reason my friends and I were: the conversation in Fouhy’s positively crackled.

The owner of the pub was Eileen Fouhy, a diminutive, unmarried woman in her early 60s. She stood behind the bar and poured the drinks until the last customer went home at a time of his or her choosing (normally his). She would not allow television. She thinks it ruins people’s ability to communicate with one another.

Eileen is right, of course. Go into any bar or pub anywhere in the world where a television set is switched on and observe the many people gazing at the screen rather than into the faces of their fellow human beings, even if they are not interested in the program being broadcast.

One lunchtime I was the only customer in Fouhy’s. I was an anthropology student, so this was an ideal opportunity to find out something about local folk beliefs. I asked Eileen, who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of local and national Irish history, whether belief in the existence of fairies had declined in Ireland in recent years.

"Fairy Glade" in County Cork, Ireland. Flickr/SageE

“It has,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. “That’s because of the declining strength of Guinness. In the old days, I’d pour a pint and just like now there would always be some that would drip down the outside of the glass. But back then if you left it too long you’d have trouble picking it up — it would stick to the counter. That doesn’t happen nowadays.” She paused and added: “The stout is no longer what it was.”  It was a fantastic reply. What else could I do but laugh?

But the story, with its quicksilver wit, summed up why locals, second generation Irish, U.K.-based undergraduates, and two members of the super-rich called in at Fouhy’s bar.

I was reminded of that conversation this week when I listened to “Away with the Fairies” on BBC Radio 4. The presenter, Dominic Arkwright, began by asking whether fairies are now mainly perceived as “innocent, little butterfly creatures you see in Disney films, all wings gossamer and glitter” or “spirits which can be dangerous and malicious, not at all the sort of things you would want cavorting around at the bottom of your garden.”

Arkwright was joined by Irish folklorist and storyteller Eddie Lenihan, British writer and fairy illustrator Faye Durston, and U.S.-born folklorist and Celtic scholar Dr Juliette Wood. By all accounts, all three make a good living out of fairies. Lenihan, a former teacher and now “a national treasure,” visits schools and festivals in Ireland as well as internationally (especially the U.S.) to regale his audiences with often very scary stories of the “people of the hills” or “the lads” since one should never refer to the “fairies” directly by name.

By contrast, Durston has created a lucrative niche writing about very pleasant, cuddly modern (possibly post-modern) fairies. Her books are bought in prodigious quantities by middle-class parents of pre-teenage girls. Wood played the role of the enthusiastic scholar and analyst with wide comparative interests – “the intermingling of the dark and light is integral to all fairy traditions, and it is just this ambiguity that makes fairy stories so attractive to children and adults alike.”

Fairies have become important again – “they inhabit fantasy literature, the Internet, film, and computer games” according to Wood. Eddie Lenihan notess the traditional belief in Ireland that the best protection if you had the misfortune to meet the fairies was “a black-handled knife, not to attack them with but just to have it – they’d know and keep away from you” as “the lads” are frightened of metal and steel. If a suitable knife was unavailable at an encounter, the best thing was to “find plain water” and get to the other side because the fairies “can’t cross a stream.”

None of the members of the panel was entirely sure when fairies first appeared in history. Wood said that “It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly.” All agreed that it was a long time ago.

Wood and Linehan concurred that Fairies or fairy-like creatures are liminal beings because they like “order” and should always be treated with respect.

As far as Ireland was concerned, Linehan went on to explain that the persistence of beliefs in fairies, especially in rural areas, could be explained by the fact the country had never experienced an industrial revolution, which he argued invariably erodes traditional belief systems.

Arkwright then raised a most interesting question. He asked the panelists whether they had ever seen a fairy. Both Lenihan and Durston claimed that they had. For Lenihan it was objective, while for Durston it was more subjective. Alas, Arkwright failed to ask Wood, although it was clear from what was said earlier on in the program that she believed in the belief that there were fairies, and those beliefs revealed important and powerful truths about the human condition.

Hawthorn tree. Wikimedia Commons/Robin Somes

Lenihan also revealed that in 1999 in order to protect an ancient, 15-foot white-blossomed hawthorn bush on a rocky outcrop at Latoon, County Clare, long believed to be sacred to the fairies of the province of Munster, he began an international media campaign to persuade the National Roads Authority (NRA) to change the route of a bypass that was being built to serve Shannon Airport. The episode, which was covered by the New York Times, led to the NRA agreeing to reroute the highway in 2000. The hawthorn still stands “though surrounded by cars on three sides.”

“Eddie, why did you have to spare that bush?” Arkwright asked. Lenihan replied that if the hawthorn had been removed it would have led to great misfortune: “I told the engineers this: you are bringing it on your heads…Innocent motorists will be killed at this spot, because I have seen [this] in other places where these things have been destroyed.”

Eileen Fouhy died a few years back, so I cannot ask her opinion on the connection between angry and fired-up fairies and road fatalities in modern Ireland. But I am in no doubt that she would have had a ready explanation to hand, Guinness-inspired or otherwise.

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