Astride a White Horse

Declan Kiberd

  • The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story by Angela Bourke
    Pimlico, 240 pp, £10.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 7126 6590 0

In the spring of 1998 a Dutch TV crew arrived in the parish of Moyvane, Co. Kerry. They were making a documentary about poetry and landscape, and interviewed a farmer about a fairy-mound in one of his fields near the village. He explained that for many local people it was a forbidden place, and that he had never dared to plough it over because of the distress it would cause. As he was saying this, his mobile phone rang. The TV crew carried on filming as he transacted his business. ‘Tell us, sir,’ the interviewer said when he’d finished, ‘a modern man like you surely does not believe in the little people.’ ‘Of course I don’t,’ he chortled. ‘But I’m very frightened of ’em.’

Angela Bourke, a colleague of mine at University College Dublin, is one of the foremost commentators on Irish folk traditions. Her early work appeared mostly in Irish, but in recent years she has published a number of English-language papers on the ‘virtual world’ of fairy legend. These legends are, for her, both striking narratives and a way for vulnerable people to negotiate a difficult environment. A sinister hand that emerges from the sea near a certain rock and drags fishermen from their boats is, for example, a persuasive way of representing the dangers of a treacherous stretch of water.

The interpretative tradition in which Bourke works is at least two centuries old. In Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) the narrator Thady Quirk advises his master Sir Condy against digging up a fairy-mound. The warning is rejected and the master ‘had no luck afterwards’. Like many country people, Thady sees no contradiction between the claims of rational analysis and those of folk belief, while Edgeworth enacts the contradiction in the formal division between her text and the scholarly notes she attaches to it. They order and survey, and what they survey is the speaker of the main text. But they also suggest that Thady’s may be the better method – the fairy lore, it turns out, has a shrewdly pragmatic set of functions hidden within its rituals. Edgeworth remarks in one note that fairy-mounds often had riches of one kind or another concealed in them and the stories forbidding farmers to destroy them meant that they were more secure than banks. In a similar fashion, the waking of the dead could be seen both as a way of offering company to the recently deceased and as an unofficial coroner’s inquest. The Act of Union, passed in the year Castle Rackrent was published, implied that the voice of scientific realism should override the voice of magic – but it didn’t happen.

Even after the establishment of an independent Irish republic, many Irish people continued to subscribe, however sceptically, to fairy belief. When electrification reached the remoter parts of Co. Kerry in the late Forties, the old, familiar problem presented itself. Local workers were reluctant to lay poles across a mound and an enraged engineer refused to reposition his cables by going around it. Eventually, a gang of Protestant workers was bussed in from Co. Wexford and paid time-and-a-half – otherwise known as danger money – to complete the job. On the way home their bus crashed into a tree. Nobody was badly hurt but the striking Kerry workers had been vindicated.

These kinds of belief weren’t confined to rural communities. The first major manufacturer of potato crisps was a firm called Tayto. It opened in Coolock, a suburb on the north side of Dublin, not far from Roddy Doyle’s stamping-ground, in the decade after World War Two. The factory is set back from the highway which runs past it and a grassy knoll – rather pretty, in factacts as a buffer between the industrial plant and the outside world. The knoll is a fairy-mound and the Murphy family who owned Tayto sensibly left it intact (land on the outskirts of Dublin was anyway dirt cheap). They soon became millionaires and their business went international.

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