“When I was a boy, nine men in ten believed in fairies, and said so; now only one man in ten will say that he believes in them. If one of the nine believes, he will not tell you; he will keep his mind to himself.”
The above passage is taken from the book, Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World, by Jeremiah Curtin, written in 1895. In his travels across rural Ireland, Jeremiah collected stories told to him by the locals that he met along the way. However, despite all the wonderful tales contained in the book, it is this one quote that really caught my attention. Of course, the statement is purely anecdotal as we will never know for sure if indeed 90% of the population at that time had given up their belief in fairies… but it triggered something within me.
What answer would I give if somebody asked me if I believed in fairies?
And yes, I am fully aware of just how preposterous (mad even!) it is to even ask that question during this age of modern enlightenment and scepticism. I mean, who the hell believes in fairies nowadays! With that thought ringing in my ears, my first instinct was to laugh the question off and move on – but something stopped me from doing so. I felt strangely unsettled by my reaction, as if I were betraying myself somehow.
And then I remembered why I felt like this and it all fell into place… let me explain.
I’m Irish. I was born in Limerick, a relatively large city in the south-west of Ireland. In school, I learnt all about the old myths, the music of the past, and the wonderful history of that strange and beautiful land. Of course, when talking about Irish stories, it’s impossible to avoid elements of the supernatural – actually you’d be hard pressed to find a tale that didn’t include some mention of fairies, changelings (same thing as the fairies really), Pooka, Banshee, and Leprechauns (again, the fairies). These tales were responsible for enriching my imagination and setting me on the path that I’m on today.
Actually, if you are new to Irish tales and are interested in finding out more, I would recommend checking out the following stories to get started: Osin in Tír na nÓg (The land of the young), The Salmon of Knowledge, and The Children of Lir. These are three of the most popular stories and a good introduction to the world of Irish folklore. Although there are probably a millions sites where you can find these tales, a good place to start can be found at Irish Myths and Legends.
But, back to me and my conundrum. These stories may have been ingrained in me from an early age – but there is more to it than that. Afterall, everybody I grew up with were also exposed to the same stories and I’m convinced that many of them now couldn’t give two fiddlers about fairies and the supernatural (clearly the 90%). So, why am I different then? Why the niggling doubt? Why the tug of emotions?
So many questions. But I know the answer. Deep down I guess I’ve always known.
My grandmother was an amazing storyteller. She didn’t really go in for the old myths, but that didn’t matter as I was getting that stuff from school anyway. Instead, she would regal me with stories about the history of Limerick, of Ireland’s struggles with English occupation, of the (often) funny exploits and mischief of long dead relations, and, of the dangers of crossing the invisible line separating our world with that of the little people. Of the latter point, she had a few stories herself of ‘near encounters’ gathered over the years: such as the time she swore she heard her late-mothers voice calling to her while doing the ashes; the time my great-aunt heard the sound of the banshee the night a neighbour died; and the time a distant cousin swore he heard sounds of little tools tapping in the bushes…which of course vanished upon investigation.
You know, something just occurred to me now while writing this. Never, in all the years I knew her, did I ever doubt or question her conviction about the things she knew. As a child – and later as a young-adult – I listened attentively to every word, soaking it all in. These were the things she knew about, stories collected and remembered, past down to her from her own parents and grandparents. I understand now that by telling me about all of this, she was ensuring that they would live on through me, my own family, and hopefully future generations to come.
Regarding the supernatural, it was from her that I learnt:
- That certain Irish families are more prone to visitations from the Banshee than others (those with an “O” or a “Mc/Mac” preceding the surname). I remember that this little nugget kept me awake for a solid week after hearing it.
- That Halloween can be fun but that it is also the time of the year when the link between the living and dead is at its most weakest. She would warn me to be careful of walking the streets after midnight for fear of being pushed off the footpath. Something that has stuck with me to this very day.
- Never, never – ever – disturb a fairy fort. Fairy forts were the gateway to the fairy world – something, by the way, that is still respected by Irish farmers and country-folk to this day. If you ever see a strange mound in the middle of a well groomed field, usually with a tree growing on top, you can safely assume that it’s a fairy fort. Poking around a fairy fort was something that only the foolhardy or the ignorant did – and woe betide those that did it. [Hint: it never ends well]
- A good cure for warts was to rub them with a bit of fat and then bury it. As the fat rots, so too do the warts. I have distinct memories of doing this as a kid and burying lumpy bits of fat in our small yard. Not sure if it worked though!
- Never, ever, pick up a black comb from the street (seemingly this was a thing to do back in the day). To do so, would invite bad luck into your life. Same goes for other superstitions too: to see a single magpie is unlucky; mirrors must be covered after a funeral (so the dead can’t see themselves and get a shock that they are dead); an itchy right palm meant money coming in, a left one was money going out; to pass by a penny on the street was unlucky – always pick it up, spit on in three times, and rub against your pants for good fortune; and of course, stepping on dog poo (or getting pelted by bird crap from above) was considered extremely lucky… although I never understood the rational there!
“Did she believe in them really? I seriously don’t know but it doesn’t matter, she made me believe”
As a staunch Catholic, my grandmother had no qualms talking proudly about the pope and church, but the spirit world was another matter. Stories were told in hushed tones, during private moments. They were something special – just for us. Did she believe in them really? I seriously don’t know but it doesn’t matter, she made me believe. And, when you think about it, what’s wrong with that? Mind you, I am fully aware that this kind of thinking wouldn’t suit a lot of people who are quite comfortable in their world view, where everything can be explained and life itself is an equation just waiting to be unravelled. And that’s fine too I guess – but to believe that life is more than what we can perceive, to believe that we are surrounded by an invisible world full of strange creatures, magic, and spirits – isn’t that a wonderful thought?
So yes, if I’m absolutely honest with myself, I do (or at least I want to) believe in fairies, ghosts, and the supernatural – all the things that an adult living in the twenty-first century is supposed to put aside as idle fantasy. This belief is a part of my life, of those special moments with my grandmother, that helped to make me the person I am today. I am the one in ten. And for that, I am extremely proud.
Article written by Shane O’Halloran. Have something to say? Leave a comment below or contact Shane directly via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or email. Or, you could just buy him a coffee if you like? (AKA a pint)