The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Fairy Cleansing

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 1 September 2004

This morning, as I was leaving for work, a man stood at the foot of my driveway. He asked for directions, using an address for which no house existed, only, I told him, a couple of vacant lots for sale. I directed him as he, and the owner of the lots who waited in a Mercedes sedan further down my road, went off to conduct “soil samples.” What I did not tell him was that I’d been following the example of 1960s environmental activist Edward Abbey, “monkey-wrenching” or, to alter John Lennon, putting a “spanner in the works.” Whenever surveyors’ flags and stakes and signs over the past few months had been placed on the empty land, I had removed them under cover of the night. I have also followed the more law-abiding practice of notifying my local council about the very dangerous position any houses erected would threaten on a hair-pin turn of our road, the loss of hillsides where local children played and older folks walked dogs, and the risks for fire and accidents that occupation would exacerbate. My son asked me why we couldn’t form a human chain stopping construction, like he had seen on a television episode where the developers had been defeated by neighbourhood solidarity. I admitted resignedly to him that we could not stand there all the time, that the few neighbours we now have argued that more houses would increase their property value, and that most people cared little for what they saw only as weeds and scrub.

I had finished the other evening the Clare-based seanchai Eddie Lenihan’s Meeting the Other Side: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland (with Carolyn Eve Green. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2004. ISBN 1-58542-206-1), and remembered his prefatory remarks:

Yet I am not so sentimental as to imagine that people can be other than creatures of their time and place. And our time and place is a world, a society that emphasizes the technological rather than the personal (despite what advertisers might have us believe), the superficial and fleeting rather than the profound, the commercial at the expense of the communal. All these changes have their price, and the casualties we can see all around us. (12)

Here, Lenihan speaks for all of us who witness the recent decades that have transformed the physical and spiritual Irish landscapes irrevocably. Many republicans and nationalists have urged us to support these changes, necessary to economic prosperity, European integration, secular conquest, and the demolition of the valleys of squinting windows. We forget that a business park is an oxymoron. Lenihan’s compilation of oral testimony, mainly gathered from the region, witnesses to another kind of business in a less manicured environment. There, ringforts survive as fairy redoubts, lights dance and dust puffs as evidence of fairy activity, and those of us who dare to cross to their side live shortly or longer afterwards, seemingly at the whim of beings diminished in size but not in power. Speaking Irish, hurling, dancing, they represent the survival of a “hidden Ireland” refusing to capitulate to the modern age, just as Daniel Corkery wrote, perhaps romantically I admit, of the 18c bards clinging to the their remnants of an indigenous Munster mentality. Lenihan’s collected accounts of rural informants tell us of an era that may, I hazard, hearken back to a “race memory” of the Iron Age, as the indigenous people retreated before the triumph of the unbending ax and the steely blade, so that their descendants the Tuatha de Danaan cringe before the mower’s scythe or the spalpeen’s knife, while we flee from their nocturnal hegemony across flowing water to at least temporary refuge.

Many who read these stories in urban Ireland or abroad, as Lenihan observes, hide their unease by scoffing at--or denying these tales as those of--a skittish and inebriated peasantry. The storyteller takes pains to gradually let these reactions surrender to, at least in an older generation, the revelation of their own rumours, those of a friend of a friend, that often parallel the encounters he has gathered over the past quarter-of-a-century, He tells us that his audience has to be able to remember a time before 1970 or so to recall any such tales.

This reminded me of the sign I saw at the Folk Museum outside Castlebar. It requested visitors to fill out forms if they wanted to share their own rural memories, specifying, however, that these needed to be prior to 1960. Between Lenihan and the National Museum system, we notice the great division between those (like myself) who remain cut off from the other side of the water, living always in a land where television silenced the seanachai, and the tales of the dark faded when, as you can see on your evening stroll, the blue light emitted from the box in every room near at least one window of nearly every electrified domestic interior.

If you’re in a hurry to get from Galway to Shannon, you speed down the N18 through Lenihan’s town, Crusheen. Six weeks ago, as I temporarily eliminated the quiet of a Sunday morning, I passed the site of a new housing estate, with giant signs boasting of its provenance in scripted paint, going up in the center of this very town. I wondered which field it displaced; the Lateen sceach, or whitethorn crucial to fairy presences, redirected this same road near Newmarket-on-Fergus even closer to the airport, although other forts have been demolished, not without loss of limb or life to those involved in the site’s destruction or those whooshing down its replacement along wide and smooth lanes.

The defence of Latoon, which gained Lenihan headlines worldwide and which shamed the authorities into rerouting the road, may seem quixotic at best and stereotypical to most of the rural Irish mentality that those outside of tourist shoppes might want to ignore as Ennis expands and the estates pull residents towards what are no longer towns but bedroom suburbs of Limerick or Galway as housing prices edge ever higher. In the depopulated hinterlands, the old folks tell their stories of the other side (the “wee folk” or its like never finding an expression in these respectful pages.) Lenihan analyses each account in an afterward combining deftly a folklorist’s skill and a reciter’s interpretation. He avoids skepticism and enthusiasm admirably, balancing his sympathy with the vanished culture these tales capture with a frank admission that this culture will never revive.

W.Y. Evans-Wentz, populariser of the esoteric in the early 20c by his version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, earlier wrote a 1912 Oxford dissertation, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Why did the Asian book arouse so much more enthusiasm, especially when rediscovered by the Beats and hippies, than the Celtic? Is orientalism to blame? Do we deny the hidden Ireland as counter-productive, or even counter-revolutionary? Perhaps we in the West too easily compartmentalise the realm of the esoteric and the inexplicable as quaint and irrational. Ireland, we argue, needs to build its practical foundations by stealing from its cultural treasure. If the road speeds us to Shannon and eases goods to Galway, then Crusheen will suburbanise and fairyforts will be bulldozed. Only the hippies and their New Age allies will protest. All I can add is that visiting the ruin of my grandfather’s house (near the hill of Fairymount) in Roscommon on the same journey that raced me through Latoon, that I left the adjacent fairyfort, marked on the OS map as a rath, safely alone for the cows and birds.

We see near Tara another debate of highway good, heritage bad. Bungalow blight, the obsession to put the house on top of the ridge when our ancestors would have sought the shelter of the lee, symbolises our contemporary attitude. Confident in the EC, dismissive of the culchies, eager for the next franchise to open, Lenihan’s terrible and occasionally comforting messages of revenge taken upon our smug selves by those we deny brings with it a message a Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbaum (whose autobiography I will next review), in his studies of “primitive rebels” would have stamped as politically acceptable for even the reddest of readers of The Blanket. At our own cost, we forget the sufferings of those who we reject as less than human, as relegated to the other side of hell or Connaught, as we ubermenschen look towards the horizons not out of respect, as our farming forebears knew to do, but out of the eyes of developers, exploiters, and expansionists. The former envisioned what the latter erase, looking not up but down for soil samples, to dig only to destroy and build up what long had been left open and apart.





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All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

6 September 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Not In Our Name
Fred A Wilcox

Child Murderers
Anthony McIntyre

32 CSM Urges Russian Government: Recognize Chechen Independence
Sean Burns

Who is Really to Blame?
George Young

Resistance, by ANY Means.
David A' Gardner

Reality Check
Patrick Lismore

Fairy Cleansing
Seaghán Ó Murchú

The Culture of Lies and Deceit
Liam O Comain

Labour Steps Up Pressure on IRA to Disband
Paul Mallon

30 August 2004

The Knackers Yard
Anthony McIntyre

Spin Cycle
Mick Hall

Reality Check
Patrick Lismore

32 CSM Pays Tribute to Memory of Republican Socialist Volunteers
Marian Price

Let Them Stay
Davy Carlin

"Fine Words"



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