A Sleeping Fairy. Artwork by Shelley Corcoran as part of the Three Thoughts, One Breath Exhibition, which opened this week in the Backstage Theatre
The country laughed when Danny Healy-Rae blamed the fairies for a dip in the road in Kerry, but the truth is that Irish people are deeply superstitious about fairy folklore. And with over 800 fairy forts in Longford, we look at the the mystical world of the local fairy population
There was much mirth recently when Independant TD Danny Healy-Rae made the outlandish claim that fairies were the cause of a dip in a Kerry road.
According to Mr Healy-Rae, the dip, which had been repaired only to mysteriously reappear, was a direct result of the presence of numerous fairy forts in the area.
His claims were greeted with howls of derision in some quarters but the truth is that Irish people still take their fairy folklore very seriously.
And it’s easy to see why - if you drive to any part of Longford - or, indeed, any part of the country - there's a strong chance you'll pass at least one 'fairy fort' along the way - probably several.
In fact, according to Longford County Heritage Officer, Mairéad Ní Chongaile, there are more fairy forts - or raths, as they're also known - in Longford than you might expect.
“There are just under 3,000 archaeological sites in Longford. Some are in the same place - for example, a church might be considered one site and the graveyard beside it would be another.
“But there are any number of ring forts around the county. Which are considered fairy forts, I don't know off the top of my head,” she explained, adding that they possibly date as far back as the Iron Age, or at least early Christian times.
A little digging - though not literal digging, as that would bring about bad luck, if the stories are to be believed - and the help of an online mapping service revealed that there are exactly 812 raths scattered around the county.
That's a lot. But there are certainly one or two that are familiar.
“There was a large one in Granard and, when the Normans came, they built a Motte and Bailey on it because it was the highest point,” said Mairéad, referring to the Granard structure we know so well today.
“Generally, what people call fairy forts are ringforts or similar archaeological habitation.
“Not all are imbued with magical powers - they tend to be rarer,” she added.
So it's difficult to know exactly how many of Longford's 812 raths have superstitions attached but, if there are any stories, you can guarantee the older generations have heard them.
“There are still superstitions around them, and some who have had family members interfere with them have had bad luck,” said Mairéad.
“I've heard anecdotal evidence of a farmer digging up a rath, because he wanted his land to be flat, only to have his dog get hit by a car an hour later. So, whether it was bad luck or coincidence, I don't know.
“But there is a lot of respect around these structures and we know that these are not something we want to interfere with.”
If nothing else, the rumours that many ringforts are unofficial burial sites for unbaptised babies should be enough to slow the hand of anyone contemplating the destruction of these sacred structures.
Until quite recently, the Catholic Church decreed that unbaptised babies could not be buried in consecrated ground.
This cruel law meant that grieving families were forced to either sneak into the graveyard to bury their children under the darkness of night, or find another place to lay their infants to rest.
Many went to the nearest rath in the hope that the ancient gods would accept the unbaptised children where a modern god would not.
It was strongly believed that babies buried within the circular structures were protected by the fairies, and that nobody would interfere with this sacred land.
Perhaps this is where all the stories and superstitions came from. After all, there's rarely smoke without fire and Irish people are renowned for exaggerating a story from time to time.
“The Irish are a nation of storytellers,” Annette Corkery of the Ardagh Heritage and Creativity Centre explained to the Longford Leader.
“And for centuries they told these stories to pass on knowledge. The druids had to train for years and years to learn everything off by heart. Nothing was written down.
“So it was all stories, until the monks came along and put the Christian twist on them. Those stories were only written down first in the 1700s, but they were used to teach the people,” she added.
Ann Gerety Smyth, also of the Ardagh Heritage Centre, agreed, adding that each person who told the story would exaggerate it a bit and make it even better, until it became something magical and magnificent.
“It's a whole other history. And it’s another way of describing history, because there’s always truth in it somewhere,” she said, before using our own fairy, Midir, as an example.
“There is the Midir and Etain story where Midir put a road in the bog and that story is thousands of years old,” she explained.
The story of Midir and Etain is a local one. Midir, a fairy from Ardagh, comes across Etain and immediately decides to marry her, much to the anger and jealousy of his current wife, Fuamnach.
To shorten the tale, Fuamnach turns Etain into a butterfly and creates a storm to blow her away. Etain eventually lands on the windowsill of Ulster chieftain, Etar, and falls into the goblet of Etar’s wife, who swallows her.
Nine months later, Etar’s wife gives birth to a baby girl, Etain, who looks exactly as she did before.
She grows up to marry Eochaidh, High King of Ireland, and has no memory of her previous fairy life.
When Midir finally finds her again, he challenges the High King to a game of fichel, which is a bit like chess.
A number of games are played for ever-increasing stakes and, upon losing one of these games, the King orders Midir to build a road across Corlea Bog.
“And it was only in the 90s that they actually found an ancient road in the bog. But for centuries, the people were explaining, through these stories, that there was a road in the bog,” said Ann.
The legend of Midir and Etain certainly brings an element of magic and intrigue to the discovery of the bog road, which dates back to the Iron Age - much like the fairy forts dotted around the country.
The road, according to legend, was built from oak and, in ancient folklore, the oak tree was considered the king of the forest.
But there were a number of other trees that had various roles in Irish folklore.
Oak was supposed to protect against evil. The beech tree was always known as a wishing tree. Ash had healing properties. The list goes on.
“There’s always been a yew tree in a graveyard,” Annette explained.
“But those trees would have been there long before the graveyards and a lot of the graveyard locations were chosen because the yew tree made it such a sacred space.”
Even in the story of Midir and Etain, it is said that a wand of hazel was used by Fuamnach to turn Etain into a butterfly, and again later in the story when Etain and Midir turn into swans and make their escape from Tara.
Furthermore, Eochaidh uses rods of yew, inscribed with Ogham letters to track the fairy lovers to Brí Léith (Ardagh Mountain).
With these stories in mind, and the stories surrounding the sacred fairy trees, the Ardagh Heritage Centre recently launched their tree fairies, to introduce children to Ogham and the stories and folklore attached to our native trees.
“The idea behind the Tree Fairies is our love of the trees. The forest here is of native trees and there’s not many of those left,” Ann explained, referring to the beautiful deciduous forest located near the heritage village of Ardagh.
“One per cent of the country is made up of deciduous forest today. There was a time when the whole country was covered in them. All the Coillte forests are made up of pine. So it’s a little treasure,” Annette agreed.
So far, the children have been introduced to ten Tree Fairies - each one associated with a different tree and a different Ogham letter.
“They have appeared to us in two forms, as they would to children who they want to educate about the importance of nature and Irish heritage,” said Ann.
“They have revealed a spell each and their Ogham letters, along with a bit about themselves. They have also revealed their normal sidhe form, which is quite human-like, and have said they intend to tell their stories to us. More will follow as the Year of the Fairies in Ardagh Heritage and Creativity Centre continues.”
The Tree Fairies were unveiled as part of the recent Heritage Week and are associated with oak, alder, ash, willow, yew, horse chestnut, beech, hazel, holly and mountain ash trees.
Each of these can be seen in the forest beside the Ardagh Heritage Centre.
But Irish fairies are not sweet little winged creatures who grant wishes and sprinkle fairy dust, according to Ann and Annette.
In fact, they’re more like us than anything else. Known as the ‘Sidhe’, or ‘faeries’, they were driven underground when humans came to live in Ireland and this, too, is linked to Midir.
When Midir finally won a game of fichel against Eochaidh, he demanded, as forfeit, a kiss from Etain.
The High King told him to come back the following month - or the following year, depending on which version of the story you read - and he would get his kiss.
But for that month, Eochaidh barricaded Tara in an attempt to protect his wife.
Sadly for Eochaidh, this didn’t work and Midir appeared in the middle of the great hall, took Etain’s hand and vanished.
“At the time, Eochaidh and Etain had been living together, happy enough. And, when Midir took her, Eochaidh became very angry and began to dig up all the raths in an effort to find her,” said Ann, who explained that this destruction of the raths is what drove the Sidhe people underground.
“You can see why the Irish fairy is not a fun fairy - they must be a little bit angry at us for driving them underground.
“So you have to have a bit of respect for them. And traditionally, the Irish did respect them and let them have the paths and didn’t interfere with the fairy forts. A lot of the roads were built around the forts and the fairy trees.
“And when they haven’t respected them… well… maybe it’s true about the bad luck; maybe it’s not. You do hear stories, and maybe they’re just coincidences. But because you know of the folklore, you think maybe it’s true.”