In Ireland, Halloween (Samhain) is a major temporal hinge—when the year turns from light to dark, and the boundary between the living and dead, the fantastic and the mundane, grows gossamer thin. Orion’s science editor, Natalie Middleton, caught up with Jonny Dillon, archivist of the National Folklore Collection at the University College of Dublin to find out what fairies can teach us about navigating the unseen.
Natalie Middleton: In Irish folk tradition, we’re not talking about fragile, petal-inspired garden sprites from the Victorian era, but rather a terrifying, strange fairy host with their own powerful community, passage of time, and social norms. Can you give us a sense of the trepidation surrounding them?
Jonny Dillon: That’s a great question. People use the adage: “We praise your name and shun your company.” In Irish folk tradition, the fairy host is placated by calling them the “good people,” the “gentry,” the “hill people,” the “wee people.” But you shouldn’t name them directly. And the idea that there’s this otherworld community of liminal spirits who live alongside us in the natural landscape is one of particular antiquity [almost knocks over tea] Christ! It’s like I’m having a stroke here—
NM: Which I recently learned comes from the term “Fairy Stroke,” as in “touched by the fairies…”
JD: Isn’t that fascinating?
In Ireland, the fairy host is often bound up with the world of the dead. And you find them manifesting in different ways: sometimes they’re described as small people dressed in red or green, or sometimes, I think I’m talking to you, or I meet someone, and I realize that isn’t my wife at all, or that isn’t my husband, or that isn’t my neighbor.
Sometimes they can be dead people from your own town.
There are accounts where a guy will be out late at night. As he’s coming home, he meets a funeral procession moving along the road. And so he does the customary thing of walking three steps with this funeral, and then goes his own way. But as he’s in their midst he sees dead people from his own community. It’s a kind of dead funeral—a fairy funeral.
NM: So, as with Halloween or twilight in general, the thought is that this parallel community sort of breaks through into ours during certain times of the year or day, or in particular places within the terrain?
When you look out across a landscape, it’s not just some bleak void—there’s a mystery and depth and richness to it. Suddenly, there’s a flash of the fantastic into the ordinary, into the everyday.
JD: Right. There are liminal points in both time and nature (generally the wilder places) where this otherworld community inhabits the landscape alongside us—you can’t really conceive of the fairy host without the natural landscape lurking in the background. They might be lonely places, or bare hillsides, forgotten, ancient burial mounds, or they could be situated in forests or rivers or under certain rocks or perhaps a certain lone tree that looks like it hasn’t been planted by a human hand. They could also be in fields that are well worn by day, but at night become unnavigable, and you hear the fairy host playing football, or music, or warring with one another.
They’re an unsettling, strange presence that’s just always around the corner. And so you don’t quite know who you’re talking to anymore. Or you don’t quite know where you are. Things are not as they seem.
For example, a woman traveling across a hillside—maybe she takes a shortcut on her way to get salt from a neighbor—and suddenly she goes astray, or a strange sleep overcomes her, and when she wakes up she’s in a slightly different place where there’s a palace on the horizon, or a door opening into the hillside. She’s brought in, has a fantastic vision: she meets with this otherworld host and has a wonderful time or a frightening time, or a mixture of both, and then the vision dissipates and she might find herself suddenly on the barren hillside again by herself.
Fairies were also known to travel as a wind, so a sudden wind that passes you by would historically be associated with a fairy blast, which often was sweeping away a woman or man or child with it. People would throw dust after it and say, “May all the bad luck of the year go with you!” to protect themselves. So this otherworldly host is traveling across the landscape, manifesting as wind. There are these lines and roads you need to watch out for.
NM: How does the idea of the sacred play into interactions with the fairy world? In your podcast, Blúiríní Béaloidis, you mention that transgression—whether crossing a fairy path, obstructing a fairy funeral, or cutting a branch from a fairy tree—means the transgressor moves across boundaries from order into disorder—from our world into the unseen. Consequences ensue.
JD: Yes, it’s very connected to this concept of holiness, of sacredness. This is a border you don’t cross. And if you do, there will be retribution. Maybe all your livestock will die, or your crops will fail. Maybe you’ll fall ill or your house will burn down.
Fairy trees are an example: conspicuous in the way they stand out. These trees were often sites of repose for souls that were in a repentant, purgatorial state before they could be released to heaven—which is a beautiful image. Souls sheltering under these trees for hundreds and hundreds of years, waiting there. Those trees shouldn’t be cut down. They shouldn’t be desecrated. They should be left alone.
We have a lovely tape from a woman, Liz Fitzpatrick. She’s talking about a fairy tree that was on her land growing up, that her father wouldn’t cut down. And everybody in the area was saying, “You’re an old fool. Just cut this tree down.” He wouldn’t do it. He said, “That’s a real old tree. That’s a fairy tree. It’s been here for generations.” And Liz goes on to describe how she and her brothers used to listen to the fairy women singing at night. And you can hear the love for her father; this one man who is standing against popular opinion. It’s just so bloody beautiful.
It’s very connected to this concept of holiness, of sacredness. This is a border you don’t cross. And if you do, there will be retribution. Maybe all your livestock will die, or your crops will fail.
NM: As an ecologist, I appreciate the humility it takes to refrain from encroaching on what you don’t quite understand. In that way, fairy lore seems to compel an intimate awareness of the natural landscape and our place in it. What else can it teach us?
JD: Folklore is a beautiful way for us to connect with our local landscape—our own natural environment—through the symbols and stories and narratives that are told about it. I think there’s a tendency nowadays to look at these things in terms of “They may be a bit twee,” or “They’re slightly footy because they’re so odd,” or “Ha-ha, who could take those silly things seriously?” But I think they should be afforded much more dignity.
So much of this has been distilled through countless generations. The contemporary experience of modernity that we’re passing through now is a sort of restless discord, a feverish hand-wringing. And these structures—whether fairy lore or ritual or belief or custom found in our traditional practices—hold a lot of joy, profanity, wit, wisdom, humor, darkness, even, which is useful. They’re meaningful, they orient us, they ground us. They can help us move from disenchantment to enchantment with the world around us.
When you look out across a landscape, it’s not just some bleak void—there’s a mystery and depth and richness to it.
Suddenly, there’s a flash of the fantastic into the ordinary, into the everyday.