“Thereis a country called Tír-na-n-Og, which means the Country of the Young, forage and death have not found it; neither tears nor loud laughter have gone near it.
” from Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland by W.B. Yeats1. Tír na nÒg, the land of eternal youth or the IrishElysian Fields, is just one aspect of the rich history of the supernatural thatinhabits Ireland. The numerous stories of the sidhe, or fairies, emphasized a dualism of helpfulness andwickedness among the na Daoine sidhe,or the supernatural race, and suggests that the Irish people were open to otherpowers. It is this rich history of stories that helped keep the island at peaceduring The Burning Time, 1400-1700 C.E.
when the fear of witchcraft was at its height2. Despite over 35,100 witchtrials across the European continent, over eight thousand trials in Germanyalone, Ireland experienced less than ten trials over nearly five hundred years.3 This is a result of a number offactors, including the Reformation and the presence of the British tyrant onthe island, however the reason the stereotype of demonic witchcraft did nottake hold in Catholic Ireland was the preexisting culture surrounding theunknown. The chronicle of coexistence between the supernatural and mortal inlegends such as Children of Lir, Cuchulainn and Oisín that detailed the dualityof magic, was one reason for the few number of witch trials in Ireland in theearly modern period. WhenSt. Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432 C.E Christianity has already been introducedgradually through trading contact with Gaul and Britain.
4 One of the storiessurrounding St. Patrick is his banishment the snakes into the sea.5 In this legend St. Patrickdrove all the serpents of the island into the sea after being attacked during aforty day fast. This legend is a mirror to the story of Exodus 7:7-14 whenMoses and Aaron must compete with the Pharaoh’s sorcerers, whose staffs turn tosnakes. Aaron prevails when his staff, which had too turned into a snake,consumes the others. However, snakes did not exist in post-glacial Ireland.6 Likely the legend wascreated later to instill distrust surrounding the Druids of the past, who hadbeen attacked, but by the Romans in 57 C.
E. Not only are serpents symbols ofevil in the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as in the story of Genesis, butoften the Druids were adorned with tattoos of the Ouroboros, a snake eating itsown tail that represented the cycle of life and wholeness7. The feelings of the Romansoldiers, “druids practiced all sorts of weird and evil rituals. Magic andsoothsaying, even human sacrifice…were carried out on this distant island.
” Likelywere carried forward into the Roman Catholic Church, as these presumptions hadlittle reason to change in 400 years.8 9 This is reflected in theKing James Version of the bible, written in 1611 C.E., “And the children ofIsrael did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, andserved Baalim and the groves.” Judges 3:7 Baalim, although often a reference tothe Canaanite and Phoenician false gods, is too associated with the pagantraditions of Ireland.10 The annual festival ofTara, associated with Samhain, has also been called “Baal’s fire”.11 The groves too referencethe druids, the Oak Groves being the sacred meeting place or group of Celtssince the first century C.E to today.
12St.Patrick who dedicated the later portion of his life to the Christianization ofIreland, brought in a sense of literacy and learning with it. His entrance toIreland coincided with the fall of Rome in 436 C.
E., when barbarians became aconstant threat to the people of mainland Europe. Ireland, distanced from thedanger of barbarians and Rome itself, eventually nabbed the nickname “the isleof saints and scholars” as Irish monks preserved much of the literary works ofthe Classical World, both Christian and pagan, while the libraries of centralEurope were lost.
13 St. Patrick, who preachedthe good in mankind and nature, practiced interculturation, which allowed theGospel to meld with local customs rather than forcing fixed hierarchies andtheological structures common of Rome14. Through this the Celticchurch “a Christianity without the sociopolitical baggage of the Graeco-Romanworlds” was born.15 The early scholarship ofthe Irish was motivated by curiosity and fascination with new learning;glamour, in the sense of enchantment and grammar sharing the same root word.16 However writing andliteracy was largely kept to the religious class until the 19thcentury.
17Although the monks of Ireland were becoming familiar with both local legend andinternational classics, the common people were still practicing a principallyoral tradition.Themasses and common folk of Ireland continued to live largely illiterate, and the”most romantically wistful and tenacious folklore of any in the world” stillspread even in the face of new Christian traditions, interculturation failingto challenge these classics.18 It’s among these legendsand the strong beliefs in the na Daoinesidhe that the chronical of coexistence is recorded and the duality in thelong lineage of magic in Ireland is revealed. “Throughoutthe early modern period, fairy belief in Gaelic-Irish culture provided a cogentexplanatory mechanism for misfortune”.19 The Irish fairies dividethemselves into two main classes, social and solitary; the first being kind andthe second often mean and among these classes there are subdivisions. Such asland vs.
water, or dark vs. light of heart. The presence of such creatures,like Changelings and Pookas, in Irish day to day life is evidence for therelevance of the supernatural. The changeling, a fairy child and social fairy,is the result of when mortals, most often babies, are fancied and taken to Tír na nÒg.
“Come away! O,human child!To the woods and waters wild,With a fairy hand in hand,For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”- The Stolen Child by W.B.
Yeats The Sidhe can have difficulty with birth, and are said to kidnap overlypraised or loved human babies, sometimes replacing them with a sickly baby oftheir own.20These fairy children can grow up to be short and gangling, appearing old andare often musically gifted.21 To protect a child frombeing swapped with a Changeling, parents baptize their children, among othercounter actions.
2223This suggests thatChristianity and fairy beliefs were not two separate subjects, but merged as aresult of interculturation. The Pooka, a much feared Sidhe and solitary fairy, rather similar to the Scottish Kelpie, isa glossy and beautiful black horse that creates trouble and tumult.24 The name is derived from poc meaning he-goat, and W.
B. Yeatstells of how the Pooka would emerge in November and give sensible advice andapt answers about the next year when consulted. However, in the mountains andruins it would “grow monstrous with solitude”.25 It may steal individualsfor midnight rides, and if refused, the property of the individual willdisappear. It may also take the form a goblin like creature that demands someportion of crops, for this reason a share of any harvest is left in the fieldas the “Pooka’s share”.
26 Although it could beregarded as superstition, it implies a certain respect for the na Daoine sidhe and that dealings withfairies can have negative consequences. However, fairies aren’t necessarilyabove the mortal race, numerous tales tell of clever mortals trickingleprechauns out of fortunes or how the banshee predicts death for great Irishfamilies.2728 The Children of Lir, likely a Christianized version ofThe Twelve Geese, tells the story the children of King Lir, and his Wife Aebh, descendentof a goddess, and the wicked step mother, Aoifa. After Aebh dies, Aoifa marriedthe King and came to be jealous of, and eventually hate, her four step childrenfor the love their father, King Lir, had for them. Aoifa turned the childreninto swans and cursed them to be such for 900 years until a druid from acrossthe sea arrives and they heard a bell that rings for prayers.29 Christianity came to theisland during their time cursed as swans and in some versions St. Patrickhimself blesses the Children of Lir and gives them Christian graves. This legendis noteworthy for illustrating the intermarriage between mortals and na Daoine sidhe, and the connections betweenreligion and magic.
In this story Aebh, the supernatural mother, loves herchildren and succumbs to death despite being closer to the Country of the Youngwhile the mortal step mother is full of hate, suggesting that fairies too bothknow good and bad, and birth and death, as humans do. There also lacks a cleardivision between the age of fairies and Christianity, suggesting an integrationover abandonment. The story of Cúchulainn, a sort of Irish Hercules,follows that of a great warrior who earns his name through acts good characterand loyalty, displaying both the importance of trustworthiness and virtuousnessin Irish culture and the capacity for it among mortals.30 Eventually Cúchulainnmarries a fairy queen, Emer, again illustrating connection among the Sidhe and mortal realm. Oisin, a bard and warrior, is regarded in legend as thegreatest poet of Ireland, is more famously known as the only man to have goneto Tír na nÒg and returned. Loved by the Sidhe princess Niamh, Oisin is taken tothe land of the fairies, promising his father and comrades that he will return beforelong. After what seems to be three years, he returns to the mortal realm on awhite horse gifted to him by Niamh who warned him should he dismount he cannot returnto Tír na nÒg.
Looking for his friendsand father, he realizes three hundred years have passed and his religion hasbeen replaced by Christianity. Attempting to help men in the building of aroad, he touches the ground and “his three hundred years fell upon him, and hewas bowed double, and his beard swept the ground.”31 Before dying he isvisited by St.
Patrick and recalls his stay in the Land of Youth, and dependingon the version you read or hear he either converts or defends the druid faith.32 This legend is anotherexample of the coexistence and relationships among mortal and supernatural, andmore importantly, seems to signify a coexistence between Tír na nÒg and the Christian heaven. Since, people haveclaimed to see Tír na nÒg in many places,in the bottom of lakes, in a sounds of vague bells, and far off in the horizon.Some claim its even triple – “the island of the living, the island ofvictories, and an underwater land.”33 It is because of the preexisting attitude surroundingmagic, as illustrated in the previous examples, that the stereotypessurrounding witchcraft typical in Catholicism elsewhere failed to take hold onthe island.