The 'Other Crowd' in Ireland

Call them myth -- if you dare

Books

February 23, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

I've lost count of the number of times I have gone to Ireland, and though a sad and maddening many visits have been to cover bloody violence, I always manage to spend a bit of time in the countryside. I have generations-removed paternal roots there, and celebrate them. My happiest trips have been poking about rural spots, on foot or horseback, sometimes with a fly rod, more often just to look and to listen.

The listening is good. There is no rational explanation for the astronomically disproportionate eloquence of the Irish people. It is a tiny land -- an island the size of South Carolina, with a total population today, north and south, of 5.5 million, fewer souls than some 96 other countries of the world. Yet Irish men and women, consistently and over many centuries, have produced a huge share of the world's great literature -- poems, novels, drama.

Entire books have examined that long skein of eloquence; whole libraries witness and celebrate it. One of the more enchanting recent ones comes now from Eddie Lenihan, who may be Ireland's most celebrated storyteller. Were there a doubt, there is abundant evidence in his Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland, co-authored by Carolyn Eve Green (Tarcher / Putnam, 333 pages, $24.95).

Who is this "Other Crowd"? Also known in Ireland as fairies and as the Good People, they can be dangerous, and retributive. I think they deserve a lot of credit for Irish eloquence.

The general belief is that they are a race of fallen angels -- angels who sided with and joined Lucifer when he was cast from Heaven by God. And now, they yearn to return. Other mythology has it that they are descendants of prehistoric tribes native to Ireland, bellicose groups who upon losing in battle would disappear forever into the spirit world. They are full-sized, like humans -- though they are capable of transforming themselves into other shapes and forms -- a pig, a frog, a dwarf. They lost their wings when they were expelled from heaven.

But even today, Lenihan insists, "The fairies in Ireland are not a vague, impersonal force. They are people like ourselves. Of a different, a parallel, world, maybe, but similar to us in enough ways to be understood by us sufficiently to make us wary of Them, respectful of their habitations."

There is much irony about the Good People, which is fitting, for Ireland is a land of ironies. "There is a dark and vicious side to their nature" Lenihan writes. "And as was widely accepted in Ireland, a person might be better off to have nothing at all to do with the Good People. Too often the liaison ended in tragedy for the human."

And at another point, he warns: "One thing they know well: how to take advantage of our nature. They punish where it hurts most appropriately. They direct their vengeance at our weakest point, whether it be our affections or our greed."

For 27 years, Lenihan collected these stories in the south of Ireland. Some were direct, eyewitness accounts, others were tales handed down for generations. All were audio- or video-taped. He presents them in such a way as to preserve the tone and style of the speaker. He adds endnotes to most of the stories, many specifically informative as to place and time, others as to myth and ostensible doctrine. Some of them are only a page long, others a dozen or more pages.

Churches, Catholic and Protestant, of course, reject fairies as superstition and as troublesome. Government education systems reject the whole thing as nonsense. As Ireland has turned rapidly from primarily rural to overwhelmingly urban, Lenihan bemoans, the old lore is not being passed on as it used to be.

Believers know the Good People's principal territory is within the fairy rings -- or raths or, in common usage, "forts" --that almost any tourist to rural Ireland has seen: circles of stone encompassing a quarter-acre to an acre. There are 45,000 of them in Ireland. Archeologists attribute them to various prehistoric human purposes and constructions. There is a strong Irish law against destroying one. Is that because of belief in the Other People, or is it to preserve historic artifacts? Don't ask me.

Their territory goes well beyond the forts, especially including the paths they have always traveled. The whitethorn bush, a common, long-lived shrub in Ireland, is especially important to them, and to remove one is to invite retribution -- often fatal.

The fairies play games, Irish games -- hurling, Gaelic football, horseracing -- and have weddings, funerals, dinner parties. They are visible only under special circumstances, mainly of their own choosing.

They need "live" humans somehow to complete certain purposes; there are many reports here of real men, women and children being drawn into such ceremonies, games and celebrations and returning from them undamaged -- unless they accept food from the fairies, which will cause them to be imprisoned forever, part of the other world.

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