Folklore and the Irish Diaspora Part I: Away… With the Fairies?

Away…. With the Fairies?

This is a 2-part blog series looking at folklore and the migration of belief.

In this first part I will look at the Irish fairy faith and ask whether those that emigrated to America took their fair folk with them or left them behind in Ireland, forever linked to place.

In the second part I go on to look at some ways in which people of the Irish diaspora used folklore as a way of making sense of the emigrant experience, and how their old myths fed into the folklore of the American West.

The Irish fairy faith is the, mostly oral, body of indigenous folk-belief around the other than human creatures known variously as the sídhe (people of the mounds), the fairies, or often (euphemistically to avoid attracting their attention), as the Fair Folk, the Gentry, the Shining Ones, The Good People, or simply Themselves / Them.

I’ll point out here that these beings bear very little resemblance to the romantic Victorian idea of tiny ‘flower fairies’ or the Tinkerbell of Peter Pan fame – who owe much more to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than to Gaelic folklore. Folkloric fairies are described as often invisible, but when seen are human sized or larger, and dangerous.  Much of fairy lore is concerned with how to keep fairies out, or protect yourself from their attentions – which could be fatal.

Fairy legends are told all over Ireland and also Scotland, Wales and parts of England. But belief in England waned early, leading William Howitt in 1841 to lament “The Fairies, which gave in old times one of the most interesting and poetical features to the country, have all vanished clean away. Of those supernatural and airy beings who used to haunt the woodlands, hamlets and solitary houses of Old England, they were the first to depart” [1]

In Ireland folk belief in fairies has persisted far longer, even up to the present day, as illustrated by the interviews below, and by the protests when road builders proposed to destroy a local fairy tree in Co Clare in 1999 [2]

The Spell of the Fairy Tree, Co Longford, Ireland 1983
Fairy Folklore of Co Clare 2017

Stories of fairies are told as memorates or personal experience stories, and are often firmly tied to place, as beautifully expressed by Angela Bourke:

“[Irish fairy legend] floats like a web of story above the physical landscape, pegged down at point after point, as incidents are recounted of a piper lured into a cave here, a young girl found wandering mute on a hillside there, a lake where a cow emerged to give miraculous quantities of milk and disappeared again with all her progeny when ill-treated, a hill where mysterious music could be heard after dark”

Angela Bourke [3]

Some say They are the remains of the old gods of Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, who retreated into the hills long ago, though some say they are the souls of the dead, or fallen angels [4].  So, when wave after wave of emigration from Ireland to the ‘New World’ of North America occurred between the 17th and 19th centuries, did the fair folk travel with them, or were they left behind in the hills and fairy forts of Ireland, linked inextricably to the land itself?

Fairy Fort in Ireland [5]

Certainly, some contemporary sources in Ireland felt that the link to place was irrevocable.  In an Irish newspaper article from 1852, one writer speaks of ‘this departure of the people as an unmitigated misfortune’, and adds ‘men do not like to see the Spring emigration of peasantry and impoverished farmer, escaping from their control to a country where they will find no fairies’ [6]

And in a somewhat homesick poem from 1881, an Irishman in Baltimore writes:

How well I remember the old holly tree,

At the foot of the garden, for the good people, you

     see,

To afford them a shelter from cold wind and rain,

O land of the fairy, I’ll ne’er see thee again.

Issac M’Curry [7]

Fairy Tree in Co Down , Ireland
From: https://www.irishnews.com/lifestyle/2016/02/06/news/eye-on-nature-woe-betide-he-or-she-who-fells-a-fairy-tree-405013/

But it is also true that among those who emigrated were storytellers, and older people who were living repositories of folk practices and lore, did they take their stories and beliefs with them? 

One writer in 1903 penned a piece detailing the departure from Ulster to the ‘New World’ of Mary O Neill, a local midwife and practitioner of folk medicine. She writes ‘With fairies and banshees, and others of that ilk, she was quite familiar; I often wonder if Mary carried her tales, powers, and charms with her to the New World; and, if so, did they receive even a modicum of respect?  Both she and her husband lived to a patriarchal age in New England.’[8]

So where can we look for evidence of fairy belief in America?  One unlikely seeming source is court cases.  In a collection of folklore from 1896, Robert Hunt intriguingly writes ‘A friend writes me: ‘I saw an account in a newspaper the other day of an Irishwoman who was brought before the magistrates, in New York, for causing the death of a child by making it stand on hot coals to try if it were her own truly-begotten child, or a changeling.’[9]

And indeed, a report in the New York Times in 1863 details an inquest into the death of a child at the hands of its mother, Mary Nell: ‘A man who formerly lived in the same house, had told witness that there were “fairies” about. Before coming to this country from Ireland, witness was taught the common superstition of her country, that whenever “fairies” frequented a house it was presumptive evidence that some child in the family had been changed for another while in its cradle; and that the true way to test the matter was to heat a shovel red-hot, and then make the child sit upon it. If it were a fairy child, or one not belonging to the mother, it would fly away, but if it remained it was her own child.’[10]

Der Wechselbalg by Henry Fuseli, 1781

In another court case, an Irishman named Peter Deegan, living in Wisconsin was put on trial for murder and pleaded insanity.  Evidence of his insanity rested partly on the testimony that Deegan and his sister talked to the fairies and left food out for them. However when the medical witness, a pathologist for the Chicago County Insane Asylum was asked whether acting upon ‘a generally accepted belief as the Irish peasantry did was evidence of insanity’, he clearly did not argue convincingly that it was, for Peter Deegan was found by the court to be sane and guilty of murder. [11]

But such first-hand evidence is rare and difficult to find, and it can be hard to separate folklore that has been handed down the generations from new beliefs influenced by the literary tradition. In one recent study of European fairy belief in America, the author states that the archival holdings are meagre, and that in the USA much of the fairy lore collected has its source in the printed page, unlike the oral traditions found in Ireland.[12] Another researcher in Canada though, insists that ‘descendants of Celtic and British Old World diaspora often grow up with tales and warnings of fairies’ [13]

Though reports of music and dancing, and the tradition of leaving out of food for the fair folk still seem to be widespread, and the use of iron to protect against them is ‘well known in California’, in the USA there are no accounts of people being lured into the fae realm, or of the magical passage of time that so often occurs in Irish accounts. [12]

It is interesting that in the Appalachian mountains, an area settled heavily by 17th century Irish immigrants and 18th century Ulster Scots, there is evidence of Irish influence on the culture in the folk songs, folk tales and in some folk medicine practices [14] and they do indeed have a fairy tradition.  But in Appalachia, if you see a fairy ring of toadstools the advice is to step into the ring and make a wish, for it will come true.[15]  Whereas in Ireland, only a fool would step into a fairy ring for fear of being kidnapped by the fae.

From a 1911 collection of first-hand accounts in Ireland: “I remember how an old woman pulled me out of a fairy ring to save me from being taken” [4]

However, some warnings persist – even in Appalachia, after dark you’re cautioned not to throw water or sweepings out of the door, for fear of hitting one of the little people and drawing their anger. [15]

So, did the fairies come to Appalachia with the Irish and Scottish immigrants?  Or are they more heavily influenced by the local indigenous Cherokee tradition of ‘little people’, who are reported to be mischievous, play tricks on people, mislead people in the woods, make cows run dry or people ill, and to be heard singing or drumming in the mountains [16] – traits which sound very familiar to those studying fairy legends?

The beautiful thing about folklore is that it is not stagnant, but fluid, and oral traditions everywhere migrate, transform, and become hybrid as people move and settle in new locations.  It can be argued that the fairies did indeed go to the New World along with each wave of Irish settlers, but in doing so they too evolved and changed in their new home.

Part II : Changelings and Cowboys

References

1.            Howitt, W., The Rural Life of England. 1841. https://www.tota.world/article/921/

2.            Deegan, G., Fairy bush survives the motorway planners, in The Irish Times. 1999.

3.            Bourke, A., The virtual reality of Irish fairy legend. Éire-Ireland, 1996. 31(1): p. 7-25.

4.            Wentz, W.E., The fairy-faith in celtic countries. 1911: Oxford University Press.

5.            Magan, M., Fairy forts: Why these ‘sacred places’ deserve our respect, in The Irish Times. 2017.

6.            Martineau, M., Letters From Ireland – Emigration and Education, in The Belfast Mercury. 1852. Documenting Ireland: Parliament, People and Migration (dippam.ac.uk)

7.            M’Curry, I., The Home I Left. 1881: Baltimore. Documenting Ireland: Parliament, People and Migration (dippam.ac.uk)

8.            Rock, M., The Tale of the Initials, in The Irish Monthly. 1903. Documenting Ireland: Parliament, People and Migration (dippam.ac.uk)

9.            Hunt, R., Popular Romances of the West of England, Or, The Drolls, Traditions, and Superstitions of Old Cornwall. 1896: Chatto & Windus.

10.          A Remarkable Case of Hallucination. A Mother Burns Her Child to Death, in New York Times. 1863. https://www.nytimes.com/1863/03/18/archives/local-intelligence-the-atlantic-telegraph-and-its-prospects.html

11.          Davies, O., Finding the Folklore in the Annals of Psychiatry. Folklore, 2022. 133(1): p. 1-24.

12.          Hand, W.D., European fairy lore in the New World. Folklore, 1981. 92(2): p. 141-148.

13.          Parry, L.A., Is seeing believing? Or, is believing seeing? An exploration of the enduring belief in fairies and little people among contemporary persons with Celtic ancestry. 2013, Pacifica Graduate Institute: Ann Arbor. p. 350.

14.          Kader, E., Surviving Folklore: Transnational Irish Folk Traditions and the Politics of Genre. 2011: Emory University.

15.          Gilly, S. Tales from Appalachia – The Fair Folk. 2019; Available from: https://mountainlore.net/2019/02/23/the-fair-folk/.

16.          Witthoft, J. and W.S. Hadlock, Cherokee-Iroquois little people. The Journal of American Folklore, 1946. 59(234): p. 413-422.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s