Content warning: academic language, colonialism.
In grade six one of my favourite novels was The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw. It told the story of a changeling, a fairy child left in place of a human child taken by the fairies. Named Molq by the fairies and renamed Saaski by the humans, the changeling child felt profoundly out of place. Rejected by the fairies for being unable to perform particular fairy tasks, she was not quite human either. As a strange and troubled child who likewise did not quite fit anywhere, this book spoke to me deeply. I identified with the changeling and drew strength from a protagonist who occupied such a liminal space. This liminality drew me toward fairies. They were powerful, magical, and they moved between worlds. I imagined them playing in the fields and forests which surrounded my home, existing in this reality one moment, the next vanishing from sight. My younger cousin reports that I solemnly declared that fairies did indeed inhabit the forest we spent our time playing in. She believed me at my word. My younger sister developed an interest in trying to lure leprechauns out of hiding in our backyard by leaving them attractive gifts. The space at the end of our driveway and the time spent waiting for the school bus to appear over the hill down the road combined in a particularly potent spacial-temporal liminality in which we had a number of supernatural experiences. We witnessed a grackle cast the shadow of a horse. We watched the sky fill with striking shapes of a starling murmuration. And once, I saw a fairy.
I saw the fairy for only a moment but I told the story of this encounter many times. Just across the road from where I stood waiting for the school bus to arrive, among the strewn autumn leaves, I witnessed a small creature, about three inches tall, dancing wildly. The creature was mud-green all over, wearing no discernable clothing, with no discernable features. In fact, strangely, the creature appeared to be two-dimensional, a flat cut-out moving in a three-dimensional world. Over the years I told and retold the story of my encounter with conviction to believing children who shared stories of their own fairy encounters. As I grew older my listeners became more and more skeptical. Eventually, I became skeptical of myself. Perhaps I had made it up after all. Perhaps it was just a story I had told so many times I had convinced myself it was true. I became an adult and left the fairies behind, believing them to be the fruits of an overactive childhood imagination. I was not aware that my Irish ancestors had relationships with fairies all throughout their adult lives. I did not know that my beloved favourite novel The Moorchild was based in folklore that structured my Irish ancestors’ worldview. Like many in the Irish diaspora my roots to the land of my ancestors had long ago been severed. Even in Ireland, fairy beliefs no longer hold the power that they once did, although they have not disappeared.
In my teenage years getting drunk became more important than finding fairies. A winding road took me through many years of addiction and despair. Wrestling with childhood trauma, complex ptsd, and alcoholism, I turned to spirituality in order to survive. I came to embrace magic in my adult life. I came to understand myself as a witch. Spirituality returned as a central, life sustaining part of me. Skepticism could not sustain me. Magic does. My interest in the spiritual worldviews of my ancestors took on importance. I began to reconsider fairies. I learned that in Ireland people have had reciprocal relationships with fairies for hundreds of years. Even today fairy bushes are left undisturbed in the middle of farmed fields. Diarmuid Ó Giolláin explains
“[t]he respect given to ‘lone bushes’ or ‘fairy bushes’ has long been attested to; they still often stand unmolested in the middle of a cultivated field. The fairy bush was usually a rowan, holly, elderberry or whitethorn which stood alone in a field rather than in a hedgetow, and thus apparently was not planted by human hand…” (1991).
Far from being a silly, childhood fantasy, fairies were an integral part of the belief system of my ancestors. Remnants of this belief system survive in Ireland today. Talk of fairies in Canada is easily dismissed as childish or ridiculous, but fairies provoked very different feelings in Ireland. Fairies are creatures who demand respect. This relationship of respect shapes the Irish landscape and the worldview of the Irish people. While talk of fairies in Ireland today may be done somewhat tongue in cheek, fairies are not beings to laugh at. Despite literal belief in fairies being in decline, the traditional respect for fairies continues to shape the Irish people and the Irish landscape, as indicated by the farmer leaving the fairybush undisturbed.
Fairy belief is an ancient part of “Irish popular religion” (Ó Giolláin, 1991) which predates Christianity in Ireland. Rather than disappearing with the introduction of Christianity in the early middle ages, fairy belief adapted to and intermingled with the new Christian belief system (Ó Giolláin, 1991). The two belief systems continue to exist side by side to this day. The fairy faith grows out of an oral tradition of storytelling (Ballard, 1991, Lysaght, 1991) and is deeply tied to the land (LaViolette & McIntosh, 1997, Ó Giolláin, 1991). Ó Giolláin describes the importance of “sacred sites in the countryside… [m]ost numerous are the thirty or forty thousand forts or raths, mostly in fact Iron Age ring forts, commonly called ‘fairy forts,’ whose strong otherworld associations have helped to preserve them to the present day” (1991). The fairy forts and raths, like the fairybushes, are part of an enchanted landscape. This landscape includes “caverns, hills, islands, rocks, trees, water bodies and wells” (LaViolette & McIntosh, 1997) which are believed to be inhabited by fairies. Fairy beliefs are not abstract; they exist as part of the material world. For the Irish people, relationships with land have shaped stories and beliefs about fairies. Likewise, relationships with fairies have shaped relationships with the land.
Patrivia Lysaght in her study of the storytelling of Mrs. Jenny McGlynn, of Mountmellick, County Laoise, Ireland, highlights the importance of the physical landscape to the fairy faith. She writes “Jenny’s professed belief in the existence of the fairy world … is centred around the existence in her immediate neighborhood of a rath or mound, traditionally considered a dwelling place of the fairy race. It is probably fair to say that this particular landscape feature is a sine qua non for Jenny’s fairy beliefs” (Lysaght, 1991). Fairy beliefs are embedded in the land itself. Physical spaces like the rath in McGlynn’s neighborhood mark the presence of fairies. As a land based spirituality, the fairy faith elicits particular relationships to the land. Spaces known to belong to the fairies are treated with respect, reverence, or fear. Lysaght explains “[t]o Jenny these are sacred places and should be treated with respect” (1991). LaViolette and McIntosh discuss the various spaces associated with fairies writing
“[c]ertain taboos were often associated with these places relating to the belief that fairies inhabited them. Most typically these were concerned with restricting their access, especially at threshold times such as dawn and dusk, as well as restricting the removal of earth, stones, and timber” (1991).
The fairy faith, embedded in the landscape, requires that humans behave with respect. A fairybush will not be cut down even it stands in a farmer’s field, and a rath must not be disturbed.
To the Irish, “[t]he fairies were a part of life” (Ó Giolláin, 1991). Interactions with the fairies were, and in some cases still are, a commonplace part of existence. The fairy faith requires a reciprocal, respectful relationship with the fairies. Ó Giolláin explains that “they called to the door to borrow meal, they enlisted the help of mortal midwives, they lent their cows, they saved people from death and bestowed magical gifts” (1991). The fairies could offer help or be in need of human help. They could also cause harm. Fairies might prevent a cow from giving milk, a serious consequence in a culture heavily dependent on dairy (Jenkins, 1991). Fairies might make humans fall ill (Jenkins, 1991). They might even take a human child and leave a changeling in its place (Lysaght, 1991, Ó Giolláin, 1991, Jenkins, 1991). Fairies are capable of a great deal of harm, ranging from simple mischief, to the taking of a life. These punishments could result from any form of disrespect toward the fairies, including “an incursion onto a rath… disturbing a fairy tree, building a house in the wrong place” (Jenkins, 1991) and other such infractions. Respect toward the fairies is demonstrated in a number of ways. Ó Giolláin writes “[d]ue respect was shown to them by speaking of them in a flattering way (the ‘good people,’ ‘the gentry’)…” Other ways of demonstrating respect include “warning them before throwing out the dirty water at night… making sure not to build over their houses or paths… not mocking them… [and] making offerings to them” (Ó Giolláin, 1991). Linda-May Ballard also describes a “commonly held belief that the fairies should not be sought out or interfered with, that it is dangerous to enquire into their nature and by implication, into their elemental and fundamental significance” (1991). Demonstrating respect toward the fairies, in action, word, and adherence to taboo, is an importance aspect of the reciprocal relationship between fairies and humans.
Discovering that my childhood belief in fairies held echoes of my ancestors worldview led me to reconsider belief in fairies. I recognized that my willingness to dismiss fairies disconnected me from the spiritual knowledge of my ancestors. It was also disrespectful to the fairies, something which I now realized was serious and dangerous business. In reconsidering fairy beliefs, I came to understand the importance of the fairy faith within Irish history, culture, religion, and relationship to the land. I realized that the oral tradition of telling stories about fairies help to build and strengthen relationships among humans. I saw that the taboo of disturbing the many plants and places in the physical landscape which are inhabited by fairies led to an ecological ethics in which the land must be treated with respect. The fairy faith is a worldview of relationship: relationships between humans, fairies, and the land. Fairy encounters and the folklore they produce offer important information about how to be in the world respectfully and how to act in ways which maintain relationships. As a person of Irish descent whose family has lived in Canada for many generations I am deeply disconnected from the spiritual knowledge of my ancestors. I believe that relearning these knowledges is important. Yet how to I reconnect with a place-based spirituality when I am no longer in that place? I am not in Ireland, among the raths and the fairybushes. The landscapes are plants which surround me are different from those which surrounded my ancestors. I am a settler on this land.
The land I live on is Anishinaabe, Haudensaunee, and Huron-Wendat land. This land was violently taken from the people who have lived in relationship with it for thousands of years, people who continue to fight for the wellbeing of this land even as it is systematically destroyed by a colonial government. The violence of colonialism is ongoing and it is a violence against people, place, nonhuman beings, languages, and knowledge systems. As a settler on this land I am implicated in this violence and it is my responsibility to follow Indigenous leadership in its undoing. The people who have been in relationship with this land for thousands of years understand it intimately and know best the way out of the devastation of colonialism. As a settler, I need to find my own way to be in relationship with this land, a way which is respectful of the fact that this is not the land of my ancestors, which remembers the ongoing violence which grants me access to this land, and which does not appropriate Indigenous worldviews. Environmental destruction is enabled in part by a deep alienation from the land. Finding ways to overcome that alienation and to enter into respectful, ethical relationship with the land is important ecological work. For many, spiritual traditions play an important role in that work. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes
“[i]n a colonist society the ceremonies that endure are not about the land; they are about family and culture, values that are transportable from the old country. Ceremonies for the land no doubt existed there, but it seems they did not survive emigration in any substantial way. I think there is wisdom in regenerating them here, as a means to form bonds with this land” (2014).
Reviving the fairy faith in Canada offers a possibility for engaging with this land in ethical, respectful ways, ways which are rooted in my own ancestry and culture. There are good reasons for reviving the fairy faith in Canada, but are there even fairies here?
Knowing that fairies were known to live in very particular places in the Irish landscape led me to believe that I was not likely to find fairies in Canada, despite my childhood experiences. I am far away from the raths and fairy bushes my ancestors lived among. Recently, in one of my classes, we were discussing mushrooms. I talked about fairy rings, circular patterns of mushrooms which are known in Ireland to be entrances into the Otherworld. Someone asked if fairy rings were found in Canada. I didn’t know. My professor informed me that she had seen a fairy ring in Ontario. She then looked it up online and confirmed that there are indeed species of mushrooms in Ontario which grew in circular rings. This struck a chord with me. Perhaps there were fairies in Canada after all. Peter Narváez quotes Richard M. Dorson as writing that fairies “cavorted and made mischief throughout the isles of Britain, but failed to take passage with the emigrants sailing for America” (Dorson quoted in Narváez, 1991). According to Dorson fairies were “too closely associated with the culture and the geography of the Old Country to migrate” (Dorson quoted in Narváez, 1991). Narváez explains that “[w]hile fairylore has been extensively studied by European folklorists, it is generally assumed that fairies have not existed in North America” (1991). This fits with my initial thought that creatures so situated in a particular landscape, and a belief system so rooted in relationship to that landscape, might not be able to exist elsewhere. Yet Narváez goes on to describe Irish settler communities in Newfoundland who continued to have relationships with fairies.
Gary R. Butler writes about a surviving fairy tradition in French-Newfoundland. This tradition all but disappeared, yet he found people who remember the lutin. Discussing the fairy belief of the Simons, a couple he interviewed, both of whom were in their seventies at the time, Butler writes “the Simons accept what they had been told by past generations concerning the lutins…. Nevertheless, they do not regard the lutin as a reality in their present environment, but see it as a phenomenon which ceased to exist at some point in the past” (1991). According to the Simons, there were once fairies in Newfoundland, but they seem to no longer be there. Narváez likewise describes fairy belief disappearing in Irish Newfoundland communities writing “[u]ntil relatively recently, fairies in Newfoundland have been realities because news of them circulated in vigorous oral tradition and firsthand evidence of their activity was readily available” (1991). Now, however, we have “dismissed fairies from our view” (Narváez, 1991). So fairies have existed on the east coast of Canada and people have had relationships with them there. In both French and Irish communities fairies have played an active role on this side of the ocean. Yet the fairies seem to be disappearing. Fairy belief is fading, not only in Newfoundland, but in Ireland as well (Ó Giolláin, 1991). Ó Giolláin writes
“[t]hough legends of the fairies can still be heard in Ireland today, few of them are set in very recent times. People do not experience the fairies much anymore…. Rural communities now have little or no cultural or economic autonomy… and are to an extent merely passive receivers of an international or hegemonic ‘mass culture’…. An exaltation of localism, the fairy belief cannot survive in such a climate” (1991).
Alienation from land, community, and culture result in the disappearance of fairies. A remembrance of fairies might result in a remembrance of land, community, and culture, opening people to ethical relationship with place. Remembering fairies in Canada might allowing settlers whose ancestors practiced the fairy faith enter into ethical relationship with this land.
While I had discovered that people had entered into relationships with fairies on the east coast of Canada, I wondered if fairies were found in Ontario, the land that I grew up on and where I continue to live. My childhood experience would indicate that fairies are found here, but I was curious to know if the fairy faith had, at one point, taken root in Ontario. Was I the only one with a story of a fairy encounter in Ontario? I did some research and came across an article in The Journal of American Folklore written in 1918 by Katherine H. Wintemberg and W. J. Wintemberg, titled “Folk-Lore from Grey County, Ontario.” Wintemberg and Wintermberg write “[t]he following collection of folk-lore material was made in a Scotch-Irish community in Normanby township, Grey County, Ontario, where the Irish element preponderates” (1918). A list of local stories about fairies is given, including
“[a] fairy once came to a house asking for a dish of meal. The women gave her some. The dish was returned, and ever after it was never empty…. Those who had the temerity to dig in a fairy mound or fort had their heads turned around, and they were kept in this position until they desisted…. a man who did not believe in fairies, and who insisted on using a piece of ground fenced off and set aside for their use… stuck his spade into the ground and found he could not pull it out again” (1918).
These, and other stories, indicate a thriving fairy faith in an Irish-Scottish community in Ontario in 1918. Like the stories of fairies told in Ireland, these stories pass on important information about right relationship with the fairies and with the land. Fairies exist in Ontario but memory of them is fading, as it is in Ireland. Through the process of assimilation much Irish culture and religion was lost in the Irish diaspora, prompting a more thorough loss of fairy faith in the diaspora than in Ireland.
My childhood belief in fairies was a response to the fragments of the fairy faith which found their way to me. My openness to fairies led me to a fairy encounter. This encounter was an invitation to remembrance and relationship. The disenchantment of adulthood led me astray but I have found my way back to the fairies. Reviving the fairy faith is not an easy task. It requires openness to an enchanted worldview which is not taken seriously in today’s modern world. It also requires the telling of stories. The fairy faith grows out of a rich oral tradition and an intimate relationship with the land. Modern day colonial-capitalism alienates us from each other and from the land. Relationship, the fundamental reality of the fairy faith, is difficult to sustain in a culture of alienation. Yet the reasons why it would be difficult to revive the fairy faith are also reasons why doing so is important. Remembering the fairies is a means of reviving relationship, with the land, with community, and with fairies themselves. Fairies remind us to behave with respect. They remind us that the trees, hills, fields, and forests are not our property. They remind us to practice humility and to leave fairybushes untouched even if they appear in a farmer’s field. They provoke us to remember a sense of awe and reverence at the mystery of the living world around us. They encourage us to tell stories and build community by sharing knowledge. They invite us into ethical, ecological and communal relationships, with ourselves, with each other, with the spaces we move through, and with the beings who share those spaces, including the Good People themselves.
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