“There of the rich history of the supernatural

“There
is a country called Tír-na-n-Og, which means the Country of the Young, for
age 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 Irish
Elysian Fields, is just one aspect of the rich history of the supernatural that
inhabits Ireland. The numerous stories of the sidhe, or fairies, emphasized a dualism of helpfulness and
wickedness among the na Daoine sidhe,
or the supernatural race, and suggests that the Irish people were open to other
powers. It is this rich history of stories that helped keep the island at peace
during The Burning Time, 1400-1700 C.E.
when the fear of witchcraft was at its height2. Despite over 35,100 witch
trials across the European continent, over eight thousand trials in Germany
alone, Ireland experienced less than ten trials over nearly five hundred years.3 This is a result of a number of
factors, including the Reformation and the presence of the British tyrant on
the island, however the reason the stereotype of demonic witchcraft did not
take hold in Catholic Ireland was the preexisting culture surrounding the
unknown. The chronicle of coexistence between the supernatural and mortal in
legends such as Children of Lir, Cuchulainn and Oisín that detailed the duality
of magic, was one reason for the few number of witch trials in Ireland in the
early modern period.

When
St. Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432 C.E Christianity has already been introduced
gradually through trading contact with Gaul and Britain.4 One of the stories
surrounding St. Patrick is his banishment the snakes into the sea.5 In this legend St. Patrick
drove all the serpents of the island into the sea after being attacked during a
forty day fast. This legend is a mirror to the story of Exodus 7:7-14 when
Moses and Aaron must compete with the Pharaoh’s sorcerers, whose staffs turn to
snakes. 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 was
created later to instill distrust surrounding the Druids of the past, who had
been attacked, but by the Romans in 57 C.E. Not only are serpents symbols of
evil in the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as in the story of Genesis, but
often the Druids were adorned with tattoos of the Ouroboros, a snake eating its
own tail that represented the cycle of life and wholeness7. The feelings of the Roman
soldiers, “druids practiced all sorts of weird and evil rituals. Magic and
soothsaying, even human sacrifice…were carried out on this distant island.” Likely
were carried forward into the Roman Catholic Church, as these presumptions had
little reason to change in 400 years.8 9 This is reflected in the
King James Version of the bible, written in 1611 C.E., “And the children of
Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, and
served Baalim and the groves.” Judges 3:7 Baalim, although often a reference to
the Canaanite and Phoenician false gods, is too associated with the pagan
traditions of Ireland.10 The annual festival of
Tara, associated with Samhain, has also been called “Baal’s fire”.11 The groves too reference
the druids, the Oak Groves being the sacred meeting place or group of Celts
since the first century C.E to today.12

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St.
Patrick who dedicated the later portion of his life to the Christianization of
Ireland, brought in a sense of literacy and learning with it. His entrance to
Ireland coincided with the fall of Rome in 436 C.E., when barbarians became a
constant threat to the people of mainland Europe. Ireland, distanced from the
danger of barbarians and Rome itself, eventually nabbed the nickname “the isle
of saints and scholars” as Irish monks preserved much of the literary works of
the Classical World, both Christian and pagan, while the libraries of central
Europe were lost.13 St. Patrick, who preached
the good in mankind and nature, practiced interculturation, which allowed the
Gospel to meld with local customs rather than forcing fixed hierarchies and
theological structures common of Rome14. Through this the Celtic
church “a Christianity without the sociopolitical baggage of the Graeco-Roman
worlds” was born.15 The early scholarship of
the 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 and
literacy was largely kept to the religious class until the 19th
century.17
Although the monks of Ireland were becoming familiar with both local legend and
international classics, the common people were still practicing a principally
oral tradition.

The
masses and common folk of Ireland continued to live largely illiterate, and the
“most romantically wistful and tenacious folklore of any in the world” still
spread even in the face of new Christian traditions, interculturation failing
to challenge these classics.18 It’s among these legends
and the strong beliefs in the na Daoine
sidhe that the chronical of coexistence is recorded and the duality in the
long lineage of magic in Ireland is revealed.

“Throughout
the early modern period, fairy belief in Gaelic-Irish culture provided a cogent
explanatory mechanism for misfortune”.19 The Irish fairies divide
themselves into two main classes, social and solitary; the first being kind and
the second often mean and among these classes there are subdivisions. Such as
land 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 the
relevance 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 overly
praised or loved human babies, sometimes replacing them with a sickly baby of
their own.20
These fairy children can grow up to be short and gangling, appearing old and
are often musically gifted.21 To protect a child from
being swapped with a Changeling, parents baptize their children, among other
counter actions.22
23This suggests that
Christianity and fairy beliefs were not two separate subjects, but merged as a
result of interculturation. The Pooka, a much feared Sidhe and solitary fairy, rather similar to the Scottish Kelpie, is
a glossy and beautiful black horse that creates trouble and tumult.24 The name is derived from poc meaning he-goat, and W.B. Yeats
tells of how the Pooka would emerge in November and give sensible advice and
apt answers about the next year when consulted. However, in the mountains and
ruins it would “grow monstrous with solitude”.25 It may steal individuals
for midnight rides, and if refused, the property of the individual will
disappear. It may also take the form a goblin like creature that demands some
portion of crops, for this reason a share of any harvest is left in the field
as the “Pooka’s share”.26 Although it could be
regarded as superstition, it implies a certain respect for the na Daoine sidhe and that dealings with
fairies can have negative consequences. However, fairies aren’t necessarily
above the mortal race, numerous tales tell of clever mortals tricking
leprechauns out of fortunes or how the banshee predicts death for great Irish
families.27
28

            The Children of Lir, likely a Christianized version of
The Twelve Geese, tells the story the children of King Lir, and his Wife Aebh, descendent
of a goddess, and the wicked step mother, Aoifa. After Aebh dies, Aoifa married
the King and came to be jealous of, and eventually hate, her four step children
for the love their father, King Lir, had for them. Aoifa turned the children
into swans and cursed them to be such for 900 years until a druid from across
the sea arrives and they heard a bell that rings for prayers.29 Christianity came to the
island during their time cursed as swans and in some versions St. Patrick
himself blesses the Children of Lir and gives them Christian graves. This legend
is noteworthy for illustrating the intermarriage between mortals and na Daoine sidhe, and the connections between
religion and magic. In this story Aebh, the supernatural mother, loves her
children and succumbs to death despite being closer to the Country of the Young
while the mortal step mother is full of hate, suggesting that fairies too both
know good and bad, and birth and death, as humans do. There also lacks a clear
division between the age of fairies and Christianity, suggesting an integration
over abandonment.

            The story of Cúchulainn, a sort of Irish Hercules,
follows that of a great warrior who earns his name through acts good character
and loyalty, displaying both the importance of trustworthiness and virtuousness
in Irish culture and the capacity for it among mortals.30 Eventually Cúchulainn
marries a fairy queen, Emer, again illustrating connection among the Sidhe and mortal realm.

            Oisin, a bard and warrior, is regarded in legend as the
greatest poet of Ireland, is more famously known as the only man to have gone
to Tír na nÒg and returned. Loved by the Sidhe princess Niamh, Oisin is taken to
the land of the fairies, promising his father and comrades that he will return before
long. After what seems to be three years, he returns to the mortal realm on a
white horse gifted to him by Niamh who warned him should he dismount he cannot return
to Tír na nÒg. Looking for his friends
and father, he realizes three hundred years have passed and his religion has
been replaced by Christianity. Attempting to help men in the building of a
road, he touches the ground and “his three hundred years fell upon him, and he
was bowed double, and his beard swept the ground.”31 Before dying he is
visited by St. Patrick and recalls his stay in the Land of Youth, and depending
on the version you read or hear he either converts or defends the druid faith.32 This legend is another
example of the coexistence and relationships among mortal and supernatural, and
more importantly, seems to signify a coexistence between Tír na nÒg and the Christian heaven. Since, people have
claimed 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 of
victories, and an underwater land.”33

            It is because of the preexisting attitude surrounding
magic, as illustrated in the previous examples, that the stereotypes
surrounding witchcraft typical in Catholicism elsewhere failed to take hold on
the island.