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Horrible folk: mining Irish folklore for new horror

Irish folklore is horrible, and I mean that in the best way. Violence, sex and the supernatural entwine in epic tales of ancient history and everyday stories of ghosts, fairies and ordinary folk. Wry humour and dark twists are never far away.

Despite Walt Disney’s best efforts, there’s nothing twee about Ireland’s fairies. There are parts of Ireland where you can barely step outside without tripping over a fairy fort. That’s a risky business, because Irish people know that the fairy folk are unforgiving if you disrespect their places.

The Tuatha de Danaan

There’s nothing little about them, either. Ireland’s fairies are the descendants of the Tuatha dé Danaan, a godlike race who populated Ireland until the Milesians ousted them, thousands of years ago. According to myth, the Milesians are the ancestors of the Gaelic Irish.

The Milesians forced or tricked the Tuatha dé Danaan to live in a mysterious otherworld. It’s entered via ruined hill forts, burial mounds and standing stones, hence their name: Aos Sí, “people of the mounds”. They’re sometimes called Sidhe, which also means the fairy mounds or “the palaces, courts, halls or residences” of the aos-sí.

The aos-sí were my first stop for an Irish horror story: a magical race, tricked into the underground by modern invaders. It’s hard to deny the parallel with Ireland’s modern history of invasion and oppression by an outside force. The aos-sí may never recover their kingdom but they might try, and if they can’t get it back, they can make trouble for the people up top.

Tír na nÓg: the Land of the Young

A young man and woman frolicking among blossoming apple trees, 1920. Arthur Rackham  (1867–1939)
A young man and woman frolicking among blossoming apple trees, 1920. Arthur Rackham (1867–1939)

The aos-sí are generally described as stunningly beautiful, often very tall, though they can also be terrible and hideous. They’re also immortal, and sidhe is synonymous with being immortal or long-lasting. It’s also compared to the Gaelic word sídsat, meaning “they wait or remain”.

The world of the aos-sí is Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, ruled by Manannán mac Lir, the over-king of the Tuatha dé Danaan. They may be immortal, but a short visit can be a very long time in our world. Vistors who stay there for any period which is a multiple of three (usually days) extend this time, sometimes into hundreds of years.

It’s usually described as a beautiful place, a forested wilderness or flowery meadow, inhabited by beautiful people (women in particular, because it’s usually horny young heroes doing the visiting). In Tír na nÓg, crops grow and harvest themselves, a single pig provides an everlasting feast, and seven cows and seven sheep provide enough milk and wool for everyone. The feast of Goibniu grants immortality to the Tuatha dé Danaan, when they’re not busy with poetry, music, entertainment.

Banshees and changelings

An illustration of a banshee, a fairy in the form of an old crone, in front of a ruined castle.
The Bunworth Banshee by W.H. Brooke, from Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825.

But Irish folklore is nothing if not contradictory. The beautiful aos-sí women of Tír na nÓg must also be the feared “ban-sí” (the prefix ban means “female”), or woman of the mounds. Ban-sí can be old crones or beautiful women, who wail or keen when death is about to strike Irish families who can trace their roots back to the Milesians.

It is said that Aoibheall was a ban-sí queen who played a magic harp that could cause men to die. There are also tales of ban-sí as the spirits of wronged women, often young peasant women made pregnant by wealthy men and cast aside. These spirits hound their wongdoers into an early grave.

Ireland’s National Folklore Collection was established in 1935. Today it holds two million pages of written lore, more than 10,000 hours of sound recordings and some 70,000 photographs and images. Much of this has now been digitised at Duchas.ie, where I found a rich source of folk beliefs from around Kinnitty in Offaly county, where my new story is based.

As a 21st-century humanist, it’s easy to think that folklore was nothing more than fireside entertainment. There’s plenty of evidence, though, that these were powerful beliefs that lived alongside Christianity well into the 20th century.

A handwritten page from The Schools Collection of Ireland, describing local myths from Kinnitty in County Ofally.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0820, Page 427” by Dúchas © National Folklore Collection, UCD is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

The murder of a modern changeling

A gruesome example of contemporary folk beliefs is the murder of Bridget Cleary, a 26-year-old Tipperary woman, in 1895. Changelings are normally thought to be babies swapped for fairy children by the fairy folk. In classic folklore style, it’s unclear why the fairies do this.

Bridget Cleary’s husband, Michael, appeared to believe that his real wife had been exchanged for a changeling. You might see a motive in that she was fairly independent for the time, she was sick, and the couple had no children to show for their eight years together.

One night, with an audience of friends and relatives, Michael and her own father accused Bridget of being a changeling. When she denmied it, they tried to force the fairy to bring her back. They threw urine over her, attempted to force feed her, threw her in front of the fireplace and menaced her with a piece of burning wood. Her clothes caught fire and Michael threw lamp oil on the flames. He kept others back as she burned to death, insisting that he would get his wife back from the fairies. Afterwards, they conspired to hide the body and pretend that Bridget was missing.

Michael Cleary was convicted of manslaughter and spent 15 years in prison in Portlaoise, where I live now. No-one questioned the honesty of Michael’s belief, though this isn’t just because so many people conspired with him. The English and middle-class Irish running the justice system were also happy to accept that rural Catholic Irish people were superstitious idiots.

Building on Irish folklore

It’s easy to treat Irish folklore and myths as canon that must not be altered. Bridget’s story, gruesome as it is, demonstrates the flexibility of myths and folklore. She wasn’t a child, but she could be a changeling, and the same rules applied for getting her back.

My new Nightmare Vacation is a loose follow-up to Blood River. It crosses three thousand years and draws on very real inspirations from a small corner of Ireland: a beheaded ancient princess, a strange carved stone and a mysterious 19th-century pyramid. There should be plenty of room to weave Irish folklore and myths into a new and frightening adventure.

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