A couple of local gents are drinking a pint in a pub near Cushendall, County Antrim, one evening when a redhead comes through the door. “Ah, there’s that Liz Weir who believes in fairies,” one says.
Weir, an Irish storyteller with an international reputation, stops. “And you don’t?”
He smiles and shakes his head.
“So now, tell me, will you be cutting down that fairy tree on your place any time soon?” She means an old Hawthorne growing inconveniently in the middle of one of his fields.
He turns back to his pint.
“Why not, may I ask?”
He shifts in his seat. “Bad luck.”
Weir likes to tell that story because she’s not bashful about leaving the fairy folk alone. She won’t walk on Tiveragh, a well-known fairy hill, day or night, and, because we happen to be chatting on an April afternoon, she reminds me that May Eve (April 30) is coming. I should avoid all dairy that day because it will sour. She also advises that I plant primrose around my newly remodeled house to keep the fairies away and never throw water out the door for fear of drenching one of the little folk and making him/her angry. Before building, I’m to place a brick at each corner of the new structure. If next morning, the bricks are still in place, I can build. If one is knocked out of place, I’d be advised to build somewhere else.
Every one of my grandmothers gave me similar advice. Sophia, the no-nonsense founder of the family ranch, left drops of water in teacups to keep the fairy folk happy. She thought it made good sense. Since nobody has enough good luck, why risk bad? Likewise Weir is one of the most sensible people I know, computer savvy, widely traveled, a former librarian, who simply chooses to acknowledge what most of us try to ignore—the fact that things are not always what they seem. She’s not alone. Witness how casually we talk about Karma, practice Feng Shui, and bury St. Joseph statues upside down in the backyard.
When the poet W.B. Yeats traveled through the Irish countryside in the late 1800s, looking for stories of the fairy folk, he titled his resulting book, The Celtic Twight. When Eddie Lenihan traveled the same areas in the late 1900s also looking for old stories, he found a tradition as lively as ever. His book, Meeting the Other Crowd, begins by wondering if another book on Irish fairies is really necessary and never expresses any concern that the fairies will go away any time soon. Of course, his fairies aren’t fey. They are described as dangerous, a source of taboos, and otherworldly enchantments, that sound closer to alien abductions than Disney films. He prefers not to mess with the fairy folk and, evidently, you don’t want to mess with Lenihan. He got an Irish highway routed around a fairy tree.
Like Lenihan, Weir doesn’t worry that the fairy folk will disappear. They have the gall to exist even when we don’t believe in them. Instead she worries that folklore worldwide will be dumbed down by mass media. Among other things, I suspect she means—pan flutes. Last time I was in Sedona, Arizona, every tourist shop had flute music playing the in background. Same music in similar shops all over Dingle Penninsula in Ireland. Here’s the point, if you decide to look for your family stories, expect the trolls, fairies, and talking animals to tag along. The fairy folk are everywhere. We disguise them as children’s stories, laugh them off as nonsense, but, like the old gents in the Cushendall pub, we know better.
Keep in mind that encounters with the magical world does not mean going for easy solutions. A wave of the magic wand can conjure as much trouble as help. The charm of these stories is that they often focus on the youngest child or the smallest animal. Clever wins the day. Evil is not defeated. It’s tripped up, tricked, outwitted, making it something less feared than fooled.
Likewise, don’t let that simplicity fool you. The fact that you find these stories mixed in with the family stories regardless of family origin or cultural traditions suggests something psychologically deep. Stories old enough to have mingled with the fairy folk require a different attitude. Slow down, take a deep breath, open your imagination, and close your eyes. Remember, nobody asked you to go looking for old stories. You went anyway. Dug around, and, when the dead rise to be kissed, don’t back away. You can’t claim you didn’t know how deep the roots went. This is old memory, soul talk, the awakening of inner rhythms. This is the long ago and far away land of repeated dreams, songs that linger, footsteps we don’t expect but recognize. I have a friend who introduced me to Trouble Trolls. When they knock, you don’t hide behind the door, you open wide, invite them in and dance with them. They’ll never be your friends but they might like the music and they could have gifts wrapped in their gnarled fists. Every story is wet like that with symbol—folklore even more so.
Even so, Mark A. Finlayson, doing research on artificial intelligence at MIT, believes that stories allow us to communicate complex ideas on a low bandwidth, which is why they work so well for children. Also why we never out grow them. Consider the complexity of modern parents who pay for two eggs and hire two surrogates to gestate two children at the same time so they will be like twins, but not really. How do you explain that to the children? According to NY Times Magazine (1/2/2011) you call them “twiblings” and invent a fairytale: Once, there was a couple who wanted to have babies. They tried and tried, but no babies arrive, and they were very sad. But then a Fairy Goddonor brought them some magical eggs . . ..