When you find yourself in agreement with Danny Healy-Rae, the maverick independent TD from Kerry, you know that your day has taken an unexpected turn. But then again, the complex mix of Celtic and Christian history found in the tradition of the Aos Sí or “Otherworld People” does tend to take one down unexpected paths. The Tuatha Dé Danann may have originated as indigenous deities but they were transformed by the proselytising scholars of Medieval Ireland into the descendants of the Biblical Adam and Eve (or fallen angels; take your pick).
Of course, most Irish people are unaware or have little interest in the literary and folkloric sources which contain this multilayered and at times dramatic hybrid mythology. One bound up with almost every geographical feature of the island. And those who do make some acknowledgement of it, however poorly informed, are often greeted with ridicule or contempt. Manchán Magan aptly sums up my own feelings on the subject in a piece for the Irish Times:
Independent TD, Danny Healy-Rae’s latest claim that fairies are behind the subsidence of a roadway near Killarney may seem farcical, but his defence, citing the numerous fairy forts and other “sacred places” in the countryside, is one of his wiser utterances.
It is the abrupt denial of fairies by the vast majority of society that is more pathological than Healy-Rae’s continued belief.
It is true that science has now proven that the fairy forts (also known as a ringfort, lios or rath) were not in fact the abode of spirits, or entrances to their underworld realms, but instead are the remains of the most common form of one-off housing and defensive outpost in Ireland from the late Iron Age right through the Bronze Age, Early Christianity and up to the Medieval era in some places. Yet that does not mean that these areas are not sacred – if for no other reason that they’ve been used as burial sites for unbaptised babies for centuries.
These circular embankments are all that remain of the defensive structures that would have surrounded the farmsteads and lookout forts of our pastoral ancestors.
Think of the buildings as fortified ranches, surrounded by either one or more ditches and banks, which would have had been crowned by a wooden palisade to keep livestock in and wolves and raiders out.
These mud and stone structures are one of the most common feature of the Irish landscape, with more than 45,000 of them still surviving, and a further 10,000 destroyed since the first survey in the 19th century.
Most are thought to have been constructed between the 6th and 10th centuries.
Any air flight across Ireland or a cursory glance at an Ordinance Survey 6-inch map will reveal a landscape pockmarked with these cup-marks that have been preserved over the centuries out of a deeply ingrained belief that they were entrances to the otherworld, where the Tuatha Dé Danann, the original semi-divine inhabitants of this island, fled upon our arrival.
The fact that many had underground (souterrain) passages burrowing into the earth, made this idea all the more credible…
Their size will dictate the status of the original inhabitant (and potentially of the spirit being still living there).
A chief or a noble’s residence can be 70 metres wide with multiple banks to encircle the homes, stores and meeting places within, while a humble farmer’s can be as small as 4 metres wide.
For once, the Healy-Raes are not necessarily succumbing to out-dated begorrah-esque Oirrishism, but are reminding us of our strong bond to the land and customs of Ireland that we disconnect from at our peril.
While gouging a motorway through the archaeologically important landscape around Teamhair na Rí, the Hill of Tara in County Meath, probably didn’t lead to a global recession and the ruinous demise of the Celtic Tiger economy, it certainly didn’t help. Psychologically at least, it revealed a nation and a people unmoored from their historical berth and left adrift on a sea of cultural vacuity.