‘The fruits of the fairy world are the arts – poetry, music, storytelling, painting’.
MY FAIRY HILL:
When I bought this old cottage in Glann, Charlestown in 2008, I was told that the small raised hill in the field was a ‘Fairy Hill’. From that time on, I started to read up about Fairy Hills – what were they?
In June 2013, The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht identified my Fairy Hill as an archaeological monument – a ringfort or rath (the Irish term) together with a ‘tunnel’ or souterrain (from the French for ‘underground’). Both are now identified on the department database under the numbers: Rath (MA073-063001-) and Souterrain (MA073-063002-) under the town name Glenmullynaha (Glann).
According to the Office of Public Works, Ringforts are undoubtedly the commonest monuments on the landscape and are known by various names (fort, rath, dún, lios, etc.).
The Ringfort is a space surrounded by an earthen bank formed of material thrown up from a fosse or ditch immediately outside the bank. Generally they vary from 25-50 metres in diameter, are usually circular but can also be oval or D-shaped. In some areas, especially in the West of Ireland, a massive stone wall enclosed the site in place of a bank and ditch. This type of ringfort is called a caher, cashel or stone fort.
Both types of ringfort were erected as protected enclosures around farmsteads. The people who occupied them were ordinary farming folk. They let their livestock graze by day. By night they brought them into the shelter of the fort. In most forts, entrances faced East.
The circular forts, found throughout Northern Europe, differ widely in size and in the design of their walls. The fact that the fort had circular walls was actually decreed in the laws defining domestic structures, and this may have served to link the forts’ occupants to the circular burial mounds of their ancient pagan ancestors. There may be one, two, or even three (bi-vallate, or tri-vallate) earthen walls of concentric bank-and-ditch construction, with an association between the number of banks and ditches and the status of the occupants’. No trace of house sites can be seen today.
Matthew Stout, the author of a monograph on Irish ringforts, concluded that “…both high king and small farmer dwelt within ringforts.” No consensus among archaeologists exists regarding the purpose or purposes of these raths. While some may have had a defensive purpose, they may also have been entirely domestic enclosures, with wood and wattle structures inside. Some may have been used only as pens for livestock.
The word ‘souterrain’ comes from the french language (sous-terrain, souterrain). It is a modern French term indicating a wide variety of subterranean structures. However, in English archaeological nomenclature it is used specifically to describe a particular type of artificial underground ‘cave’ which was built in different parts of the British and Ireland between the second century BC and the twelfth century AD. This structure appears to have been brought northwards from Gaul, during the European Atlantic Iron Age. They were often referred to locally in Ireland simply as ‘caves’, although regional names include earth houses, fogous and Pictish houses.
This date is reinforced by many examples where Ogham stones, dating to around the 6th Century have been reused as roofing lintels or door posts, most notably at the widened natural limestone fissure at the ‘Cave of the Cats’ in Rathcrogan. Their distribution is very uneven in Ireland with the greatest concentrations occurring in north Louth, north Antrim, south Galway, and west Cork and Kerry. Lesser numbers are found in Counties Meath, Westmeath, Mayo, north Donegal, and Waterford. Other counties, such as Limerick, Carlow, and Wexford, are almost completely lacking in examples.
In Ireland, souterrains are often found inside or in close proximity to a ringfort. They were underground galleries and, in their early stages, were always associated with a settlement. Souterrains were dry stone (without mortar) structures of one or more rooms interconnected by small alcoves called creeps. The galleries were dug out and then lined with stone slabs or wood before being reburied. Irish souterrains were built either by tunnelling in clay or rock, or by drystone or timber construction in a subsequently backfilled trench. Though they vary infinitely in plan, and can range in length from 5m to over 100m, they are invariably composed of a number of repetitive elements. These normally comprise one entrance/exit, one or more frequently low passages, one or more obstructions either in the form of creeps or sudden changes in level and finally, one or more circular or rectangular chambers. Souterrains were not isolated monuments, though they often survive as such today. Rather, they originally formed part of complex habitations as is testified by their frequent association with ringforts and early ecclesiastical settlements. They do not appear to have been used for burial or ritual purposes and it has been suggested that they were food stores or hiding places during times of strife, although some of them would have had very obvious entrances.
FAIRY HILLS OR FORTS:
There are today remnants of more than 45,000 ringforts or raths remaining in Ireland. There may have originally been another 10,000 or more, now levelled and imperceptibly lost in the intensive cultivation of the Irish farmland throughout history. That so many of the structures have survived is due in no small part to their being known in folklore as the homes of the fairies. For hundreds of years, as nearby natural hillocks were being levelled, terraced, and subdivided, there was a general reluctance of the peasantry to interfere in any way with these “fairy forts.” The fertile Irish imagination created this term, which is still used today. It was believed that “the good people,” or the fairies, lived in the forts.
The association of the raths with the fairies began with the medieval tales from the Book of Invasions (c. twelfth – fourteenth centuries), which may have been preceded by an earlier oral tradition. The stories recount how the Tuatha Dé Danann, (people of the goddess Danu) were defeated in battle by the Milesians, who first brought the Celtic race to Ireland from Spain. Following their epic defeat, the Tuatha Dé Danann were allowed to share the land with the victors.
Perhaps because of their association with the murky life of the fairies (or perhaps a factor in creating that association), the raths were allowed to become wild, overgrown islands within the otherwise orderly cultivated landscape. Some feared that if they should wander into a ringfort they might become enchanted by the wild brambles and transported to another plane, coming into contact with the otherworldly beings that populated it. Its borders define the clear division between the civilized, furrowed and controlled greenery of the Christian mainstream and the untamed domain belonging to the “gentry,” or the “good people,” the descendants of the defeated Tuatha Dé Danann.
While it is impossible to know when the abandoned ringforts of the Early Christian farmers came to be associated with the fairies, it is extraordinary that their reputation has endured through so many generations in the Irish countryside. While the Catholic authorities tried to impose an orthodox conformity on the eccentric practices of the early Celtic church, the punitive anti-Catholic laws of the Protestant ascendancy constrained the ability of the bishops to implement their authority. However even after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and the newly empowered organizational strength of the Church, the rural understanding of the nature of the fairy forts survived.
With extracts from:
Fairy Hills: Merging Heritage & Conservation. 1997
First published in ECOS, Journal of the British Association of Nature Conservation, 18:3/4 1997, pp.2-8. P. Laviolette & A. McIntosh.
Our Woodland Heritage: from Our Trees – The Tree Council of Ireland sponsored by the Woodlands of Ireland:
Places are, and frequently have been, thought to possess or be possessed by divine or mystical powers. Attitudes to such places vary from fear and inapproachability to attraction and reverence. Prominent amongst the many cultural landscape features of Scotland are numerous hills and mounds said to be the underground dwellings of the fairy folk.
Traditionally such places were viewed with apprehension and fear by many, but have also been recognised as gateways to another world. Often this has been a world of art and music leading Dr. John MacInnes of Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies to suggest that the fairy hill is a “metaphor for the imagination”.
Numerous hills and hillocks take-on various Gaelic words that refer to the fairies and other mythical creatures such as Navity, Neimheadh, Nemet, Sithe and Sithean.
The typical Scottish fairy knowe landscape feature, as we are defining it, is a relatively small natural or artificial hillock, mostly wooded with mature deciduous trees and / or Scots pine of at least one generation. Additionally, such knowes are usually fairly circular and visually distinct from their surroundings (Figs. 1&2).
Traditional beliefs in Scotland ascribe typical fairy dwellings to caverns, hills, islands, rocks, trees, water bodies and wells. Certain taboos were often associated with these places relating to the animalistic elief that fairies inhabited them. Most typically these are concerned with restricting their access especially at liminal and threshold times such as dawn and dusk as well as restricting the removal of earth, stones and timber from them. Generally these places were left undisturbed and shunned.
The Rev. Robert Kirk illustrates such taboos in his famous treatise on fairylore The Secret Common-Wealth 1691:
“There be manie places called Fayrie hills, which the mountain-people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking earth or wood from them; supperstitiously believing the souls of their predecessors to dwell there. And for that end (say they) a Mote or Mount was dedicate beside everie church-yard, to receive their souls, till their adjescent Bodies arise, and so become as a Fayrie hill.”
Both the Brythonic and the Gaelic Celtic traditions have repeatedly entangled the fairy world with the land of the dead. This land, thought to exit underground, revealed itself through such spirit haunts as barrows, tumuli and other burial places. The fairies and the spirits of the dead have therefore co-existed spatially in these traditions. It follows that barrows tumuli and other elevated areas came to symbolise the typical fairy abode. In Scotland and Ireland this affiliation was stronger if the mound was visually isolated probably because islands were ancient Celtic doors to the Otherworld.
These were places where the mysterious and esoteric were grounded in order to explain the unknown and thus alleviate fear. In many stories they are considered to be the home of the original peoples of the Irish-Scots Gaelic continuum, the Tuatha de Danann – the peoples of the mother Godess Anann, who fled underground and became the fairies when Ireland was invaded by the Milesians – progenitors of the modern day peoples.
A strong bond has also traditionally existed between nature and fairy knowes. Tradition-bearers saw the fairies as mediators between many things, one of which was nature and humanity. For example, fairy associations with plants meant that certain species were reserved for their realm while others were for human use. This suggests a basic conception of resource partitioning within the fairy faith.
This cultural tradition has therefore left hundreds of semi-natural woodland remnants throughout the Scottish countryside and some of our fieldwork has demonstrated that many are still recognised as fairy knowes. This has also been supported by our preliminary qualitative observations in Co. Mayo, Ireland, during a human ecology field trip in May 1996. J.M Synge comments in his book, The Aran Islands, that Mayo is more heavily populated with fairie than any other county in Ireland. As such we suggest that Ireland in general and Co. Mayo in particular also hold considerable scope for respectful research on fairy habitations. Since the value of the fairy knowes is little recognised the integrity of many such wooded sites have been lost in this shift, and we believe that this is to the detriment of Britain’s and Ireland’s cultural and ecological heritage.
A fairy knowe’s most visible attribute is its circular cluster of mature trees. Given that fairy know trees are usually broadleaves and / or Scot’s pine and given the historical fairylore associations with certain plant species, a further recommendation is to ensure that the regenerating understorey trees which will reach the sub-canopy consistently include native species such as apple, elm, hazel, holly, oak, rowan, yew and thorns (rowans should be especially favoured as a sub-canopy species because of its particular associations with fairylore where its berries were thought to be a special food for the fairy folk).
This may require the occasional thinning of competing pioneer species in the sub-canopy such as ash, birch and most conifers. Generally, these would not establish under a dense canopy, but many of the smaller fairy knowes are exclusively edge habitats which allow sufficient light levels for the survival of such shade intolerant species. Furthermore, even hazel, holly and rowan may require some thinning in those cases where larger growing deciduous species have not established in the sub-canopy.
Raising the public’s awareness of faerie knowes is crucial to ensuring their wide-spread conservation.
It is also an important part of changing social attitudes and values. The benefits of this could range from enhancing love for nature and places, to providing landscape familiarity, communal interaction and perhaps even spiritual inspiration. Indeed, it can take only a little time spent contemplating in a fairy knowe for the mind to turn back to ancient drudic times and speculate that perhaps these are remnant links with the sacred groves of our own archaic past.
We have attempted to demonstrate that fairy hills deserve recognition as special conservation sites not only because of their ecological attributes, but also because they embody remarkable potential for rekindling communion with heritage, place and nature.
So who are the fairies? Might they be entities existing in their own right in non-ordinary realms of consciousness? Or are they an artistically anthropomorphised way of thinking of spirituality in nature – the soul dimensions of birds and insects, trees and fishes, and even rocks and wells and soforth?
And could there be a sense, a very real metaphoric sense in which, as Mike Collard of Future Forests near Bantry, Co. Cork, says, ‘We are the faeries”? For at one level, fairies can be seen as icons of the human psyche connecting deeply into the consciousness of nature: a mechanism for knowing deep ecology. At another, buried deep in Celtic mythology, it is worth recalling that the fairies were once the original gentle and nature-connected peoples of this land, driven underground according to the Irish Book of Invasions when our own forbears, the invading Milesians, settled those shores of the North Atlantic archipelago perhaps some four thousand years ago, synchronous with our great forests being lost. As such, the faeries can be seen to symbolise that in us which was true nature wild; that of an era before the advent of modern weaponry, destructively employed technology, and all the aggression that humanity directs onto itself and nature in its vacuum of loss of cultural soul.
The defeat of the Tuatha de Dannann by the Milesians is a metaphor for what has happened to human consciousness and its bond with nature over the centuries. Figuratively we drove the spirits of nature underground, beneath the threshold of the mind’s eye. Subordinate to reason.
Stories of bad luck even to the point of fatality caused by damaged a fairy rath abound in the West of Ireland to this day. Local historian Paul Murphy from Kilbaha, West Clare, points out how kinks in recently straightened roads are often to negotiate respectfully around raths,which in that part of the world are not necessarily circular. He recounts how workmen would refuse to cut into the rath because, having done so experimentally as required by their managers, they found they became ill (pers. com., 1995).
My own (McIntosh’s) first formal venture into a knowe was at Wester Foulis in Perthshire, 1995. Our group included an old woman, Rita, from Glasgow. She taught that the proper way to enter is first to hold hands outside it, and say words to the effect: “Hello faeries. We have come to visit your home. We promise to respect it and not cause damage or remove anything. Thank you for letting us visit this place.”
Alastair McIntosh is teaching director for the MSc. Course in Human Ecology at Edinburgh University. His research interests include land reform, psychospiritual aspects to ecology and community renewal, science policy and ecofeminism.
Patrick LaViolette is a recent graduate from Concordia University in Montreal Canada and the University of Edinburgh. This article was inspired by his MSc. Dissertation at the Centre of Huma Ecology, Edinburgh University.
OUR WOODLAND HERITAGE:
Our Trees: This edition for the Tree Council of Ireland was sponsored by the Woodlands of Ireland.
Our native tree species have been linked with Irish culture and society from the earliest of times. Trees were of the greatest importance, not only for the obvious practical reasons but also for spiritual reasons. Imagine what the ancient woods of Ireland must have been like for our ancestors. Every tree had its uses; the ash for hurleys; alder for shields, hazel for construction.
The most important tree of all was the mighty oak, which was considered chief amont the airig fedo or nobles of the forest. Woodland was a resource used by everyone, and the importance of the woodlands is reflected in the laws created to protect them.
In pre-Christian times, Brehons or judges were responsible for the law and some of these laws dealt specifically with trees. The penalty for damaging particular trees was a fine, usually exacted not in money but livestock. For example, if you cut down an oak or a hazel tree, you could be fined two and a half cows while the fine for cutting down an elm or birch tree would be one cow!
The different penalties reflected the relative importance of each tree.When it came to translating spoken Irish into the written word, the ancient Irish came up with a system that reflected the special role trees played in everyday life. It is thought that this alphabet, called OGHAM, was invented around the fourth century and that it was designed specifically for the Irish language. Where it was invented and by whom is not known. We can still see some examples on carved standing stones in old monastic sites, in the National Museum of Ireland and in the Ulster Museum.
The letters of the OGHAM alphabet were all assigned names, which may ave started out as exmples for teaching purposes. Unlike letters in the English alphabet, these letter names were meaningful words. Originally eight letters were named after trees – birch, alder, willow, oak, hazel, pine, ash and yew. In the middle ages, scholars read over tree letters resulting in a tree alphabet.
An eighth century description of how Ogham is read again shows how the lore of trees had become mingled with writing: ‘Ogham is climbed (read) as a tree is climbed, threading on the root of the tree first with one’s right hand and one’s left hand last’. This indicates that Ogham should be read as it is inscribed on upright stones, from the bottom up.
There was more than just a practical and economic value placed on trees and woodlands. The ancient Irish were a spiritual people who lived in harmony with nature. They saw magic and enchantment all around them and especially in trees.
Many species of tree such as yew, hazel, hawthorn, elder and rowan were considered to have magical properties. Very often a single hawthorn can be seen, standing alone guarding a special place.
These trees are regarded as fairy thorns, a meeting place for fairies or sidhe. Hawthorn trees are also associated with holy wells, where hanging strips of cloth or rags sometimes marks their presence. Such trees are known as rag trees. Rowan trees too are associated with the fairy host, while its berries were used as a protection against evil.
Individual trees that stood out in the landscape as being remarkable, perhaps for their size or shape, or the place in which they grew, were of
particular importance and were known as bile. This word still exists in Irish place names such as Rathvilly in Co. Carlow and Moville in Co. Donegal.
Many place names in Ireland incorporate other tree names. Of the approx 62,000 townland names in Ireland, 13,00 mention trees while 1,600 mention some derivation of dair (oak), such as dare or derry.
With the arrival of Christianity many trees and groves that were sacred in pagan times were taken over and adapted for Christian worship. This can often be seen today in the presence of ancient yew trees within church grounds or the combination of the word cill or church with tree names, i.e. Cill Dara or Kildare. We also know that many of the early Irish saints had favourite trees; St Kevin had a favourite yew tree in Glendalough while St Bridget had a special oak in Kildare.
After centuries of exploitation, we have lost much of our natural woodlands along with the lore that was so much a part of them. Some traditions still persist; lone fairy thorns can still be seen dotted around the landscape, especially around ringforts and raths, whilst occasionally one may come across a rag tree or bush. Although much of our woodland traditions are gone forever, we can at least strive to restore our native woodlands to their former glory and find a place of relevance for the modern world.
THE TREE ALPHABET:
B (beith) BIRCH
L (luis) ROWAN
F (fearn) ALDER
S (Saille) WILLOW
N (nin) ASH
H (huath) HAWTHORN
D (Dair) OAK
T (tinne) HOLLY
C (coll) HAZEL
Q (quert) APPLE
M (muin) BRAMBLE
G (gort) IVY
Ng (ngetal) REED
Ss (straif) BLACKTHORN
R (ruis) ELDER
A (ailm) SCOTS PINE
O (onn) GORSE
U (ura) HEATHER
E (eadha) ASPEN
I (iodha) YEW