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Myths, Legends, Fantasy...


An Other World

The following text and the tasks below are aimed at upper-intermediate students.

Remembrance of the past has always been an aspect of the Irish psyche. When Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century he found a highly civilised but pre-literate people with a remarkably developed capacity for memory. The elite learned class comprised a range of professions from lawyer, through druid to poet. Their training was long and hard, on average twelve years, and exclusively oral. The upper and lower classes each had their poets and historians/storytellers to enchant the long winter nights away. The storytellers told of invasions, voyages, enchantments, heroes, gods and goddesses, traced the genealogies of chiefs and kings, recounted their exploits and told the stories behind every place name.

   The meeting of Christianity and Celtic civilisation produced one of the great flowerings of European culture. They fused with one another in some ways and in other ways they remained complementary but separate. The great love of books  which developed didn’t take away the role of memory and the oral tradition. Nor did Christianity affect in the slightest the Irish belief that they shared their wild and lovely island with many non-human beings.

   The inhabitants of Ireland before the Celts were a highly intelligent race called the Tuatha de Danaan, famous for their skill in magic and other arts. There are many legends about the last battles between the two races, with gods and goddesses participating on both sides. Eventually the Celts won, but such was their respect for their opponents that they divided Ireland equally between them – well, nearly equally: the Celts got the upper half and the Tuatha de Danaan got the lower half, so this bright people retreated below ground and became fairies. They are still a formidable race, nearly as big as humans and very proud.

   Popular imagination locates the entrances to their main places or “fairy forts” in prehistoric burial mounds, which look like little hills with a passage inside, or in circular earthen grass-covered banks, called ‘raths’. (These are the remains of what were once protective enclosures for animals and houses.) By and large, fairies and humans manage to co-exist peacefully, but fairies have to be treated with great respect and if they get angry they are not slow to take revenge. It was completely taboo to interfere in any way with what were considered to be fairy dwellings, so until this century all such archeological remains were left untouched, even where they interfered with farming. What good would it do to clear away a rath from your field if in so doing you angered the fairies ? Either you, your family or your cattle would certainly suffer, as thousands of stories show, and foreigners are not exempt! In the 1970s a Dutch company called Ferenka bought land in Limerick to build a factory. Unfortunately there was a large rath on it which local workmen refused to remove, so men from another area were brought in, the rath was cleared and the factory built. A few years later, the manager of the factory, Tiede Herrema, was abducted by the I.R.A.  and held hostage for 36 days, and after another few years a prolonged strike forced the closure of the factory. The wife of the then president of Ireland voiced the opinion that it was the removal of the rath which had caused the problem.

   Few country people up to the last century would categorically refuse the existence of fairies, or ignore the rules governing relations between fairies and humans, and belief at some level persisted strongly up to the mid-twentieth century in many rural areas. Young boys were often dressed as girls because it was widely feared that fairies might steal them away. Sometimes the fairies stole the babies out of their cradles, and left one of their own in its place. Such a creature was called a ‘changeling’, and spoke and looked like a little old man, though lying in the cradle like a baby. To protect against this calamity it was usual to lay a metal bar across an unattended cradle, as the fairies are believed to fear metal. They also fear fire, and many an unfortunate supposed changeling was threatened with burning wood or even put over a fire in an attempt to drive away the fairy and bring back the human child.

   There is one night of the year, Halloween, when it is possible to rescue anyone held by the fairies. Halloween is one of the four principal festivals of the Celtic calendar, and marks the transition from the light to the dark half of the year. On this night alone the doors between our world and the other stand wide open. The custom of children dressing up as witches, ghosts or devils, and going from door to door looking for treats, has its origin in the belief that spirits wander the earth on that night, and should be placated with food, drink or whatever they want. Equally, the local ‘fairy fort’ where your loved on is being held can be attacked, but you need a lot of luck and wit as well as courage to effect a successful rescue.

   You need a great deal of the same qualities to outsmart a leprechaun, a little old shoemaker who spends his days mending shoes for the fairies. The gold they pay him is hidden in a large ‘crock’ or bowl, under the roots of an old tree. If you ever see a leprechaun, catch him and don’t take your eyes off him, no matter what tricks he plays to distract you. If you can fulfill this one condition, he is bound by the laws of leprechauns to lead you to his crock of gold.

   Anyone may happen to meet fairies or leprechauns but only certain old Irish families hear the banshee ( literally ‘fairy woman’). When members of such a family hear her heartbreaking cries they know one of the family is dying. Percy French, a popular songwriter at the turn of the century, wrote the lovely lament “Gorthamona”, in memory of his beloved wife, who died young. It begins with birdsong in the blackthorn tree, but soon:
   “Long, long ago in the woods of Gorthamona
   I thought the wind was singing around the blackthorn tree.
   But Oh! It was the banshee, who was crying, crying, crying.
   And I knew my love was dying far away from me.”
   From the 16th century on Ireland experienced an intensive process of colonisation and anglicisation, which appeared to be virtually complete by the 18th century. However, unseen and unheard by the Anglo-Irish rulers, a ‘hidden Ireland’ continued to exist. Towards the end of the 19th century, this culture was rediscovered alive and well, living in the oral tradition of the often illiterate poor people of the countryside. There were still many traditional storytellers, ‘seanachies’, enriching people’s minds with their knowledge of their race through a vast repertoire of myths, legends and other stories, as their ancestors had done for thousands of years.

   One begins to understand why the rural Irish were able to maintain a full sense of themselves  despite abject material poverty and a total lack of freedom. A race of supernatural beings, the fairies, leading a parallel life to theirs, kept them alert and responsive to every time, place and situation. As Catholics they had the promise of eternal life and pride in their mythologised saints, and their memories contained an imaginative treasure trove of myth, legend and history of their race which  clothed their landscape in visions of beauty and grandeur, and made the lives of heroes and heroines of a bygone world seem as real as the falling rain and the potatoes growing in the fields. They lived in both this and an ‘other-world’.

by Fiana Griffen of The International Study Centre, Dublin
published by kind permission of "The World of English"


Task 1

Read the text and choose the headings that best reflect the content of each paragraph.


Paragraph headings:


Be fairy-friendly

Death messenger

Fairy-proof kids

Genesis of storytelling

Continuing traditions

How to make a fortune

Irish life-blood

Neverending story(telling)

Night of gates unlocked

Partition of Ireland


Click here to see the answers.


Task 2

Discuss the questions in pairs or groups:

  • How much do the Irish folk traditions parallel Polish ones?

  • Do folk tales have any real meaning for children at present?

  • Is tourism the only leprechaun that leads to the crock of gold today?

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