The Cycle of Life by Leon Ó Cáthasaigh
First published in Ireland of the Welcomes Magazine
It was going to be a long day. I started about an hour ago and knew I had at least five more ahead. Travelling west against the wind. At least the roads were quiet and the gentle landscape encouraged me along; hard pedalling in soft rain.
You might think of long distances as hardship on a bike but the truth is quite the opposite. I suppose it depends on your approach. If you were in a hurry to get to where you want the experience might be troublesome but if the journey itself is your destination it can be a fulfilling experience regardless of conditions.
Imagine yourself on the road as I pass. There I was head down, legs working hard, water spraying from the wheels, all energy and puff. Based on this outward appearance you might reasonably assume I was hard at work fighting my way along. But that was not the case. Inside my head, I was in the zone. My brain’s senior management had gone home for tea and left unhindered, my thoughts were running amuck, strange images darted in and out as my imagination wandered about. I might as well have been snug in bed for I was dreaming away.
My mother, and many others from rural parts, would describe my condition as ‘away with the fairies’.
All around was bog; plain to see but also discernable in the saddle by the lumpy ground. It must be a great challenge for engineers to build a road across a bog. There seems to be no hard surface just a squelch underfoot that encourages caution. Bogs have always been regarded as mysterious places associated with danger and strange happenings. Tales were told of the otherworld and the gentle people who live alongside us. The bog was their place and we pass through with caution and respect. It would be a brave soul that wanders about the bog at night.
Looking around it was easy to understand why stories survive and the logical world of science and technology has not taken hold. In the misty rain small droplets formed on the bog cotton and twinkled as they caught the early light. The wee turf stacks left to dry were strangely regular and aligned. The rushes shifted unpredictably, perhaps it was the wind.
Our ancestors realised that we cannot explain everything. We see only part of the world and there is more beyond our reach. Long ago young people had much to learn, dangers to be avoided, knowledge and skills to be acquired and lessons on how to survive and succeed. Wisdom resided in the old people but there were no schools of colleges. Stories were the backbone of learning and an important means of preserving culture and tradition.
Stories were also a means of entertainment; the soap-operas and block-busters of the day. Winter evenings spent around the fire listening to tales and sagas, some romantic, some heroic and some dark and scary. Like the Hollywood films of today there were popular genres and familiar plot lines that could be told and retold. And among the most well-liked and frequently used motifs wasthe notion of the parallel world of the fairies; the wee folk who go about their business and like to be left alone. Gentle people who offer no threat at all, until that is you disturb or annoy them, and then they become cantankerous, mischievous and malevolent trouble-makers.
I pulled in off the road just beside a Hawthorn tree. All around was quiet but for the faintest rustle of wind. It was time to take a break and what better place than this. Just beyond was an outcrop of bog oak the shape of which looked to make an excellent seat. I had a small snack bar and a bottle of water so I left my bike and carefully picked my way toward the spot. Bog oak is common enough in Ireland, the remnants of ancient forests thousands of years old. The alkaline conditions ensure the wood does not rot and often very large specimens remain intact. When the wood is eventually exposed due to shifting ground or turf-cutting the emergent trees have a bleached and sinuous quality. Strange contorted shapes are not uncommon. These were my thoughts as I approached, for as sure as I’m telling you this now, there was the queerest shape of a little fellow in the tree. He was sitting on my seat!
Stories were often used to warn young people about the dangers of wandering off or talking to strangers. A typical fairy story involves a poor lad, who wanders off in the night, often after too much of his favourite sup, only to find himself lost and alone. In the distance he hears sweet music and faint cries that indicate merriment and dancing. When he approaches the source he sees strange people with pale faces dancing away. The music is the most melodic and lyrical he has ever heard and the dance is fast and elegant. In the middle of all this, perched on a high seat, is the king of the fairies surveying the scene and directing affairs. Most story tellers suggest the best thing to do in this situation is to quietly sneak away and ‘leave well enough alone’. However, this never happens, the gormless drunk decides to join the party and rudely crashes in on the scene. The music stops! He’s immediately surrounded and brought before the king. Apologies are too late and some recompense needs to be paid. The unfortunate man is inflicted with a bad leg or a strange hump.
In other cases the person who happens on the scene is treated more fortunately. If appropriate respect and compliments are proffered the visitor may be invited to join in the merriment. The revelry goes on through the night and few can keep up with the pace and finesse of the dancing. In the morning the visitor awakes alone in the field and is left to tell the tale.Of course these are just stories and it’s impossible to find anyone who will provide a first-hand account of such an encounter.
In the beginning I wasn’t greatly troubled by the figure that seemed to emerge from the shape in the tree. It was a trick of light and shadow. The trunk was gnarled and folded and human beings are pre-programmed to see faces everywhere. However, this was uncanny. There was a clear outline of a full-figure of a man. He had a wide hat and he was looking slightly away from me as if in quiet contemplation. Despite my unease I continued to approach expecting the apparition to fade at any moment. Quite the opposite –the closer I got the more I became convinced there was someone really there!
There are several folk-theories to explain the existence of fairy people. One suggests they are Tuath DéDannen the mythical inhabitants of ancient Ireland. These people remained on but live now in their own way on the land. Another folk-theory is that they are fallen angels, not bad enough to go all the way down, now stuck here on earth. Regardless, fairies were considered to live quietly among us and were seldom seen. Most fairies have pale skin and a fair complexion –that’s the best way to recognise them as not all are small in stature. It was considered impolite to refer to them directly so they were often described as ‘the good folk’or the ‘gentle people’.
Fairies come it two types: there are the trooping fairies who march about on special nights such as mid-summer or better known hereabouts St Johns eve; and of course individual fairies such as the pooka, banshee and well known leprechaun. All have many talents and can bestow gifts such as special skills to help with music or dress-making or they can do damage and make milk go sour or inflict ailments on unfortunate people.
The fairy world is parallel to our own and in many ways they live similar to us. They rear cattle and sheep and sometimes they slip into market towns to replenish their stock. Few can see or recognise them for they are masters at disguise and trickery. There are many stories of interference with farm animals and crops. They are often blamed for a bad harvest or missing sheep. Trouble also arises when houses were built in the way of the trouping fairies favourite routes. Should this happen the occupier would be in for a noisy time at night until the good order of the route is restored.
Fairy superstition remains active to this day and although many people won’t admit it there are few who would desecrate the many ring forts, also known as fairy forts, on farms across the country. Let’s just say there’s less of it about but the old ways still linger.
That day as I approached the figure in the bog I applied all my wits to find a rational explanation for what I was seeing. One moment it’s a tree and the next it’s a man. If it’s a man what is he doing here? What if it’s a sculpture that would explain it? I decided go around a bit and see if I could look head on. As I shifted I had the strangest sensation that his head was shifting too. At this point I was getting a bit anxious. So I decided to make one big leap toward the tree and settle the matter for once and for all. As soon as I jumped I realised my mistake. I was so focused on the figure that I forgot I was in a bog. They all came together: the unmistakable slurp, the cold wet sensation as water entered my shoe and, most worrying of all, the feeling of being pulled downwards into the bog. I was stuck!
So there I was, about twenty paces in from the road, stuck up to my knees in a wet marsh staring at a piece of wood that was smiling back at me. I decided to do the only logical, rational and scientific thing I could think of. I bowed my head and apologised profusely. I explained that I had only wanted to stop for a short break, I meant no disrespect and if he wouldn’t mind releasing me I’d be on my way and happy to leave my fruity bar behind. I jiggled and pulled and eventually one foot, then the other, came loose minus my shoes. I fell over and scrambled on my knees toward the safety of the road. Moments later reunited with my bike, blackened and without shoes, I wasted no time in pedalling away from the scene. As I looked back I caught a glimpse of him again this time he seemed to be eating something and sporting what looked extremely like a new pair of shoes.
Later that evening, as I retold my story around the fire, my friends looked knowingly at each other as if to say ‘he’s away with the fairies’.