Friday, July 27, 2007

Fairy forts

I mentioned here a week or so ago a new book of interviews with some of the older women of the Dingle area, and how often -- nostalgically, but skeptically -- the fairies came up in their reflections.

I did not mean this in a condescending way. The ancient fairy faith of Ireland is no more or less superstitious than the religion of angels and devils that I was raised in as a child. It is an almost universal aspect of religious faith that the world is inhabited by unseen spirits who in ways both good and bad affect our destinies.

The Dingle Peninsula, like much of Ireland, is pocked with "fairy forts"; some 450 are recorded in the archeological survey of the peninsula. These are actually Iron Age or Early Christian farmstead enclosures, mostly circular, usually of earth, but sometimes of stone. Their purpose, presumably, was both to enclose cattle, and provide protection against cattle raiders and wild animals. As the rings were abandoned they became associated in the popular imagination with the fairies, who were thought to live there underground.

Many of think of fairies as tiny Tinker-Bell creatures with wings. The fairies of Irish lore were a considerably more complex population of supernatural gods and goddesses, not unlike the angels and devils of Christianity. The fairy faith was (I quote Sean O Duinn) "above all a fertility cult concerned with food production, health, protection, good harvests, children, large herds of cattle, sheep and pigs." There was little in the way of abstruse theological speculation. Rather, the fairy faith was lived emotively day by day in the face of raw nature.

It is estimated by archeologists that about a third of the Irish ring forts have been erased by modern agriculture. That so many survive is largely due to the aura of lingering fairy faith that accounted them holy and dangerous places -- long enough for modern archeological sensitivity to give them some degree of government protection.