AUGUST is a wicked month, according to Edna O’Brien. The Irish summer comes to a sultry climax with a host of harvest festivals which have roots in the pagan past from the Auld Lammas Fair in Antrim to the Puck Fair in Kerry. It is a past where faery folk were feared and there are still a few who believe they have simply gone ‘sideways to the sun’ and are biding their time for God knows what. Few farmers will risk cutting down a fairy thorn and the landscape is peppered with place names which include sidhe, pronounced shee, which is the old Irish word for the faery host. On this island we are never far from the old world. It lies dormant in our consciousness like a sleeping witch who sometimes pokes a malevolent finger of disapproval through the afterbirth of modernity.
Hollywood filmmakers, among others, have distorted and belittled Irish mythology with farcical interpretations of old celtic customs and beliefs but to our forebears the leprechaun, merrow, grogoch, banshee, changeling, dullahan and pooka were real creatures which struck genuine terror in the stoutest of hearts and had to be guarded against on a daily basis. They were the explanation for bad harvests, misfortune and sudden deaths. Even in the days when the Catholic Church steered the lives of the vast majority of Irish people the old pagan beliefs persisted. Those with faith in modern beliefs have no place mocking the honest fears of those who lived in another age.
This Irish celtic mythology is a remarkably enduring phenomenon. It infuses our politics and the arts, has travelled the world and is constantly reinventing itself for new generations. This lost lore is the stuff of great writers and some of our most enduring horrors have been created by the Irish. Brahms Stoker gave us Dracula, Oscar Wilde penned the Picture of Dorian Gray, Charlotte Riddell gifted us her Weird Stories and Elizabeth Bowen had a Demon Lover. Sheridan Le Fanu looked In a Glass Darkly. Yeats would walk the grounds of Coole Park with Augusta Gregory seeking signs of supernatural creatures and Brian Friel made August’s ancient celtic tradition the undercurrent in his classic drama Dancing at Lughnasa. They drew water from a deep and ancient well.
I first encountered Irish mythology when I was a teenage music fan. In the dark days of the Troubles few big bands could be relied upon to play regularly in Belfast. At least once a year we could depend upon a visit from Horslips, usually in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s University, and I was in the audience for the recording of Horslips Live in 1976. The band’s unique brand of celtic rock drew heavily on legend and folklore, the Cattle Raid of Cooley and the Book of Invasions. Live performances of Dearg Doom and King of the Fairies were accompanied by a legion of foot-stomping fans who could make a dancefloor bounce like a trampoline. The studio albums were finely crafted and the record sleeves produced some magnificent artwork but as a live act Horslips were simply unsurpassed. They possessed a magical energy that was hypnotic, contagious and enduring. The band played their last gig in the city at the Ulster Hall in 1980 but reformed in 2010 when I heard them in the O2 Arena. It is a poor place to stage a concert of this kind and though it was not the fault of the musicians, the show was a sad reflection of the raucous days of my youth.
Horslips gave me an appetite for folk music which I have never lost and on Saturdays I would tune-in to Radio Ulster to hear Tony McAuley’s programme As I Roved Out with Planxty, De Dannan, The Bothy Band and Scotland’s Five Hand Reel. I seem to recall it made it to television for a time. These magnificent minstrels who could provide contemporary arrangements of old songs on forgotten instruments like the dulcimer and the autoharp and sometimes used them to make political statements. I learned to play different guitar tunings, mandolin and the tin whistle and began to take an interest in politics and social justice in my own country. When I worked for the Coleraine Chronicle I met a splendid piper called Seamus and together we would visit music sessions as far afield as Ballycastle, Dunloy and Newtowncrommelin in the glens. They were happy days.
Van Morrison, perhaps Ulster’s most successful recording artist, has also drawn heavily upon this Celtic ‘mysticism’ to produce some of his finest work. Though he made his money and reputation in the United States he returned home in 1980, still lives in Cultra and is often spotted in cafes and restaurants in the Bangor and Holywood area. I know the man who repairs his guitars. “Van’s never been rude to me,” he will tell you. On his 70th birthday Morrison told the Irish Times that all he ever really wanted was to own a jazz club in Belfast and despite his reputation as a recluse, he loves to be on stage. I was unfair when I attacked his ‘homecoming’ performance at Balmoral in the pages of Sunday News. The sound system was poor, the fans were restless and it rained. His latest concert will be in a more intimate setting at the Culloden Hotel. His most ‘Irish’ album, Irish Heartbeat, was recorded with the Chieftains in 1988 at the suggestion of Tony McAuley. When I first heard it I scoffed at his interpretation of classic songs but it is one of his bestselling recordings and I’ve grown to love it. Like Horslips and Planxty he sought to give Irish traditional music and mythology a new audience.
Enjoy this legacy of a past age, the tall tales and the magical music. But don’t turn the sound up too loud. You might upset the sidhe.
© Maurice Neill 2019