Fairy Tales

Knee-deep in mud and cow cud, I braved the ever-present Irish rain and relentless winter wind to explore my friend’s four hundred year old dairy farm in County Cork, Ireland. Even though my fingers felt frozen solid and I’d lost all sensation in my face, I followed behind Tommy Murphy, a graduate of University College Cork and current professor of Mathematics in my home state of California, as he led me through his family’s property while regaling me with stories of the land’s complicated, and contested history.

“Farmers are the custodians of this country’s past,” he remarked, pushing aside a mass of stubborn branches blocking our entry into an earthen mound I would later learn was a ringfort. “Ireland is brimming with history, from unmarked castles to cemeteries to former plantations, like our farm here. There’s simply so much in this country that we have yet to fully study. But Irish farmers protect this knowledge and pass it down from generation to generation.” As we walked into the knoll, I learned this particular ringfort—also known as a ‘fairy fort’ —hailed back to the Iron Age, a time when the island’s occupants transformed their natural landscape into dwellings for various purposes. Even though this ringfort stretched across a significant segment of the Murphy property, Tommy explained that his family went to great lengths to preserve it precisely because of the cultural traditions and legacy it represents.

“The pre-Celtic people who lived in Ireland ages ago believed these forts housed fairies who had magical powers. Today, superstition keeps many farmers from removing ringforts from their properties, even though maintaining these structures is quite expensive. We let archeologists dig here sometimes,” Tommy told me.

But as with many aspects of life in Ireland, ring/fairy forts represent contested spaces and histories. While the enduring myth of fairies and the playful respect for their wrath that is demonstrated by farmers who do not dare disrupt these sacred structures fit neatly into Ireland’s whimsical reputation, some agricultural consultants suggest such superstitions hurt the bottom lines of farmers and are simply bad business. In turn, a number of scholars take offense with the term ‘ringfort’ itself. Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, Professor of Archeology at the National University of Galway, finds the use of this term particularly problematic and regards these so-called ‘ringforts’ as “sustained monolithic traditions of Irish archaeology [that are an] impediment to understanding the significant changes that native enclosed settlement underwent through time.”

Even public policy and literature are affected by this controversy. For instance, in 1999, Kerry seanchaí Eddie Lenihan fought to protect a whitehorn bush ringfort in County Clare, which supposedly served as a gathering site for the fairies of Munster and Connaught. Lenihan caused such a ruckus that the Irish government ended up having to re-route an entire road as a result!

While there’s something to be said for preserving a nation’s heritage, today Ireland stands at a crossroads, precariously straddling the legacy of the past with the promise of the future. I just hope that as with its approach toward ringforts, some of Ireland’s intrinsic magic isn’t lost in the shuffle.

About Kat Trujillo

Travel-hungry, knowledge-thirsty, Latin America enthusiast, women's rights advocate & venture culturalist.
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