The pagan feast of Samhain – the last night of October – marked the end of the harvest and the arrival of winter. It was also understood to be a time when the boundary between the world we are familiar with, and the Otherworld, could most easily be crossed. The Otherworld is where the fairies/gentry/little people/good people of Old Ireland dwell. They were the ancient race, the Tuatha De Danann, who were banished underground many centuries ago having been defeated in battle.
The poet and author WB Yeats says* ‘This night they (the fairies) dance with the ghosts, and the pooka is abroad, and witches make their spells, and girls set a table with food in the name of the devil, that the fetch (apparition) of their future lover may come through the window and eat of the food.’
And Lady Jane Wilde, mother of Oscar** ‘It is esteemed a very wrong thing to be about on November Eve, minding any business, for the fairies have their flitting then, and do not like to be seen, or watched; and all the spirits come to meet them and help them. But mortal people should keep at home, or they will suffer for it; for the souls of the dead have power over all things on that one night of the year; and they hold a festival with the fairies, and drink red wine from the fairy cups, and dance to fairy music till the moon goes down’.
The only entrances to the Otherworld are via fairy forts, or raths. These abound in Ireland, in all parts of the country. They vary in size and prominence, are generally circular and are often covered with hawthorn. And, even to this modern day, it is considered most unwise by many Irish people to plough or disturb these raths in any way.
Farmers leave them undisturbed, the way they have been for centuries. Planners of roads and other developments take great care to avoid a rath wherever possible. It is said that extreme bad luck will befall anyone who disturbs a rath.
Famously, one of Ireland’s richest businessmen, Sean Quinn, saw his empire collapse and he filed for bankruptcy in 2011. This after he had an ancient burial tomb moved to extend a quarry.
And in 1999 workers downed tools and refused to uproot a lone hawthorn bush. The Ennis by-pass was re-routed and the hawthorn bush remains.
I couldn’t, of course, resist writing about such a rath in A West Cork Mystery. Well, would you defy the fairies and disturb their home? You’re braver than I.
** Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. Read this online now.