Irish fairies in decline?

Belief in the existence of fairies reveal important and powerful truths about the human condition

By Dr Sean Carey

Some years ago, when I was an undergraduate I took an annual holiday in Ireland. My friends and I made our pilgrimage to Fouhy’s bar in Glanworth, a village around 30 miles from the seaside town of Youghal, where we always stayed. The pub was situated halfway along the main street, and despite fierce competition always drew a good crowd, especially at the weekends.

Unlike the other nine pubs in the village, however, not all customers were locals. I remember walking through the door on one occasion, and seeing the legendary British businessman and horse racing owner Robert Sangster and his wife, Susan, sitting at the bar drinking Jameson’s Irish whiskey.

Why was Sangster and his Australian socialite wife in Fouhy’s? His horses had won two Epsom Derbys, four Irish Derbys, two French Derbys, three Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes and a Melbourne Cup. The venue, a typical village bar with sawdust on the floor, was undoubtedly a far cry from the couple’s more usual, opulent haunts in the Isle of Man and Barbados, where they lived as tax exiles.

Part of the answer is: Sangster owns a major share at a nearby thoroughbred stud and was on one of his periodic visits to check on his investments.

The main reason was that the couple was there for the same reason my friends and I were: the conversation in Fouhy’s positively crackled.

The owner of the pub was Eileen Fouhy, a diminutive, unmarried woman in her early 60s. She stood behind the bar and poured the drinks until the last customer went home at a time of his or her choosing (normally his). She would not allow television. She thinks it ruins people’s ability to communicate with one another.

Eileen is right, of course. Go into any bar or pub anywhere in the world where a television set is switched on and observe the many people gazing at the screen rather than into the faces of their fellow human beings, even if they are not interested in the program being broadcast.

One lunchtime I was the only customer in Fouhy’s. I was an anthropology student, so this was an ideal opportunity to find out something about local folk beliefs. I asked Eileen, who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of local and national Irish history, whether belief in the existence of fairies had declined in Ireland in recent years.

“It has,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. “That’s because of the declining strength of Guinness. In the old days, I’d pour a pint and just like now there would always be some that would drip down the outside of the glass. But back then if you left it too long you’d have trouble picking it up — it would stick to the counter. That doesn’t happen nowadays.” She paused and added: “The stout is no longer what it was.” It was a fantastic reply. What else could I do but laugh?

But the story, with its quicksilver wit, summed up why locals, second generation Irish, U.K.-based undergraduates, and two members of the super-rich called in at Fouhy’s bar.

I was reminded of that conversation when I listened to the recent “Away with the Fairies” on BBC Radio 4. The presenter, Dominic Arkwright, began by asking whether fairies are now mainly perceived as “innocent, little butterfly creatures you see in Disney films, all wings gossamer and glitter” or “spirits which can be dangerous and malicious, not at all the sort of things you would want cavorting around at the bottom of your garden.”

Arkwright was joined by Irish folklorist and storyteller Eddie Lenihan, British writer and fairy illustrator Faye Durston, and U.S.-born folklorist and Celtic scholar Dr Juliette Wood. By all accounts, all three make a good living out of fairies. Lenihan, a former teacher and now “a national treasure,” visits schools and festivals in Ireland as well as internationally (especially the U.S.) to regale his audiences with often very scary stories of the “people of the hills” or “the lads” since one should never refer to the “fairies” directly by name.

By contrast, Durston has created a lucrative niche writing about very pleasant, cuddly modern (possibly post-modern) fairies. Her books are bought in prodigious quantities by middle-class parents of pre-teenage girls. Wood played the role of the enthusiastic scholar and analyst with wide comparative interests – “the intermingling of the dark and light is integral to all fairy traditions, and it is just this ambiguity that makes fairy stories so attractive to children and adults alike.”

Fairies have become important again – “they inhabit fantasy literature, the Internet, film, and computer games” according to Wood. Eddie Lenihan notes the traditional belief in Ireland that the best protection if you had the misfortune to meet the fairies was “a black-handled knife, not to attack them with but just to have it – they’d know and keep away from you” as “the lads” are frightened of metal and steel. If a suitable knife was unavailable at an encounter, the best thing was to “find plain water” and get to the other side because the fairies “can’t cross a stream.”

None of the members of the panel was entirely sure when fairies first appeared in history. Wood said that “it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly.” All agreed that it was a long time ago.

Wood and Linehan concurred that Fairies or fairy-like creatures are liminal beings because they like “order” and should always be treated with respect.

As far as Ireland was concerned, Linehan went on to explain that the persistence of beliefs in fairies, especially in rural areas, could be explained by the fact the country had never experienced an industrial revolution, which he argued invariably erodes traditional belief systems.

Arkwright then raised a most interesting question. He asked the panelists whether they had ever seen a fairy. Both Lenihan and Durston claimed that they had. For Lenihan it was objective, while for Durston it was more subjective. Alas, Arkwright failed to ask Wood, although it was clear from what was said earlier on in the program that she believed in the belief that there were fairies, and those beliefs revealed important and powerful truths about the human condition.

Lenihan also revealed that in 1999 in order to protect an ancient, 15-foot white-blossomed hawthorn bush on a rocky outcrop at Latoon, County Clare, long believed to be sacred to the fairies of the province of Munster, he began an international media campaign to persuade the National Roads Authority (NRA) to change the route of a bypass that was being built to serve Shannon Airport. The episode, which was covered by the New York Times, led to the NRA agreeing to reroute the highway in 2000. The hawthorn still stands “though surrounded by cars on three sides.”

“Eddie, why did you have to spare that bush?” Arkwright asked. Lenihan replied that if the hawthorn had been removed it would have led to great misfortune: “I told the engineers this: you are bringing it on your heads… Innocent motorists will be killed at this spot, because I have seen [this] in other places where these things have been destroyed.”

Eileen Fouhy died a few years back, so I cannot ask her opinion on the connection between angry and fired-up fairies and road fatalities in modern Ireland. But I am in no doubt that she would have had a ready explanation to hand, Guinness-inspired or otherwise.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the business school at the University of Roehampton

A version of this article has appeared in ‘Anthropology Works’

* * *

The Trouble With Trans Fats

In the UK trans fats are ubiquitous. They are used not only in fast food outlets, cafes and restaurants but also in a wide variety of biscuits, crisps, doughnuts, ice cream and chocolate bars. According to Professor Capewell, up to 10,000 premature deaths a year in the UK can be attributed to their consumption. Little wonder, then, that he likens the toxicity of trans fats to asbestos

 By Dr Sean Carey

“I only eat what my mother cooks for me at home – and fried chicken and chips that I buy at the local takeaway,” says Rafique (not his real name), a 17-year-old Bangladeshi boy, who lives with his parents and four siblings in a council house on the Ocean Estate. The estate sits in London’s Tower Hamlets – the second most deprived borough in the capital and the third nationally.

Fried chicken and chips is undoubtedly an age-set marker for British Bangladeshi and other young people but it also has profound health implications thanks to the use of trans fats in cooking.

According to Simon Capewell, professor of epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, a diet high in trans fats is also a strong indicator of social class; those who live in deprived areas typically consume a much higher amount of fast foods than those in more affluent parts of the UK.

Transfats and population

Last year Capewell called for the use of artificial trans fats to be banned in food processing, advice which he has repeated in a recent paper for the British Medical Journal. The motive is obvious. Even consuming relatively small amounts of trans fats, made by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen creating a hard, waxy final product, can lead to a myriad of health problems including heart disease, stroke, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

My ongoing ethnographic research on food consumption in east London and other parts of the capital indicates that the amount of trans fats eaten will also vary according to gender, something that has yet to be picked up by most health professionals. The reason? Teenage boys and young men from overcrowded households from all ethnic groups – white, black and Asian – in deprived neighbourhoods often spend a greater proportion of their leisure time on the streets than their female counterparts.

This increases the likelihood that pocket money will be spent in the many independent fast food outlets that have mushroomed in the area over the last decade. Even Brick Lane, designated “Curry Capital 2012” by the London Olympics organising committee, has a few American or Southern style deep-fried chicken shops nestling amongst its 50 or more curry houses.

Although trans fats are already prohibited in countries like Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland as well as New York City, Seattle and California, a recent UN summit on non-communicable diseases failed to enact a worldwide ban, to the dismay of many delegates who felt that the interests of ordinary citizens had been sacrificed to preserve the financial interests of the food manufacturers.

In the UK trans fats are ubiquitous. They are used not only in fast food outlets, cafes and restaurants but also in a wide variety of biscuits, crisps, doughnuts, ice cream and chocolate bars. According to Professor Capewell, up to 10,000 premature deaths a year in the UK can be attributed to their consumption. Little wonder, then, that he likens the toxicity of trans fats to asbestos.

While some supermarkets such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer have already removed trans fats from some of their branded products, others including Asda, Morissons and Tesco as well as fast food chains like KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut have signed up to the Public Health Responsibility Deal, launched in March by health secretary Andrew Lansley, to eliminate their use by the end of 2011.

Local government’s difficult job

The problem is that the deal is voluntary, and while big businesses can leverage some very good PR from the phasing out of hydrogenated fats (look at the advertisements on the wall next time you are in Marks & Spencer), small independent operators, including those which dispense fried chicken in deprived areas, have no such incentive.

Given that local authorities (in the UK) will take over formal responsibility for public health, is there a way forward? Abdus Shukur, the former deputy leader of Tower Hamlets council whose father opened one of the first Indian restaurants, Nishan Café in Aldgate in 1963, has said that in the absence of legislation from central government councils must act creatively.

And he also makes a point rarely highlighted in the public debate on hydrogenated fat: trans fats do not only block people’s arteries but the drains and sewage system, a hugely expensive problem for local authorities to put right.

Shukur recommends that businesses that don’t use trans fats should be rewarded with eye-catching stickers that could be displayed on their shop fronts. Over time, this could promote healthy eating even in the hard-to-reach groups made up of those people who haven’t yet heard the term trans fats, let alone the damage they are doing to their bodies.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the business school at the University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 18 November 2011

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