Investigating Faerie Places

The view climbing up Knocknarea

One of the aspects of my project that I was most looking forward to was comparing the manner in which Ireland represents itself through locations that have something to do with faeries. I already blogged about Knock Ma, but it was one of the most important locations of my research: it was off the beaten trail, without any sort of tourist advertisement, was very difficult to find, and it was included in W.Y Evans-Wentz’s “The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.” People claimed that they saw the Connacht faeries, whose king holds court on Knock Ma, fighting the faeries of Galway in the shape of flies. Their dead bodies were found in the streams. In my last post I described what a local man told me about stories that still exist. But the coolest thing about Knock Ma was the fact that I had to climb through the trees and make my way to the cairn (ancient burial tomb) without any sort of guiding path. It was untouched, with only a walking trail surrounding the hill. Even though the locals weren’t advertising the location to tourists and urging them to find it, it wasn’t forgotten. To get directions, I asked a few individuals walking the trails if they could help me, and they all immediately knew what I was looking for.

One of the mounds at Knowth

One of the stones with ancient artwork on it at Newgrange

And having found Knock Ma, I was free to then search for other places that advertised their mythical origins. I went to Knocknarea in Sligo, the Hill of Tara, Newgrange, and Knowth (all of which are in County Meath). The latter two were on the opposite end of the spectrum. Advertised as burial tombs stretching back to 3000 B.C.E, both locations belonged to a massive, very modern visitor center with tourists from all over the world arriving every day to learn about these magnificent structures. But there were no advertised explanations of the mythology that surrounded the sites, of which there is a great deal. After the Tuatha de Danaan retreated underground when the Milesians took over (the forbearers of the Celts), Newgrange and Knowth were known as the places through which individuals could access the Otherworld. But even on the tours of both these places, nothing was mentioned of what religious meaning they supported — nothing was mentioned of faeries. I received information from the guides when I asked them individually about the mythology, and though they gave me detailed answers and were obviously well-versed in the subject, none of the other tourists were able to learn what I did.

Passageway in one of the tombs at Knowth

Compare that to places like the Hill of Tara and Knocknarea.

Newgrange is one of the few burial grounds that has been reconstructed with all the original stones. The nature of its architecture is still debated today, but nobody is able to know for sure what it looked like in 3000 B.C.E, when it was built. Knowth is reconstructed to an extent, but its tombs still largely look like a circle of grassy mounds (after they fell into disuse, the stone walls that originally supported the tombs caved in and were eventually covered in grass). On the Hill of Tara, though, there was absolutely no attempt to rebuild the tombs, though they were excavated. This is the seat of kings, where the ancient people would gather in celebration of a coronation. The mythology here is rife. I spoke to a gentleman named Michael Slavin who owns an antique bookstore right next to the hill. He has published multiple books, two of which he signed for me. And while I’ll describe him a little more in my next post about how faeries are represented in literature, one part of our conversation resonated with me. As I was leaving the shop to head toward the hill itself, he said, “There’s only so much I can tell you and that you can read in books, but you’ll learn the most when you go up there and spend some time with it.” There is no visitor center for the Hill of Tara, and people are able to just walk around the mounds and the fields and actually engage with the history. And even though there is no formal information center to give out information on the area’s rich mythological background, there are two fantastic things up there: a fairy tree and the legendary Lia Fáil. Very modern and still important to some modern day druids, the tree is covered in gifts for the fairies. From coins to pieces of ribbon, it is entirely decorated. Newgrange and Knowth are some ways for individuals to access the Otherworld. But the faeries live underground, in the land, and people can make wishes by leaving things for them. It’s a way for them to interact with this Otherworld that has been part of the Irish culture for so long.

The Fairy Tree on the Hill of Tara

The Lia Fáil at the Hill of Tara, also known as the Stone of Destiny. Supposedly brought to Ireland by the Tuatha de Danaan, it is supposed to roar whenever the rightful king of Ireland touched it.

And Knocknarea was very similar to this. It was sort of like a mix of Knock Ma and the Hill of Tara. Because even though it is advertised as the burial place of Medb, the Connacht Warrior Queen, it is situated in open pastureland so visitors can freely roam the mountain as they make their way toward the giant cairn. Maybe it isn’t as crowded because Sligo doesn’t get as much tourism as other places in Ireland, but to freely walk toward this giant, ancient burial mound and know that local folklore depicts Medb as still standing in her grave, spear in hand and warriors behind her, waiting to once again attack Ulster, is a pretty incredible experience. The mound at the top of the mount is an awesome structure, and my friend and I could even see it from miles away as the bus took us toward Sligo.

Madb’s cairn on Knocknarea.

Though each of these locations sport different representations, the one common factor about all of them is that they are protected. Individuals, when trying to see Knowth or Newgrange, have to sign up at the visitor center and take a bus because they do not want to ruin the landscape by putting parking lots around the structures. The Hill of Tara has been thoroughly protected from the threat of a highway that some Irish officials want to build through Meath, and individuals still go to the fairy tree to leave presents for their otherworldly counterparts. Knocknarea has no modern visitor center or information center around it, and Knock Ma is virtually untouched. My research has sprouted from my belief that scholars forget about how important Irish mythology and the modern fairy faith is to modern Irish culture, even if it does not play a direct role. And even though my beliefs were confirmed through sites like Newgrange and Knowth, where immense mythological backgrounds weren’t even mentioned, it is entirely obvious that the Irish people still have a very deep connection to their past beliefs.