Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Probably not. But a story about vengeful spirits and a colorful local politician speaks to the Irish struggle over history and modernity.
An Irish road is in a bad state because their builders have offended the fairies.
That, at least is the line coming from an Irish politician this week, when asked to explain continuing problems with subsidence on a road in the country’s Southwest. The dip in the N22 had been repaired, but then re-appeared—according to road department, because of “a deeper underlying subsoil/geotechnical problem.” But Danny Healy-Rae, an Independent TD (a member of the Irish parliament’s lower house) had another suggestion. He told the Irish Times that problems with the N22 were due to “numerous fairy forts in that area.” Reflecting a folk belief that these sites are best left alone, Healy-Rae said that “anyone that tampered with them back over the years paid a high price and had bad luck.”
First, let’s explain fairy forts, which are circular mounds, ditches, and earth markings found in great volume across Ireland (and some parts of Britain as well). Some are faint, scarcely visible scrapes on the terrain; others are large enclosures marked with mounds, ditches, and rings of trees. Depending on their size, these may be remnants of actual forts, tombs, old animal enclosures, or stockades that once protected homesteads. They’re believed to have been created at any time between the Iron Age and the early years of Ireland’s Christian era.
Unless, of course, you choose to believe that fairies made them.
Fairy forts are traditionally associated with the supernatural Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythical race said to have been the first inhabitants of Ireland. Over the centuries, they shrank from pre-Christian god-like stature to a more modest folkloric role as local spirits of place. Mound-shaped fairy forts sometimes contain tunnel-like corridors that suggest tombs; these have sometimes been said to be portals from which fairies could exit the nether world—portals that humans disrupted at their peril.
Stories about messing with fairy forts very occasionally crop up in Irish news stories. In 2011, for example, a few Cavan locals blamed the downfall of Ireland’s richest man on his disturbing a megalithic tomb for his quarrying business. But it’s highly doubtful these ideas get much serious purchase among Irish people at large. In fact Healy-Rae’s comments seem to be part of a highly personal concern about fairy-related road maintenance problems: He first raised the possibility of supernatural meddling on the N22 in 2007.
At this point in the story, it’s important to understand who we’re dealing with. Danny Healy-Rae is a larger-than-life character, one who comes from a family of larger-than-life characters who have been heavily active in the political and commercial life of Kerry for two generations. A climate-change denier and fierce adversary of carbon taxes, Healy-Rae is also a pub owner who has campaigned for special permits allowing rural residents to drink and drive (you can view him defending the proposal here). When he was shown on a German documentary insisting that driving after three pints of beer was perfectly fine, Irish national newspaper the Herald covered the story with the headline “Achtung the Eejit.”
But compared to his brother Michael, also a politician, Danny may actually be the sensible one. Michael Healy-Rae won first place a reality TV show called “Celebrities Go Wild” in 2007, where well(ish) known Irish figures performed various rugged tasks out in the Connemara boondocks to raise funds for charity. While Michael Healy-Rae himself denied any involvement, it later emerged that over 3,600 of the calls that gained him first place came from a phone within the Irish parliament, costing the public purse €2,600 ($3,000).
When Danny Healy-Rae invokes angry fairies in council meetings, he may be attempting to distract observers from other political news he’s been making. He’s repeatedly called for the loosening of qualification criteria for state infrastructure contracts, acknowledging during lobbying in February that he “was involved in a small way in a plant-hire business.” This week, it emerged that the plant hire company he owns actually won €8.7 million in state contracts over the past decade.
It’s also possible that Healy-Rae is earnestly looking to protect Irish heritage. And that’s great. Fairy forts and the folk beliefs around them deserve to be treated with seriousness, even if the headlines such stories gain internationally (sorry) further burnishes stereotypes of Ireland as some mossy, Celtic-mist-belching dream casket. I’m still going to stick my neck out here and say that if some people believe in leaving these sites alone, it’s not because they truly fear an invasion of vengeful imps intent of sabotaging road improvements. These are important historic remnants, mementoes of thousands of years of human habitation. As sites of folk memory, they both carve the people of Ireland into the landscape and the landscape into the people of Ireland.
And fairy forts are indeed frequently destroyed by farmers (and sometimes developers), a process that might seem relatively harmless carried out on a single farm but can mean a real loss of historic heritage if taken nationally. Like some Irish pundits, I’m grudgingly inclined to see Healy-Rae’s point: Damaging fairy forts openly expresses contempt for your recent ancestors’ beliefs in a way that, while it may not incur supernatural malice, certainly makes you look like a dick.
Having local lawmakers invoke fantastical images of nature spirits is a great way to enliven a council meeting. It’s also entirely discordant with the realities of contemporary Ireland. Despite the ongoing merciless self-milking of its traditional heritage for promotional purposes, Ireland (need it even be said?) is an urbanized (and frequently somewhat mundane) modern European country where you’re infinitely more likely to come across a morbid obsession with astronomically expensive Dublin real estate than with the lairs of the little people. Indeed, given the prohibitive land costs, if Irish fairies really are wreaking revenge for damage to their forts, it’s probably because they can’t afford to move.