For this article I wanted to open the door on the social pressures and, indeed, stigma, regarding reporting fairy encounters. Related to this is the more occulted tradition of knowing how to instigate and safely navigate practices bringing one into contact with fairies and spirits in the first place. While not necessarily initiatory, this can definitely be a shielded knowledge.
In Dion Fortune's introduction to The Mystical Qabalah, for example, she explicitly states that some of her writings are deliberately misleading in order to safeguard knowledge: the seeker will, if truly earnest, find the way regardless. We will come back to the topic of deliberate obfuscation but for now I will focus on reasons for the unwillingness to report fairy sightings.
The psychologist Keith Thompson, writing in his book Angels and Aliens, remarks on the seeming disparity between experiencers in senior management positions and those who work in menial and low paid jobs.
Thompson is responding to critics who ask why it is mostly "uneducated" people who report strange encounters with otherworldly beings. Some of the answer may lie in sociological links and pressures.
A senior manager, or person with a position in authority, is much more susceptible to being ostracised, demeaned and potentially losing a high societal role than a person in a less influential position. At least, that's a good explanation, but maybe not the full truth of the matter either. This does not conform to Irish society in that a working class person reporting a fairy encounter has as much to lose by doing so than anybody else.
There are two paths here and we will look at both. The first is the initial reception the experiencer usually receives. This will, by and large, consist of ridicule from the general community. The consequences can be humiliating and an entire family may bear the brunt of the reputation. This is also, in many cases, generational, as we shall see. There will also usually be a smaller group who believe the encounter may be real. Again, from the Irish folklore archives we can examine how those close to the family, especially in rural areas, will associate the encounter with stories and traditions already passed down.
Now, there is a specific nuance here which is often overlooked. Yes, there may be embarrassment and trepidation when a person decides to tell of their experience but this is not just because of the fear of being mocked. There is also the factor of having been foolish enough to have broken a taboo which a community may have always observed even if it was not openly acknowledged. To some degree we might include clearing a fairy bush or committing an indiscretion against the good people, but further examples can be added. A family may decide to not speak of what they believe to be a fairy punishment simply because they have knowingly broken the 'rules'.
Another point to consider here is when Ireland's view of fairies and non-human persons began to change because of religious influences. We know that from 500 AD there was a concerted effort by the church to move populations away from so called pagan deities and spirits to those of saints and Christian icons.
Pope Gregory specifically asked for an almost transfer-by-stealth approach as opposed to the presumably more violent tactics being used up to that point. Source.
The effect of this letter and change of approach is arguably one of the foundational changes which led to 'Folk-Catholicism' in Ireland: that is, the unspoken tact of incorporating older, polytheistic and animistic views into how Christianity was both practiced and imagined. Further, these blurred boundaries were to lead to what many saw as a 'Celtic Christianity' less inhibited by Rome's authority and more flexible to how a people grew a spirituality with roots in rule and individuality.
Nevertheless, the prevailing view of fairies became of a type of fallen angel or lesser demon; neither good enough for heaven nor bad enough for hell. For any person who was willing to speak about an encounter with such beings this brought with it a potential association which, while not having the later fatal ramifications of Scottish witchcraft, certainly had the potential to place a person to the periphery of a community. I would recommend Dr. Andrew Sneddon's book, Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, for a more thorough exploration regarding these consequences. We should therefore be prepared to consider that many more people experienced the same supernatural-type encounters which had always been recorded in native and indigenous cultures than were actually written about.
Returning to Keith Thompson, who I mentioned at the start of this piece, he writes that, "The thing to remember about Dionysus is that he wears masks not to disguise himself but rather to reveal himself. [ ]Try as we might, life refuses to be reduced to any flat singular interpretation. Interesting, that the word "symbolism" is derived from the Greek symballein, which means "to throw together." The word denotes the drawing together of two worlds. Hermes is a spanner of boundaries, a mediator between realms, an ambassador between domains which seem separate but are connected by subtle thresholds."
While many might agree with Thompson's analysis today, for rural Irish populations the reach and availability of such philosophy was in most cases impossible. A magical way of thinking was not easily separated from Christian doctrine and while miracles associated with saints were seen as God-given and divine, otherworldly powers of fairy were much more likely to be considered diabolical. Even if the punishments were less severe on the surface, being banished from a village or being ostracised from a community might end with the same consequences.
The religious view of fairies, then, meant that a perception existed regarding both their nature and their influence. Fairy Doctors and the Bean Feasa were often persecuted to varying degrees by both priests and doctors. For the priests, these people were leading their flock back to ancient pagan ways which needed to be wiped out. For doctors, the cures and healing methods of the Irish cunning folk were superstitious nonsense. Often, a sensational case with tragic consequences, was used to vilify an entire group, such as the case of Bridget Cleary. Even today, contemporary accounts of this episode continue to use sensationalist language in order to describe her fate.
It is little wonder, then, that for Irish people, describing a fairy encounter could lead a person into situations where their reputation and income might be affected. Looking at the numbers of people who have come forward over the years, we can then ask just how many more incidents there have been and how does that impact upon our perceptions of magical places and liminal infringements upon ordinary life. And, we must also ask just how many may feel they are somehow forbidden from speaking at all! (C.) David Halpin. Image: The Lady by Donata Giancola