Dispatches from Ireland by Heather O’Neill, Part Two

Photo: Heather O'Neill

Posted on: 3 November, 2023

Category: Dispatches from Ireland, Max Margles Writing Residency, QWF News

In August, author Heather O’Neill boarded a plane to take up the 2023 Max Margles Writing Residency in Dublin. Here is Part Two of her travels. Click here for Part One.

One of the reasons I came to Dublin was to research the history of fairies. Fairies in Ireland are a seedy lot. They are temperamental and belligerent and vain and impossible to reason with. They are sometimes lovely and winsome, but they are quick to turn boorish and cruel. They are like a cross between neurotic ballet dancers, spoiled toddlers, and drunk teenage girls. I look at illustrations of fairies in a museum by the Irish artist Harry Clarke. The figures are all extremely thin, as though they have been affected by the famine. As though they are members of the Rolling Stones.

I hire a driver to take me to the sacred spots in the West of Ireland. I am wearing a long black coat that goes almost to my feet and a jaunty velvet hat that comes down over one eye. I take out my notebook. I feel very much like Lady Gregory strolling into the countryside, doing fieldwork, collecting all the Irish fairy tales she could in the late 1880s.

I have been interviewing different people who have stories about meeting fairies. (I am aware I am cosplaying a Victorian folklorist. But really the wonderful thing about travelling alone, is no one is there to talk you out of doing anything, or challenge your fantasies of self.) I already have some remarkable accounts:

An older woman tells me there was a fairy that drove her barn animals insane. She says she had a lamb that danced all night long. She says it was terrifying to witness. I close my eyes, but I can’t picture it as being anything other than beautiful.

Another woman tells me she took a stone from a fairy ring and put it in her pocket. After that she was unable to sleep. She found herself wandering around the city in the middle of the night. Until she returned the stone.

A physicist explains his research about how everything being uncovered by quantum mechanics proves the existence of fairies. He then goes on to tell me some lovely things about molecules that I can’t quite follow, but it is like reading a book as a child that is above one’s reading level.

A young woman tells me that her baby brother went missing and she found him sitting at the bottom of the pool. He was smiling and had his arms stretched out to someone in front of him. And when she pulled him out of the water, nothing was wrong with him at all. And she felt guilty about interrupting his time with the fairies.

Sinead O’Connor once said a fairy came up to her one in a black hoodie. To everyone else he might have passed for a homeless youth. But she knew him for what he was: a fairy that was coming to ask her for a blessing.

There are roads that take circuitous routes in Ireland in order to go around fairy trees. The population refuses to have them uprooted at risk of disturbing the fairies that live amidst their roots.

I ask the driver if she knows anything about fairies. She tells me she is a practicing Druid. Of course she is! Serendipity is so much stronger in Ireland. You only have to think about a person and they will be knocking on your door in an hour.

“Have you seen the fairies?” I ask.

“Oh, there are so many out here,” she answers.

I go to climb the Cliffs of Moher. I get to a part of the path that has signs erected, claiming that to pass this point is dangerous in the extreme. I see scores of people walking right by it. They wander right to the edge of the cliffs. They dance about with their arms stretched. As though they are romantic poets. They are leaping about in raw joy. I ask if people ever fall off the cliffs. “About ten people a year fall off.” I look at the people again. They have fallen in love with the winds of Ireland and can’t help themselves.

One night, after going to visit a famous fairy ring, I am awoken in the middle of the night. Someone or something is calling to me from the other side of the apartment in my daughter’s voice. I know it is not her though sinceshe is back in Montreal. I call out, “Who is there? What do you want?” The voice becomes quiet. I lay back in bed and fall back to sleep.

I am roused in the middle of the night by the sound of a male voice saying, “Heather” close to my ear. I open my eyes, and I feel something sitting on my back. It isn’t heavy. I just feel the weight of it.

I turn my head to see there is a fairy sitting on me. He is filthy and his hair wet, as though he has just climbed out of a swamp, or like a root that has been pulled out of the earth. He is emaciated and his skin seems translucent. I would describe him as looking amphibious were it not for the wings that are folded down on his back. He looks as though he has spent ample time in the underworld. I am not frightened at all, only curious. I think he is wonderful, grotesque and handsome. And then he leaps, almost like a frog off me and out the open window.

Or perhaps it was all a dream.

As a young child, I did not believe I was living in the right home and family at all. I had nothing in common with them. I took a book out of the library on fairies. And I realized these were my people. They had stolen away the real Heather O’Neill. She was living amidst the fairies. Enjoying a life filled with feasting and dancing and pleasure. She was in my place. I had been put in this human world, a changeling from the Underworld, no one understood me.

It was why I had difficulty making friends and all the other children told me I was mad. I could not sleep at all. It was why I always felt out of place. There was another home I was searching for. Somewhere I belonged and made sense.

W. B. Yeats believed in fairies. He spent his whole life collecting stories about them. And he wrote scores of essays about their behaviour and influence. He would often posit: Whether or not fairies exist, doesn’t life become inestimably more filled with joy and magic and meaning if one does believe in them?

To believe in fairies is to believe there is no hierarchical way of measuring human worth. Because a small child in a frayed coat and muddy boots can be the one visited by the fairies, just as well as any religious leader or wealthy person. A fairy might just as well trade you a feast for a button from your coat as for a coin of gold.

To believe in fairies is to believe everything in the natural world is sentient and needs to be treated with great respect. To believe in fairies is to believe that gender is fluid. To believe in fairies is to believe the universe is unpredictable and the rules can be changed and described by anyone. And that is perhaps why I longed to join them so much. Because, although in Montreal, I was a skinny odd poor kid, I knew that in the fairy world, I would most certainly be a queen.

This piece is part of the Dispatches from Ireland series written by QWF’s annual Max Margles Writer in Residence in Dublin.