Communicating with the Spirits

By Gábor Klaniczay; Éva Pócs | Go to book overview

HOSTING THE DEAD:
THANOTOPIC ASPECTS OF THE IRISH SIDHE

TOK THOMPSON

My paper is an exploration of the relatively complex and particular relationship between the dead and the fairy folk of Western Ireland. However, it should be noted that both of these elements—fairy folk and the dead—are often considered separately as key symbols of Irish identity. Concerning the dead, writers such as Witoszek and Sheeran (Talking to the Dead: A Study of Irish Funerary Traditions) have characterized Ireland as a “thanatophiliac” nation, critically centered on notions of death and the dead, and the authors’ support their claim by citing many examples from modern and historical Irish life.

The fairy folk have long been regarded (both from within and outside Ireland) as one of its most prominent cultural features. Road work, for instance, was halted even last year due to the projected demolition of a sacred fairy thorn bush, and the fairy folk are inscribed everywhere—from names in the landscape to personal narrative to literature of all varieties. The confluence of these two critical aspects, then, seems to me to be of paramount interest.

While the fairy folk are often grouped with the dead in Irish folklore, they are not equivalent categories. The banshee is an excellent example of this, and it is one of the most common figures in Irish fairy lore. The Banshee is a bean sí, a fairy woman who commonly foretells the death of a family member by wailing, or keening, for the member about to die. Interestingly, banshees are often reputed to follow only families of ancient Irish descent. The banshee thus often acts as a very ancient and yet very involved ancestor spirit— one who is pre-aware of mortal deaths, and thus outside of normal time.

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