by Dr. Bob Curran
In his essays on folklore, the Irish poet and writer W.B. Yeats often spoke of the Macara Shee (the trooping fairies or the Fairy Cavalcade). This was a parade of fairies that supposedly wandered the Irish roads at certain times of the year (usually under cover of darkness) as the king and queen of a local region surveyed their territory. It was usually a frivolous procession, full of merriment and humour but there were also difficulties when it met with local people who happened to be out and about. It depended on the humor of the fairies as to what happened then-they could perhaps take the person whom they met with them, into the fairy hills and mounds where they would never be seen again, or, if they were in a good humor they might dispense largesse by handing out money or jewels. Mainly, however, the disposition of the fairies to those whom they met on the nightbound roads was of the former kind.
According to both Yeats and the folktale collector Lady Gregory, there was one particular sort of fairy who traveled with the Cavalcade that was particularly dangerous. This was the Amadan-na-Briona or Fool of the Forth. He was said to be a trickster or a jester and was evilly dispossessed toward humans.
“I have heard one Hearne, a witch-doctor who is on the border of Clare and Galway,” wrote Yeats in The Celtic Twilight (1893), “say that in ‘every household of faery there is a Queen and a Fool and that if you are touched by either, you never recover though you may from the touch of any other in faery.’ He said of the Fool that he was ‘maybe the wisest of all’ and spoke of him ‘dressed like the mummers that used to be going about the country.’ Since then a friend has gathered a few stories of him and I have heard that he is known in the Highlands. I remember seeing a long, lank, ragged man sitting by the hearth in the cottage of an old miller not far from where I am now writing and being told that he was a Fool.” He went on to say that this individual “became” a fairy when he slept-he was, in fact, “possessed” by the fairy spirit-and ventured forth along the roads (whether in actuality or in dreams) to attack his neighbors. The Fool carried with him a wand or rod with which he delivered his “touch,” and took away the power and reason of those whom he tapped with it. The word for such an action was a “stroke”-a taking away of the strength and power from the individual-and this has given us the medical term that we still use today.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is disturbed or interrupted and functioning brain cells begin to die causing power loss and even death in a number of instances. This was the terrible power that the Fool’s wand could deliver and in a society that had no medical explanation for such a condition, the intervention of the hostile fairy served as an explanation for these difficulties. The fairy was never seen, but delivered his touch invisibly. Yet the folklore around the Fool of the Forth was widespread, even into the 20th century.
In her seminal book Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), Lady Augusta Gregory writes of how she interviewed a Sligo oyster woman about the fool on her way back from a local seashore:
There was a boy, one Rivers, got the touch last June from the Amadan-na-Briona, the Fool of the Forth and for that touch there is no cure. It came to the house in the night-time and knocked at the door and he did not rise to let it in. And it knocked the second time and even then if he had answered it, he might have escaped. But when it knocked the third time, he fell back on the bed and one side of him as if dead and his jaw fell on his pillow. He knew it was the Amadan-na-Briona did it but he did not see him-he only felt him. And he used to be running in every place after that and trying to drown himself and he was in great dread that his father would say he was made and bring him away to Ballinasloe. He used to be asking could his father do that to him (by Jordan at the dresshead) . He was brought to Ballinasloe after and he died there and his body was brought back and buried at Drumacoo.
In my youth I remember knowing of a man who lived a little distance away from us who was widely regarded as being “possessed” by the Fool of the Forth and who, when in that state, could deliver the “touch,” which would paralyze. He was a strange, solitary man who lived alone in a small house in the middle of a bog and he was said to be “odd” in his ways. According to local tradition, he was married at one time with a family some distance away. Being very fond of a “bottle or two” (strong drink) he had become intoxicated one night at a party and on the way home had paused to “sleep it off” on the edge of a fairy fort near the roadside. While lying there inebriated, the Amadan had come upon him and had “possessed” him, and he had never been the same again. He left his wife and family and went off to live in the cottage, which had belonged to his brother. It was said that it was for their own good, for his touch when the fairy “possession” was upon him was lethal. Then he was not counted as being human but was simply “more than human,” connected to another species of Man or a part of a mystical race such as the Tuatha de Daanan. He was now the Fool of the Forth. But for many of our neighbors he was also a madman, for the fairy “possession” had taken away his wits and had made him “strange” or “not normal,” and children like myself were terrified of him. My grandmother often used this man as a warning of what strong drink would do to a person vis-à-vis a relationship with the fairies, for it was well known that the overconsumption of liquor drew creatures such as the Fool of the Forth to an individual. This “interchangeability” showed the close relationship that existed between fairies and humans and hinted that, at a very basic level, they might be connected in some way.
Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from DARK FAIRIES © 2010 Dr. Bob Curran. Published by New Page Books a division of Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.