It’s St Patrick’s Day, a day which is celebrated by billions around the world by pretending they have Irish heritage and drinking more Guinness in one day than they do in all the other days of the year combined. We’d like to take this opportunity to look at some fairy tales that have links to Ireland and its patron saint.
St Patrick is frequently associated with the shamrock. According to legend, the three leaves in the one plant were used by St Patrick to explain to the unbelieving Irish how the trinity could possibly exist within the one God, that he might simultaneously be the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit whilst remaining one supreme deity. Of course, the Irish already had their three-in-one fairy tale hero in Brinn the Maker.
Brinn the Maker
As any Irish child will recall, Brinn was a simple woodcutter and carpenter from the north of Ireland who was apprenticed to a cruel and lazy man. Having already proved himself to be a better craftsman than his master, Brinn finished his apprenticeship and prepared to set out into the world. However, his master, though cruel and lazy, was not a fool. A better craftsman than himself would take custom from his own workshop and so, as Brinn slept on that final night, the master cut him into three with a saw and cast the three parts into three separate graves. But, as so often happens in these tales, the forces of goodness would not let death take the pure of heart and the good fairies (or sioga dur) brought Brinn back to life. Unfortunately, being in three separate graves, Brinn was brought back as a head, a torso and a pair of legs, all perfectly alive but nonetheless separate.
Each part then went on its own way, the legs dancing a merry jig, the head speaking wisdom to any who would listen, and the carpenter’s hands and arms blindly making the finest furniture, carvings and wotnots in the land. In the fullness of time, having earned himself a reputation for grace, intelligence and solid craftsmanship, Brinn’s various bits were reunited, he was married to a fine girl and, depending on which version you read, the wicked master was either driven out of business or locked in a chest of his own making and tossed into the stormy Atlantic. To be clear, though Brinn’s various wandering bits were brought together they still retained the ability to wander off at will. Quite what a wife would want with a husband whose head couldn’t be relied to stay on his shoulders is anyone’s guess.
The Snake Husband
Shamrocks aside, St Patrick is perhaps most famous for driving all the snakes out of Ireland (a relatively easy job given that there probably weren’t any there in the first place). And it is in this snaking-banishing role that St Patrick makes a personal appearance in the tale of The Snake Husband, a story that was later appropriated, changed and retold by the Italian, Giambattista Basile. In the original tale (if tales can truly be said to have original versions), St Patrick is in the final business of driving the snakes into the sea when he finds a baby snake cowering under a bush. The snake tells Patrick that he has lost his parents and that he wishes to find a new family. Patrick, as a priest of sorts of the new church, has sworn himself to celibacy and has no family of his own. Obviously, Patrick adopts the snake as his son. Obviously.
The years go by and the snake grows and decides he wishes to take a wife. Patrick takes him to the town and a match is made with a presumably broadminded young woman. The pair are married and take to their room for the wedding night. The bride’s father is, quite understandably, a mite curious and spies on them through the keyhole. He is astonished to behold the snake shedding his skin and a handsome (and naked) young man stepping forth. One imagines that the father of the bride had somewhat mixed feelings: a sense that he has somehow been deceived, coupled with the relief that his new son-in-law is more human than previously thought. Determined to ensure his son-in-law stays a man, the feller runs in and throws the snake skin into the fire. This was a poor move as the enchantment the snake was under does not take kindly to this act and the man is at once transformed into a pigeon and flies away.
The bride is distraught – probably bewildered but also distraught – and sets out to find her love. There then follows a long narrative with a number of unusual encounters but by the end of which she discovers (via a talking fox that teaches her the language of birds) that her husband is a prince, cursed by an angry fairy and that the only way to return him fully to human form is to make a potion that includes the blood of all the birds of the forest and the blood of the fox himself. The fox surrenders his own life for the sake of true love without hesitation and, ultimately, the determined woman and her prince find a happy ending. It’s a complex and some might say rambling tale which offers few moral lesson other than foxes are incurable romantics and that animal slaughter is a small price to pay for love.
The Ash Tree
Our third tale also features the blood-letting and dismemberment that Irish fairy tales seem to thrive on. The Ash Tree starts with St Patrick’s staff, the famed aspatria. It is said that, whilst preaching to the Irish, he stuck his staff in the ground and, since it took a long, long time to convince the Irish heathens to turn to God, by the time he had finished his staff had taken root and thereafter grew into a mighty ash tree.
In the tale, the tree stood on the land of a wealthy farmer who, having recently been widowed, found himself a new wife, who then moved into the farmstead along with her own son. It will surprise no one to discover that this fairy tale stepmother was a deeply wicked woman. She hated the farmer’s son, favouring her own child instead. But the farmer’s son was a pious boy and prayed every day at the holy ash tree that grew on the farm.
The power of prayer wasn’t particularly strong in that corner of Ireland for the stepmother’s jealousy and rage only grew until, one day, she took an axe and lopped off the poor boy’s head while he prayed. Initially, she tried to cover up her crime by propping the boy’s severed head on his shoulders at the dinner table in the hope that no one would notice. This failed almost instantly when her own son nudged the dead lad to ask why he was being so quiet. Plan #2 (not much better than Plan #1, to be honest) was to cook the boy in a stew to get rid of the evidence and hope that no one would bother to ask where the lad had gone.
The farmer returned home and was about to tuck into a rich and steaming bowl of son-stew when a bird flew out of the ash tree and told him all that the stepmother had done. The bird was the ghost or possibly reincarnation of the murdered boy. The farmer was miffed to say the least. The stepmother was hung as an evil witch and through some extra praying the murdered boy was returned to life. It’s interesting to note that, in this tale at least, prayers will instantly bring the dead back to life but do nothing to heal rifts between family members.
If nothing else, these three tales show that death is rarely permanent and that parents are at best interfering and at worst murderous. How useful these morals are in the modern world is debatable and the value of fairy tales as instructional tools is dubious to say the least. Dubious fairy tales and a heroine who rightly tries to ignore them can be found in our latest book, Disenchanted, which is available now for pre-order from Amazon.