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Unlocking the fairy doors: W.B. Yeats and the Irish occult tradition
Cameron Brown

Painting by Ithell Colquhoun - “Triton” (1971) - © National Trust

Dating back to antiquity, the natural world of Ireland has been conceived of and treated as a spiritual center. Pre-Christian pagans, for whom the earth was the central aspect of religion, left their marks in nature; the spirit of ritual worship pervades the landscape even today. The pagan and general Celtic proto-religious intimacy with the land is evident in the remnants of Celtic crosses, holy wells and sacred stones scattered at present throughout Ireland. It is particularly in the country’s west that we find these spiritual remains and ambient religious atmosphere at its greatest potency. Many holy wells bear the influence, too, of Christianity, as many of its noted figures--you may have heard of St. Patrick--have become, over time, associated with specific wells. It is also within certain natural landforms that many have felt the presence of spiritual activity. Yeats, for instance, was particularly attached to Ben Bulben, a large rock formation in County Sligo, and thought of this mountain as the one true door to the fairy world that so fascinated him. [1]

The druids were, in the words of painter and author Ithell Colquhoun, “prophets, priests, healers, teachers and lawgivers,” who examined nature through a lens of magic and centered their beliefs on projecting balance and positivity outward into the world, believing themselves to be its caretakers and taking the responsibility to heart. [2] They regarded herbs as sacred, bearers of properties magical and medicinal. Their worship of nature extended explicitly to trees and the plant kingdom, in which realm particular trees and herbs were considered more replete with occult properties, and thus more potently magical, than others: namely, alder, apple, ash, birch, elm, evergreen, hawthorn, hazel, pine, oak, rowan, thorn, willow, and yew. [3] Plants were understood to contain spirits which were able, and which, indeed, sought to communicate with us. These beliefs manifested themselves practically through ritualistic ceremonies, to which end druids often designated specific landmarks in nature as ritual sites.

It’s well-known that during his formative years Yeats indulged his growing fascination with his ancient Celtic past by exploring the traditions of the druids and Celtic mythology. It was these explorations in tandem that began to shift his thinking and view of Ireland not only as his home and the physical sphere in which he conducted the mundane business of quotidian life, but one which was increasingly suffused with magical and spiritual associations. He was most attracted to the druids, in large part due to their role as the wise figures and magicians of their communities, the servants who put occult powers to work for others. Much of his early poetry, including such poems as “Fergus and the Druid,” is replete with particularly druidic imagery. In that and many other poems, the young Yeats engages himself as the druidic bard, the seer figure struggling to project his voice upon the world.

And that same world--its woods, rivers, mountains, hills, bridges, mineral and plant life--constituted the arena in which local peasants and sympathetic thinkers sought to make contact with the otherworldly realms described in such works of occult expression. The presence of a Celtic Otherworld had long been palpable to many, including Yeats, who detected it most strongly in places like Ben Bulben. Portrayed throughout Irish literature as a place of delight and peace, this Otherworld is also the abode of the dead, populated by such races as the fairy people and the Tuatha dé Danann.4 And, though this Otherworld is beyond the grasp of everyday detection by the senses, specific landmarks--caves, lakes or the divine sídhe mounds--are designated entrances. [5]

Unexpected encounters with the afore-mentioned otherworldly races have long been and continue to be reported--no doubt both a reflection of the landscape’s spiritually-inundated character and a catalyst for that character’s deepening--having been achieved variously through musical trance, visionary experiences or even tangible interactions with fairies disguised as humans in the physical world. For much of the Irish country peasantry, the presence of fairies was taken as read and untroubling, treated with casual acceptance or minor annoyance--this latter response reserved largely for the playfully malevolent fairies that are wont to play tricks on people. But fairies have likewise been held responsible for more troubling events, such as human disappearances in which the victim was seemingly verifiably seized by other-worldly means. Friends or family may be subject to visions of the victim, breaking into physical reality to account for his or her disappearance as a case of willful imprisonment in the fairy realm.

What attracted Yeats most profoundly to the study of Irish fairy lore was this notion of real-world consequence. This early fascination is instructive: indeed, as Yeats grew into an increasingly persistent albeit skeptical occult persuasion, he continually sought to under-stand and note tangible results of magical practice and occult phenomena, a pesky habit which would be responsible for tangible results of his own: mostly missteps, false starts, and unhappy results on his end. Yeats’ departure from Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, for instance, came when Blavatsky became frustrated with Yeats’s tenacious questioning of the bases of her esoteric knowledge and philosophies. Yeats’ wish was to progress from simple study to a more practical spiritual quest and the bonafide practice of magic, a desire which would move him in and out of the early 20th century occult milieu with variously successful and trying results. It is Yeats’ extant accounts, however, of his own early belief in the coexistence of the physical and magical worlds that perhaps best demonstrate this singleminded and ingenious streak.


[1] Yeats spent much of his early years living in Sligo, where he formed a close relationship with the mountain. Allusions to Ben Bulben are replete throughout his poetry and prose.

[2] Nichols, The Magical Writings of Ithell Colquhoun, p. 71.

[3] James McKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 151-152.

[4] McKillop, p. 359. The Tuatha dé Danann are a tribe/family of pre-Christian Irish deities, an important race in Celtic mythology. They studied and acquired secret occult skills, magic, and knowledge, learned from local Druids in four northern Irish cities--Falias, Gorias, Murias, and Findias. The Tuatha dé Danann practiced levitation, divination, and other magical skills.

[5] The sídhe are mounds or hills, the divine dwelling areas of fairies that are said to be the locations through which the Tuatha dé Danann had fled during battle, when they were often said to have returned to their underground realm. The connection between Tuatha dé Danann and the áes sídhe--or fairy people of the mounds--is vague, yet we can be that certain their realms coexisted.

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