‘Take a sharp needle,’ he said, ‘and stick it in under the collar of your coat, and not one of them will be able to have power on you.’
The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge
This is from a story that John Millington Synge recorded on the Aran Islands, sometime between 1898 and 1901, years when he spent his summers on the islands, learning Irish and collecting stories and folklore. Of course, people of my generation will know Synge from his Playboy of the Western World, a play which we dutifully studied for the Leaving Cert. I barely remember Christy, although Pegeen Mike is unforgettable, as is the evocative language of Hiberno-English, closely observed and recorded by Synge during his times in the west of Ireland. But I do remember that it caused riots in Dublin when it was first performed at the Abbey in 1907. The riot was because he used the word ‘shift’, to wit, ‘… a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts…’.
Our English teacher for the Leaving Cert explained that shift was another term for nightdress, and that the notion of a group of lovely Irish maidens standing around in their nighties was enough to cause grave offence to the audience, casting aspersions on the virtue of said maidens, and thereby provoking a riot. Of course, there’s always more than one side to a story, and apparently ‘a shift’, at the time, was also a well-known symbol representing Kitty O’Shea and her adultery with Charles Stuart Parnell, a huge scandal. And the whole point of the play, that Christy had apparently murdered his father in a despicable act of patricide, was viewed by audiences as an offence and insult to Irish morals.
But back to the sharp needle. It’s a reference to protecting yourself from the fairies, the good people. Metal objects are common as protective charms – knives, swords, horseshoes, coins and pins have all been used. Synge also suggests here that the attraction of ‘exquisite sharpness’ was a feature, as well as some respect for ‘the instrument of toil’.
But as I read his story, I remembered something forgotten for many years. My father wore a jacket every day of his life, and under the collar was a pin. Always. I asked him once, when I was a small child, why he had a pin under his collar—because when we hugged him, we had to take care not to get jabbed. And he said that he had picked it up and put it there to keep it safe. I always assumed that he had found it on the floor and stuck it under his collar to make sure that nobody stepped on it in their bare feet. But being an accepting and gullible type of child, I never questioned why he hadn’t removed it once he found a safe place to put it—our house was not short of drawers or receptacles suitable for a small pin. So now, after all these years, I think that my dad, a civil engineer who worked with real measurements and tangible constructions, also strived to keep himself safe from the intangible world of the fairies and their deeds. And after all, his grandfather was a local GP known widely as the fairy doctor (and this is another story).
My dad in one of his first jobs as a draftsman in Cardiff, early 1940s
Which brings me right back in a full circle to the entangled world of research. I read a book to find out more about folk traditions on the Aran Islands in the late nineteenth century. As I was writing up my notes, the act of writing prompted the retrieval of a long forgotten memory. Which led me to thinking about the continuance of rituals and protective practices right through to the present day. Which led me to read Emma Donoghue’s latest book The Wonder (which is terrific, by the way, and you should all read it). And to ponder on why people carry out protective rituals, but don’t talk about them that much (see also my blog post on warts). And now I am going to have to read Hodder’s Entangled again. Just to be sure.
Donoghue, E. 2016 The Wonder. London: Picador.
Hodder, I. 2012 Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Merrifield, R. 1987 The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. New York: New Amsterdam Books.
Synge, J.M. 1998  The Aran Islands. Belfast and St Paul, Minnesota: The Blackstaff Press.