We’re building a wall and adding a foundation deposit

So, we like gardening, although we’re often neglectful and the plants that thrive do so because they’re hardy.  This weekend’s project, in which I played a minor role, was to build a three-course curved wall around the fence that holds the vegie patch. We need a fence for the vegie patch, not to stop the potatoes and carrots escaping, but to keep the dogs and chickens from getting in and digging up everything green.

The first course of bricks has been laid out in situ for the past few weeks. In Irish folklore, it is most important not to build over a fairy path. These are the routes that the fairies take, usually in a straight line, between one significant place and another. In his classic work on Irish folk ways, E.E. Evans (1957:30) states that it is ‘at all costs necessary to avoid giving offence to the fairies by building across one of their “pads”‘. If you are unlucky or stupid enough to build across a fairy path, you may be guaranteed trouble and bad luck. One way to avoid this is to lay out your proposed wall and leave it for a few nights. If none of the stones or bricks have been moved when you return, you’re safe enough to continue. Now I know we live in Australia and not Ireland, but you never know who’s there, so we played it safe and left the proposed wall out for a few weeks. It didn’t move. Step 1 complete.

Step 2 was the foundation deposit to ensure safety, protection and good luck. There are many choices of foundation deposit in Irish folklore. Silver or gold coins, holy medals, pots, even animal heads, are all candidates for a decent foundation deposit. Here we used my medal from this year’s City to Bay Fun Run. If an archaeologist ever digs this up in the future, they will be delighted because the year is stamped on it. Ideally, the foundation deposit would go at one of the weak points of the wall, the corner perhaps. But I had to get to my yoga class at 10am, and I was already running late, so the medal was carefully placed at the point the wall builder had reached at 9.45am. Covered with mortar, a brick laid on top, the level checked, and it was done.

Now the wall is finished, and no one would ever know that there’s a 2018 City to Bay medal beneath it. Just another everyday invisible ritual. But I tell you, that wall is well protected!

And a final note on foundation deposits. There is lots of folklore and archaeological evidence in Ireland of the use of horse skulls as foundation deposits. In just one example, the National Folklore Collection at UCD holds a manuscript from 1938 which states:

Heads of horses and other animals were often and often buried in churches and mansions and even in the dwelling houses in the long ago. There was a reason for this. These heads helped the preacher, and he wouldn’t have to speak very loud at all in order to be heard. It stands to reason that when a person enters a church or a big building of any kind and if he only coughs the sound goes over the whole place. Many and many a time when people were demolishing the old castles, the old skulls were found. … When a horse would die his head would be cut off and kept and whenever a person would be building the first thing to go down would be the head.

When we had our first season of excavations on Baker’s Flat, I was very much hoping to find a horse’s skull. Sadly, I didn’t, but the excavation team was undeterred, and came up with this:

Horse head on Baker's Flat - not a foundation deposit

Horse head on Baker’s Flat – not a foundation deposit

Evans, E.E. 1957 Irish folk ways. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

National Folklore Collection 1938 Animal skulls as foundation deposits. Informant: Thomas Butler, Lambstown, Killkinnan, Co Wexford. Collector: Seán De Buitléir. Manuscript 496:245-246.


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