jump to navigation
  • Fear in a Handful of Dust February 9, 2018

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    You may not believe it, at first glance, but this painting is among the most terrifying ever hung in a gallery in Ireland. It shows a supernatural force threatening a series of Irish men and women. Confused? We’ll return to the fear in a minute.

    The artist was a young man of twenty two from Cork, Daniel Macdonald (obit 1853). He painted the work in 1842 and today it can be viewed in the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin. Angela Bourke and Niamh O’Sullivan have together written a good article on the piece. ‘A Fairy Legend, A Friendship, a Painting’, Éire 51 (2016), 7-22. They describe the scene thus:

    ‘[Macdonald’s] painting shows a mountain pass under a darkening sky: where a group of sixteen people from across the social spectrum of pre-Famine Ireland makes its way forward with alarmed expressions as a strong wind sends dust whirling among the horses’ hooves and around the (mostly bare) feet of those who walk.’

    Note the landlord on his horse at the back, the ‘strong farmer’ riding pillion with his wife to the  left, and the poor peasants at the front with their coloured clothing.

    Now back to the fear. Why is this sample of Irish society so apprehensive – as AB and NO’S point out one possible exception is the landlord towards the back? The answer is, of course, the little eddy of dust in the bottom centre of the picture. Follow the eyes of the peasant women.

    And why would an eddy of dust cause terror? Quite simply it was believed, in nineteenth-century Ireland, that fairy hosts travelled in these eddies. They did so either to get somewhere: one of their fairy raths. Or they did so to exact vengeance on any humans who had offended them. The picture is called Sidhe Gaoithe/ The Fairy Blast.

    At this point some readers may be stifling a laugh. An eddy of dust? But remember these Irish fairies maimed cattle, broke legs and thought little about ‘changing’ children. You did not want to get on the wrong side of them.

    One other interesting point in the picture. Irish peasants were said to doff their caps to eddies of dust. A man on the left certainly seems to be doing this.  AB and NO’S claim that the strong farmer is also doing so on the left: Beach would say that rather he is just grabbing onto his hat in a blast of wind? His face though is difficult to read. This is one of the less successful parts of the painting.

    Any other insights into this picture, the wisdom of crowds is superior to the wisdom of this blogger: drbeachcombing GMAIL dot com