By Ceri Houlbrook, University of Hertfordshire
There can be little doubt that the advent of electricity brought many benefits. With the introduction of the lightbulb, the telegraph, the electric cooker, people’s domestic lives became easier, more sanitary, and arguably less isolated. Electricity sparked an age of unprecedented technological and social advancements, and humanity thrives.
But electricity hasn’t brought benefits for everyone. We know from evolutionary biology that changes in the environment can cause one species to flourish whilst endangering another, and this blog post focuses on one specific species that hasn’t fared so well since the advent of electricity: fairies.
In 1872, folklorist Charles Hardwick prefaced his book Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore with the following statement:
In the age of the steam engine, and the electric battery, and the many other practical adaptations of the triumphs of physical science, is apparently not the one in which such “waifs and strays” from the mythical lore of the dim and distant Past are very likely to be much sought after or honoured (1872: vii)
According to Hardwick, the new world of the steam engine and the electric battery did not provide the right environmental conditions for the survival of our mythical ‘waifs and strays’: the creatures of folklore. Fairies are one species that have been particularly heralded endangered – and the advent of electricity is often deemed a prime culprit.
In 1938, a Mrs Pethybridge of Postbridge, Devon, wrote a letter to the Western Morning News. In this letter, she described how many people of her village had seen pixies in the past, but she hadn’t encountered the Devonshire fairies herself because of the electricity in her house: ‘my home is far too modern…I cannot expect to even glimpse them’.
This was apparently a common assertion. Dennis Gaffin, who interviewed locals in Ireland for his book Running with the Fairies, observes that: ‘I have heard over and over again that fairies disappeared with the advent of electricity. It is probably a metaphor, but it may actually have some reality to it too.’ (2012: 70)
The reasons why fairies are believed to have been repelled by electricity are vague and rarely given. But we do know that the rise of electricity changed the landscapes of Britain and Ireland. Progress travelled to the corners of these countries by way of power stations, overhead cables, and telegraph poles. Constructing the national grid was disruptive – disruptive enough to force fairies from their homes.
In a video produced for the ESB called Death of the Banshee: The story of rural electrification, Chris Shouldice, an ESB Rural Area Engineer, tells the story of a colleague who was managing the construction of an electricity line in Tipperary:
He was running a rather important backbone along this line of country and right in the middle of it, where a pole had to be, there was a fairy ring. Yes, it was actually a ring rather than a rath. No one in his gang would dig the pole hole, no matter who, whatever inducement he give them, except one guy who, oddly enough, was a Protestant and had absolutely no interest in this kind of stuff at all. And for about three times the wages agreed to dig the hole, and did. Now of course once the hole was dug, the rest of the gang said ‘Fair enough’, they’d put the pole in there because they hadn’t been the ones to break the ground. But that guy a day or two later was driving the van – because he was a church hand – along that road, and just at that very spot the van, for no reason out of a clear blue sky, just flipped over, turned over, and the man was quite seriously injured. So it caused us all to maybe draw back on our scepticism a wee bit and say maybe we are dealing with some things here that we better be careful about.
Evicted from their homes to make way for progress, it’s no surprise that fairies are said to dislike electricity. And it seems they’re not taking it lying down. Other ESB workers purportedly suffered accidents after disturbing fairy rings and forts to lay cables or erect poles, and as recently as 2007, fairies were blamed for fallen electricity poles near Sooey, Co. Sligo.
But the fairies seem to be fighting a losing battle. As electricity spread across Britain and Ireland – lands now criss-crossed with electric cables and telephone wires – the fairies are believed to have retreated. Their homes dug up to make way for ESB poles. The human communities they may once have dipped tentative toes into now too modern, too electrified, to tempt them. And – most significantly – humans too busy watching TV or tapping away at their computers to tell stories about them.
Perhaps Hardwick was right: the age of electricity is not one in which our creatures of folklore are ‘much sought after or honoured’. But we need only look at how much magic features in popular interpretations of electricity (which will be the topic of a future blog post) to see that they haven’t died out in our imaginations. Maybe the fairies aren’t extinct after all. Maybe they’ve just adapted to survive.
Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Ceri and the Electric Generations team here.