DUBLIN, Ireland – The monthly science fiction zine Ansible reported this month that Aidan Harte, Irish fantasy sculptor and author, was recently featured in the Irish press. The County Council of Clare commissioned a sculpture from Harte for the town of Ennistymon: it was to take the image of a legendary horse-headed entity known as the púca. The commission was part of an investment project aimed at “increasing the stay of visitors” in the city and was chosen from 18 submissions by a jury.
Harte duly produced the sculpture, but its placement has been suspended due to objections from locals, who say the sculpture is “sinister.” The local priest denounced him from the pulpit as a pagan idol. Bro Willie Cummins (who appeared in the Irish press in May for celebrating Mass in violation of Covid restrictions) told reporters: “I fully oppose this statue. There is something sinister behind it. It will never be erected – I can guarantee that. It looks mean.
Cummins’ objections were supported by others. Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway, a resident of Ennistymon, said: “The Púca still puts the fear of God in the elderly and was a figure that was used to scare people. This Púca has upset many people. She is a fairy that many people are suspicious of. It goes back to pagan times. The idea of attributing a statue to a fairy that has connotations of bad luck is inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive. The project should be stopped and abandoned.
Ciara Fahey, who owns a business in the town, agrees, telling the Irish RTÉ newspaper: “It’s not welcoming, it’s not warm and it doesn’t reflect the community, its history, its people or its culture. “
And Sinead Garvey, who also runs a business at Ennistymon, said: “We have a lot of positive stories from our history here in North Clare and I’m not sure if anything big and dark and dark with” púca ”written in stone is something that we would kind of feel love for.
Harte responded to the Irish Center Wednesday morning newspaper: “All I can say is what everyone in Clare thinks matters. A vocal minority seems to have opposed it from the start, and it culminated when the priest denounced it from the altar as a pagan idol. It’s stupid; the Púca is no more pagan than the elf. But since the controversy became national, there has been a change, locals who love it are speaking out now. It’s welcome and I hope it goes forward. The brief was to make a statue that would attract tourists to Ennistymon. The Púca has not even gone up yet and all of Ireland is already talking about it!
– Aidan Harte (@HarteAidan) May 12, 2021
County Clare Council is now launching a “public engagement process”.
The púca (Irish Gaelic for a spirit or a ghost) is an ancient entity. They are not always horses: they are shapeshifters who can also take the form of dogs, hares, goats, crows and cats. If they take on human form, they can betray their true nature by retaining an aspect of their animal character: for example, the ears of a horse. They are not only Irish, but are found throughout West Celtic in various forms. They are the goose in the Channel Islands, and like the bucca in Cornwall. They also bear a similarity to the kelpie, or water horse, of the Scottish Highlands.
A boy living near Killarney told 19th century Irish antiques and folklore scholar Thomas Crofton Croker that “old people said Pookas were very numerous… a long time ago… were mean, dark and evil things… who would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging around them.
Children were warned not to eat overripe blackberries because the púca had entered them (rather than children in England were advised not to eat the fruit after St. Michael because the devil had urinated on them). It is said that the harvests after Samhain are “made” by the púca: a reflection of the turn of the year.
Púca can be sinister or benign: their actions are malicious rather than evil (although some stories tell of them killing their victims), but they can be alarming – taking an unhappy person on a wild ride, for example. You can get around this problem by wearing spurs, preferably iron – a metal fairies don’t like.
However, the púca can also perform good deeds – for example, intervening to prevent someone from suffering a horrific accident or protect them from wicked supernatural entities. They can thus have a function of guardian of humans.
This is not the first time that supernatural water horses have been immortalized in sculpture in the Celtic world. Selkirk owns a pair of kelpies: sculptures of horse heads 30m high, although these are meant to celebrate the history of Scotland on horses and the mythical water horse (it is said that the kelpies have the force of 10 horsepower) was a starting point for the concept rather than the concept as a whole.
Other Irish districts weighed in on the debate, such as Rathfarnham, who said they would be happy to host the púca de Harte in a local park. If County Clare Council rules against the sculpture, Harte will likely find he has many other options.
The pagan commentary was amused rather than outraged.
Medieval Welsh historian Dr Kari Maund said: “Current religious objections seem oddly modern – and inflected by American fundamentalist ideas. Irish churches were, historically, among the earliest Christian institutions most suited to their adoption and assimilation into existing cultural norms. Saints, since at least the 10th century, have demonstrated the same powers of curse and intimidation as the legendary druids, the sacred wells coexisted with the sidhe bean and the púca, and a pre-Christian cult was drawn into the new religion in the figure of St Brigid.
Others pointed out that there is no irony in the fact that Father Ted’s famous song, “My Lovely Horse” was filmed at the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon.