In Irish mythology, the Faeth Fiadha (pronounced feh fee-o-ha) is the name of the mysterious mantle of fairy mist which blurs the border between the world of the mortal, and the magical realm of the Sidhe, the Otherworld known as Tir na Nog. The term means ‘Lord/ Master of Mist’, but the Faeth Fiadha is also referred to as the ‘Cloak of Concealment’.
As God of the Sea, Manannán has always been associated with the Faeth Fiadha. He was said to have possessed several magical talismans, which he loaned out to others on occasion; a ship named ‘Wavesweeper’, that needed no sails; a helmet of flame; a sword named Fragarach, meaning ‘the Answerer’, which could pierce any armour; a white horse named Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, which could travel as easily over water as solid land, and ‘the Cloak of Concealment’.
Most people at some point in their life have witnessed the approach of a cloud of dense fog, draping itself like a soft blanket across the landscape, or pouring in off the sea… it’s an awesome experience, blotting out not just sight, but sound also, dulling the senses, suffocating although light as air, inciting the fear of becoming lost, and magnifying panicky feelings of extreme solitude.
Imagine then, how terrifying this must have felt to our ancient ancestors, who believed that fog was liminal, that they had unknowingly trespassed into the land of the Sidhe. No mortal was allowed, unless invited by Manannán himself, or one of his daughters. Our ancestors were well aware of the time differences between their world and his, they would have heard all the tales of old, the myths and legends such as that of Oisin and Niamh of the Golden Hair.
Oisin fell in love with Niamh, who was Manannán’s daughter. She carried him away through the Faeth Fiadha and into the Otherworld on her father’s magical white horse, Aonbharr. They lived there in great happiness for three years, after which time Oisin began to miss his son, Oscar, his father, Fionn mac Cumhall, and the men of the Fianna, and his home back in Eire. Sadly, Niamh agreed to let Oisin return, but warned him not to get down off Aonbharr’s back. Oisin was shocked to find that three hundred years had passed in Ireland whilst he had been away, and a fall from his horse meant that his feet touched Irish soil, thus instantly transforming him into a very old man. He later died, but not before meeting St Patrick and conveniently converting to Christianity…
My husband’s grandmother told him of her own such experience. She had been returning home from work one evening, and was crossing a field when the fog came suddenly down. Try as she might, no matter which way she turned, she couldn’t find her way out of the field, a field she knew very well, as she traversed it every day on her journey to and from work. Finally, exhausted, she curled up in the cold grass and fell asleep. When she awoke the next morning, the fog had lifted, and she found that she had slept all night right beside the gate through which she normally exited the field. Personally, I wonder if she had helped herself to a wee dram or two of something to keep her warm on her way home, but I guess we’ll never know…
I live on top of a hill. Normally, we get a fine view across the valley towards Ballyjamesduff and the hill beyond it called Slieve Glah. In the winter, Slieve Glah is often white with snow, even when we on our hill aren’t. And we can watch the fog roll in over its summit and charge down the valley towards us. Strangely, it usually hovers respectfully around the perimeter of our garden; only once has it ever ventured in. In the past, it would be said on such days that “the veil between this world and the next is thin today”, and I can believe it; there’s definitely something magical about it.
According to the Lebor Gebála Érenn (an ancient text known as ‘the Book of Invasions’), one version of the Tuatha de Denann story claims that they arrived in Ireland from the sky, riding on great dark clouds of fog which obscured the sky for three days and nights. Also, the Denann surrounded Ireland with the fog in an attempt to prevent the invading Milesians from landing, thus disguising the land so that it took on the shape of a huge pig (?), much to the conquerors confusion… and mine.
After their defeat by the Milesians, the Denann were tricked into descending to their hollow hills, where they were to reside from now on, leaving the land above ground to the mortal race. It was at this point that Manannán stepped in and came to their rescue. He found all the most secret mounds and valleys for the Denann, and shrouded them with the Faeth Fiadha, to hide them from prying human eyes.
Coincidentally, there is a prayer, or hymn attributed to St Patrick which is called the Faeth Fiadha, which he is said to have written in 433AD. It is also more commonly known as St Patrick’s Breastplate. In it, he is very damning of all things pre-Christian… here is an excerpt;
“I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.”
By the way, does anyone know what evil smiths are accused of, other than the magic of transforming the bones of the earth into the forging of weapons and tools? I am mystified as to why they would be included in this diatribe, sorry, prayer.
And now I leave you with my own description of the Cloak of Concealment, as experienced by my hero, Conor Kelly, in my first book, Conor Kelly and The Four Treasures of Eirean…
“Be wary of the mist, Conor. It is an enchantment fashioned by the great Sea-God, Manannan, to keep Tir na Nog free from unwanted attention. You are safe now because you are with me, but if you were alone, the Faeth Fiadha as it is known in Irish, the Cloak of Concealment, would not tolerate your presence.”
The whiteness about him was complete. He could see nothing. It burned his eyes. It played tricks on his mind. It danced and whirled like cold white flames, wrapping itself sinuously about him. He couldn’t tell if they were going forward or backward, or even if they were moving at all. Through it, Annalee’s voice floated eerily to his ears, muffled and distant.
It was so dazzling it was hard to keep his eyes open, and he had to keep blinking. It shimmered and sparkled, beguiling him and luring him on into its depths. It showered him with the gift of tiny diamond dew drops, and wreathed itself around his limbs like a living, silky garment. He felt like he was being absorbed by it, becoming a part of it. He was no longer a separate being of warm blood and flesh and breath, but a wispy white wraith, an insubstantial parasite on the body of this living, vaporous creature. Strangely, the prospect felt comforting. He would be rid of his heavy, cumbersome, prison-like body once and for all.
Gradually, after an indeterminate length of time, he detected with reluctance a shudder in the ethereal embrace of his new companion. The mist was being stirred by a breeze. The slight trembling became the folding and unfurling of a ship’s sail out on the ocean, and the fog began to blow apart like great ragged clouds. Beyond them Conor saw colour, which swam about dizzily before his parched eyes, until it resolved itself into a glorious panorama of sea and mountain.
Is this Tir na Nog, Annalee?
There was no reply. Turning his head, he found that she was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, Conor felt giddy with the shock of this realisation. She must be either lost in the fog, or had abandoned him.