The Good People by Hannah Kent was the most popular read of my book club in 2016. We were immersed in the 19th century Irish countryside, villages came to life and the petty jealousies of some highlight the lack of safety for women without male protection. Based on a true story revealed through newspaper reports of court documents, Kent details the tragic events of Nora Leahy struggling to care for her ‘cratur’ grandson Micheal after the death of her daughter and husband. The back cover blurb outlines how Nora engages a young servant, Mary, to care for the child and both women visit Nance Roche who ‘has the knowledge’ and ‘consorts with Them, the Good People’ and ‘that only she can return those whom they have taken …’
In the Canberra Times, Natasha Rudra wrote that
Kent wanted to explore how grief, poverty and a lack of education combined in the lives of Nora and Nance. [and to] examine the ways that culture, society and politics intersected to shape the women’s lives into a particular, startling trajectory that ended in crime.
Dianne Stubbing’s review in The Australian notes that
The poet WB Yeats spoke of Irish history as a great tapestry. Even looking closely at its folds, he argued, it was impossible to tell where Christianity began and paganism ended. In The Good People, Hannah Kent takes us to a time and place where Christianity and paganism overlap, the two abiding in a tense co-existence, the cracks and deficiencies in one caulked by the other.
This notion of co-existence is reflected in my childhood recollections of simple beliefs such as planting sweet peas before St Patrick’s day for the best flowers, and dad leaving out a glass of champagne for the ‘little people’ when we moved into our newly built home. Although my primary school was founded by St Mary MacKillop, who successfully provided educational opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged in rural Australia during the 19th century, by the 1970s the majority of the Sisters of St Joseph (or ‘brown Joeys’) in my experience mirrored the lack of compassion displayed by the priest. This character’s inability to assist Nora or understand a woman’s responsibility, sermonise against herbal remedies and zealously defend Catholicism appears as a dark cloud throughout the narrative.
During my hospital-based training as a student nurse, I was inducted into another set of beliefs that probably grew from the typically female role of caring for the sick. In the early 1980s, I learned that red and white flowers must be broken up with another colour when arranging bouquets for patient’s bedside tables, and that deaths come in threes. I’ve seen naturally occurring dips and shallows surrounded by smooth white pebbles in elderly women’s gardens: a fairy circle to keep the ‘little people’ busy dancing so as not to wreak havoc on the plants.
Many people maintain a superstitious knowledge base, even if individual actions and advice are not strictly adhered to – though you don’t often see people walk under ladders. This suggests there may well have been a practical basis for some folk remedies, and a more pragmatic approach to caring for Micheal is advocated by Peg, Nora’s close neighbour.
I was intrigued by Enda O’Flaherty’s photographic project to record decaying and abandoned school houses across the Irish countryside which led to my contemplation of the role of institutional education in providing opportunities for generations of children. Locally, Sutton Forest Public School closed at the end of 2014 due to falling enrolments, yet the property is likely to be sold by the Department of Education rather than be left derelict.
Yet the most striking evidence for the co-existence of Christianity and Paganism can be found in the Folklore Collection Scheme that has been recently collated by University College Dublin. During the late 1930s, rural Irish schoolchildren were tasked with documenting local beliefs and traditions. The following example of ‘witchcraft’ details the idea of shape-shifting and attempts to explain decreased milk production from a farmer’s cow.
Read the original article from Atlas Obscura that lead to my musings on education and superstition.
*cover image by Mari Owen/Arcangel and Shutterstock at InDaily
*images of Gortahose National School by Enda O’Flaherty