I read this story by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, a Dublin-born novelist and playwright who writes in both Irish and English. What stuck me about this story initially was her facility with the Irish country dialect. I struggled at first to comprehend the structure of the prose and found myself having to re-read the first few paragraphs, but soon became accustomed to the dialect and was able to hear the musicality in it.
Midwife to the Fairies blends the old ways of Ireland, with its folk tales and superstitions, and the new order of technology and economic austerity. The narrator is a nurse named Mary whose hospital staffing cuts have left her exhausted and disillusioned. Her family history includes midwifery but she no longer cares for mothers and newborns since the shuttering of the hospital’s maternity ward. When a desperate father-to-be shows up at her door late one night, she’s conflicted about helping him. “Sure I’m off duty now anyway, amn’t I?” she tells her husband. But he urges her to hear the man out and soon she relents.
“Well, says I then, closing maternity wards won’t stop them having babies.” And she goes off with the man, with some trepidation, counting on her generosity to pay off in indulgences.
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne intersperses bits of a couple of old Irish tales in the story of Mary and the late night delivery. Soon it is evident that the old tales include warnings about dealing with the ‘wee folk.’ Mary is late to realize that the incongruities of her experience delivering the baby and the people who ushered her into and out of the gated estate were not of her community at all. When tragedy strikes and Mary is racked with guilt, she discovers that confession is the worst solution possible.
I chose this story soon after my trip to the Burren where I visited the part of Ireland that remains unchanged since the Ice Age. It was on that trip that our Minder told us about the Fairy Forts and how belief in good luck and bad luck lingers in Irish society. And, while I understand that many modern Irish are as skeptically scientific as we Americans and do not cling to auld ways and superstitions, their heritage is never too far removed from everyday life.
I can relate to that kind perspective. As my own grandparents who were Kentucky farmers warned me about things like breaking mirrors or walking under ladders, there may or may not be consequences, but why tempt fate?