Mr. Fox: Amergin of the Slaney
by Olivia Robertson
Mr. Fox! Even now the name conjures up memories of the supernatural! I see in my mind's eye that fine head, the aquiline nose, the glittering eyes that saw things not of this earth. Fox's is still mysterious, though Mr. Fox's cottage has left only a few traces of fallen stones amidst long grasses and encircling weeds. The Holy Well is dried up, hidden by ferns and brambles: the altar cannot easily be found; though the Faery Seat is still visible in the middle of the river, water foaming about it.
Mr. Fox made his dramatic appearance in our lives when my sister Barbara and my brother Derry and I were children. Freshly arrived in Ireland from Reigate, all we had seen of nature up to then was the pleasantly subdued countenance of Surrey; the heath with its windmill and grass-snakes; a back lane with wild flowers; and well tended gardens, one of which had a model railway in which we could ride. My mother used to quote me as saying, when I was about six years old: "I don't like nature!" ― I was thinking of Nature Class at Micklefield School, very boring, with beans growing on wet pink blotting paper, and those poor desiccated creatures, dried flowers, stuck with sticky paper on copy-books. Perhaps I was rather like a dried flower.
One of our few excitements in Reigate was a recurrent border skirmish with boys from the Council School, who used to lurk round a corner, in order to throw stones at us when we emerged from school. Class distinctions did not appear to matter: it was all money power. There was the gulf between those children who possessed two layer pencil boxes, and those who had only one layer. I remember once, when we were whirled off in a special bus to enjoy an opulent children's party from school, seeing one pupil playing by herself with racquet and ball in a small back garden. "Why isn't she coming?" I inquired. "Oh, she wasn't asked," was the reply. "She's poor!"
But I never saw a really poor person in Reigate, nor heard of real fighting, nor of revolutions, executions nor ghosts. In Reigate, ghosts, poltergeists, angels, goddesses, gods, faeries, leprechaun and magicians did not exist. Angels were occasionally mentioned in church, but I gathered that these were memories of the Dark Ages when people were superstitious. One clergyman thundered to his congregation, "Do you believe in Black Cats, or in God?" which was held to be very telling. I had not then heard of Bast, the Cat Goddess. She wasn‘t there in Reigate, either.
To be transported, then, at the age of eight, to Southern Ireland was to move into another age. We found ourselves in an old castle belonging to our family, which had recently been occupied. The Irish Republican Army came first, followed by the Irish Free State Army. I read Commandant Barry's signature in our Visitors Book, stating that Huntington Castle was Headquarters for Counties Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford, finishing: De Valera still at large.
We children were fascinated. This was like a favorite adventure story come true. Our house had had a cannon on the roof, and people had been locked up in our dungeon! And a man had been court-martialed in our library. Children do not understand politics; but they do appreciate happenings. Money did not matter here, in Ireland: it was all adventure and history, a history that went back for thousands of years, with people talking as if Brian Boru and Chuchulain and the Tuatha De Danaan had been living a few years ago. In fact, the Tuatha De Danaan were held by many still to be living within mountains and hills, from which music came at night.
But our most astonishing discovery was of ghosts. The Tuatha were safely elsewhere, and were apt to appear just once a year at Samhain ― All Hallows Eve. But ghosts were actually living with us, in our own house! There was not a bedroom that had not some ghost in it, sometimes an ancestor who had died of fright from having seen a previous ghost. There was a lady who haunted the back avenue, combing her hair in the moonlight, accompanied by a white cat. Johnny the gardener had been delayed in a journey in his ass-cart by a rabbit-ghost: "It was there in the road, just a small buck-rabbit. But then it began getting bigger and bigger and I knew it wasn't right. Soon its head was as tall as the trees and it sitting up on its hind legs. Then it vanished." An ancestress trailed in silken skirts up and down the chapel passage, rattling keys. Her maid, also a ghost, wiped doors down with her hair. Out-of-doors was equally alarming at night. There was a network of phantom hearses that appeared to wayfarers as regularly, and certainly more punctually, than the county green buses.
Did we believe in ghosts? Most certainly, especially before going to bed. We would sit by the scullery wood fire with Denis the butler as he told us about them. In the end we would be too frightened to go to bed. Then Denis would reassure us: "Nothing will happen to you if you say your prayers ... still and all, a dreadful thing happened to poor old Mrs. Bennett, in the stair head room. (Derry looked alarmed. He was sleeping there.) She was a very good lady, and always said her prayers. We don‘t know what it was she saw one night, but whatever it was, she was never the same again! And she was dead in three days."
An Irish Merlin
Mr. Fox was different. For one thing, he was not a Catholic or a Protestant. This was strange, because, as in Victorian England, every British boy born alive, was either a Liberal or a Conservative, so everybody in Ireland was either a Catholic or a Protestant. But Mr. Fox, although born a Catholic, seemed to be in trouble with some of his own clergy. A priest even warned my father and mother against letting their children visit Mr. Fox. It was one point on which the Protestant clergy agreed. But why? Who was Mr. Fox? Was even his name real? Why did he look so different from his family and everyone else?
People couldn't tell us why. I don't think they knew. They wouldn't use the word Pagan. But Mr. Fox must not be talked about: he must be avoided. Even the place he lived in was haunted and hardly anyone went there, except a stray fisherman.
Mr. Fox had the second sight. I gathered he was some sort of wizard like Merlin. Like Merlin, he loved animals. He was called Mr. Fox, the people said, because long ago he had rescued a fox from the hunt by hiding the animal in his yard, and refusing to give him up. Hence he was not popular with the gentry. He had also, like Merlin, traveled to foreign parts. Merlin had visited Rome: Mr. Fox had been in Egypt.
I longed to meet him. At first only Derry went there. He used to walk miles up the River Slaney to a wild part of the bank and was very mysterious about his visits. I kept on asking to go, so finally Barbara, Derry and I all went off to Fox's in a donkey cart. It was a lovely wild drive. The road was pitted with holes filled with stones. On our left was the deep green wooded Slaney Valley with the glitter of the river far below us, and beyond lay the Mount Leinster Range, blue and violet, curving against the cloudy sky. Fox's itself was still more remote. We had to get out of the cart and lead the donkey up a steep hill, and then make our way down a narrow steep lane until we reached a thatched whitewashed cottage.
Drawing titled "Mr. Fox, Amergin" by Olivia Robertson
Mr. Fox greeted us courteously. He was a tall stooping old man with finely cut features. It was the first time that I met the eyes of a seer. His gleaming eyes looked through and beyond me. Years later I met another man rather like Mr. Fox: the artist, Jack Yeats, brother of the poet. Mr. Fox's voice was beautifully modulated. He invited us into his cottage and gave us tea. He was, like most Irish people, both polite and hospitable. Every time we visited him, he gave us tea and showed us the river bank if we wished to visit it.
It was during subsequent visits that Mr. Fox told me about his visions. Possibly he told things to Barbara and Derry when they were alone with him: naturally, I only remember my own talks with Mr. Fox, while we sat over the wood fire smoldering on the stone hearth, the evening light growing deep sapphire through a small window. As I stroked his black cat, Mr. Fox told me of the adventure rescuing the fox and how he received his name. But I wanted to know about his visions.
"I first got the Sight when I was at a funeral," he told me. "I was going towards the chapel, when I saw the dead man walking towards me. After that, I saw the ones they call dead mingling with the living and I could not tell them apart."
When Mr. Fox talked about the strange people of long ago he was more reticent. But I would press him: "Mr. Fox, tell me about 'Them'," and he would change his tone of voice, so that it was lower, hushed.
"I first heard Them," he said. "I heard voices talking about a churn. But I couldn't see Them. Then one evening one of Them put a cap or a bandage over my eyes. Then I could see Them."
"What did They look like?"
"They were small and dark. Ordinary people like you and I." (Were Mr. Fox and I ordinary? I wondered.)
"What did they wear?"
"Just clothes like you and I."
"Are they faeries?"
"They lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago, when the River ran another way."
"Were They nice, or nasty?"
"As nice as you and me."
"What work did they do?"
"The same sort of work as you and I." (I reflected that neither Mr. Fox nor I did much work.)
"What religion were they?" (I asked, thinking of Catholics or Protestants.)
Here Mr. Fox would say very clearly, "The same religion as you and I!" (And I would wonder what our religion was.)I enjoyed Mr. Fox's description of Priests and Curates coming to wrestle with him in theological debate, and how he would send them forth defeated. Especially, I liked 'Them'. I was always very happy when Mr. Fox would take me to where they used to assemble every morning to greet the dawn. The first occasion we visited the wooded bank, he brought me to the Holy Well and told me he had discovered it and dug deep until the water returned. Sure enough, it was a very old well built with stones now covered with wild flowers and grasses.
"Drink from it," he told me, and I knelt down and drank. The water was pure and cold.
Then he said, "Every morning before sunrise 'They' came here: old and young, men and women and their children, and they drank from this very well."
Now Mr. Fox took me through the trees until we looked upwards at a rectangular granite stone above us, square against the skyline.
"That was the altar," he said.
"Did they sacrifice things?" I asked, vaguely remembering stories about Pagans. Mr. Fox was not pleased at this.
"They did not," he said emphatically. Then his voice softened: "I talk to an old women who cleans the altar," he said. "And very nice she is too!"
Now, using his heavy staff, he took me down the very steep bank overlooking the Slaney. Set against the bank was a gigantic boulder that had been erected against the weed covered rocks. In it was a glittering mica cross, which a scholar later told me must have been respected as a pre-Christian emblem representing the four seasonal festivals. It was prehistoric. Mr. Fox showed me another large boulder in the middle of the river far below us. Water foamed round it. This was the Faery Seat.
"They bathed every morning in the river," he said. I watched the rushing water eddying round rocks and at the precipitous black rocks rising across the river, so that the place here was a gorge. It was so strange and beautiful that I did not wonder that the neighbors thought it haunted. I loved it here. And in my heart, once like a dried flower in a copy- book, there arose a love of nature and the as yet invisible Beings who dwelt here.
"They would assemble on this bank after bathing," said Mr. Fox, waving around him with his staff, "and they would look up yonder, above the rocks, and wait to see the sun rise."
"Did they worship the sun?" I asked, feeling that we were following some catechism of question and response.
"No, they did not," Mr. Fox replied, gazing across the river as if watching some other dawn. "They worshiped the very same God as you and I." And I wondered what Being or Beings Mr. Fox and I worshiped.
Mr. Fox has left this life, and on the earthly level there is little remaining of that prehistoric worship, that ancient Irish race. Some years ago I brought Brinsley le Poer Trench, the UFO writer, to Fox's, and we were scratched and our clothes were torn in our efforts to find the altar and the well. All was overgrown. Another time I tried again, and brought a party including Gerald Gough, the occultist and lecturer on the Graal Mystery. This time we found the Well. Alas, it was dry. We sat and meditated. My friend Josephine felt that there were advanced Devic Beings, unlike the simpler faery life on the more frequented river bank near us. Gerald told us, "I had a magic hare on my lap! I even stroked him. You know, I'm not usually so clairvoyant. This valley helps with vision. I did see a most lovely women, a nature spirit, with long pale fair hair and a beautiful smile. Not a church window angel—she was so free and wild."
Josephine saw Mr. Fox in London, during a meditation. "He appeared very clearly," she said. "A very fine, aristocratic looking man. I recognized him from your description. He had an aquiline nose and the most extraordinary piercing, shining gray eyes. His hands were long, large and bony. He was tall."
My brother and I are grateful to Mr. Fox. He brought magic to our lives when we were young, and we feel that this Irish Seer is partly responsible for inspiring us to found the Fellowship of Isis. One thing is certain: since our visits to him, Derry and I have never been the same again!
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Note: This article was written by FOI Co-Founder Olivia Robertson in response to queries sent to Olivia when researching Mr. Fox and the area around Clonegal for information featured on the page "The Faery Seat of Dana" in the Druid Clan of Dana section of this website.