A Celtic Ghost Story
The Washer of the Ford
Text: Fiona Macleod Music: The Blackbird Art: Alba Plaza Mix: Tom Lynn
Piano: Anna Knaifel All Other Instruments, Vocals and Sounds: The Blackbird
Master: Jörg Surrey Producer: Greg Dinunzi
A Celtic Ghost Story
There are certain poems, lyric or musical works which stand out from the background with such a vivid and immediate life that I must pay my respect to them and their creators in whatever way I can. Usually this is private, but in the case of “The Washer of the Ford” I have made it public.
The text of this song was written by the mind of Fiona Macleod who, herself, has one of the most fascinating stories I have ever heard. But for me, her writing came first, and her writing captivates me like few writers ever have. As a result, I was so curious about her I dug into her story.
It is, essentially, not possible to know what she was. To some she was the greatest literary hoax of all times, to others she is something quite different. The works of Fiona MacLeod came through the hand of the writer William Sharp (1855-1905). Of this fact there is no controversy. Sharp admitted it himself to his closest friends, including William Butler Yeats, in a letter which was delivered on his own order after his death.
The traditional western mind has extreme difficult with Fiona herself. Some believe Sharp tricked the entire literary world and wrote under two different names, his own and Fiona’s. Some say Sharp had a spilt personality, and Fiona was his second feminine personality. Other people say she was a Sidhe (SHEE) herself, who are high beings in the Faery Otherworld, and still others have said she is an elemental spirit in communion with, or channeled through Sharp.
For me however, there are many markers in Sharp’s relationship with Fiona and the world which point to another possibility. In Ireland there is an ancient tradition among the great poets which we might understand best in terms of having a Muse. The term Muse comes from the greeks, and it is an inspirational being associated with literature, science and the arts. It is also the root of our work Music. Muses were considered as the source of the knowledge embodied in poetry, lyric and myth. Most, if not all great Irish poets had such a relationship, but it was a much more concrete thing than we may be accustomed to considering. The great Irish poets often had what they called a faery bride, which matches the role of a Greek Muse fairly well, with the distinction that these relationships were somewhat more immediate than we usually picture a Greek “Muse” being. To picture this relationship, we must imagine it as one with another actual physical being, a true give and take relationship. The faery brides or Irish poets have the reputation of burning through the life of their human partner quite quickly and many Irish poets did die young. Sharp's life fits into all of this this well enough for consideration.
It is also traditionally accepted that if you are to maintain a relationship with a faery that you must never speak of it publicly. Silence about the relationship must be absolute, any mention of the existence of a faery would cause the immediate end of the relationship- and that in the best of cases. It could be worse.
In these ways, my own suspicion is that William Sharp came from this tradition, which is not a tradition which trumpets its own existence. This tradition is thousands of years old, and the relationship between the faery realm, the Otherworld, and our world is quite different in the Celtic lands than elsewhere. (I need to include Iceland and the Faroe Islands also).
William and Fiona had different styles of writing. But Fiona has an awesome, mythical depth which is bottomless and not exactly of the world we know, and she has an amazing depth and beauty in visual detail. Her scenes mesmerize me. She describes places and beings which are both earthy and deeply alien in settings rich and darkly beautiful. It is difficult for me to believe she has not been to these places, and known these beings in some way. Many of her descriptions deliver me to these alien places, and ingrain alien worlds and characters on my mind in a way very few poets have done.
One of my personal practices is to seek out and accept wisdom from where ever it may come, for it is my firm belief that wisdom is wisdom whether it comes from a yogi or a taxi driver. In this light Fiona's works absolutely sing to me, in a voice which I experience as firmly otherworldly, a world with as much darkness as light, a world with as much humanity as otherworldliness, and she tells of it with an authority which deeply impresses me as fully authentic.
I call the “Washer of the Ford” a Celtic Ghost Story, but the character is much more than that. The Washer herself, is an invisible being who collects the dead by the shores of a silent river, also has some role as a judge of souls. She is traditionally a shape-shifting being who can appear young and beautiful, but usually appears old and frightening- whatever suits her goals best. She is not a bringer of mercy, this is not her role. She is an eater of souls, but not necessarily hostile to humanity. This is a theme which will recur, in the faery realm, as the saying goes, they neither good, nor evil by nature, but whichever way they choose to be, they will be found to be “very good at it”. They have no moral system we can recognize, it is fully their own and cannot be judged from our perspective. Approach with care and respect.
The text of this song is unchanged from Fiona's short work of the same title, the music is mine. I perform this song out of deep respect to the beauty of her work, whatever she maybe. I perform her works to keep them alive and deliver her to another generation. In addition to wisdom, I also to seek out Beauty from where ever it comes. Should you seek some deeper understand of Fiona yourselves, it is up to you how you choose to file her in your mind. But be aware that she is a living energy, and she may not be satisfied being filed in a comfortable or familiar place, she may prefer something a little more interesting. This is also part of her beauty and mystery, and I cherish and welcome it.
But for now please just enjoy her words and my music. And stay tuned, there may well be more to come!
The Washer of the Ford
Text: Fiona Macleod music by The Blackbird
There is a lonely stream afar, in a lone and dim lit land
it hath white dust for shore it has white bones bestrew the strand
The only thing that liveth there is a naked leaping sword
but I, who a seer am, have seen the whirling of the hand
of the washer of the ford
A shadowy shape of cloud and mist of gloom and dusk she stands
She laughs at times and strews the dust through the hollow of her hands
She counts the sins of all men there and slays the red-stained horde
The ghosts of all the sins of men must know the whirling sword
of the washer of the ford
she stoops and laughs when in the dust she sees a writhing limb
“Go back into the ford” she says, and hither and thither swim!”
then I shall wash you white as snow and take you by the hand
and slay you here in the silence with this my whirling brand
and trample you into the dust of this white windless sand
This is the laughing ward, of the washer of the ford
along this silent strand.
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