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  • A Fairy Legend, a Friendship, a Painting: Thomas Crofton Croker, James McDaniel, and Daniel Macdonald’s Sídhe Gaoithe/The Fairy Blast
  • Angela Bourke (bio) and Niamh O’Sullivan (bio)

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Daniel Macdonald (1820–53), Sídhe Gaoithe/The Fairy Blast (1842), oil on canvas, 35 x 45.3 in (89 x 115 cm), National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

The Cork artist Daniel Macdonald (1820–53) was preeminently a painter of national character, arguably the artist of the vernacular in his time.1 His characters play music, dance, court, and marry; they make poitín and get drunk; they go to school and to Mass; they pray to God and fear the fairies; they fight, die, and are waked and buried. He painted the beautiful and winsome; the strutting and cowering; the ridiculous and devil-may-care; musicians and actors; fools and lunatics; undertakers and stonemasons; laborers, farmers, and gentlemen; the military (drunk and sober); priests and merchant princes; and, on more than one occasion, the devoted followers of Daniel O’Connell, the uncrowned “King of All Ireland.” His frieze Public Characters (1843) features politicians and “boccoughs” (beggars, usually lame), dog executioners and ballad singers, nosy parkers and fools, and dandies and temperance champions (figure 1). It takes a graphic swipe at the high and mighty, the down and dirty, and the corrupt and disreputable of Cork in the early 1840s. Macdonald’s work is droll and deadpan, parodic, and satirical. Above all, he tells a good story, knowing his subjects generically, but individually too. But as times got darker in the midcentury, his work took on more ominous tones as empathy, outrage, indignation, and shock acquired visual form on canvas. [End Page 7]

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Figure 1.

Daniel Macdonald, Public Characters. Ink on paper. 13.5 × 4 in (34 × 10 cm). Collection of Clayton Love, Jr.

Macdonald was just twenty-two in 1842 when he painted the dramatic Sídhe Gaoithe/The Fairy Blast, now in the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin (see cover image).2 Only ten years later—and on the verge of earning a reputation in London—he [End Page 8] died of fever. His painting shows a mountain pass under a darkening sky, where a group of sixteen people from across the social spectrum of pre-Famine Ireland makes its way forward with alarmed expressions as a strong wind sends dust whirling among the horses’ hooves and around the (mostly bare) feet of those who walk. The bilingual title, unique in Macdonald’s known work and highly unusual in his time, reminds viewers that the society he represents was divided by language as well as by religion. Although only one or two of his walkers wear shoes, they look well fed, their clothes clean and colorful enough to appeal to urban art-buyers. They represent the growing class of Catholic landless laborers and small farmers who speak only or mostly Irish, and who will starve and die in huge numbers within a few years as blight attacks the potatoes on which most of them subsist—a demonstration of Susan Sontag’s argument that images accumulate meaning and can sometimes become “memories” of events that have yet to occur.3 With this in mind, we may observe that the man in the top hat and cape—probably a landlord—urging his horse forward in the center of the painting is the only one not showing fear, and that the people on the left—a hesitant, huddled [End Page 9] mass of the barefoot, illiterate, and landless—are getting in his way. The eddies of dust, the fearful eyes of people and horses, and the way two of the men tip their hats all draw on vernacular belief in fairies, as perhaps does the depiction of the young boy on the viewer’s left dressed in breeches instead of the girl’s clothing that would have made him less vulnerable to fairy abduction.4 This painting refers indirectly to a story Macdonald must have known for as long as he could remember, for it named his family in print and intimately...


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