On the Isle of Man, there is a ‘real’ Fairy Bridge near Kewaigue, and a popular better-known Fairy Bridge is on the A5 south from Douglas to Castletown. Yesterday, I visited the latter.
Since the 1940s, travellers have been encouraged to not only greet the little people – mooinjer veggey – when passing, but to leave them things. Increasingly, and somewhat to my surprise when I visited yesterday, these offerings have been left for the little people in a fashion resembling a roadside memorial writ-large.
Who is memorialising?
The placings/offerings/deposits/hangings/inscriptions cover many forms and possible intentions and meanings. Some are indeed clearly deposited in hope of ensuring good luck in general. Some seem just that, light-hearted, positive greetings to the fairies. Yet many are international, from riders and their families from all over the world, wishing to ensure good luck and safety from injury during the infamously dangerous TT races. One reads:
Dear Fairies, Please help to keep my daddy safe in his races, lots of love from Sophie
This is a locus of annual ‘cycles’ of place-making with international connections linked to the races.
More than even a site of pilgrimmage, many are memorial offerings and memorial texts, commemorating the dead from near and far, some explicitly connected to the TT races.
Others are perhaps not about the races, such as the pink heart-shaped memorial to a lady who died aged 52, or another which reads simply
RIP DAD, 20/6/73, 8/12/14. Miss you always, lots of love, Jacob xxxxx
Some seem to have been left by kids to lost parents, others commemorating kids by their family. Others seemed to be commemorating friends and fellow riders.
Recently, in 2014, it was been cleared by persons who did not wish to be named. There are concerns of safety and ‘taste’. Some locals and politicians believed the deposits (called by some ‘clutter’) had got ‘out of hand’. One Manx politican has called for a letter-box for posting offerings to the mooinjer veggey (although I would suggest this misses the point that this is about cumulative display of greetings and mourning). This article stated that the ‘vigilante cleaner’ had removed:
a bike helmet, and an entire bike fairing, dolls, necklaces, wing mirrors, scarves, photographs and written testimonies to lost friends and relatives.
So in addition to cycles of informal accumulation, it seems this place is also subject to ‘resistance’ to these practices, and through a mixture of motivations, equally informal clearance practices. Rather than counter to the memorial tradition, this is part of it: creating more space for new memorial depositions and practices.
Inscriptions and deposits are diverse and complex, responding to a complex microtopography of the bridge. They include texts, written in black permanent marker pen upon the white-painted stones of the bridge’s curving eastern parapet. These might include a name, sometimes with a love-heart or kisses, sometimes with ‘R.I.P.’ explicitly denoting a memorial function. This practice continues elsewhere onto the bare stones. There are also a range of other items including (in no particular order, I haven’t worked out how to categorise them yet in frequency, form, material or media):
- notes nailed to the trees;
- cards (some open and with messages for the dead, and some still sealed and addressed for the fairies to read)
- flowers – single and bunches
- plastic bags suspended by ribbons (presumably containing trinkets and messages too)
- prayer-cards (speaking of loss and love)
- metal and wooden signs commemorating the dead by name, or by nicknames
- wrist bands
- die (lodged between stones in the bridge)
- stickers (on the road-sign)
- deposits of stones
- semi-precious stones
- padlock (following the ‘love lock’ tradition)
- butterfly ornaments
- heart-shaped wooden hangers, one reading ‘Away with the Fairies’, another with a more personal memorial message
- shaving brush
- baseball cap
- plastic mug
Writing in black pen upon white and bare stones of the bridge parapet and wing wall constitutes the most distinctive feature. Many of these other strategies can be found on roadside memorials, wells and landscape memorial locales, but also in cemeteries and in crematoria’s gardens of remembrance across these islands, including personal items left at memorials and graves.
My archaeodeath perspective reveals that this is to be understood as a complex memorial space, not simply a superstitious and tatty set of offerings.
I’ve never thought about bridges as memorial environments before. The range of offerings and inscriptions outlined above are mapped onto a strikingly complex microtopography.
These comprise a series of stages of visibility and accessibility from the road. Some inscriptions and deposits are about display: they are facing the road and clearly visible/accessible in terms of scale and therefore public. Others might be deemed semi-public in being partially visible from the road, or fully visible but placed high up, farther away or through their small and secretive in the placing. Then there are the more secluded spaces on and around the bridge not directly visible from the road.
Interestingly, this space spans the bridge, involving mainly its eastern side but also its western. A further dimension is that it is lithic, metallic, arboreal and aquatic contexts. This reveals the very 3-dimensionality of memorialisation at this space:
- The road sign ‘Fairy Bridge’ (mainly stickers linked to the TT races and other Manx sports
- The white-painted stones marking the top edges of the east side of the bridge (mainly inscriptions, flowers and offerings)
- Cards, offerings and other items pinned, wrapped and suspended from the trees beside the east side of the bridge
- Cards, windchimes, butterflies and other items pinned, wrapped and suspended from the trees beside the west side of the bridge
- Inscriptions and deposits on the bare stones of the outer face of the east side of the bridge (you have to follow a small path off the road to seee these
- Deposits in the water of the stream itself
In other words, not only is the Fairy Bridge a complex mixture of messages and media, it has complex spatial components.
I must admit my initial responses to the Fairy Bridge were cynical and snide, happy to accept it as locus of superstitious and whimsical clutter and confusion. However, looking at it for more than a few seconds, pausing, exploring and engaging, one finds oneself looking at a complex accumulation of memorial practices linking a spectrum of believes in the little people, international tourist place-making and memorial practices. The particular connection with road traffic deaths, and deaths in the TT races, requires our attention, but so does the association with Manx identity within an international context of tourism and travel.