"There's wee a Fairy Ring out there in that meadow somewhere," said the taxi driver as we drove up the long driveway to Waterford Castle from the ferry landing. "Can't see it from the road but it's there all right," he went on. "It's the truth, lass. People have said they saw some strange things going on out there in the wee hours of a moonlit night."
I had heard the castle was haunted, but the idea of fairies on the island definitely tweaked my interest.
"What does a Fairy Ring look like?" I asked.
"It looks like a ring in the meadow grass. Sometimes they're brown and nothing growin' in 'em, or they can be green with tall grasses growin' in 'em. Sometimes they have toadstools growin' around the edge and sometimes they are just some wee piles of leaves and twigs. I've never in my life seen one myself, but I'm told they are out there somewhere."
"Gee" I said somewhat disappointed at his description. "I'm not sure what to look for."
"Oh, you'd better be careful going out lookin' for the wee fairies, lass," he said in a serious tone. "Many a lass went out lookin' for them on moonlit nights and never came back."
"Humph!" I retorted, privately thinking that going out looking for fairies was exactly what I was going to do after I got settled in my room at the castle.
Waterford Castle is located near Waterford City, about 98 miles from Dublin, on the beautiful Island of Ballinakill. The Island's private ferry, the M.V. Strongbow, brings you across the River Suir to a magical place, steeped in history and legends.
Ballinakill Island, home to the Earls of Kildare and Ormond and the Knights of Glin and Kerry, was built and owned by the Fitzgerald family for over eight centuries in one of the longest unbroken stewardships on record in Ireland. The original Norman Keep structure was a virtually impregnable stone tower with thick walls, narrow arrow-slit windows, and a lead roof. During the next centuries the stronghold was gradually expanded and enlarged. The use of stone from a local quarry makes it almost impossible to distinguish the different stages of expansion.
It is the ghost of Mary, the last of the Fitzgeralds to own the castle, who has been reportedly seen hanging around the Munster dining room and smaller attached conservatory, where glittering parties were held. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her later that evening. After her marriage to Prince Caracciolo of Italy, she moved to Dublin where she and the Prince were socially prominent. Mary loved the family home and the woods and they often returned for many galas and long weekends.
Mary's grandmother, Mary Francis Fitzgerald, was quite a character and something of a local legend. A grande dame, who traveled extensively, she dominated her social set. Upon her return to the castle from her many trips, she enjoyed having herself rowed majestically across the river, followed by a barge holding 24 musicians playing her favorite music.
"And here ye are then," said the taxi driver as he pulled up to the entrance. "Now remember lass, no going off lookin' for the wee fairies."
The castle itself looked like an illustration from a children's fairy tale book. It was large, formidable really, with a crenellated roof and a tower and was covered over with brambles. The massive front door was made of dark wood, and opened into a huge lodge of a room. Soft music filled the air, a cheery fire crackled in one corner, and heavy leather furniture invited the road-weary traveler to sit and relax a while.
Currently the only five-star hotel in southeast Ireland, the 19 bedrooms have different Gaelic names. Mine was called "Glin." I didn't know what to expect as I was led up a private staircase to the top of the fortress. The arched door opened into a charming room with a high vaulted ceiling. Decorated in soft shades of pink, there was a superb antique bed and matching furniture, including an adorable vanity with tiny drawers and a smoky three-way mirror. The windows were draped in flowered chintz and had leaded glass and strange ancient hardware. My view out over the woods, with the golf course and the river in the distance, was spectacular.
I quickly opened my suitcase and hung up my dinner dress. Then grabbing my camera and purse, I headed back down the stairs, through the large reception hall and out into the afternoon. The sun was low in the sky and offered little warmth as I walked down the path towards the meadow and, I hoped, the Fairy Ring. A big tabby cat ambled out of the bushes and followed me along the way. I found its company comforting -- sort of like a bodyguard or chaperone. In the distance I could hear what I thought were quacking ducks, but as I got closer to the meadow I could see that giant black birds in the high trees along the river bank were causing that racket.
There had been some rain in the past few days making the meadow quite muddy and slippery. I stepped carefully over puddles and around broken pieces of branches and logs. The black birds took offense at my being there and began circling around and around overhead. Now and again one of them would swoop down toward me, its beady little yellow eyes glaring at me and its pointy red beak open in a horrible squall. I looked around for the cat, hoping its presence would frighten off the birds, but it was nowhere to be seen.
With the birds acting so strangely I felt I must be on the right track and excitedly began hunting in earnest, but while searching I couldn't see anything that even remotely resembled a Fairy Ring --not that I knew how one might appear. I looked for a ring of toadstools. I looked for a ring of different colored grass. I looked for a ring of twigs and leaves. After trampling from one end of the meadow to the other I couldn't find a circle of any kind. The birds continued their mysterious ritual of diving and screaming, but refused to lead me to my goal.
The sun sank below the horizon and disappointment swept over me with the chill air. "Oh well," I thought, "I'll ask around at the castle. Surely someone there would be able to give me better directions."
Dinner was served in the Munster dining room. The room, with its lovely oak paneling and ornate plaster ceiling, is considered one of finest in Ireland, and I had to agree, it was beautiful.
I chose island salad, a tasty combination of wild lettuces, fresh herbs, olives, crisp goujons (similar to bacon), topped with delicate locally-made boilie cheese, and dressed with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Delicious scarred breast of Barbary duck, with roast garlic and blackberry sauce followed.
The Waterford Crystal goblet felt good in my hand as I sipped the deep red Chilean wine. The wine seemed to glow as it sparkled through the deep cuts in the crystal bowl and I was certain that even a mediocre wine would taste wonderful in this elegant goblet.
Looking around the room I almost expected to see a shadow or a wispy bit of shimmer or hear an otherworldly moan indicating that the ghost of Mary Fitzgerald was present. Alas, everything seemed absolutely normal and the only sounds were the quiet murmurs of other diners and the piano softly playing in the background.
When the waiter brought my desert, white and milk chocolate mousse cordoned with passion fruit and orange, I asked him if he knew anything about the Fairy Ring out in the lower meadow.
"No," he answered, looking at me quizzically. "I'm rather new here and wasn't aware of such a thing. Let me ask around about it and see what I can find out."
A few minutes later he came back and told me no one seemed to know anything about a Fairy Ring and inquired where I heard about it. I told him about the taxi driver and my experience in the meadow with the bad-tempered birds and my futile search.
Later, over coffee, my waiter returned to tell me he had at least learned what you were supposed to say while in a Fairy Ring, and, drawing himself upright, recited:
"Winding, winding, winding,
Peace and joy now finding,
With a love that's binding,
Winding, winding, winding."
He smiled and continued with explicit instructions to turn three times clockwise while chanting the prayer, then handed me a little note with the prayer and instructions written on it.
I asked him if the ghost of Mary Fitzgerald came around very often and he said that although he had heard a lot about her ghost, he hadn't seen anything personally. Another waiter came by to admonish us about making fun of the ghosts or they might make noises in the night to scare me. He assured me that the way to keep them quiet was to place a saucer of cream under the bed before retiring. Not wanting to be awakened by anything supernatural up in the tower room by myself, I prevailed upon him to supply me with the required saucer of cream.
I slept well in my cozy bed, dreaming of fairies and rings. The only sounds I heard were the antique bed's creaks and squeaks as I turned over in the night. However, in the morning I thought the saucer looked less full.
Waterford Castle Hotel, The Island, Ballinakill, Waterford, Ireland
--Jacqueline Harmon Butler