Just a few miles from Aill Na Serracht, at a popular surf break called Lahinch, I consider this legend as a wet wind blows foam and spray off the waves. What strikes me is not the tale’s provenance, but its perseverance. For years, stories of giants, ghosts, and leprechauns have been good business for the Irish. They’ve pulled in swarms of card-carrying Irish-American tourists like me. But the country no longer subsists on clover-eyed visitors trading cash for "Kiss-Me-I’m-Irish" T-shirts. In recent years the potent Irish economy has earned a fearsome nickname: the Celtic Tiger. Microsoft and Apple base European offices here. And the Irish, recently ranked the second most productive workforce on the planet, have been snapping up apartments in Manhattan and seaside properties on the Mediterranean. I figured they’d be too busy filling the countryside with fine restaurants and designer hotels to bother with mythmaking. I assumed the Tiger had left the legends behind.
Though I lived here in the late ’90s and still visit often, I’ve never seen Ireland’s wild side, the lands and lakes that birthed the grandest tales. I did go hiking when I lived in Dublin. Once. To a pub in the Wicklow Mountains. Ireland, in my defense, is an absolutely amazing place not to be active. Most tourists leave after just a few pub-packed days with little more than a sore stomach, a mild headache, and fiddles ringing in their ears. But that’s changing. Surfing, once a fringe pursuit, has exploded—a group here at Lahinch beach broke the world record for the number of riders on a single wave in 2006. Hiking, climbing, and paddling are also growing more popular, incrementally. Amateur mountaineer Domnick Callaghan says he might see two other people on a good rock these days instead of none.
I’ve come here with a thick wetsuit and sturdy boots to see how mythic, essential Ireland has weathered its newly wealthy and worldly people. Traveling with photographer Alex di Suvero, I plan to kayak the lake-filled southwest, scout out Aill Na Serracht, and hike a famously rugged, unmarked trail in Connemara. Investigating the supernatural dimension of these locales, however, could be dangerous (in Ireland, sprites have even been known to steal babies and souls). For guidance, Alex and I detour east to County Clare and the home of Eddie Lenihan, one of the country’s last seanchais, the trustees of Irish lore.
Lenihan, a 53-year-old native of Crusheen, lives at the back of a small development, his home surrounded by overgrown bushes and trees. Inside and out the dwelling resembles a hermit’s lair, which is fitting since the storyteller spends most of his time in another world. I’ve never met a seanchaí before, but I believe Lenihan is what one is supposed to look like. He is small and thin with big eyes that bulge behind thick glasses, a scraggly beard, and hair that belongs on a skeleton’s skull. Di Suvero and I visit for a good while in his lived-in sitting room, eating cookies and drinking tea. He pulls out Polaroids of the cave in Kilcorney from which the magic horses emerged. Before long we turn the subject to fairies, also known as the "good people" or the "other crowd." Lenihan says he’s never met any, but he sure seems to believe in them. He tells us a number of otherworldly dos and don’ts, and then carefully chooses his final words of advice: "You don’t feck with fairies."