An Sí Gaoithe, the Fairy wind

I’m occasionally asked what I miss most about drift-netting for Salmon. When it stopped in 2006 I was fishing on a part time basis, but I refused to participate in the buy out of licences, preferring instead to hope for a return. So when I answer, I’m usually a bit off hand and probably say something straightforward and easy to understand, such as the thrill of landing a large fish. But if I was honest what I miss about fishing is complex. A way of life is hard to quantify and communicate in a few sentences.  It has elements of relationships, boat handling, fishing nous, traditions, and experiencing nature and weather on a ongoing basis that you just don’t appreciate to the same extent on land.  A great example of this is the Si Gaoithe, or the Fairy wind.
I think I was sixteen when I first encountered the Si Gaoithe.  I was the boy that season with Michael Barry of the High Street, which would have made this event occurring in the summer of 1982.  It was one of those beautiful sunny and still summer days, which are so rare when fishing.  So dry and calm, that you can forgo the oilskins and woolly jumpers, and controlling the punt was a lot less of a challenge, having only tidal conditions to contend with.
An Sidhe Gaoith Daniel McDonald 1841 NFC
It was nearing high water, and we had the nets out on “the mud”, the Shelburne Bank, on the Wexford side of the rivers.  We had opted to leave the nets where they were lying, virtually static at this point given the time of tide, and joined several other punts on the “bank wall” – the embankment constructed around the Marsh on Great Island.  There we lay out on the warm summer grass keeping a constant watch on the nets for signs of a fish and swapped stories.  Below us other punts were with their nets, whilst at Nook the Whitty’s were in their usual perch on the grassy bank overlooking their bay, monitoring the nets at the Big rock or the Knock.
Suddenly all hell broke loose.  One of the punts was rocking and a voice could be heard in high animation.  Despite the distance, it was clearly the punt of Christy Doherty (RIP) and there was some talk that Christy must have “lost it” or perhaps had landed a “pig of a salmon” our parlance for a very large fish.
Hauling the nets Photo via Tomás Sullivan
Anyway, I was old enough to realise whatever was going on Christy Doherty was not a man to either “loose it” or get over excited.  Christy and his brothers were highly regarded in our house.  One of the stories I heard of him fishing was one night in winter, he went to the Sheag Weir, an old ebb weir just below the quay of Cheekpoint.  The wind was northerly, and it was freshening all the time. Christy was emptying the net when a squall came on and the punt sunk beneath him.  If I recall right he couldn’t swim, and of course would not have had a lifejacket, so he pulled himself up the weir net and eventually managed to climb the weir poles to the head of the weir where he settled down to await daylight.  When several hours later he was found, despite the wet and stinging cold, his only complaint was that he hadn’t had a cigarette in hours!
It later emerged that what Christy was so excited about was the Si Gaoithe, which was falling all around his punt and he was letting other punts nearby know, so that they might see it.  I was never clear if he was upset or happy to see it.  For many you see the Si Gaoithe is a omen they prefer to avoid.  When I told my grandmother later, she blessed herself and said, “God protected ye from all harm”

The Si Gaoithe itself however is a natural phenomenon and is something that traditional people have their own names for worldwide. We also have our own local traditions about it here in Ireland, which vary from county to county.  I decided to borrow a definition rather than pretend I know the science. “A dustdevil is a whirlwind of air into which dust and debris gets caught up, making it visible. Dust devils form through a different mechanism than tornadoes, and are much smaller, usually only 10 to 50 feet in diameter, and usually not extending more than 100 feet into the air. They usually are seen during relatively dry conditions, when sunlight is providing strong heating of the surface, and when winds are generally light. The heated land surface produces convective rolls of air (as in the diagram above) since the wind is a little stronger at (say) 100 feet in altitude than near the ground. If these rolls get tilted upright, then a dust devil can form.
Joel and myself many years back out on the river
I experienced the magic that Christy described several times later.  My lasting memory was one I shared with our son, Joel.  He was only a boy of about eight and we were drifting on the ebb tide one beautiful calm summer evening.  Again not a liu of wind, and the river surface was like glass.  Joel was chatting away and searching the bottom of the boat for a crab whilst I kept a close eye on the nets. Suddenly around us little whisps of straw started to fall.  I jumped with joy to see it, and explained what we were experiencing to Joel.  Looking up into the sky, we could see hundreds of little pieces of straw cascading down upon our general direction, and as they fell Joel tried to capture some of them. The straws were falling from out of a clear blue evening sky, from about 100 feet up, although very hard to judge.  We followed the line of straw with our eyes, as it went horizontally from above our position in towards the Wexford shore.  We were passing Nook at the time, and we could clearly see the line of straw heading in over the land and then trace it back down to a field recently harvested with straw lined up waiting to be bailed.  Amongst this a mysterious wind was whipping up loose pieces of straw into mini whirlwinds, carrying it into the sky.
Witnessing such events is a privilege, one that I haven’t seen since we stopped fishing.  It may seem like I’m fooling myself, but I still believe today as I did in 2006, that I would one day be back on the river and I am not going to loose sight of that anytime soon.

4 Replies to “An Sí Gaoithe, the Fairy wind”

  1. I have seen them often here in Perth Austalia – out in the bush

    Its called The Australian English term "willy-willy" or "whirly-whirly" is thought to derive from Yindjibarndi or a neighbouring language.[2] In Aboriginal myths, willy-willies represent spirit forms. They are often quite scary spirits, and parents may warn their children that if they misbehave, a spirit will emerge from the spinning vortex of dirt and chastise them. There is a story of the origin of the brolga in which a bad spirit descends from the sky and captures the young being and abducts her by taking the form of a willy-will

  2. Joanne, I think my grandmother had fears about the Si Gaoithe for similar reasons, thanks for posting, always delighted to hear from you

  3. I remember learning about the Si Gaoithe growing up too. It was a saying, he/she ran like a Si Gaoithe, as in they ran very fast. It was spoken about that it brought bad news to an area and no one wanted to encounter it. I live i north county COrk. But to be honest, until I read your piece, I never knew that it was in fact a real thing. I always had associated it with the Fairies. Thank you for posting this post, like it is said, you learn something new every day.

  4. Hi Mary, thanks for the feedback, yes, like yourself I'd hear stories too, and be surprised and/or shocked when I found them to be actual events, fish swimming ashore is one that comes to mind, another blog perhaps

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