Saturday, August 22, 2015

Fairy post #11 - Interview with Eileen Haley

Interview with quilter Eileen Haley

A wise, whimsical, world-embracing artist

& founding member of the Australian Fairy Tale Society

Spring 2015

Eileen Haley

Eileen Haley is a Sydney-based quilter, creative writer and grandmother, who identifies as a pagan and Goddessian, attending rituals to mark the Wheel of the Year, e.g. equinoxes and solstices. She spent 12 years in Mexico in the 1970s and 80s; then in 2005 made a world trip, from which sprang a poem sequence, Full Circle (published by Ginninderra Press) and quilt series, EarthWomen. She graciously agreed to an interview for our fairy blog:

Hexagon images above, left and below, are details from quilting (with magickal effects) by Eileen Haley.
LJK: At the Australian Fairy Tale Society conference 21st June 2015, your quilting was on display at the NSW Writers Centre, showing a variety of subjects, seasons and settings, from beach rescue to Icelandic elves or Hidden Folk. Would you tell us more about these pieces?

EH: I exhibited four quilts at the 2015 Australian Fairy Tale Society conference:
  • Fairies dancing at Beltane (with village witch)
  • Icelandic spaewives (with the queen of the elves)
  • Camogie players (with Constance Markievicz)
  • Volunteer lifesavers (with Annette Kellermann)
All four are from the EarthWomen series. I chose them because they all have fairies in them. 

  • Fairies dancing at Beltane (with village witch)

Beltane, 1st May in the northern hemisphere, celebrates high Spring. Veils between worlds are thin; fairies and humans mingle. A village witch dances skyclad, carrying the broom on which she has travelled to the glade. Earth Goddess is in blossom with flowers of hawthorn (May), a tree most beloved of fairies. Above the witch are embroidered details of British witch-hunts of 16th & 17th centuries. Queen Elizabeth 1st had made it a hanging offence to have dealings with fairies.

Quilt by Eileen Haley: "Fairies dancing at Beltane (with village witch)"

  • Icelandic spaewives (with the queen of the elves)

Icelanders remain aware that elves inhabit their land. A 'spaewife' is a shamanic seeress. In the middle is Thorbjörg, spaewife circa CE1030, from the Saga of Erik the Red, with her words in that story. On the left is contemporary spaewife Erla Stefánsdóttir, author of the Hidden Worlds Map of Hafnarfjördur town, showing elven habitations. Right is the Queen of the Elves, a primordial numinous presence known in north-west Europe as Nicnevin, Gyre-Carling, Queen of Elphame or Frau Holle. She blends with a goddess referencing a mediaeval Icelandic embroidery of Virgin Mary, through whom Icelanders venerate Freyja, Norse goddess of love and fertility.

"Icelandic Spaewives (with the queen of the elves)"

spaewives - detail, courtesy Eileen Haley

centre spaewife detail

spaewives - detail

  • Camogie players (with Constance Markievicz)

Four Irishwomen play camogie, a female version of the traditional Gaelic sport of hurley. Their uniforms are rainbow-hued, echoing prevalence of rainbows in Irish landscape and folklore. The background is a patchwork of fields peopled with leprechauns and such like. The players' companion, Constance Markievicz, was a feminist leader of the Irish independence movement, early 20th century, who abandoned high society for the Irish Citizen Army. The ballgown, corset and other garments of that life lie scattered at the feet of the players.

"Camogie Players (with Constance Markievicz)" by Eileen Haley

  • Volunteer lifesavers (with Annette Kellermann)

Women lifesavers dance on a beach. Mermaids populate the ocean. The dancers' companion, Annette Kellermann, was known as the 'Australian Mermaid' and 'Diving Venus'. Swimmer, aquatic performer and film actor, Kellermann was a pioneer of bathing costumes allowing free movement. The primordial Goddess at the centre is the Ocean. This quilt celebrates women's volunteering, a strength of Australia’s social fabric. 

"Volunteer Lifesavers" by Eileen Haley

LJK: Quilting is a medium of which I’m ignorant. Would you please introduce this art-form? 

EH: A quilt is an artefact consisting of three layers of fabric, the middle usually thick, soft and woolly (the wadding). Layers are held together by rows of stitches in different directions so wadding remains evenly distributed. It’s a patchwork quilt if at least one outer layer is made up of small pieces of fabric stitched together. Quilts can be embellished with appliqué (shapes sewn on top of a layer) and embroidery. But the quilt’s essence is that it recycles old material... My mother made one out of scraps of dresses belonging to herself and her three daughters. It preserves memory... 

LJK: So there's a link between family, frugality and fairies?

EH: Grandmothers love to make quilts using such fabrics for their granddaughters. In the 2006 NSW Quilters Guild exhibition, Denise Sargo exhibited a quilt entitled ‘Faeries for Bianca’. Her catalogue note stated: “My granddaughter is a passionate, imaginative and beautiful little girl. She and I both like mauve and pink and believe in ‘faeries’ at the bottom of the garden”. A fairy quilt manifests a bond between generations, old to young (Maiden and Crone). Quilting is up there with knitting, spinning and weaving as a mythological craft. Just about every quilt shop has a section devoted to fabrics with fairies.

"Crone" from 2003 Ouyen Women's Rain Dance during Victoria's drought

LJK: How did you find out about The Australian Fairy Tale Society? Why did you join?

EH: I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, prior to the first conference in 2014. And I joined because I Believe.

Australian Fairy Tale Society logo
LJK: Last year I was intrigued by an event at Mooncourt that you advertised through the AFTS: “Faerie Stories (not your regular fairy tales - not a princess in sight!)” What sorts of fairy tale characters, if any, might some of us have recognised there? And can you tell us about some of the more mysterious or lesser-known creatures? (However, I respect that fey folk are very private!)

EH: One faerie presence is the house elf, whom I learnt about in Iceland. What is borrowed becomes invisible, until returned when no longer needed. The elf in our house seems to have a repeated need for scissors. More generally, I am keen to place the fey amongst ordinary people in natural settings - peasantry in villages and countryside - not lords and ladies in castles. I am interested in seers’ experiences, not so much plots or happy endings. 

One of the characters I spoke about at Mooncourt is the midwife to fairies – a farm woman who is called out by a fairy father to attend his wife in childbirth. The midwife acquires the ability to see fairies through this experience – usually because she surreptitiously and disobediently smears on one eyelid a magic ointment that’s in the fairy mother’s chamber. Some time later, she sees the fairy father in the local market, and greets him. He asks her, ‘Which eye do you see me with?’ She replies, ‘With the left’. He immediately blinds her in that eye, by spitting in it or spiking it with a sharp object; and from that time on she loses the ability to see fairies. This happened in Carnavon (Caernarfon), North Wales. And to a sheriff’s wife in Burstarfell, Iceland; to a country nurse in County Sligo, Ireland; and to Joan Tryrre, a 16th century cunning woman in Taunton, Somerset.

Another set of characters are the hadas del agua of the Iberian peninsula, who live in lakes and pools. On midsummer eve (St John’s eve), when waters acquire potent magical properties, they can be seen doing their laundry on the shores, and hanging out to dry the yarn they have spun and dyed. It is a deep human impulse to venerate a pool of water. In the general folklore of Europe, wells, pools, lakes and rivers are dwelling places of Goddesses, nixies, nymphs, naiads, mermaids... people still throw coins into wishing wells...

Tree Cauldron, Eugene, Oregon; photo by Louisa John-Krol

Then there are the Icelandic elves, who converted to Christianity along with humans in the year 1000 and built elfin churches, ordained elf priests and held elfin Masses – though giants moved away as they could not bear the sound of churchbells. There’s a long history of interaction between humans and faeries. They need us, just as we need them.

by pre-Raphaelite Edward Robert Hughes
LJK: For you, poetry seems in harmony with the pictorial quilt, having power to insert us “into those realms where mapping stops... inhabited by cognate intelligences, fellow sapients, secret faces framed by leaves, flitting at the edge of vision, whispering in the night, leaving traces of their visits...” (Quoting from an invitation to your event - mysterious, enticing lines!) Can you tell us more of these worlds and how they inspire you?

EH: Faeries give a sense that we humans are not singletons, that we have kinsfolk; that the Earth has other sapients... they fill our lives with imaginative dimensions... especially important for people in poverty. Faeries are dangerous but beautiful, glowing, luminous. Faerie music is the loveliest of music; the same goes for their cuisine, attire, dance and craftwork. Faeries live in that ‘larger reality’ (as Ursula Le Guin has put it), the wellspring of creativity. 

LJK: On one of your quilts, you had stitched a verse that I recognised from a Spiral Dance recording, which my friend Adrienne Piggott performs: “We all come from the Goddess / And to her we shall return / Like a drop of rain / Flowing to the ocean...” (I’m not sure of this song’s origins, are you?) Are you familiar with this or other pagan mythic-rock music and/or can you recommend some albums, books, films, paintings, quilts, sculpture or other arts, that have inspired your art?

EH: The chant you mention is embroidered onto Volunteer lifesavers (with Annette Kellermann). It originates from the Dianic Wicca Tradition of a Goddess movement founded by Zsuzsanna Budapest in USA, 1970s. The Reclaiming Tradition of witchcraft and magickal activism, another neo-pagan child of the 70s, developed chants - then there is Australia’s wondrous visionary songstress Wendy Rule.

  • Margaret Alice Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe introduced me to the possibility that the fey were indigenous Europeans, surviving in remote locations into the Middle Ages, cultivating arts of magick and interacting with village witches.
  • Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle – what an imagination, what a wordsmith!
  • JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings – my father gave me this in 1965, and it was due to it that I studied Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic in my English Honours.
  • John Crowley’s Little, Big – my favourite novel; when I finish it I just begin it again.
  • Starhawk – a leading theoretician of the Goddess and neo-pagan movements.
  • Juliet Marillier’s Shadowfell series, Sevenwater series and Bridei Chronicles – ‘historical fantasy’, as she calls them. 
  • Cecilia Dart-Thronton’s Bitterbynde Trilogy and Crowthistle Chronicles – I am fascinated by Dart-Thornton’s weaving of Australiana into her fantasy worlds. Her woods have eucalypts and marsupials. And there is a Snowy River.
  • Katharine Briggs’s A Dictionary of Fairies, an astounding compendium of lore. 
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley: The Avalon series, especially the magnificent The Mists of Avalon, and her Darkover series too. 
  • Paul Devereux: Fairy Paths & Spirit Roads.  
  • The three-volume Guía de los seres mágicos de España (Guide to the magickal beings of Spain) put together by Jesús Callejo and others. 
  • The early poetry of WB Yeats.
  • Rudyard Kipling’s Puck stories.
  • Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Richard Dadd, especially his extraordinary The Fairy-Feller’s Master-Stroke, and anything and everything by Arthur Rackham.

"The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke" by Richard Dadd

a tree by Arthur Rackham
LJK: We certainly like the same kinds of books - from plays to chronicles and anthologies - as well as art; I've found that Arthur Rackham's trees, like those of Brian Froud, provided an imaginative bridge between my ancestral folklore and the bushland of Australia in which I was raised. I’m curious now to find the Crowthistle Chronicles. You’ve mentioned “the Little People” - one of the names of the Faery folk. How do you envisage their integration, or manifestation, on this ancient continent? 

EH: People all over the world have Little People living around them, with remarkable similarities. In Australia, indigenous people have long histories of interaction with these cognate intelligences, histories fraught with danger yet imbued with wonder. To mention some from New South Wales: the yagan and boothoo geermi of the Blue Mountains; the red-eyed, hook-toed dulagar of the Araluen, Monga and Deua area; the nyimbuyn of Bundjalung country, whom clever-men sought out for instruction in occult matters and skills; and the wallanthagang of Cambewarra Mountain, who created designs that the Dharawal people used to decorate the insides of their best possum rugs. 

When the first white settlers arrived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they brought their own fairies with them, along with cattle and horses, sheep and goats, wheat and barley, roses, pansies, apple trees, dogs, cats, rabbits and foxes... A friend tells me her great-grandmother, an Irishwoman, conversed with a little fairyman in a dairy near Tamworth. (Significant it was a dairy – fairies reputedly love milk and cheese! A wise householder would leave a dish of milk on a windowsill. A shepherd or shepherdess would throw a scrap of cheese over their shoulder.) Many here have seen fairies in their gardens: they help the plants to grow, and may even be the spirits of plants themselves. It is my feeling that in Australia fairies have not ventured much beyond gardens and farmsteads of Britainised landscape, populated with cherished plants and trees of home. I wonder why. While fairies (not to be confused with angels) aren’t the moral superiors of humans, perhaps they behaved better than us, and made a treaty with the indigenous Dulagar, enabling them to live side by side, borrow, trade, lend, mate and beget. However, we know little of this. 

Fairy lore might depict the relationship between whites and Aborigines. British fairies, according to some, are the aboriginal people of the British Isles, driven into hiding by invaders, lurking in caves or fens, some half-domesticated (a view of Margaret Murray; also of Scottish folklorist and antiquarian David MacRitchie). Katharine Briggs reminds us that this theory does not cover all forms of fairy belief, and is but one strand in a tightly twisted cord; however it is a rich strand to trace as we look into our hearts, call upon our imaginations, and weave our national narrative. 

Glowing inverted fairies by Eileen Haley

At the first Australian Fairy Tale Society conference in 2014, Carmel Bird presented a piece on the search for the Australian fairy tale, and the ‘lie’ (another meaning for ‘fairy tale’) of terra nullius. In discussion, Danuta Raine raised the possibility that it is invasion, displacement or dispossession that generate fairy tales. She referenced the Irish Tuatha Dé Danaan. Folklorists could benefit by studying Australia’s frontier history, to understand this link. For the Aborigines, like fairies, seemed to early settlers to have preternatural gifts: they could follow tracks invisible to the British eye, communicate with one another by mental telepathy, conceal themselves and vanish suddenly from sight. They seemed, too, to spend their time dancing and singing, playing tricks and laughing. 

A solitary white figure, by Eileen Haley NSW 2014

Australia’s frontier historians might benefit from studying the fairy faith of early British settlers; it might throw light on actions, fears and expectations. For example, Angus McMillan, transplanted to Gippsland from the Isle of Skye (1830s), believed he glimpsed a white woman among Aborigines. Convinced she had been abducted, he unleashed a campaign to rescue her that cost the Kurnai people of Gippsland dearly, ultimately in a massacre. How much of his conviction, I wonder, derived from the habit of British fairies of abducting women? 

LJK: A harrowing question. What are some challenges facing faery integration with existing Dreaming traditions? Please feel free to share any wisdom you have gained, in handling such matters with sensitivity. 

EH: My own project is to deepen my knowledge and awareness of fairy folklore of my ancestors, and stand in solidarity with the Aboriginal people, especially their struggles to defend and restore their cultures, languages and stories. To seek similarities; share... That way I hopefully avoid cultural (mis)appropriation and... reach a place of coming-together in honouring the Earth who is Mother to us all, indigenous and non-indigenous, human and fey.  

LJK: Eileen, it was wonderful meeting you at the Australian Fairy Tale Society conference 2015. I look forward to catching up with you at a future gathering.

EH: Thank you for the opportunity to give you this interview, Louisa. I loved your bardic work at the conference. 

Below: inverted fairies, via photoshopping effects; these, and other quilt images in this article, are courtesy of the wise and whimsical Eileen Haley.