Boys dressed as "mummers," a pre-Christian tradition.
Pre-Christian Mythology in Famine-Era Ireland
The Famine also caused a permanent shift in Irish religious practices. Before the Great Famine, most Irish peasants were not practicing Catholics, as their rural isolation made getting to church difficult. However, "the cataclysm of the Great Famine convinced most peasants not only that the old beliefs were ineffectual in staving off disaster, but that God had punished them for their wicked resistance to the Church's teaching" (Miller, 100). Indeed, pre-Christian Irish mythology played a far greater role in the lives of most peasants:
"Alongside the official presence and doctrines of the Catholic Church, an entire system of traditional beliefs and customs still flourished, overlain by only a thin veneer of formal Christianity. Irish country people still celebrated archaic spring and harvest festivals, practiced magical cures to combat sickness and witchcraft, and most prevalent of all, believed in the existence of fairies. Usually unseen and unheard, the fairies supposedly inhabited abandoned farmhouses, ancient ruins, hills and trees. Sometimes, it was believed, they performed beneficial functions . . Usually, though, the fairies were considered malevolent. Unless bribed by gifts or rituals, they would blight the peasant's crops, sicken their livestock, or even steal healthy infants out of their cribs, leaving dead "changelings" in their place. -- Miller, 101
The emphasis on fairies, ghosts, pagan rituals and the supernatural in Bessy Conway illustrates the continuing influence of mythology in peasant life. The Conways are practicing Catholics, but they still celebrate Hallow-Eve with a special dinner. In contrast, The Blakes and Flanagans, set entirely in New York, advocates only strict Catholic piety for Irish in the New World. While fairies play no role in the New World, the Conway family and Ardfinnan townsfolk almost reflexively blame evil fairies and spirits for bad luck, and beneficent fairies for good luck. When the evil British landlord Mrs. Herbert pays two impoverished Irish peasants to "dig up the rath on the hill above," one breaks his arm "even before he got home the day they finished the job" and the other "found the best cow he had lyin' dead in the byer a week or two after" (Bessy Conway, 289). As for Mrs. Herbert, she is found dead the day after Hallow-eve, and her tenants react with a mixture of pagan superstition and Catholic piety in this dryly comic scene. "Word went out that Mrs. Herbert had been found dead in her bed that morning, and as soon as the awful news had been fully verified, it was set down as an act of fairy vengeance. People crossed themselves and looked at each other, and shook their heads. 'She knows the difference now,' said one with religious solemnity" (Bessy Conway, 290). The crippled and deformed are consistently associated with fairies. Paul the hunchback, the moral center of Irish life in the New World, is frequently compared to a elf, and no one can stand to be caught in his gaze. Indeed, for all his Catholic evangelical work, Paul operates like an unseen fairy that manages to be everywhere and see everything that people try to keep hidden. As the moral voice of conscience in the novel, it is he again who exposes Herbert's secret sin to the rest of the immigrants. It is also Paul who follows Henry Herbert at night, catching him when he makes advances to Bessy on the street corner, and rescuing Henry when he is attacked and stabbed by his former gambling buddies. Henry Herbert's abbey-haunting as part of his penance for desecrating the ruins are gothic elements that increase his resemblance to Charlotte Bronte's Edmund Rochester, the reformed rake with a dreaded dark secret and the haunted house. The omnipresent fairies in Bessy Conway are elements of Sadlier's Irish heritage, but they also add romantic and comic touches that enliven her moral allegory.