John Walsh On Monday: Irish road side-tracked by the fairies' right of way

I'M VERY glad to hear that the Irish Motorway Fairies imbroglio has been successfully resolved. It's a curious story. In Co Clare in the Irish Republic, the county council met to approve the construction of a motorway that would bypass the towns of Newmarket-on-Fergus and Ennis.

The bypass would cost pounds 100m and the council had begun considering objections to it. But among more predictable, Swampy-ish protests was one from a local folklorist and seanachai (or storyteller) called Eddie Linehan. He pointed out that one of the obstacles scheduled for destruction was a white thorn bush - but it was no ordinary shrub. It was a fairy bush.

The councillors knitted their brows. Come again? they said. The thing is, said Mr Linehan, in a district called Latoon, outside Newmarket-on-Fergus, there stands a fairy thorn bush that's a marker on a fairy path. It's a spot where the Kerry fairies used to stop and consider their next move, when marching off to do battle with the Galway fairies. It was a rest, regrouping and reconnaissance centre for the small folk. Woe betide anyone who cuts the tree down (they'll die roaring) or builds a road over where its roots had been. There would be, said Mr Linehan, an increase in misfortune and death to road users at that very spot. He knew it was the real thing, because a local farmer claimed he'd seen white fairy blood on the tracks.

Instead of having Mr Linehan forcibly removed from the council chamber, briskly sectioned and sent to St John O'God's asylum, the Clare planners took his objections seriously. On the one hand, here was a hundred-million- quid civic enterprise, of benefit to all road users; on the other hand, an uncountable and invisible flock of homeless and vengeful sprites, swarming around the ashphalt and causing trouble...

They thought about it, made a feasibility study, and discussed how best to "incorporate" a small bush into their sprauntsy new motorway, short of having the whole six-lane highway swerving like an adder to get around it. They got their best engineer onto it.

On Friday they finally announced that, while the field in which the bush stands has been dug up to become part of the motorway, the bush has been spared and a special fence built around it to make sure the fairies can still come back every year for what appears to be their annual sales conference and pep talk.

Charming, my goodness, how Irishly charming. This is the kind of whimsical tale that used to have Flann O'Brien squirming in his civil servant brogues. English people, however, find this kind of stuff irresistible. There is a bridge just outside one of my favourite Irish towns, Clarinbridge (home of the famous Oyster Festival every September), which Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon crossed on their trip to the West in the late Fifties. They were told that it was considered rude not to get out and chat to the fairies that lived underneath the bridge. So they did so, bless them, before continuing on their journey.

The Irish themselves, of course, reserve the right to buy into such mythmaking or deride it, as it suits them. Hence the reply W B Yeats got when he met an old peasant, in Sligo in the Twenties, and asked if he believed in fairies. "I do not," said the man, "What do you take me for? What kind of ignorant fecker would believe in the Little People? Believe in witches and goblins and leprechauns? Go on outta that. Don't be ridiculous. I do not believe in them. Not at all...". There was a pause. "But they're there," the man concluded.

"I CAN authorise you to say there is a coldness between us," said Flavio Briatore to a chat-show host on Italian television the other night. Mr Briatore was speaking, in his superior way, about his recent bust-up with Naomi Campbell, the gorgeous-but-a-bit-of-a-handful supermodel. It seems they were an item for a year or so, but are now estranged.

Well obviously, this is a bit of a blow to Mr Briatore, who no longer has sole grazing rights on Ms Campbell's unimaginable upland meadows. It may come as a shock (Oh no, not again) to the proprietors of Hello! magazine, who pictured the happy couple cavorting in the Mediterranean breakers only two weeks ago. It may have upset the Italian television audience, who can no longer bask in the knowledge that one of their countrymen managed to squire the temperamental Streatham goddess through 50 Saturday night soirees. It may, for all I know, be distressing for those of you who monitor the lives of catwalk performers as if they were members of your immediate family.

But I can't help thinking there is something peculiar about Mr Briatore's vainglorious use of language. "I can authorise you to say... "? What has happened to the international media, when a hitherto unknown 49-year-old businessman who has lucked out with a famous beauty starts issuing ex cathedra bulletins and "authorising" bits of tittle-tattle as if he were bringing us news from East Timor? It is hard not to think of Dudley Moore, playing a drunken millionaire in the movie Arthur, saying thoughtfully, "I"m thinking of taking a bath... " and his butler (played by John Gielgud) replying, "I'll alert the media, sir."

WE ARE all frightfully excited down here in London SE21, as the deadline creeps ever nearer. The dinner-party circuit has been polishing its sideboards, plunging its fish-knives into the Silver Dip and folding its napkins into ever-more-exotic origami shapes. The milkman, the paperboy and the chap who runs the Pizza Express have all gone on red alert. Not long to go now, they mutter to each other. Keep calm. Any day now. Tom and Nicole and the kids will be moving into the neighbourhood any day now...

I assume the rumours about the Cruise/Kidmans moving into Dulwich are true; but they seem so unlikely. It is like having Fidel Castro renting a flat in Bromley or Alexander Solzhenitsyn joining the Rotary Club in Penge. I'm looking forward to it all with unashamed excitement.

I look forward to exchanging Dulwich-dweller chitchat at the No 3 bus stop with the crinkly- smiling star of Top Gun and Days of Thunder. What fun it will be to sit beside the fistic roustabout of ITV's soap Home and Away in the local hairdressers, Harold George in Dulwich village, and hearing him say: "I"m after a more layered look over the ears, really", like the rest of us. How extraordinary to think that, by Christmas, he and I will have met so often in Dulwich public library that we'll practically be brothers (like in Rain Man).

I will not force my company on Tom, of course, because that would be bad manners; but should I find him propping up the bar of the Crown and Greyhound, smacking his lips over a pint of Owld Speckly Rooster and discussing the current form of Crystal Palace FC, I shall certainly endeavour to make him welcome with some light banter about child-kidnap statistics in south-east London. Oh yes. He has definitely come to the right place.

THE POPE has gone mad once again, I see. If you call up the official Vatican website (www.vatican.va) and look how far we have come from the days when you could, as Tom Lehrer suggested, just ring up the Supreme Pontiff by dialling VAT 69), you discover a document called the "Enchiridion Indulgentiarum". This is not, as may be thinking, some luxuriant and fiery Tex-Mex dish with chillis and refried beans, but a new list of of "indulgences" - namely, special favours or furloughs by which you can reduce the centuries you will spend suffering in Purgatory, before finally making it into Heaven.

The Pope's new indulgences will be granted for oddly secular things - such as not smoking, laying off the electric soup, praying in public and making the sign of the Cross in front of your ghastly, pooh-poohing, non- Catholic workmates. There is even a special indulgence for blind people who listen to sacred texts on audio tape...

The Vatican's spin-doctors do not claim that these activities will do any more for believers in the long run than act as "a partial penance that will help to purify them and prepare them for an afterlife", but nobody with a Catholic education (like me) is fooled for a second. Indulgences were always the most ludicrous and corruptible examples of religious blackmail encountered by the faithful in the days before Vatican II. They were Brownie points, get-out-of-jail-free cards, time off for good behaviour. They told you: if you say these prayers, do these things, behave this way, you will have this much time reduced from your sentence on the edge of Hell.

In my school prayerbook, some prayers even carried the number of days - 100 here, 500 there - by which your sentence would be commuted. We used to spend hours, one day a year, nipping in and out of the church on a special feast-day when a certain one-off prayer got you and your family whole years off your putative time in the Purgatorial nick, if you said them over and over again.

Indulgences irritated Martin Luther so much, he brought about the Reformation. Does the Pope realise what conflagration of belief lies just beyond his dislike of smokers?

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