In the past the Irish peasantry never thought, even for one moment, that a child abducted from its home would have been killed and buried in the cold earth somewhere. In their minds they imagined that the missing child was living among the fairies, although this belief did not lessen the heartbreak felt by the parents. They were convinced that their child was now condemned to endure, if not enjoy, all the changes in circumstances they would experience in a life that was constrained by their exile from heaven and earth. When the child was not restored again to its parents, it was assumed by the entire community that the child’s life was being prolonged to an indefinite period while it lived among the fairy-folk.
The idea that the fairy-folk practiced human abduction was held as being true among the Irish peasantry of days long passed. Today, when a child goes missing, or is abducted, all sorts of alarm bells begin to ring in our society. Some are returned unharmed, but most are found alive or dead, but all suffered at the hands of evil people. But, there are still some of whom no trace has been found. In many cases within Irish peasant homes those children who suddenly became sickly, or acted strangely, were often called changelings. It was said that the original child had been abducted from their home by the fairy-folk and replaced with an old, decrepit, sickly, emaciated ugly fairy child. The human parents almost expected such a thing to happen, especially when they knew that the fairy-folk prized young and lovely mortal children.
To guard against such things happening to children the midwives were accustomed to giving newly-born children a small spoonful of whisky, mixed with earth, as its first food. This was a charm intended to preserve the child from any extraordinary spell that may be cast upon them by the fairies. Special care was taken to watch over all new-born babies and to guard them until after they had been christened. Only then would they be considered free from the threat of abduction, or changed for a deformed, evil fairy child.
Although the peasant woman feared for her newborn child, especially if it was a handsome, fit, and pleasing child. But, it was not only children that were subjected to abduction and forced exile from their homes. Records speak of mortal women, who had recently been confined in childbirth, were also subject to abduction by the fairy-folk, who took them to the fairy realm where they would be forced to suckle and nurse fairy-born infants.
In Irish folklore, Changelings are said to have an inclination for carrying out certain grotesque pranks. They were known to mysteriously obtain a set of pipes, which they would carry under their arm, and they would often sit up in their cradle to perform a variety of airs with great flourish, as well as some strange grimaces. When the Changeling plays lively jigs, reels and hornpipes on that instrument, the people living in the cottage immediately began to dance wildly despite their reservations. Though they might be ready to drop with exhaustion the dancers are unable to stop their dancing until the Changeling stops playing.
Despite all the hilarious whims and oddities that a changeling might possess, it was still regarded as a very unwelcome family intruder. It was not unknown for the fairy child to be thrown across the fire’s hearth to attempt to eject him from the household. He would then suddenly vanish up through the open chimney, all the while calling on vengeance and shouting curses, as well as all kinds of terrible names, against the family that had sheltered him for so long.
The other method of removing the changeling froma cabin was to use a clean shovel to pick it up and place it on the centre of a dung-hill. In the meantime, the parents still believed that their own children would be returned to them no matter how long they had been absent. Men and women with special knowledge of the fairy-folk, called ‘fairy-doctors’ were called upon to direct certain prayers that would ensure the true child would return. The verses of these prayers were usually chanted in Irish. The following are the lines of a prayer that was once used for this reason and is translated into English and recorded Rev. John O’Hanlon (1870) :-
“Fairy-men and women all,
List! – it is your baby’s call;
For on the dung-hill’s top he lies,
Beneath the wide, inclement skies,
Then come with coach and sumptuous train,
And take him to your mote again.
For if ye stay till cocks shall crow,
You’ll find him like a thing of snow, –
A pallid limp, a child of scorn,
A monstrous brat of fairies born.
But ere you bear the boy away,
Restore the child you took instead;
When, like a thief, the other day,
You robbed my infant’s cradle bed,
But, give me back my only son,
And I’ll forgive the harm you done;
And nightly, for your gamboling crew,
I’ll sweep the hearth and kitchen too;
And leave you free your tricks to play,
Whene’er you choose to pass this way.
Then, like good people, do incline
To take your child and give back mine.”
When these words, or words like them, had been recited the Fairy-Doctors would retire to an adjoining cottage, closing the door carefully behind them and await whatever might happen, while they repeated some additional prayers and incantations. Any noise, whether caused by the elements or a passing vehicle, was quickly put down as due to the approach or departure of a fairy troop. When the door was opened sometime afterwards these so-called ‘Doctors’ would confidently declare that the true child had been returned. The poor emaciated being atop of the dung-hill was then brought into the cabin, and its deluded parents were told that their child would not long survive. The subsequent death of the child through mistreatment and malnourishment appeared to confirm the prediction made by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’. Each occasion added to the reputation already established by the ‘Fairy-Doctor’ among the Irish peasantry.
Children, however, were not the only occupants of the Raths who had been abducted. The fairy-folk would take a fancy to the pipes used by accomplished pipers, as well as the instruments used by other famous musicians. These people would often be abducted and brought to the underground and underwater habitations of the fair-folk. Unfortunately for these musicians, they had to play their music for the finely dressed, frisky little gentlemen and ladies. While the fairies danced the musicians played, until they were almost dead with fatigue. One saving grace, however, was that the fairy-folk were very conscientious about giving out good servings of refreshments and, usually before morning, those whom they had abducted would be freed. Sometimes, however, the musician was invited to stay with the fairy-folk but, if he preferred to return home to the land of mortals, he was allowed to go freely. But, the fairies will take away the musician’s instrument and replace it with one that is much more perfect and sweeter toned. Moreover, the fame of having been abducted to the land of the fairy-folk and having been given such a gift will establish the musician’s place in society, and his future financial prospects.
Likewise, midwives were said to be abducted to the fairy raths as pillion passengers on fairy horses that conducted them into the invisible abodes of the fairy-folk. Should these women take any food or drink while they are with the fairy-folk they cannot return home. But, these women are constantly pressed to eat and drink by the fairies, who constantly presented luxurious meals and drinks to them, upon which are placed the spell of detention.
We constantly hear stories about the gifts that the fairies can and have bestowed upon mortals like us. The fairies, however, were known to be less free in bestowing the riches of gold and silver to humans as a reward. Even when such riches were offered, those people so rewarded still found it very difficult to get their hands on it. There are many stories told about ‘crocks of gold’ and other treasures given by the fairy-folk that usually turn into stones, dry leaves, old bones, or something equally as worthless.
The Irish ‘fairy-man’, or ‘Fairy-women’, sometimes called ‘Fairy-Doctors’, were supposed to hold some mysterious sort of communication and influence with the fairies that lived in the motes and raths of the country. There were, of course, many rumours that these ‘fairy-doctors’ were impostors, who were originally changelings themselves. Such was the wariness of such people by the peasantry that they were generally relegated to living an almost hermit existence and a deep veil of mystery shrouded everything that they did.
They said that they were very well acquainted with all the secret things of the past, present and future. It was, allegedly, within their power to cure all illnesses and diseases that affect both man and beast. They said they could assist in the discovery and restoration of lost property, as well as give descriptions that would assist in the detection of the thief and their prosecution. People would go to them to have their fortunes told, because it was believed that they had knowledge of all matters that were of concern to the person. It was said that the fairies could cause cream to produce great amounts of cheese and the ‘fairy-doctors’ would take great care to impress on the minds of the ignorant that it would be desirable to make friends with the fairy-folk. This would prevent any evil effects caused by fairy resentment which could sometimes be regarded as fatal to the individual against whom it is directed.
The ‘fairy-doctors’ would often collect herbs and plants over which they would mumble certain spells and then use them as charms and cures for various troubles. These plants and herbs were considered to have been specially impregnated by some mysterious fairy influence that is efficacious for the healing arts. Sometimes, ‘Knowledgeable Old Women’, also called ‘Fairy-women’, were often known to exercise charms that did not encourage people to have confidence in their success. For example, an herb, or a bit of burnt sod taken from a the bonfire on St. John’s night in midsummer was often sewn into the clothes of women. It was a charm that was supposed to protect the wearer from any fairy plots, or abductions.
It was also said that there was an ointment that midwives used to smear on the fairy-children that, if rubbed on the eye of a mortal, would enable the mortal to see the spiritless skeleton of fairy illusions in the underground halls and palaces. Old friends and neighbours would often be discovered among the fairy followers in this manner. The fairies themselves, during their dancing and singing, also became visible to the eye that was rubbed with this ointment. Should a mortal make any sign to show that they could see the, the fairies would ask, “Do you see me?”
If answered in the positive they would be asked, “Which eye?”
Once informed the fairy will thrust his finger, or even puff his breath into that eye, and blind the incautious person, causing the charm to be removed.
As a final point of interest, the ‘Fairy-man’ was also called a ‘Charmer’ or ‘Cow-Doctor’ because he undertook to remove any fairy charms from sick cattle by preparing herbs and potions by spring well. So secretive was this process that he would not allow anyone to approach the site while he was creating his various concoctions. In some cases, particularly in the West of Ireland, cows were often driven into certain natural springs or loughs that were designated as being holy. This was done, usually, to restore the normal supply of dairy milk and butter, if the owner believed it had been reduced by some supernatural means. Considered to be a necessary part of the charm a bit of fresh butter was thrown into the water while certain incantations were sung.