More Irish Fairies

Changelings and other Fairy beings

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.

ChangelingTo 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.

Fairy ManChildren, 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.

Away with the Fairies

His family had christened him Edward, but we preferred to call him ‘Mitch’ because he was always playing truant from school, which where we live is known as “Mitching.” He was the life in our small group of boys as we played in the fields and streams around our homes. But as ‘Mitch’ grew older he gradually became a pale, thin version of the athletic young man that he had once been. By the time he had reached his mid-thirties ‘Mitch’ had become a sickly-looking man, ashen-faced, and with a feeble constitution. His hair was light auburn in colour and he preferred to keep long, as he had done in his youth. He also had a beard that he chose neither to shave or trim in any style, leaving it to grow wildly across his lower face. Strangely, his hands were a pale colour and looked to be delicate. Indeed, they were soft and not at all hard, or coarse, as you would expect the hands of a labouring man to be. But, as a young boy he had learned the trade of a tailor from his grandfather, in which trade he excelled. ‘Mitch’ now earned a very good living from his trade and had built up a good reputation for himself throughout the area for the quality of his workmanship. We remained close to him as we grew up and were full of admiration for his tailoring talent. There were, however, some who thought him to be something of a miser, hoarding his money rather than spending it freely like other men who spent their time in the ‘Bookie Shops’ and public bars of the town. But, ‘Mitch’ was a sensible, sober and rational man, who had more to interest him than the greyhounds, the horses, or the ‘Gargle‘ (drink). Nevertheless, much to the amusement of many, he insisted that he could see and hear the fairies that lived around his workshop, the town and the district. Whenever he met and confronted anyone who voiced any doubt about his spiritual talent his eyes would fill with a frightening wild, hollow look. At the same time, his normally friendly facial expression would become suddenly dark and his brow furrowed deeply.

Whenever his name was mentioned some would simply say, “Poor Mitch Curran, sure his head’s away with the fairies.” But, in my opinion, there was no man in the town who looked less like he had mental problems than ‘Mitch’ Curran. If ever a man enjoyed the ‘craic’, loved to hear a joke or could tell a humorous story it was ‘Mitch’. He could never have been described as an unhappy man in any manner or form, and it just appeared to be a natural talent that allowed him to hear and speak to the fairy folk, and sure he was not doing anybody any harm. Strangely, ‘Mitch’ was a man who did not seem to feel pain like the rest of us, or even experience the slightest tinge of fear, and I often wondered was this because of the close relationship he had developed with the ‘Good People.’ In fact, I was certain that this was a result of the fact that ‘Mitch’s’ relationship with the fairy folk appeared to be both intimate and friendly, and he would converse with them for hours. Any person who saw these conversations take place would tell you that they were terribly one-sided affairs. But, they would also admit that the discussions did appear to give ‘Mitch’ a great amount of pleasure, causing him to laugh loudly and joke the entire time that he talked with the ‘Good People.’

There were many occasions, when I was at a loose end, that I would call into ‘Mitch’s’ workshop just to see how he was keeping. “Well, Mitch, have you seen your fairy friends today?” I would ask him.

Aaah, Jimmy, would you whisht (be quiet). Can’t you see them yourself? There must be two dozen or more running around this place and keeping me back from my work,” he often replied.

No matter how hard I looked I could not see them. They were totally invisible to me despite ‘Mitch’ constantly insisting, “There’s the oul’ fella, sitting on top of the machine for he loves to feel the vibrations through his body when I am sewing. But, they are all having a bit of a tough time at the minute. There’s nothing to worry about, however, for they are all great wee schemers, the lot of them. They’ll soon find a way to be right again. Look, there’s one them now and he’s unravelling my silk threads!” he told me as he waved his hand at a bunch of thread bobbins, just as he would to wave away a fly.

Get away out of that you wee devil, or I will leave a mark upon you that will never go away. Get out of that, you wee thief!

Now, throughout my life I had heard many different tales about the ‘Good People’ that would encourage a man to be extra-careful in any dealings he might have with them. On one occasion I asked him, “Mitch, are you not afraid of the fairies at all?

What? Am I afraid, you’re asking me?” he answered with a loud laugh. “Sure, why would I need to fear them, for they have no power over me! None at all!

Of course,” he replied in a matter-of-fact manner that made me feel that I should have known this all along. “Didn’t my da tell the priest who christened me to include the special prayer against the fairies. You know, a priest cannot refuse the prayer to anyone when it is asked of him. So, I got the special prayer and, thanks be to God, that priest did what was right.

I was puzzled for a moment and watched him as he was then apparently distracted by fairy activity elsewhere in the shop, and shouted at the them, “Will you leave all that stuff alone, you imp. You are the thief of all thieves!

Having said this, ‘Mitch’ then returned his attention to me saying, “It was a good thing indeed, for those fairies wanted to make me their king!

To be honest with you. I almost fell off the stool with the shock of what he had just revealed to me but, somehow, I managed to maintain my composure and asked him calmly, “Is that really possible?

Isn’t it me who is telling you it is? Now, if you don’t believe me then you can ask them yourself and they will tell you the truth of it!

I decided that best thing that I could do at that time was to look all around me, even though I knew I would see nothing. But, I had seen ‘Mitch’s’ temper flare with the others who had doubted him and who had tried to take ‘a hand of him’ (make fun). Not surprisingly I decided to accept what he had told me and continued to ask him questions about his little, invisible friends, I chose to continue my enquiries with him. “What size are they, Mitch?

Och, sure they’re only wee boys, wearing green coats and the prettiest of little brogue shoes that a man ever set eyes on. There’s two old friends of mine, there,” he pointed toward a shelf of cloth lying in rolls. “They’re running on top of that cloth there. The one with the grey beard is the oldest of them and goes by the name, ‘Munchy’. The other one, with the small green bowler hat is called ‘Cheeks’ and he can play the Uileann pipes (Irish Bagpipes) like an angel.” ‘Mitch’ looked over to the rolls of cloth again and he called, “Cheeks, give us a wee tune on those pipes of yours, you blackguard. Play the ‘Stalk of Barley’.” Then he turned to me and hissed,” Now, Jim, whisht and listen!” While he continued his sewing, ‘Mitch’ beat time to the music with his feet on the wooden floor and seemed to be enjoying every note as if it was real, but I heard nothing.

This was not the only time that I visited Mitch in his workshop and I was not the only person to spend some time with him there. But, every time I had gone to his workshop I tried to hear the faintest sound of fairy voice, but I heard and saw nothing. Even as I sat there listening, ‘Mitch’s’ tongue never once ceased moving in his head. His wife once told me that there were many nights, after ‘Mitch’ went to bed, when he would awaken from his sleep and appear to brush the bedclothes as he made efforts to clear away the fairies from his bed. “Get out of here!” he would shout at them. “You shouldn’t be in here and, ‘Cheeks’ what time is this for you to begin playing those damned pipes? Get out and let me sleep, for I am completely knackered.” But, if they did not go away immediately he would shout at them again. The only noise that ‘Mitch’s’ wife could hear, however, came from her husband.

Now, if you go away and leave me in peace to sleep, then I will give you a wee surprise tomorrow,” he would try to sweeten them. “I will get the wife to make a big rice pudding and we will share it between us. You know you love rice pudding and, if you do what I ask, you will be licking the bottom of your bowl.

Turning to his wife, who was now wide awake, he would sleepily tell her, “They are not bad wee men, darling. Look at them all leaving quietly except for ‘Old Red’ over there. You know, it’s the aches of his old age that makes him want to sleep in the same bed as myself.” His wife, of course, could see nothing and would angrily pout as her husband put his head down on the pillow again, pulled the bedclothes closer around him, and returned to a peaceful sleep. Mrs. Curran could not, unfortunately, do the same. When she was awakened it could take her an hour or more to get back to sleep again and, even then, there would only be an hour or two until she had to rise and prepare breakfast.

Just adjacent to the town’s boundary stood the house of Frankie McCann, where I had spent many happy nights with very close friends, playing cards. It was a comfortable, warm cottage in which the fire was never allowed to die in the hearth and the kettle was always on the boil. The far gable-end of the house from the entrance gate was partly built into a grass covered mound that was said by some to be a home to the fairy folk. For many of the townspeople, however, McCann’s house was not only a place for fairies, but it was said by them to be haunted by the spirits of unbaptised children that were buried on the southern side of the mound. The gossips said that none but the brave, the McCann family and unbelievers like me, dared to enter the property. It must be said, however, that in every way possible such rumours were nearly as good as a burglar alarm for keeping undesirables away.

away with the fairiesFrankie’s child had been sickly baby since birth and even the doctor was not sure about exactly what was making her so sick. It was almost mid-summer, when fairies are at their most lively, that the child once again took a fever and began to cough harshly. One evening, around dark, we had gathered for a hand of cards in the house and we heard the strange sound of wood being sawed coming from the grassy mound. Puzzled by the noise we put our cards down on the table and decided that we would search for the source of the noise. On the mound, however, there were only white-thorn trees growing on the mound, and no local man in his right mind would even consider risking his life by sawing down one of those fairy trees. More puzzling to us was the fact that it was very late in the evening for any person to be sawing anything, which was also cause for concern.

There were seven or eight of us and we worked together to scour the entire property to find the source of the noise, but we found nothing. Other than ourselves we could find no other person, spirit or creature thereabouts. So, with nothing to be seen around the mound we returned to the house and sat down to resume our card game. But, we had no sooner sat down upon the chairs when the noise was heard once more, and this time it was much nearer to the house. We rushed from our seats into the darkness outside in the hope of catching the rascal off guard. Once again, however, we saw nothing untoward.

Several of us were standing together upon the grassy mound when we heard the sawing noise coming from a small hollow about one hundred yards from where we stood. Although the hollow was completely open to our view and we could hear the noise clearly, we could see no sign of a perpetrator. We moved closer to the hollow in the hope that we would finally discover who, or what, was making this strange noise. But, when we arrived at the hollow we could still hear the sawing noise, only now, added to this, there was the noise of nails being hammered into timber. It was now time, we decided, to send for ‘Mitch’ Curran’s assistance and we sent Tommy Bell to fetch him. Tommy’s task didn’t take him very long to complete and ‘Mitch’ was soon at our sides. As we expected, almost without hesitation, ‘Mitch’ announced the solution to our puzzle. He informed us, “It’s the fairies making the noise. I see them all and they are very busy.”

“But, what are they doing?” I asked him.

“They are building a coffin for a child,” he said almost in a whisper. “The body of the coffin is built and now they are finishing the lid.”

The breath rushed out of my body with the shock of what I had heard. My mind began to struggle to decide if what Mitch had said was true or not. Later, that very same evening the sickly child passed away and was grieved by the child’s loving parents. The next evening Frankie’s brother arrived at the house and, bringing a worktable outside, he began to construct a coffin for his niece. Those who heard the uncle working on this task at the back of the house agreed that the sawing and hammering sounds were exactly the same as those noises that were heard the previous night.

 

©2018 Jim Woods