Biddy’s – 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.

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.

Changeling

It is said that in days long ago there were hordes of the ‘Good People’ who travelled all over this island. They were regarded as being a proud people, somewhat conceited their attitudes, and they would ride their fairy horses while soft and enchanting music played around them. But on their travels the ‘Good People’ were renowned for their habit of changing the children of mortals with one of their own, and despite the great efforts of the mortal parents to raise these children to certain standard they never met with any success.

In those days a peaceful man called Nolan lived in a small cabin that stood on a piece of land just beyond the River Bann. He was fortunate enough to meet and marry a pretty and mild-mannered woman, who gave birth to a baby boy in the first year of their marriage. Their joy at this blessing was, however, short-lived for it quickly became apparent that there was something wrong with the child. From his earliest days the child could not be taught how to crawl, or stand upright, walk, or even speak. Many of the neighbours began to conclude that the baby boy had been born a fool, but they were confused by the fact that he was physically perfect except for his larger than normal head.

Whatever the cause of the child’s problems, his mother considered to be a great challenge taking care of him in the home. Even as the child grew, he could do nothing to help himself, depending on his mother to lift him out of bed in the morning and to carry him to a chair, where she would make every effort to ensure he was comfortable for the entire day. Sitting in his chair the boy would the fire burn in the hearth until the shadows of night began to fall, and all the while he appeared to be happy and content with his lot. But he did appear to have good observational skills and even if the slightest item went missing from its usual place, he would have an angry scowl on his face until it was restored to its proper setting. And yet, his main delight was the turf fire, and when a sod of turf would fall the sparks would fly up the chimney. On seeing this display of sparks the child’s eyes would light up and he would open his mouth wide as if to shout out his approval, but not a sound was emitted from the Nolan child.

There came a day when Nolan and his wife decided that they would go to the local market, leaving the care of their child in the hands of two servants, a boy and a girl. “Now, keep a good fire burning in the hearth so the child can keep himself amused by watching the sparks from the glowing sods fly up the chimney. There’s plenty of work to be done, so work just as if I was standing at your back and telling you what to do,” said Mrs. Nolan as she left the house through the front door. But the Nolans had not long left the house when the two servants ceased working and began playing.

It was the servant boy who suggested, “We should make ourselves a wee bit of a feast now that the mistress and Mr. Nolan have left. After all, the ‘wee man’ here is not the full shilling and won’t be able to tell on us!” So, they brought out the fresh butter, cream and flour to bake cakes, and they built up the fire, set the pot hooks into the ears of the roasting pan and let down the crook for it to hang upon.

All being well,” said the girl, “that will be well worth the wait!” Then she put the batter at the fire to bake. But all the time they were preparing their feast Nolan’s child watched their every move, not making a noise and hoping that he might be given a share of the food that his minders were preparing.

Meanwhile the cake was baking very satisfactorily, turning a beautiful golden colour and a really tempting smell began to rise from it. The two servants were now feeling very good, chatting with each other and laughing at each other’s jokes until the boy took a quick glance over the half-door to the cottage. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he exclaimed. “We’re going to be well caught now, for mister Nolan and the wife are almost upon us!

It was indeed the Noland back from the market, much earlier than expected. Shocked into action the servant girl quickly removed the cake from the fire and slipped it under the child’s chair to hide it from view. “He has a terrible look on his face,” she told the servant boy.

“That is no problem, for the idiot can’t tell them anything!”

No sooner was the cake hidden from view than the Nolans walked into the house. But all four of them nearly fainted with shock and fear, for as soon as the child saw its parents, he cried out loudly, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” The servants were frozen to the spot, dreading that their secret would be discovered, and they would be immediately dismissed from their positions. They could see the steam rising and the child continued to shout, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” No other words were uttered by the child, but the one constantly repeated phrase, “Hot, hot, under my chair.”

Still reeling from the shock of hearing their child speak out, Nolan and his wife just could not comprehend what he was saying. Trembling with excitement at the experience they never thought to take a moment to consider if his words were making any real sense at all. The child was still calling, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” and his parents never once thought to look around the room to see if anything wrong, and the two servants continued to look after their own interests by keeping silent. A sense of confusion continued to reign in the house until night began falling and everyone in the house was weary, and completely puzzled. Mrs. Nolan took hold of her son and carried him to his bed and tucked him in comfortably as she did every night. But there was not to be much rest for anyone in the house that night.

In the deep blackness of the night a powerful storm sprang up, which shook the house to its foundations with its strength. It was as if the winds blew in from every point on the compass at one time, fighting with each other in an unending effort to gain mastery. But within these winds could be heard strange noises, music and shouting voices that were evidence that the ‘Good People’ were out and about in the night playing or battling among themselves. Believing that the strange noises would frighten her child with their loudness, Mrs. Nolan took a light in her hand and went to her son’s bed. “Is everything alright, son?” she asked calmly and quietly, although she did expect him to answer. To her surprise, however, she found that the child was not in her bed, for he was already away with the fairy horsemen that had come to fetch him.

After the mother had discovered that the child had disappeared the entire disturbance about the house ceased just as quickly as it had started. The music that had accompanied the ‘Good People’ now faded into the distance and the strong winds had become like a soft breeze on a warm summer’s morning. It was now that the Nolans realised that the fierce storm had been a simple fairy diversion to cover their nightly antics.

The child was never returned to the heartbroken Nolans, but from that moment onward the ‘Good People’ left them in peace. Never again did they hear the enchanting music coming from the distant hills, nor experience the passage of the fairy host near their home. It was a sad and lonely time for the couple and often they would look forlornly at the chair where their child would sit, delightedly watching the turf glowing red in the hearth and the sparks fluttering up the chimney.

Fairy Lore

“Fairy Preventions”

One old remedy for protecting a home against the ‘Good People’ is, immediately after sunset, to lock every door and window in the house and light a great turf fire in the hearth, into which you place nine irons. As these irons become heated a great noise will be heard from outside the house that are the cries of a witch trying to gain entry, begging and shrieking in pain to remove the irons from the fire, for they were burning her. When the witch finds that all her entreaties are useless, she will return to her home, shrieking, and bring back all the butter that she had previously taken. It is only then that the irons should be removed from the fire and thereby cease her torment. From that moment the farmer shall be able to enjoy the quality of his butter production and relish its undiminished quality.

It has been a long-held tradition in Ireland that a good and careful housewife should always leave a large container full of good drinking water in the kitchen before going to bed for the night. Folklore tells that one night a woman was suddenly awakened during the night by a great noise coming from the kitchen. When she went into her kitchen the woman found a crowd of the ‘fairy folk’ busying themselves cooking food on the fire or preparing the food for a feast. When they saw the woman of the house, ‘the good people’ warned her to go back to bed and she very wisely obeyed their command. When she arose the next morning the woman found that everything in the kitchen appeared to be undisturbed, except the large container that she had used for holding drinking water. The container was now full of blood, which was a hint to the woman that she should leave plenty of pure spring water for the self-invited guests.

Another story tells us that one night, in a remote cabin that sat in a wild and mountainous district of the country, many years ago, two hard-working women busied themselves spinning flax. In the silence of the night their work was suddenly disturbed by a loud knocking at the cabin door. Frightened by the unexpected noise the two women kept quiet until they heard a shrill voice ask, in Irish, “Are you within, feet-water?

I am,” a voice replied from within a pot that stood in the corner of the kitchen in which the family washed their feet before going to bed. There was a sound of splashing water, and an eel-like shaped creature rose up from the pot and, stretching forward, the door was unlocked door. From the night several small women of extraordinary appearance, and dressed in strange clothes, entered the cabin, and immediately began to use the spinning-wheel.

One of the women of the house, saying that she needed to fetch turf for the fire, went outside but immediately rushed back into the cabin shouting, “The mountain is on fire!

Shrieking loudly, the uninvited strangers immediately ran out of the house exclaiming, ” My husband and my children are burnt.” Seeing that their trick had succeeded the women of the house lost not a moment in resorting to the usual precautions against fairy influence. When they closed the door, they made it more secure with iron tongs, laid a broom against the door, threw a glowing ember from the hearth into the “feet water,” plucked a quill from the wing of a speckled hen, removed the band from the spinning-wheel, placed the carded flax under a weight, and made up the fire. They had scarcely returned to their bed when the mysterious visitors were heard outside again calling in Irish as before, ” Let me in, feet-water.” But this time, the pot answered them, “No, I cannot, for there is a spark in me.” The fairy women then called upon all the other objects in the cabin, one after another, “Let me in, tongs;” “Let me in, broom;” “Let me in, speckled hen;” “Let me in, wheel-band;” “Let me in, carded flax.” Each object replied that it was powerless to obey, owing to the precautions which had been taken. The fairies thereupon raised an angry yell of disappointed, and left, uttering the curse, “May your tutor meet her reward.” Once again, we see iron used as a charm against fairy-influence and fairy-assaults. But this folk legend also gives a description of the old custom of throwing a piece of burning peat into any vessel in which the feet have been washed. In some parts of Ireland, to this day, the hissing of an ember in a pot of water is a comfort to the residents of a remote cabin, for it assures them that their home is totally secure against the assaults of the “Good People.”

In some places a horseshoe is often seen nailed over the door of a house, a dairy, or a stable, or to the mast of a fishing boat. This is said to prevent the fairies from entering the house and doing mischief to those who reside there. At the same time, it is thought to prevent fairy mischief against a farmer’s milking the cows, or from taking the horses out of the stable and riding them over hill and dale the long night through, and leaving them to be discovered in the morning trembling in every limb exhausted and bathed in sweat. In another way the horseshoe works as a charm against fairies, who are supposed to be fond of lurking in fishing boats drawn up on the seashore and take great delight in hindering fishermen in their work. It is also traditional for a small piece of iron to be sewn into an infant’s clothes and kept there until it is baptised. Yet another prevention of Fairy interference with an infant is to put salt on the cradle.

Legend tells us that the fairies were conquered by a race of beings that used iron weapons, and it is because of this that they dread that metal, or steel. It is recommended to the friends of a person who has been carried off by the ‘Good People’ that, if they should venture into the underground retreat of the fairies to bring back the captive, they should arm themselves with a ‘Missal’, or a prayer-book, and an iron knife. This latter object was to be laid on the threshold of the entrance into the ‘Rath’ so it will prevent the fairies from pursuing the rescue-party when they have found the prisoner, and are in the act of carrying him off. Another practice recommended to persons wishing to recover a spell-bound friend from the fairies is to stand at a cross-roads on ‘All Hallow Eve’, or in a ‘Rath’, or at such a place that may be pointed out by a ‘Wise Woman’ or a ‘Fairy Doctor’. Having rubbed a special ointment on the eyelids, the fairies would become visible as the troop swept past the spot indicated, and the waiting person was able to recognise the prisoner by some peculiarity of their dress, or by some other means. A sudden gust of wind would indicate the nearby approach of the fairies, and those watching would stoop to gather up dust from under their feet, which they would throw at the procession. This action would compel the troop of fairies to surrender any human being that they might have in their custody.

Folklore tells that young mothers are supposedly carried off to nurse fairy children, and that well-known pipers or fiddlers were also taken and transported to underground dwellings, where, if they ate and drank of the good things offered to them by ‘the Good People’, they would never be allowed to return to their earthly homes. Meanwhile, for a girl to dream that she sees a fairy is a sign that she will soon be married. While it is a favourable omen for a woman to dream of fairies, it is considered to be an unfavourable sign for men, and no man should undertake any important matter for several days after such a dream, or it will surely end in disappointment.

In remote parts of the country some people still believe that the fairies change children in the cradle, and if an infant begins to pine or become peevish, it is believed to be a sign that such an exchange has been affected. Indeed, there are many detailed reports concerning the removal or substitution of a child are not uncommon. In his epic poem ‘The Faerie Queene’, Edmund Spenser describes one such incident –

“. . . A fairy thee unweeting reft,

There as thou slept in tender swaddling band,

And her base elfin brood there for thee left,

Such, men do changelings call, so changed by fairies’ theft.”

It was such tales that encouraged people to carefully watch their babies until they were christened, in case they were carried off or changed by ‘The Good People’.

It was said by people that until a woman had gone through the ceremony of ‘Churching’, after the birth of her child, she remained the most dangerous being on earth. No one should eat food from her hand, and myriads of demons are always around her trying to do harm, until the priest comes and sprinkles holy water over her. It was claimed that even if she went to the river to wash, the fish would all swim away from her in fear, for fishes are a very pious race, and cannot bear to be touched by unholy hands ever since the mark of Christ’s fingers was on them. Legend informs us that they were once, by accident, the overheard an argument against transubstantiation, which was held by a heretic, and they were so shocked at his language that they all left the river. The disappointed angler could not help regretting that the fish were so very particular as to the teachings of tenets of Mother Church.

If a man leaves the house after his wife’s confinement, tradition holds that some of his clothes should be spread over the mother and infant, or the fairies will carry them both off, for the fairy queen desires, above all things, a mortal woman to nurse her fairy offspring. And if her own child happens to be an ugly little sprite, she will gladly exchange it for the beautiful human babe, who henceforth will live entirely in fairyland, and never more see his kindred or home.

Fairy changelings are recognised by their tricky nature, and by constantly complaining and crying for food. One method, which at immediately demonstrates the nature of the child, is to place it over the fire on an iron shovel until, with wild shrieks, the fairy vanishes up the chimney, screaming all sorts of curses on the household that has it this way. But while waiting for the solution of the enigma, the unfortunate child is often so dreadfully burned that it dies in great agony, its cries being heard with callous indifference by its parents, who imagine that it is the fairy child, not their own offspring, that is tortured. The fairy changeling often produces a set of tiny bagpipes, sits up in the cradle, and plays jigs, reels, and lively dance music. The inmates of the cottage are forced, greatly against their will, to commence dancing, and this enforced amusement continues until they sink from exhaustion. When the infant is thus known to be undoubtedly a changeling, it is removed on an iron shovel from the cabin, and placed on the centre of the dunghill while rhymes are recited by the fairy doctor, the director of the operations, along with some verses in Irish, such as the following:

” Fairy men and women all,

List ! it is your baby’s call;

For on the dunghill’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 lump, 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.

Then give me back my only son,

And I’ll forgive the harm you’ve done;

And nightly for your sportive 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.”

(Recorded and translated by – Rev. John O’Hanlon)

When the ceremony is completed, all retire into the cottage, the door is carefully closed, and additional incantations are recited. Any sound made by the wind, or the noise made by a passing vehicle, is regarded as a signal of the fairy host arriving or departing. Then, the cabin door is opened carefully and the assembled party walk to the manure heap. The Fairy Doctor then hands the poor emaciated baby to the deluded parents, who declares that the ‘true child’ has been returned by the “Good People.”