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.
There are, in many parts of Ireland, certain bushes which are looked upon by the local people as being sacred to that most well-known species of inhabitants of the mystic world, the Sidhe, the Sheeogs (Fairies). There is no Irishman or Irishwoman who would do harm, or destroy, or interfere with, such bushes for any reason. There is one in Cillmartin that stands in the centre of a ploughed field, and many years ago I asked the question why it had not been removed to aid cultivation. I was quickly told that the farmer, who was English, could not get any man in the district to dig it up, out of the ground. At one time he sent for a nearby farm labourer, called Pat Cairn, whom he often employed at harvest time. Pat was instructed by the farmer to go immediately and clear out the old thorn tree that stood in the middle of ‘Big Field’.
“Ah, now, man dear,” said Pat, “You know I’d rather not have anything to do with the likes of that“
“Oh ! Stuff of nonsense, man, nonsense! Don’t be a silly clown! Really, what harm is there in cutting down an old thorn bush ? You’ll be well paid for your work and the entire job won’t take you more than ten minutes.”
“Well, now, I might as well tell you the truth, I wouldn’t cut that bush down even if you were to give me a hundred thousand pounds,” Pat told him emphatically.
“Get away out of this! You stupid superstitious idiot of a man!” the farmer exclaimed angrily, stamping his foot heavily on the ground. “I’ll just the bloody tree down by myself to-morrow.“
As planned, the farmer made his way to the ‘Big Field’ the very next morning, where several men who had already refused to undertake the job had gathered. “You men haven’t found the courage yet to uproot that old bush for me,” he said loudly to the gathered men.
Harry McFarland, who taught in the local village school, shook his head and told the Englishman, “Not yet, sir! Sure, only an eejit would dare to upset the ‘Good People’ and I’m no eejit!”
“By God! Even an intelligent man like yourself believes in such silly tales and would have the audacity to call me an idiot! Well we will soon see the truth of it,“
“Well, really sir, everyone here to whom you have spoken has assured you that it would not be ‘lucky’ for you to cut it! I would urge you, at this time, do not do this thing.”
” I’m surprised at you, who should know better, should allow such silly superstitions to enter into your head. Have you a hatchet about, that I can borrow ? “
“Indeed ? Bring the hatchet to me and I’ll make sure the tree is cut down, damn quick. Then, you will see just how little I care about your fairy-folk and their devilish spells.”
Harry managed to retrieve the hatchet and gave it to the farmer, who, accompanied by several of his farm labourers, immediately entered the field and approached the hawthorn bush, that stood about four feet high. The villagers were totally amazed at the foolish and daring deed that this English farmer was about to perform, and they kept a good distance back, terrified by the evil that they expected to fall upon him. ” Now then,” said the farmer, as he balanced the hatchet in his right hand, ” let me see what’s the best way to go about this.”
He walked around the bush twice, and then he walked back a few feet to a spot from where he could critically survey it. He cleared his throat loudly first, then took a good luck around him at the faces that were watching his every action. Then he spoke, “It is pretty after all! You know, I never even considered it before. But, by God, it’s quite an attractive addition to the field.” Turning to Harry McFarland he smiled warmly and spoke in a loud voice, “It’s really very pretty, Harry, and now that I have seen it in a new light, I think it would be a pity to cut it down. Instead, I’ll send down a gardener to-morrow, who will clip it and trim it nicely. Aye! yes, indeed, it would be a pity to dig it all up.” There was a huge sigh of relief from those that were standing around the scene, and then a hint of suppressed giggles as they turned away to hide the expression on their faces. They knew the truth of it. The farmer had “thought better of it,” and that he had suddenly realised that “caution was the better part of valour.” You have probably already concluded that the farmer’s idea of creating and ornament of the bush was nothing more than a pretence. I can assure you that the bush has never been trimmed, and there it remains, practically the same as it was over fifty years ago in its size and appearance.
In my sixty-five years of life I have been blessed to see many similar bushes in various parts of the country. One very particularly memorable specimen exists along the south shore of Lough Neagh where, many years ago, a substantial stone wall had to be built a narrow country road near the shore. But, in the line along which the wall had to be built, there grew a “fairy bush,” which the workmen refused to remove from the spot where it stood. Every request and promise of increased payment, and threats of job loss failed to move them. The men, point blank, would not touch the fairy bush. The result of all this was that the bush was left undisturbed in the centre of the wall and arched over it. This unusual position in the stonework has proved to be something of a local attraction, which has also frequently attracted the attention of visitors who pass that way.
Just while we are considering the subject of things that are sacred to the “wee folk”, we should look at “cairns,” or heaps of stones. I can recall one very remarkable incident that goes a long way toward supporting the belief among many rural Irish people that it is not right to take away, or utilise for building purposes, any of the stones in those “cairns.” Cathal Hughes was building himself a new house on the outskirts of the town. While making his plans, Cathal remembered that he had seen a beautifully suitable keystone in the “fairy cairn.” The same man had been told that it was not sensible or right to interfere with any of the stones in that heap. However, there was one stone that he had set his eyes upon, which was so well suited for his purposes that he tempted to take a chance. Cathal, therefore, took the stone from the cairn and inserted it in the wall of his new house. But, the first night that he slept in the house, or rather lay down to sleep, he was disturbed by a most mournful crying coming from the very corner in which he had placed the stone. All through that night, until dawn broke, that bitter and plaintive wail continued. Cathal decided he would remove the stone after breakfast, but some of his neighbours suggested that it would be a waste to take the wall away. In the faulty belief that he would not be annoyed any further, Cathal decided that he would postpone his decision to remove the stone until he was sure that the weird cries were at an end. Unfortunately, he had not long to wait, for on the second night of his stay in the new home, the crying, lower but more sorrowful, continued again until morning. This disturbance settled the matter as far as he was concerned. The stone was taken out and replaced on the cairn, while another less attractive stone was selected to fill the space that was left in the wall. With this the crying ceased, and Cathal swore loudly that he would never, ever, again meddle with the stones of the “fairy cairn”.
This is a story that was related to me by a very old grand-aunt who lived in the heart of Connemara. As we sat by a blazing turf fire she told me that these things happened to a person who was very well-known to her, and so I have absolutely no reason to doubt a word of her tale. She lived all alone in a small, thatched and white-washed cottage , which stood on a lonely, narrow mountain road. Two fields to the rear was the two-storey farmhouse that belonged to the affluent and influential Meehan family. Tom Meehan was the head of that prosperous family, widely known and very much respected in the district. He was, moreover, recognised and famed as one of the finest hurlers that the County had ever produced.
Tom was very friendly to my old grand-aunt and many evenings he would stop by her cottage to see if she was keeping well. She had been a very good friend to Tom’s mother all her life, and Tom was going to make sure that she wouldn’t be too lonely in her old age. On those evenings when he called around to her cottage, he would tell her how the farm was progressing and keep her up to date about events among the neighbours. During the darker nights of autumn and winter, Tom would always ensure that the old woman had plenty of coal by the fire and a wee glass of whisky on her night stand as she would watch television.
The old woman would often share local folk tales and myths with Tom, constantly warning him about fraternising with the ‘Good People’, Leprechauns, and the various spirits that lurked about the mountain roads and forests. Tom, of course, was not the superstitious kind and would often laugh at her warnings, causing her some annoyance. Then, one bright, moonlit, autumn evening he was walking home, as usual, after spending the entire day in the fields. Following a well-travelled track Tom found himself walking through a small copse of trees and, in the distance he could hear excited voices. He followed the sound, which appeared to him to be coming from a field that sloped gently down from the edge of the trees. As he emerged silently from the shadows of the trees, Tom was surprised to see before him two teams of small men. They were dressed in different colours and playing a game of Hurling in the field, which was now brightly illuminated by the light from a full moon.
Tom stood among the tall trees and silently watched the game. As he watched he could not help but admire their prowess with their ‘Hurling sticks’ (Caman – pronounced ‘Cum-mon’), and he quickly came to the conclusion that these players were not ordinary men. From what he could see in that field, Tom was certain that these men were none other than ‘Good People’, who had often been described to him by my old grand-aunt. The quick and talented manner in which these men played the game totally captured Tom’s admiration, and he stood for a very long time just to see how the game progressed. Then, as the end of the match approached, Tom saw one of the men on the field trap the ball (Sliotar – Slit tar) in the air with his ‘caman’ and, as it dropped down, he stroked it so gracefully over the bar from the half way line. This was, without doubt, one of the best Hurling strokes that Tom had ever seen in his life. In his appreciation of the player’s move, Tom roared out a great shout of delight, causing the game to be stopped and all the players quickly turned toward the area from where the shout came.
There was silence for a moment until one of the players called out to om from the centre of the field. “Would you like to join in our game?” he asked. It was a surprising question because the player must have recognised that Tom was actually a mortal being.
Tom had often been warned about mixing with ‘Good People’ but the thought of playing hurling with such beings was too exciting to ignore. “I would,” he replied shyly, “but is there a place for me among you all? And if there is would I be good enough to join one of your teams?”
“There is room for one more player, which you can fill if you have a mind to,” came the reply as some of the other players laughed loudly at the prospect of a mortal being playing alongside them.
Tom became really excited at the prospect of playing hurling with ‘The Good People’, but he had no ‘caman’ of his own to play with, and he asked, “Would you have a hurley with which I can play a game?”
To his surprise, one of the little men reached to the ground for a spare ‘caman’ and handed it over to Tom. “Here,” he said, “This caman is made from the finest Ash and is one of the finest made, but we will allow you to use it.”
Taking the hurling stick n his hand, Tom admired the comfortable grip of it in his hand and its balance in the swing. Never had he seen a hurling stick of its kind or finish, and he could hardly wait to join in the game with the others. Rolling up his shirt sleeves Tom took up his position in midfield just as the whistle blew shrilly in the evening air. Almost immediately the new caman appeared to help Tom play in a manner that he had never before experienced, and with his assistance the team that he had joined in the field won the game by a small margin. As they walked off the field the leader of the team came to him and told him, “You are a good player for a mortal!I suppose that now would be a good time to tell you who we are.” Tom nodded in agreement and he listened attentively as the small man explained, “We are called the ‘Good People’ in these lands and our home lies in that churchyard over yonder.” Tom watched as the team leader pointed toward an old church steeple in the distance. Then in an exceptionally friendly, almost secretive, manner he quietly continued, “But, let me tell you that we that we find ourselves to be in a great fix!”
“What sort of fix would that be?” Tom asked his new found companion.
“Well, the truth is that we have to play an important match against our greatest rivals in the next clan, and it all takes place a week from tonight. That is why we have been practising so hard lately. But, we have discovered recently that they have recruited the assistance of a mortal called ‘Red Mick Shea’.”
“Red Mick?” exclaimed Tom when he heard the name.
“Aye, and he is said to be the finest hurler in three counties. Do you think that you might be able to help us?”
“’Red Mick’ is one of the best alright,” Tom replied. “But, if I can have the same hurling stick then I will help you the best that I can.”
“You can have that caman, by all means,” the leader of the ‘good people’ agreed with delight and he immediately began to announce the arrival of their newest recruit to the team. “I think, boys, that we are now ready for all comers,” he called out and there were loud cheers from all those gathered on the field.
For the next seven days Tom could hardly contain his excitement at the prospects of playing in such a match. But, he could not tell anyone about the forthcoming match and made plans to get to the field without anyone knowing. A week from that very same night, boots in hand, Tom quietly crept out of the house without disturbing anyone. He had kept the secret of his great adventure, and his entire body shook with excitement as he headed out to play the game that he had promised the leader of the ‘good people’.
When Tom reached the same field, that he had played on the week before, he discovered that the two teams of ‘good people’ were already lined up and ready for the throw in. ‘Red Mick’ was at the ready on the half-back line and Tom saw him as he came on to the field of play and was handed the hurling stick. Tom took up his position within the team and the whistle sounded for the game to begin, followed by a great cheer from the spectators.
The sliotar was thrown into the centre and a great frenzy of players came together to try and take control of the game. Up and down the field the game swayed as first one team and then the other team gained superiority over the other. Hurling sticks clashed against each other, mixing their noise with the clap of leather balls being hit by the camans. The spectators watched closely as one moment Tom’s team dominated the play and, in the next moment, it was the rival team that appeared to be supreme. Score followed score, with very little between the two teams until, finally, the whistle blew loud to end the game. It was Tom’s team who had gained victory in the well-matched contest and there was great cheering and whoops of joy among the home crowd, whose team had because of the victory.
The small man who had led ‘The Good People’ now came up to Tom, shook his hand warmly and told him, “We would like to thank you for all your efforts this day. If you would just tell me what you would like to have for yourself as a memento and, if it is in my power, you shall have it. Tell me then, is there anything?”
“To tell you all the truth,” smiled Tom and his eyes twinkled with joy. “I’ have taken a great fancy to that hurling stick that you loaned to me for the match, and that is all that I wish to have. That is, without doubt, the finest hurling stick I have ever played a game with. High Balls, Low Balls, and Fast Balls all came my way this night and I never missed one the entire game with that stick in my hand.”
“Now isn’t that the truth of it, Tom,” the leader replied. “You never missed even one ball during the entire match. But now, sadly, you have asked us for the one thing that is not within our power to grant you. The hurling stick, in our tradition, is the sole property of the fairy clan and no single one of us can just give one away to someone outside the clan. Especially to a mortal.”
The great disappointment that he felt at these words was immediately visible on Tom’s face. He believed that, after all, he had played a very significant role in the clan’s victory over their greatest rivals and now, despite his contribution to their victory, they had refused him the one simple prize that he felt he deserved. Still, he insisted, “But I must have it!”
“We are sorry, friend, but the hurling stick can never be yours,” Tom was told in no uncertain terms and it seemed that the discussion was at an end, as far as the ‘good people’ were concerned.
“I must,” insisted Tom, obstinately raising his voice and a tear rising in his eye with frustration. But this obstinacy only caused offence to some and an angry murmur began to arise among the good people. There was division and a war of words now began, which developed into an almost muddle of loud, angry voices. Finally, still feeling that it was his due to have the hurling stick given to him, Tom slowly and silently walked off the field of play and grimly took the hurling stick with him.
Although it was not very far to his own home from the field, Tom almost immediately began to feel rather ill and nauseous as he walked off with the ‘caman’ in his hand. By the time that Tom had gotten to his own front door he was in a state of near collapse, and his family sent an emergency call for a doctor to attend to him. There was, however, nothing that any doctor could do for the unfortunate man. He lay motionless in his bed, weakening further day after day, and his wife cried as she solemnly asked him, “Is there anything at all that you need me to do for you, Tom?”
“Yes, my dear,” he answered her weakly. “There is a hurling stick that is lying in the loft. Would you ever bring it down here for me and place it at the foot of the bed, where I can see it?”
“Of course I will, my dear,” Tom’s wife told him and she immediately set about fulfilling the task he had set her. From that very moment, every hour of every day that followed, Tom’s sickly condition appeared to worsen until everyone could finally see that there was little hope of his recovery. As things became critical Tom’s wife came to his bedside and, holding his hand tenderly, she asked him, “Is there any last wishes that you would like us to carry out for you?”
By this time, the dying man could barely open his eyes to see his family, but he managed to turn to them and, in a very weak voice, Tom told them,”I want you to promise me just one thing.”
“Anything!” they answered.
“Will you all simply promise me that you will place that hurling stick by my side as I lie in my coffin, so that it will be buried with me?” he asked them.
They sadly agreed to do what they were asked and, when the time came, the family carried out Tom Meehan’s last wishes. The much prized hurling stick was subsequently buried with him in the Parish graveyard. But, even today, there are still some who say that Tom Meehan is still playing a great game of hurling, with that stick, in heaven and is still leaving his opponents completely astounded by his artistry.
From the many ideas and images that fill the folklore and mythology of Ireland there have been various mystic creations that have been given imaginative form and existence. One of these mystical creatures ‘The Merrow’ (or in Irish Morvadh, Morvach) is one of these and takes the legendary shape of a fantastic sea spirit that follows closely our idea of a mermaid. They are semi-human in their nature and shape of the body. From head-to-waist they appear, for intents and purposes, human. Then, from the waist, it is covered with greenish-tinted scales that appear to be the body and tail of a fish. In temperament, we are told, they are of a modest, affectionate, gentle and beneficent disposition. In the Irish their name appears to be a compound of ‘Muir’ (the Sea), and ‘Oigh’ (maid).
These marine creatures are also called by the Irish ‘Muir-gheilt’; Samhghubha; Muidhucha’n; and Suire and they appear to have been residing around our shores from the distant past, basking on our rocky coastline. According to the earliest chronicles available, when the Milesian ships bore onward, seeking a friendly harbor along our shores, the Suire, or ‘Sea-Nymphs’ played around them as they made their passage.
It is said that ‘The Merrow’ was able to have a close relationship with human beings and, it appears, they intermarried, living together with them for many years. There is, naturally, some exaggeration within the tales told by the various families and groups that live and thrive on Ireland’s southern and western coasts and claim a partial descent from these inhabitants of the seas and oceans. There can be little doubt, however, that the natural instincts of ‘The Merrow’ are likely to have prevailed over their romantic interests. Another problem that may have upset relationships with mortals would undoubtedly have been the very strong desires that they possessed to always return to their former haunts and companions in their undersea world.
Tradition suggests that the ‘Merrow-Maiden’ was the daughter of a King from beneath the sea, but it also informs us that these maidens might be found living under the waters of our lakes. These mermaids are said to allure young mortals to follow them beneath the surface of the water, where they will live in an enchanted state with each other.
‘Merrows’ wear a ‘Conuleen Druith’, or a little charmed cap, which was generally covered with feathers and used for diving under the water. Should they ever lose this small cap they would lose the power to return to their homes in the depths of the seas and oceans. They have, however, been known to leave their outer skins behind them in the sea so that they might assume other more magical and beauteous appearances. But, they retain the soft white webs between their fingers and are often seen with a comb of gold, parting their long green hair on either side of their head, enhancing her very beautiful features. Also, beautiful and attractive is the music of ‘The Merrow’, which can be heard coming up from the lowest depths of the ocean, and sometimes floating across the water’s surface to encourage ‘Merrows’ to dance upon the shore, the strand, or on the waves that roll against the shoreline. Though all their features and fascinations are designed and practiced in order to seduce young mortal men, these maidens can occasionally be very vengeful.
It is strange to think of the possibility that there are ‘Merrow-Men’, but tradition insists that they do exist. It is said, however, that the ‘Merrow-Man’ is deformed in its shape and its features. More menacingly, the ‘Merrow-Men’ are said to keep the spirits of drowned fishermen, and sailors, captive in cages that are fastened to the bottom of the sea.
The myth of the Merrow-Maiden is known in various folklore traditions, but under different names. In Scotland, these creatures are known as Selkies and like Merrows in Ireland they can be either male or female. Furthermore, the Selkies are seals while in the water and what differentiates them from mermaids, other than the choice of animal, is that they undergo a full body transformation upon coming to shore. They do not merely transform their seal tails into human legs, but rather completely shapeshift from the sea animals into a human form. This is accomplished by shedding their seal-skin when they come to land.
There is great luxuriance about Irish mythology, filled with Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Spirits and fantastic creatures of all sorts. This is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the history and characteristics of the ‘Fairy Folk’, more commonly known in Ireland as ‘The Good People.’ As with most mythological characters the origins of these people are confused and the subject of widespread debate. One popular belief concerning the origins of ‘The Fairy Folk’ suggests their beginnings are linked to a group of invaders known as the ‘Tuatha de Danann,’ which means “the people of the goddess Danu”, who were revered as gods by the native Irish. Over time, however, the ‘Tuatha de Danann’ succumbed to fresh invaders, who banished these so-called gods to the underground portion of Ireland. It is from this that people came to believe that fairies lived under the ground, and they came to be called ‘The Sidhe’ (pronounced: Shee).
Another popular belief, that may arise from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, suggests that the ‘Fairy Folk’ were once angels and were so numerous that they formed a large part of the population in heaven. When Satan turned against God and gathered a host of angels around him in open rebellion, there were some who did not want to join in the war that followed. They were fearful of the consequences that might be visited upon them by the victor and, therefore, preferred to see who won the battle before taking sides. Then, when the rebellious angels were defeated and expelled from heaven, those angels who had stood aside and did nothing were also banished. The offence of these neutral angels was one of omission rather than rebellion and they were not consigned to an eternity in the pit of hell with Satan and his followers. They were, instead, sent to earth where they were to remain, but not without hope that they may receive a pardon on the last day and be re-admitted to heaven. They are, therefore, expected to be on best behaviour, but they do retain the power to do a great amount of harm. It is for this reason that they are feared and only spoken of in quiet among the rural Irish, even today.
Stories about the fairy folk have been heard from all parts of the world, and one of the most interesting and consistent things about them appears to be that they can shape shift and make themselves look like anyone or anything they wish. They are, however, believed to be smaller than humans, averaging a height of between three and four feet. Generally, within Irish folklore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are described as being slightly taller than people and very beautiful, with reports suggesting that some fairies, such as the ‘Irish Sidhe’, were typically of a height of seven feet tall. One report I read says, “Though, by nature, they’re not the length of your finger, they can make themselves the size of a tower when it pleases them, and have that ugliness that you’d faint with the looks of them, as knowing they can strike you dead on the spot, or change you into a dog, or a pig, or a unicorn, or any other dirty beast they please.“
These ‘Good People’ were often seen wearing clothes of red and green that depended upon the tribe to which they belonged and their rank within the tribe. Some were described as having green skin, while other sources describe them as looking much like humans but with a strange, ‘otherworldly’ aura about them. and the appearance of being either very young or very old to help in the perception of mortals to their wisdom. It is said that, generally, the people of the fairy hills were very pale and were usually finely dressed, but otherwise were human-like in their appearance. Stories say that the ‘Fairy Folk’ often appear wearing green, red or grey clothing, and may have blond or brown hair. They could be either male or female and could appear either alone or in groups. But, when it comes to their clothes, the records generally agree that young lady fairies wear pure white robes and usually allow their hair to flow loosely over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the more matronly fairies tie up their tresses in a coil on the top or back of the head and surrounding their temple with a golden band. The young gentlemen fairies wear green jackets, with white breeches and stockings. But, when a fairy of either sex has need of a cap or head-covering, they will use the flower of the foxglove. Within Irish folklore, however, the female fairies are known to appear with messages or warnings, while groups of male fairies would gather to play games of Hurling, for which they needed a single human player in order to have the game.
It has, in the past, been considered irreverent and bad luck to call the ‘Fairy Folk’ by that name, or simply ‘Fairies’, and the rural folk of Ireland became accustomed to creating more genteel substitutes such as ‘The Good People.’ Although this reluctance to use the term ‘Fairies’ seems to be relaxing in these modern days, there is still a widespread preference to use the substitute names instead. In this article we will try to remain with those terms that most people are familiar with, such as the ‘Wee Folk’ or the ‘Little People’. It is likely that such terms were derived as a means of minimising their power and influence, and as a description of their physical stature.
Many in the world have heard of the Irish ‘Leprechaun’ and consider them to be members of the ‘Fairy Folk’, but they are said by some to be unfit associates for the ‘Good People’. Nevertheless, the ‘Good People’ are a sociable community who always live in large societies with each member involved in a plan of work that is to the benefit of all. They own all their property, the kind and value of which is unknown, in common and are united in their desire to achieve any communal objective. But they are, however, divided into groups of evil or good, which are occasionally involved in night-time battles with each other. The male fairies are very familiar with every military role and, like most of Ireland’s population, are divided into various factions. But, unlike other the mortal factions, the objects of contention among the fairy factions is rarely known for definite. There is a report of a great battle among the fairies that occurred many years ago in County Kerry. One party of fairy warriors stood upon a Rath, while the opposing army of fairies stood on an unused and lonely graveyard. The only mortal to witness the encounter was Paddy O’Donoghue, who related what he saw as follows – “Sure, wasn’t I lying beside the road, being on my way home, weak and tired with all the walking I had done? There was a bright moon out that night, and I heard a noise like a million soldiers tramping on the road, so I rose up and looked, and the way ahead was full of little men. These creatures were just the length of my hand, with green coats on, and all stood in rows like one of those army regiments, each man with a pike on his shoulder and a shield on his arm.One was in the front, as if he was the general, walking with his chin up as proud as a peacock. By God, but I was terribly scared, and I prayed faster than ever I had done in my life, for they were far too close to me for comfort or convenience. But they all went by, not a single one of them turning his head to look at me at all, thanks be to God for that, and so, they left me. After they were completely gone, I was curious to see what they were after, so I followed them, a good bit behind them, and ready to jump and run like a hare at the least noise, for I was afraid that if they caught me, they’d make me a pig at once or change me into some kind of a beast. They marched into the field between the graveyard and the Rath, and there was another army there with red coats, from the graveyard, and the two armies had the biggest fight you’ve ever seen, the greens against the reds. After looking on for a bit, I got excited, for the greens were beating the reds badly, and I up and gave a yahoo and called out, ‘At them again! Don’t leave one of those blackguards untouched!’ And with that word, the sight left my eyes and I remember no more until morning, and there I was, lying on the road where I had seen them, as stiff as a crutch.”
They say that fairy bodies are not composed of flesh and bone like we mortals, but of a kind of ethereal substance whose true nature is unknown. They can be clearly seen by some, many reports of which have been recorded, but some observers also tell us that they can also be seen through as if looking through a mist. In Ireland there is a belief that the fairies have a white blood, which is spilled in those occasional night battles between different groups of which the only evidence appears to be the remains of an inexplicable white liquid (Fairy Blood). They have, of course, the power of being able to vanish from the sight of mortals and the fact that the air seems to be filled with their presence causes ordinary mortals to give them respect. There are reports of them being heard without being seen, especially when they travel through the air and are recognised by the humming noise like that made by swarms of bees. It must be said, however, that despite modern artistic interpretations of the ‘Fairy Folk’ there is no evidence as to them possessing wings. A certain Kerry man, called Barney Murphy, thought that they had wings for he had seen several a number of years ago that seemed to have long, semi-transparent pinions, “like them that grows on a dragon-fly,” described them. But Barney’s neighbours, however, contradicted his report by adamantly denying that the ‘Good People’ had wings, suggesting that at the time Barney saw the fairies he was too drunk to distinguish a pair of wings from a pair of legs, and so this evidence of fairy wings must remain in doubt.
Fairy lore allows us to divide the ‘Good People’ into two distinct categories, i.e. ‘Trooping Fairies’ or ‘Solitary Fairies’. The trooping fairies are a matriarchal society and they consider socialisation and status important within their community. Moreover, they can be further divided into those who are known to be good and those who are more disposed to be bad. The ‘Solitary Fairies’ obviously live alone, but they are known to attach themselves to a certain family or house. But, despite what type of fairy is present, it is often recommended that local people leave offerings outside their homes overnight as a means of appeasing them. Even if the food offered is still there the next morning the people believed that it was the fairies would have appreciated the thought at least.
The people had other means and methods to prevent bad things from happening to them, including the keeping of a few charms and talismans handy that might just work against fairy magic. Iron is the most well-known and effective element to ward off the fairy folk, though steel might prove to be a better weapon because it is a much purer form of iron. In Irish folklore it is known that the importance of Iron does not just lie in its ability to ward off the fairies. It is also known as a means of deterring ghosts, witches, and more supernatural beings. The sound of bells and whistling can also keep away fairies and, if you ever found yourself being chased by evil fairies, you could leap to safety by crossing running water. By throwing burning embers at the fairies you could drive them away from entering your house, and some people would sprinkle their clothes with oatmeal while also carrying some in their pockets to guard against the fairies approaching. Four leaf clovers have always been considered lucky and will break any fairy magic, or you could always plant a rowan tree outside your house, or as a last choice you could simply try any blessed religious item. But mortals should always remember that there are many reasons as to why you should not even think of offending the fairies. Stories have described how fairy folk, when they feel themselves offended might lift extremely heavy objects, leave your hair in terrible tangles, or even replace your child with one of their own, or a magical block of wood.
In the mythology of Ireland, we have learned that the ‘Good People’ are derived from ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and are the original inhabitants of the ‘hollow hills’. They are the beings most strongly associated with agriculture and the produce of the land, and those ‘hollow hills’ in which they live are believed to be the entrances to their land of the ‘Fairy Folk’, sometimes called ‘Fairyland’. The ‘Good People’ were just as likely to be connected to mysterious, otherworldly islands that usually appeared in the West to fishermen but could never be reached, as they were to the hills and mounds of Ireland itself. (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In Irish lore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are everywhere. They live in the land, on the sea, and in the air. They are associated with the mounds and stone circles that litter the Irish landscape, as well as the multitude of watery places such as wells, springs, the sea and bogs, caverns, and strange swirls of wind, as well as specific trees, particularly lone Hawthorn trees.
It is also common belief in Ireland that the ‘Fairy Folk’ live in a parallel world to our own, into which mortals can accidentally enter through ‘Fairy Rings’. Although this other world may run in parallel to our own, time does not pass in the same way as it does in our mortal world. Tradition tells us that once a mortal enters this ‘Fairy Land’, there is almost no means of going back to their own world, and many Irish tales abound with stories concerning those people who were kidnapped by the ‘Fairy Folk’. Within these tales we can see that the concept of the ‘Fairy Land’ in Irish minds was just as complex as their beliefs about the ‘Fairy Folk’ that inhabited that land. On every occasion these ‘Fairy Lands’ were always described as being places of great beauty, wealth and peace. It is, therefore, not surprising to read in these stories that many mortals brought to such places did not want to leave until an overwhelming longing overtook them to see their families and homes. But, when these people did leave the ‘Fairy Land’ they would discover that hundreds of years had passed, and they would die and fade into dust as soon as they came in contact with mortality once again.
The ‘Good People’ are not confined just to their own realms, or the area around the entrances into those realms. Many stories reveal that they were able to go out into our world, occasionally appearing in local markets and fairs. Often, they would go unrecognized in such places, unless someone with the second sight saw them or they encountered someone who had previously dealt with them and still retained the ability to see them.
In the fairy lore of the Celts, the ‘Good People’ are described as being ruled by a monarchy and included a working class who were permitted to visit human markets and fairs in disguise, or were able to appear to farmers as people seeking to borrow something from them. When seen they were often riding on fine horses, coloured black, white or grey, and with hounds following. In older tales it is indicated that the deer in the forests are the cattle of the fairies. But it is on the quarter days Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa that the ‘Good People’ are said to be particularly active, moving from one hollow hill to another along long-established fairy roads. At Samhain and Bealtaine fairy influence is at its strongest and all mortals should take great care to avoid upsetting them. Bealtaine was known to be a time when the ‘Good People’ travelled the land, appearing as a stranger at the door of various houses asking for milk, or a coal from the fire. By giving these items to the ‘Good People’ it was said the household would have secured good luck for the year ahead. At Samhain, however, they are known to move from their summer to their winter homes in the hollow hills, and it is said that mortals face great danger if they come across them at night, for they are especially active between twilight and midnight. They travel in large bands and, although their parties are never seen in the daytime, there is little difficulty in following their line of march, for it has been reported that, “sure they make the most terrible little cloud of dust ever raised, and not a bit of wind causing it at all,” so that a fairy migration is sometimes the talk of the entire county.
The most malicious fairy host, an airborne tribe, are known to be most active at night, appearing as a wind that is very much feared by the country people. When this wind comes upon them the people avert their eyes from it and pray for safety, because they sometimes take people. These mortals are often taken great distances, where they may be kept forever, helping the ‘Good People’ as they carry out their mayhem and mischief throughout the country.
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are usually invisible to the eyes of mortal people, unless they wish for themselves to be seen, or the mortal has the gift of ‘second sight’. This ability to seem invisible is due to their power to deceive human senses by making one thing appear like another, such as making a handful of leaves being made to look like gold coins. Nevertheless, their movements along fairy paths and roads can be noticed by other means. The ‘Good People’ are known to ride out in procession, or ‘Fairy Raids’, which could prove to be dangerous to any mortal beings that they came across. As they ride out, they can create sudden whirlwinds or sudden blasts of wind, and they are known to present a threat to new brides, midwives and new-born babies.
The ‘Good People’ have the family relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and although it is said by some that fairy husbands and wives have as many little disagreements as are found in mortal households, “for, sure a woman’s tongue is longer than a man’s patience,” and “a husband is bound to be nagged incessantly day in and day out, for a woman’s jaw is sharpened on the devil’s grindstone,” yet opinions unfavourable to married happiness among the fairies are not generally well received. On the contrary, it is believed that married life in fairy circles is regulated on the basis of the absolute submission of the wife to the husband. This particular point was explained by a Donegal woman in this way, “They’re one, that’s the husband and the wife, but he’s more the one than she is.” Meanwhile, the love of children is one of the most prominent traits of fairy character, but as it manifests itself by stealing beautiful babes, replacing them by young ‘Leprechauns’ as changelings, the fairies are much dreaded by mothers along the west coast of Ireland, and they take many precautions against the ‘Fairy Folk’. Thefts of this kind now rarely occur, but at one time they were common, as “in them old days, you could see ten fairies where there isn’t one now, because they are leaving the country.“
A notable case of baby stealing occurred in the family of Termon MacGrath, who had a castle, now in picturesque ruins, on the shore of Lough Erne, in the County Donegal. The person telling the story was a ‘wise woman’ who lived in what was an apology for a cabin. It was, indeed, a thatched shed that had been placed against the precipitous side of the glen almost beneath the castle. The wretched shelter was nearly concealed from view by the overhanging branches of a large tree and by thick undergrowth, and seemed unfit for a pig-sty, but, though her surroundings were poor beyond description, ‘Old Meg,’ as her neighbour said, “knew a great deal about fairies and witches and could keep them from a baby better than any woman that ever drew breath.” Giving her a bit of tobacco, to enable her to take a draw of the pipe, quickly brought out the story. “It’s many years ago, that Termon MacGrath went, with all his army, to the war in the County of Tyrone, and while he was gone the baby was born and they called her Eva. She was her mother’s first, so she felt mighty uneasy in her mind about her, knowing that the ‘Good People’ always go after the first one that comes, and even more when it’s a girl they try harder to steal than when it’s a boy, because they believe that they’re easier to rear, although it’s me that doesn’t believe that one girl makes more trouble than do ten boys and isn’t as good.So, when the baby was born they sent out for an old witch of a widow who had set herself up as a wise woman, and she knew no more about doctoring than a pig, but they thought she could keep away the fairies, and that’s a job that takes one who tries to have no end of knowledge in the fairy folk. But the poor old woman did the best that she knew how, and so, God be good to her, she wasn’t to be blamed for that. But it’s the likes of her that put shame on them that have great knowledge of such things, for they make people think all wise women as ignorant as she is, herself. So she made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead with ashes, and she told them to bite off its nails and not to cut them until nine weeks had passed, and she held a burning candle before its eyes, so it would do the deeds of light and not of darkness, and mixed sugar and salt and oil, and gave it to her, so that her life would be sweet and long preserved and go smooth, but the old widow forgot one thing. She didn’t put a lucky shamrock, that’s got four leaves, in a gospel and tie it around the baby’s neck with a thread pulled out of her gown, and not remembering to do this, all the rest was no good at all. Nor did she tell the mother not to take her eyes off the child until the ninth day, for after that the fairies couldn’t take her. So the nurse took the baby into the next room and laid it on the bed, and went away for a minute, but thinking that she heard it cry, back she came and there was the baby, bedclothes and all just going through the floor, being dragged away by the fairies.The nurse scratched and caught the clothes and the maid helped her, so that the two of them pulled with all their might and got the bedclothes up again, but while the child was out of sight, the fairies changed it and put a fairy child in its place, but the nurse didn’t know what the fairies had done, nor had the old witch, that shows she was an ignorant woman entirely. But the fairies took Eva away under the lake where they treated her wonderfully. Every night they gave her a dance, with the loveliest music that was ever heard, with big drums and little drums, and fiddles and pipes and trumpets, for such a band the ‘Good People’ do have when they give a dance. So she grew and the queen said she should have a husband among the fairies, but she fell in love with an old Leprechaun, and the queen, to prevent such a thing, let her walk on the shore of the lake where she met Darby O’Hoolighan and loved him and married him with the queen’s consent. The queen told her to tell him if he struck her three blows without a reason, she’d leave him and come back to the fairies. The queen gave her a great number of riches, sheep and pigs without number and more oxen than you could count in a week. So, she and Darby lived together as happy as two doves, and she hadn’t as much care as a blind piper’s dog, moreover, they had two boys as good looking as their mother and as strong as their father.
“One day, after they’d been married seventeen years, she and Darby were going to a wedding, and she was slow, so Darby told her for to hurry and gave her a slap on the shoulder with the palm of his hand, and she began to cry. He asked her what was wrong with her and she told him he’d struck her the first of the three blows. So, he was very sorry and said he’d be careful in the future, but it wasn’t more than a year after, when he was teaching one of the boys to use a stick, that she got behind him and got hit with the shillelagh. That was the second blow, and made her lose her temper, and they had a real quarrel. So, he got mad, saying that neither of the blows ought to be counted, for they were both accidental. So, he flung the stick against the wall, ‘Devil take the stick,’ he said, and went out quick, and the stick fell back from the wall and hit her on the head. ‘That’s the third,’ she said, and she kissed her sons and walked out. Then she called the cows in the field and they left their grazing and followed her; she called the oxen in the stalls and they stopped eating and came out; and she spoke to the calf that was hanging in the yard, that they’d killed that morning and it got down and came along. The lamb that was killed the day before, it came; and the pigs that were salted and hanging up to dry, they came, all after her in a string.Then she called to her things in the house, and the chairs walked out, and the tables, and the chest of drawers, and the boxes, all of them put out legs like beasts and came along, with the pots and pans, and gridiron, and buckets, and noggins, leaving the house as bare as an evicted tenant’s, and all after her to the lake, where they went under and disappeared, and haven’t been seen by man to this blessed day.
“Now, there’s some that say the story isn’t true, because, they say how would a woman do such a thing and go off that a way and take everything she had, just because her husband hit her by accident those three times. But those who say it forget that she was a young woman, even if she did have those boys I was telling you about, and faith, it’s no lie I’m saying, that it’s not in the power of the angels of God to be knowing what a young woman will be doing. After they get old, and losing their teeth, and their beauty goes, then they’re sober and get over those notions; but it takes a long time to make an old one out of a young wan.
“But she didn’t forget the boys she’d left, and once in a while she’d come to the edge of the lake when they were close by the bank and spoke with them, for even, if she was half a fairy, she’d a mother’s heart that the good God put in her bosom; and one time they saw her with little man along with her, that was a Leprechaun, as they knew by the look of him, and that makes me believe that the real reason for her leaving her husband was to get back the old Leprechaun she was in love with before she was married to Darby O’Hoolighan.”
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are known to have produced children with humans and in order to procreate they have a nasty habit of stealing a bride from her wedding to marry one of their own kind instead. At some later date they might even kidnap a midwife to assist the bride to deliver the child of her fairy husband. Their penchant for kidnapping new brides is believed to be a result of their low birth rate and the need to increase their population with human babies and women. There are some who mighty dispute this cause, but what other cause could there be for stealing brides and babies, for which they are famed.
Within Irish folklore there are ample stories concerning kidnapped midwives and musicians who are released back into their own world after an agreed time period. Normally, those mortals taken into the fairy realm can never return if the eat or drink anything while there, but this rule does not hold for those who are taken for a pre-determined time period. There are also stories of those who go to the ‘Good People’ for a single night of dancing and entertainment only to emerge the next morning to find that four, forty, or four hundred years have passed in the mortal world.
The fairies commonly made their homes only in raths and Tumuli of Pagan days in Ireland, and, for this reason, the raths are much dreaded, and after sundown are avoided by the ordinary peasant folk. Attempts have been made to remove some of these raths from the landscape, but the unwillingness of the local people to engage in the work, no matter what inducements may be offered to them, has generally resulted in the work being abandoned. It has been reported that on one of the islands in the Upper Lake of Killarney there is a rath, and the proprietor, finding it occupied too much ground, resolved to have it levelled to increase the arable surface of the field. The work was begun, but one morning, in the early dawn, as the laborers were crossing the lake on their way to the island, they saw a procession of about two hundred persons, dressed like monks, leave the island and proceed to the mainland, followed, as the workmen thought, by a long line of small, shining figures. The phenomenon might have been genuine, but a mirage is by no means an uncommon appearance in some parts of Ireland, nevertheless work on the rath was at once postponed indefinitely. Besides raths, old castles, deserted graveyards, ruined churches, secluded glens in the mountains, springs, lakes, and caves are all homes and resorts to fairies, as is very well known on Ireland’s west coast.
As we know, there are many fairy hills and raths that exist throughout the island of Ireland, and between them run fairy roads and paths which are also invisible to mortal eyes. It is traditional that people refuse to build on such roads and paths, because to do so will inevitably bring the builder bad-luck, and often death. It is not such a good idea to disturb the site of the ‘Good Peoples’’ home, and to dig into a fairy mound, or cut down a fairy tree, will certainly bring the disturber misfortune and, perhaps, death. Even in this modern, technologically advanced society that Ireland has become there is still a very strong belief in such things will participate in protests against many road plans if it interferes with fairy trees, raths or mounds. It is also a fact that heavy fines can be placed upon those people who would destroy or damage fairy mounds, even if they are on private property.
The ‘Good People’ can either bless or harm mortals with whom they come into contact, and their gifts could bring great blessings to those who receive them, or they can be simple illusions that become worthless by dawn. In the same way the ‘Fairy Wind’ can bring illness or cause injury to humans including a sudden cramp, or stitch that tradition says is caused by an invisible ‘shot’ from an arrow fired by a disgruntled fairy. In some cases, this ‘Fairy Shot’ might be used against cattle and would cause them to waste away after they are struck, but it was a power that could be granted to witches that are close to the ‘Good People.’ In fact, it was widely believed in Ireland that witches learned their magic arts, for good or bad, from the ‘Good People’ with whom they were believed to closely associate themselves. Such friends of the ‘Fairy Folk’ were, of course, privy taught special knowledge and things like magic and healing. A favoured musician, a harpist or piper, might be given greater skill or particularly good instrument. The main amusements of the fairies consist of music, dancing, and ball-playing. In music their skill exceeds that of men, while their dancing is perfect, the only drawback being the fact that it blights the grass, “fairy-rings” of dead grass, apparently caused by a peculiar fungous growth, being common in Ireland. Although their musical instruments are few, the fairies can use these few with wonderful skill. It is said that near Colooney, in County Sligo, there was a “Wise Woman,” whose grandmother’s aunt once witnessed a fairy ball, the music for which was furnished by an orchestra which the management had no doubt been at great pains and expense to secure and instruct. She stated, “It was the cutest sight alive. There was a place for them to stand on, and a wonderful big fiddle of the size you could sleep in it, that was played by a monstrous frog, and two little fiddles, that two kittens fiddled on, and two big drums, beaten by cats, and two trumpets, played by fat pigs. All around the fairies were dancing like angels, the fireflies giving them light to see by, and the moonbeams shining on the lake, for it was by the shore it was, and if you don’t believe it, the glen’s still there, that they call the ‘Fairy Glen’ to this day.”
The fairies do much singing, usually in chorus, and their songs were formerly more frequently heard than they are today. Even now a belated peasant, who has been at a wake, or is coming home from a fair, in passing a rath will sometimes hear the soft strains of their voices in the distance, and will hurry away before they discover his presence and be angry at the unwelcome intrusion on their privacy. When in unusually good spirits they will sometimes admit a mortal to their celebrations, but should he speak, the scene at once vanishes, he becomes insensible, and generally finds himself by the roadside the next morning, “with that degree of pains in his arms and legs and back, that if sixteen thousand devils were after him, he couldn’t move a toe to save his own soul, that’s what the fairies do by pinching and punching him for coming on them and speaking out loud.”
As previously stated, they might appear as a stranger seeking to borrow something, needing milk or coal from the fire, or be encountered alone in a field or wood, or on a road. Those mortals brave enough to seek them out might choose to sleep on fairy mounds, or raths, or rings, in the knowledge that it would result in either a blessing or madness.
Thankfully, there are a variety of charms to protect us against the ‘Fairy Folk’, which are far too numerous to get into any depth with here. One example of these is – to keep a new mother and her baby safe from the ‘fairies’ they would be given milk from a cow who had eaten a ‘bog-violet’ (mothan). A charm to force a fairy host into releasing anyone they may have taken is to throw the dust from the road, an iron knife, or your left shoe at them and say, “This is yours; that is mine!” (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In those cases where a person is suffering from a bad fairy spell or curse, a ‘Fairy Doctor’ must be found, who is a person who has special knowledge of the fairies. These ‘Doctors’ are able to diagnose the exact cause and produce the appropriate charm, chant, or herb that will cure the unfortunate victim. Farmers, meanwhile, would tie a red ribbon on their cattle or horses as a means of keeping fairies away. Some would tie a rowan twig on to a cow’s tail, or lightly strike the animals with rowan or hazel switches to achieve the same aim. Just as rowan and red thread is known to protect things from fairies, there are other well-known protections, such as anything that is made of iron.
A means of maintaining good relations with the ‘Fairy Folk’ is to offer the gifts such as milk, butter, and bread left by the doorway, or at the roots of a ‘Fairy Tree’, as well as a small amount of whatever one is drinking poured out onto the ground. In some instances, milk might be thrown in the air for the fairies or butter buried near a bog as an offering to them. On holy days, it was customary for some people to offer a heavy porridge that was poured into a hole in the earth, or bread which could be left out, or tossed over the shoulder. Among other people it was customary, on Beltaine, to bleed live cattle and offer the blood collected to the fairies. These days people still make offerings to the ‘Good People’ in certain parts of Ireland which include milk, cream, bread or other baked goods, honey, and portions of meals, as well as alcohol.
In conclusion, it must be pointed out that there appears to be a long standing and complex association between the ‘Fairy Folk’ and the dead. In fact, the dead often appear among the ranks of the ‘Good People’, especially the newly dead. There is also evidence to suggest that better class of fairies are fond of human society and often act as guardians to those they love. In parts of Donegal and Galway they are believed to receive the souls of the dying and escort them to the gates of heaven although they are not allowed to enter with them. On this account, fairies love graves and graveyards, having often been seen walking to and fro among the grassy mounds. There are, indeed, some accounts of faction fights among the fairy bands at or shortly after a funeral, the question in dispute being whether the soul of the departed belonged to one or the other faction.
There are many stories within Irish folklore that feature someone seeing a person whom they thought to be dead. This is often explained by saying that the person in question had not died but was taken by the ‘Fairy Folk’ and a ‘Changeling’ left behind, which was buried in the person’s name. In many stories a person is believed to have died but appears, often in a dream, to a loved one and explains that they have been taken into ‘Fairy Land’ and can only be rescued in a certain way .This rescue plan usually involves the living person going to a crossroads at midnight when the ‘Fairy Raid’ will pass by and grabbing their loved one from the horse he or she is riding.
Giving honour and offerings to the ‘Fairy Folk’ is an important aspect of an Irish folklore customs and are traditions that we would all do well to continue in our modern, scientifically and technologically advanced world. The more kindly fairies often take great pleasure in assisting those who treat them with proper respect, and as the favours always take a practical form, there is sometimes a business value in the show of reverence for them. There was Barney Noonan, of the County Leitrim, for instance, who was described “And no better boy was in the county than Barney. He’d work as regular as a pump and liked a bit of a diversion as well as anybody when he had time for it. That, wasn’t often, to be sure, but he couldn’t be blamed for that, for he wasn’t rich enough by no manner of means to be celebrating regularly. He’d a great regard for the ‘Good People’, and when he went be the rath beyond his field, he’d pull off his cap and take the clay pipe out of his mouth, as polite as a dancing master, and say, ‘God save you, ladies and gentlemen,’ that the ‘Good People’ always heard though they never showed themselves to him.He had a bit of bog land, that the hay was on, and after cutting it, he left it to dry, and the sun came out beautiful and, in a day or so, the hay was as dry as powder and ready to put away. “So Barney was going to put it up, but, it being the day of the fair, he thought he’d take the calf and sell it, and so he did, and coming up with the boys, he stayed over his time, being hindered with the drinking and dancing and chatting-up the girls, so it was after dark when he got home and the night as black as a crow, the clouds gathering on the tops of the mountains likeevil spirits and creeping down into the glens like angels of destruction, and the wind howling like ten thousand Banshees, but Barney didn’t mind it all, being stupefied with the drink he’d had. So the hay never entered the head of him, but in he went and tumbled in bed and was snoring like a horse in two minutes, for he was a bachelor, God bless him, and had no wife to nag him and ask him where he’d been, and what he’d been at, and make him tell a hundred lies about not getting home before. So, it came on to thunder and lightning like all the evil demons in the universe were fighting with cannons in the sky, and by and by there was a clap loud enough to split your skull and Barney woke up.
“‘Damn it,’ says he to himself, ‘it’s going to rain and me hay on the ground. What will I do?’ says he. “So, he rolled over on the bed and looked out of a crack for to see if it was really raining. And there was the biggest crowd he had ever seen of little men and women. They’d built a row of fires from the cow-house to the bog and were coming in a string like the cows going home, each one with his two arms full of hay. Some were in the cow-house, receiving the hay; some were in the field, raking the hay together; and some were standing with their hands in their pockets as if they were the bosses, telling the rest for to make haste. And so, they did, for every one run like he was going for the doctor, and brought a load and hurried back for more.
“Barney looked through the crack at them, crossing himself every minute with admiration for the speed they had. ‘God be good to me,’ says he to himself, ‘It is not every young man in Leitrim that’s got haymakers like them,’ only he never spoke a word out loud, for he knew very well the ‘Good People’ wouldn’t like it. So, they brought in all the hay and put it in the house and then let the fires go out and made another big fire in front of the door and began to dance round it with the sweetest music Barney had ever heard.
“Now by this time he’d got up and feeling easy in his mind about the hay, began to be very merry. He looked on through the door at them dancing, and by and by they brought out a jug with little tumblers and began to drink something that they poured out of the jug. If Barney had the sense of a herring, he’d have kept still and let them drink their fill without opening the big mouth on him, being that he was as full as a goose himself and needed no more; but when he saw the jug and the tumblers and the fairies drinking away with all their might, he got mad and bellowed out like a bull, ‘A-a-h now, you little skites, is it drinking you are, and never giving a sup to a thirsty mortal that always treats you as well as he knows how,’ and immediately the fairies, and the fire, and the jug all went out of his sight, and he went to bed again in a temper. While he was lying there, he thought he heard talking and a secret revelry going on, but when he peeped out again, not a thing did he see but the black night and the rain coming down and each drop would fill a water glass. So, he went to sleep, contented that the hay was in, but not pleased that the ‘Good People’ would be pigs entirely, to be drinking under his eyes and not offer him a taste, no, not so much as a smell of the jug.
“In the morning up he gets and out to look at the hay and see if the fairies put it in right, for he says, ‘It’s a job they’re not used to.’ So, he looked in the cow-house and thought his eyes would leave him when there wasn’t a straw in the house at all. ‘Holy Moses,’ says he, ‘what have they done with it?’ and he couldn’t conceive what had happened to the hay. So he looked in the field and it was all there; bad luck to the bit of it had the fairies left in the house at all, but when he shouted at them, they got very angry and took all the hay back again to the bog, putting every straw where Barney laid it, and it was as wet as a drowned cat. But it was a lesson to him he never forgot, and I’ll guarantee you that the next time the fairies help him in with his hay he’ll keep still and let them drink themselves to death if they please without saying a word.” We should not forget or turn our backs on the ‘Fairy Realm’ that has existed side by side with our own for so many centuries. Honouring the ‘Fairy Folk’ prevents ill-luck befalling us and can bring us good luck and blessings. More importantly it helps us to create a reciprocal relationship between us and the ‘Fairy Folk’ that is based on respect and friendship. Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to know the signs of fairy trouble and how to protect yourself against them or find a ‘Fairy Doctor’ or Wise Woman to help you.
But we must remember that the fairies are by no means so numerous these days as they used to be. It is said their demise began with the rapid spread of National Schools and Father Mathew’s Temperance movement throughout Ireland, for it is known “they hate learning and wisdom and are lovers of nature.” In a few remote districts, where the schools scarce, the ‘Good People’ are still to be found, and their doings are told to us with a childlike faith in the power of these first inhabitants of Ireland, for it seems to be agreed among many researchers that they were in the country long before the coming either of the Gael, or of the English oppressor. So it is, that we mortals humans have a long and complex relationship with the ‘Fairy Folk’ and we must always remember that they are just as present today as they have ever been.
Wedin, W., The Sí, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works, 1998.
Mothers and grandmothers tell us that it is a good thing not to be scared of the fairy folk, or ‘Goodpeople’. If you show no fear toward them then the fairy folk will have less power over you an your actions. It is equally important, however, that you should not show too much familiarity with them, or to totally disregard and disbelieve in their existence. There is nothing more foolish that a man or woman can do than profess their disbelief in the existence of the fairy folk.
Yet another good, traditional piece of advice handed down from the older generation is that: “Good manners is not a burden, and civility toward others costs nothing.” Nevertheless, every day of our lives we encounter people who carelessly disregard doing the civil sort of thing. They do so thinking that they can never harm or hurt themselves, or anyone else. In fact, these same people will actually go out of their way to cause some sort of mischief that cannot ever do them any good. There is an old Irish adage: “Long runs the fox,” which is another way of saying that such people will, sooner or later, learn their lesson and come to know better. Let us consider the story of Tommy Hall, for example, who was a fine, well built boy from Derryard and had a reputation for making mischief.
Tommy Hall was a carefree young man, who would wander from place to place, doing whatever pleased him because he feared nothing and no person. Unlike many of his peers he preferred to travel by night because darkness hid his mischievous ways much better. Stories of ghouls, ghosts, or fairies could not deter him from entering cemeteries, fairy glens, or other places where spirits might lie in wait. Tommy simply did not believe in such things and laughed in the faces of those who did. So deep was his dislike of such superstitions that he never made the sign of the Cross, or wished a person good luck in any new endeavour that they might undertake.
One night Tommy found himself walking home along ‘Kiln Lane’, on the outskirts of Derryard. As he passed the ‘Holy Well’ at the foot of ‘Fern Hill’ he met another man who was walking in the same direction as he was. The stranger was a well dressed man in his forties and walked at a good pace. The night was very dark and the two men walked side by side without much conversation passing between them. In fact, both men barely greeted each other when they first met upon this road. Then Tommy asked the stranger just how far he was going.
“I am not going very far, your way,” said the man who, from his appearance, looked like a farmer. “I am just going to walk to the top of this hill,” he added.
“Why would you want to go there?” asked Tommy, “especially at this time of night.”
“Simple,” replied the man. “I am going to see the good people.”
“The fairies?” Laughed Tommy.
“Be quiet! Keep your voice down as you might just be a sorry man,” said the farmer as he turned off the main road on to a narrow pathway that led up the side of the mountain. “Good Night, young man, and a safe journey home,” he said.
As he watched the stranger start along the narrow path his suspicious mind began to work overtime. “That man is up to good,” Tommy told himself. “Fairies! Absolute nonsense! I am certain that whatever he is up to, it has nothing to do with fairies, Good People. There is something more than superstitious nonsense taking him up that mountain at this time of night.”
Tommy looked again at the stranger as he got further along the path. “Fairies, damn it!” He swore to himself. “What would make a respectable looking man like him be wanting with fairies? I know there are some who believe in such nonsense, but there are many who do not. But, whether they are real or not, they hold no fear over me, no matter how many there might be.”
As all these thoughts rushed through his mind he kept his eyes steadfastly upon the hillside, behind which a full moon was rising brightly. In that bright silver light Tommy could see the figure of a man walking briskly up the path. It was, undoubtedly, the figure of the farmer with whom he had not long parted company. Tommy now resolved to follow the stranger up the hillside. His curiosity and his sense of determination had now reached a peak and he decided to move. Muttering loudly to himself he declared, “I am going to follow you and see exactly what you are up to!”
Although the full moon gave a bright light, it was a difficult task to follow the path that the stranger had taken. Nonetheless, Tommy persevered in his task and was assisted when he occasionally looked up the hillside and saw the man still ahead of him. The time passed quickly as he toiled along that rugged and swampy path, finally coming to a grass covered area at the top of a the hill. But, Tommy was greatly puzzled that there was no sign of the stranger and, despite his best efforts, no trace of him could be found. But, as Tommy searched, he discovered an opening in the hill, which resembled the mouth of a pit. It crossed Tommy’s mind that when he was a young boy he had been told about “The Black Hole of Fern Hill.” In those days the story was told that this hole was actually the entrance to a fairy castle, which was supposed to be hidden within the mountain. The older people within the town recalled the story of a surveyor called O’Hara who had spent weeks mapping the area. It was said that he had come across the pit and tried to measure its depth with a line. They could only surmise that he had been dragged into the depths by the fairies, because he was never heard of again.
This was only one of a series of mysterious tales concerning “The Black Hole” but Tommy disregarded them. “They are just old wives’ tales,” said Tommy to himself and decided since he had taken the trouble to climb the hill he would first knock the castle door and see if the fairies were at home. Tommy took up a large stone from the ground and, using all his strength, he threw the stone down the ‘Black Hole’. He leaned his head over the hole to hear the progress of the stone down the ‘Black Hole’ as it fell down the pit. It bounded and tumbled from one rock to another with a great noise that echoed through the pit. Tommy leaned over the pit a little more to hear it reach the bottom. But, he heard nothing, for the stone was returning up the pit with as much force as Tommy had thrown it down there. Without any signal or warning this large stone hit Tommy a full blow in the face that caused him to be knocked head over heels. Down that hillside Tommy tumbled from one crag to another, much faster than he had climbed the hillside.
It was not until the following morning that Tommy Hall regained consciousness and gingerly made his way home from the foot of ‘Fern Hill’. When he arrived home and looked in the mirror he saw the damage sustained because of his fall. He had broken the bridge of his nose, his head was covered with bruises and cuts, both eyes were swollen shut and as black as a Panda’s eyes. But, Tommy Hall had learned his lesson and never again wandered near possible haunts of fairies after dark. On those rare occasions, after this incident, when he found himself alone in a dark place he would hurriedly and directly make his way home. He never asked questions of strangers and never again sought out the ‘Good People’.