My Culture Spot
Ireland’s Fairy Lore
True of False
Part Six - “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."
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Part Five - “The Irish Fairy”
Isn’t it true that by looking into the past, we can gain a better understanding of the present conditions in which we find ourselves? The one major advantage of looking into the past is that it is easier to examine the actions and instincts of a people at a specific time in history when the conditions of life were less complex than they are now. Once we have considered these actions carried out in simpler times, we are better able to understand human actions, even in the complicated circumstances of modern life.
When we look back into Ireland’s past, we discover that there was little, if any, distinction made between the supernatural beings that ‘exist’ and the spirits of the dead. The minds of people in Ireland, however, been influenced greatly by the rise of Christianity in our world which has caused modern man to separate the spiritual from the supernatural. But, the Irish peasantry of earlier times found it to be extremely difficult to envisage a beneficent spirit and, therefore, the characters they gave to these spirits were simply reflections of themselves. Then, the rise of Religious beliefs, old and new, brought a fear of the unknown to the simple people of the time. It is hard to believe now, but there was a period of time when an Irishman, from his birth until his death, would have allowed his life to be controlled by superstition, priests, and prophets. We know, from ancient tales and stories, that the only supernatural beings that the native Irish believed in or feared were the dead spirits from their own tribe or clan. They also held a fear of the spirits of the dead members of another tribe or clan because these were considered to be hostile enemies, both malevolent and malign. It was known, for example, that on occasion a burial would require a slave, an enemy, or a stranger to be slain and their corpse to be buried as a means of haunting the burial place and frightening away the curious.
Among ignorant and savage people there is little or no distinction between good and bad spirits, varying only when their characters are envisaged in the flesh. When the spirits are divided into the good and the malignant, they are often further developed into superhuman beings that are often described as gods or demons. This has led, in modern times, to alleged apparitions of ghosts, or spirits, being generally divided into various categories, including those produced by religious fraud or gross imposture, and those which are the product of the imagination, and occasioned anxiety of mind, overwork of the brain, or illness.
It has been suggested that fear of the living helps to maintain the social framework, while fear of the unseen preserves the religious framework society. In our modern times, many who would verbally deny the existence of spirits will still demonstrate by fear their belief in their presence. The savages of this world will worship those beings that convey ideas of fear or dread among them. But the worship of beings who contribute to a society’s wants and necessities is also frequently seen among the uncivilised as well as the semi-civilised societies of the world. A woman might give adoration to all those articles and implements which assist her in carrying out her household duties, or a carpenter will give homage to the tools of his trade, as does a soldier to the arms he bears, or a mason to his trowel, and a ploughman to his plough.
Within Ireland some researchers, for example Professor O'Curry (1794-1862), in his Lectures on the ‘Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History’, divides the fairy folk into two distinct classes, i.e., the bona fide fairies or demons and the magic race of the Tuatha de Danann, who, after being conquered by the Milesians, transformed themselves into fairies. Meanwhile, it is said that in the North of Ireland, fairies appear to be of a larger stature and more uncouth than elsewhere in the country. Among them there are accounts of a fairy called ‘Grogan’ that is small, hairy, with broad shoulders, and is said to be extremely strong. Also, in the Province of Ulster, the peasant farmers of the day on which rain mingled with sunshine would occasionally declare, "The good people are baking to-day," which alludes to the apparently unlimited supply of water for moistening the flour and of the sun’s heat for baking the fairy dough.
Today, many people don’t believe in the ‘Good People’ because they have never seen them. But we should be always bear in mind that, although the fairies are invisible to mortals in daylight, they still make careful study of all that occurs, and especially anything that might be of particular interest to themselves. It is, therefore, inadvisable to mention them by the names of “fairies” or “The Little People”, for they prefer to be spoken of respectfully as “The Good People”. It is simple desire to gain the favour of beings that are known to possess a malignant nature, or a wish to avoid offending benign spirits with words of ill omen. In many areas of the country weasels, or stoats, are greatly disliked by the farming community. These creatures are supposed to steal milk from cows, to spit fire, and to be endowed with power to injure both man and beast. But the farmer, once he sees such a creature, prefers to gain its favour and will often raise his hat and addresses it in a pleasant, polite manner.
Many people who believe in the existence of fairies also believe that ‘The Good People’ are a mix of both human and spirit natures. This belief stems from an effort by the Irish peasantry to reconcile heathen and Christian teachings, which brought about the ill-defined belief that fairies are fallen spirits, driven from heaven, and condemned to dwell on earth until the day of judgment. The legend states that at the time of Satan's rebellion some angels remained true to their allegiance, others sided with Lucifer, whilst a third party remained neutral. When the rebellion was quashed those who had sided with the Almighty remained in heaven, those who had fought against Him were cast into the nether regions of Hell, while the neutral group were seen to be unfit for either heaven or hell and were compelled to dwell in rocks and hills, seas and lakes, bushes and thickets, where they would remain until the day of judgment. There remains some disagreement among the rural population of Ireland whether these former angels will ever have even a remote chance of salvation on the day of judgement. It is thought that the fairies themselves have serious doubts regarding their future, although they maintain a hope that they will be restored to happiness in Heaven. These doubts are thought to be the cause of their enmity towards mortal men, whom they believe are certain of gaining eternal happiness in Heaven with the Almighty. Thus, the actions of the fairies are balanced by a mixture of good and evil, and their passions are often as vindictive as their inclinations are generous and humane.
At one time, on ‘May Eve’, the peasants would drive all their cattle into old ‘Raths’, or forts, thought to be much frequented by the fairies, bleed them, taste the blood, and pour the remainder on the earth. Men and women were also bled, and their blood sprinkled on the ground, but this practice has long ago died out. On occasion, when it was thought a cow fell sick through fairy malice, it was not uncommon practice in the West of Ireland to devote the ailing animal to St. Martin. The ritual was performed by simply letting a few drops of blood from the cow in honour of the saint and, if it recovered, the animal would never be sold or killed, as it would dishonour the blessed saint if it was to die any other way but naturally.
A small cup of the thick new milk given by a cow after calving, if it is poured on the ground, especially in the interior of a Rath, or fort, is supposed to appease the anger of the offended fairies. Before drinking, a farmer would often spill a small portion of the milk on the earth, as a complimentary drink to ‘The Good People’. The same principle of a first oblation is carried out in a cure for heartburn. The sufferer, on consulting an " herb-doctor," is usually given an egg, with instructions to boil it, chip the shell and throw the first spoonful on the ground, and eat the remainder. This process must be gone through on three successive days, to ensure the charm will be successfully completed.
Even today, in some areas of Ireland, harvest-time is still a remarkable time for getting frequent glimpses of fairy cavalcades. On a stormy day, the swirls of dust that are raised by the wind along the rural roads are considered by the locals as a sign that a fairy parade of fairies is travelling from one ‘Rath’ to another. When seen the locals pay them the same marks of respect are given to the invisible fairy horsemen as if the dust had been raised by a procession of the Lords and Ladies. Some people will throw tufts of grass, pieces of sticks, or even small pebbles into the centre of the dust swirls as an offering to appease ‘The Good People’ as they pass.
On the calm summer evening it is known that the fairies often go out hunting, and the faint sound of their tiny horns, the baying of their fairy hounds, the galloping of fairy horses, the cracking of whips, and the shouts of the fairy hunters, it is said, can be distinctly heard, for their swift movement through the air generates a noise that resembles the loud humming of bees as they swarm from the hive. Travelling through the air upon rushes instead of upon borrowed horses is common in the history of ‘The Good People’ the occurrence in fairy history, but a blade of grass, a straw, a fern root, or a cabbage stalk are equally adapted for steeds. But these articles must be cut to simulate a real horse. It is also believed that those people afflicted with "falling sickness ", or epilepsy, are merely suffering from the great tiredness caused by the long journeys that they are forced to take, night after night, with the fairies, mounted on cabbage stumps. Just like Shakespeare’s Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, they are said to -
" Skim milk, sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn."
Such a thing can be prevented, and the butter made to rise, by nailing a horseshoe on the bottom of the churn, for it is well known that an iron horseshoe, or indeed an iron article of any kind, is a potent charm to keep the fairies away.
Part Four - “The Fairy Doctor”
‘Fairy Doctors’ can be either male or female, but they are all completely immersed in fairy lore, which enables them to act as intermediaries between the mortal and fairy worlds. The ‘Fairy Doctor’ talks to the ‘Good People’ in a language that they could understand and because of their closeness to the fairy folk they became wise and gained the power of prophecy. Because they possessed these powers the ‘Fairy Doctors’ were sought for their advice when the human community had a problem with the ‘Good People’. They were also consulted to help track down lost items, and also in dealing with non-fairy related illnesses. On occasion they would be engaged as vets or be asked to counteract witchcraft.
During their stay with the Fairy Folk the ‘Fairy Doctors’ were bestowed with powers that could enable them to deal with many mortal problems. Their average period of residence with the ‘Good People’ was usually seven years, although there were some who claimed longer periods in their company. Edward Daly, for example, to whom we have referred above in driving out a ‘changeling’ insisted that he had lived among the ‘Good People’ for fourteen years. Nevertheless, whatever the length of their residence with the fairy folk, the ‘Fairy Doctors’ spent their time acquainting themselves with the secret knowledge of how to see into the future by means of a crystal ball, and the use of various herbs in many medicines and charms.
In their communities the ‘Fairy Doctor’ was of similar standing to a ‘Witch Doctor’ and acted a link between the mortal and spiritual world. Even when they left the fairy realm the ‘Doctors’ would meet their fairy contacts regularly at the ‘Raths’ or along the local lanes and boreens. Some of these ‘Doctors’, however, were above or beyond conducting some ‘scams’ and ‘confidence tricks’ that would enrich them at the expense of the ignorant. There are some accounts that show how some of the ‘Fairy Doctors’ were nothing short of being criminals, bleeding vulnerable men and women dry of the meagre resources in the most despicable of ways. Yet, there were others who did have the best interests of those who asked for their help at heart. Unfortunately, the sins of the few often taint everyone and in a rural communities in which they practised there were many long-running conflicts between the ‘Fairy Doctors’, the clergy and the forces of the law. In fact there were quite a few who were forced by circumstances to live an itinerant style of life, with some finally settling within the city limits of Dublin.
An infamously crooked ‘Fairy Doctor’ called Mary Bourke lived in County Clare and was said to travel from place to place with the spirit of her dead brother within her. To strengthen her claims to be a ‘Fairy Doctor’ Mary told everyone she met that she had spent seven years among the ‘Good People’ learning all their secrets. From place to place the peasants would gather to hear her prophesy. She would first fall in a faint and, when she recovered, she would encourage the gathering by telling them that her fainting was the means by which the ‘Good People’ transmitted their messages to her. Eventually, while travelling through County Mayo, Mary’s activities were very rapidly brought to the attention of the law. She had been asked to treat an ill-tempered mule in a village where it caused a lot of damage. When Mary undertook to cure the mule, she also made a promise that she would bring a dead young man back from the fairies. As part of her preparations to rescue the young man, Mary put the family on a special diet and news of what she intended to do encouraged hundreds of local peasants to gather to witness the extraordinary event. On the day of the promised rescue Mary took a black-handled knife and walked around in the company of young female followers. She also made up a mix of water and blackberry juice that she could throw at any fairies that might oppose her rescue efforts. As the village busied itself in final preparations for the great rescue, Mary used the hustle and bustle of the people to escape before her scam was discovered. She was, however, caught very quickly by the disillusioned villagers and immediately handed over to the authorities.
During 1848, in County Westmeath, a woman who claimed to be ‘The Queen of the Fairies’ was taken to court for stealing and in open court the victim of the theft and the woman’s husband testified to all that she had said to them -
“(The Queen) come in and pulls out her clay pipe (dhudeen) and puts some quare things into it, and commences smoken; she soon begins to puff, puff, like mad, just as if she was going to change herself into a steam-indian; her two liven eyes began to blaze, like two coals in a fire; up she starts, all in a suddint, and places her arms akimbo, and spreaden herself out fornents me, like a frustrated turkey-cock; I’m yer mother, ses she; begor I am dam-founded with consternation, at the idaya of haven me mother afore me, who’s dead and gone to glory long ago, the bed of heaven to her; haven recovered from exstonishment, I ses to her, you can’t be mother, for the dear dacent woman is dead this long time, may God be merciful to her sowl; oh, but I am your mother, ses she, and I’m nayther dead nor alive, but I am the Queen of the Fairies; cross of Christ about us, ses I , a cowld thrimblin creepin all over me, from head to foot; yes, I am Queen of the Fairies, ses she, and ‘twas I that ordered Dick’s other two wives to me palace at Knockshegowna (a famous fairy fort), there above Birr, and if you don’t be obajient to me command, I’ll send you to keep company with them.”
Then, at the end of the case, she was told by the judge that she would be sent to prison for four months the paper recorded her response -
“her Fairy Majesty seemed not at all disturbed; she assured his worship that beyond any manner of doubt she was Queen of all the Fairies in the British Dominions, and if he confined her under 365 bars, bolts and locks, still she would be ‘as free as the breeze that blows over the mountain.’ It was true that she would leave a breathing, something in shape and form like herself, as a substitute during the eight months, but to think for a moment that they had her real, living, identical self in ‘durance vile’, would be the most absurd of all the extraordinary absurdities of the day.”
 ‘Borris in Ossory Quarter Sessions’, Westmeath Independent, 28th October 1848. Downloaded from the British Newspaper Archive, July 2020.
 As above in 10
Part Three - “Fairy Kidnapping”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the relationship between the Sidhe and Mortals is that both beings need each other to survive. Mortal humans need the Sidhe to ensure continuing good crops, the ability to heal illnesses, and to live a peaceful, happy life. Meanwhile, the Sidhe depend upon their mortal neighbours to leave food and clean water to sustain them. They also ensured that their homes were clean, warm, and welcoming for any fairy folk that might visit during the night. But the ‘Fairy Folk’ needed mortals for more practical purposes, to ensure their survival by working as midwives and wet nurses, warriors, musicians, and servants. Yet, despite being so reliant on mortal beings, the ‘Fairy Folk’ held a certain degree of contempt for them. The ‘Fairy Folk’, nevertheless, continue to employ humans and gather them from their mortal existence through kidnap.
In the fairy world the kidnapping of a human being is not just a random act, for those who are taken are already earmarked for a role within the fairy realm. Selections are usually made from attractive babies and infants, young women, especially those who had just given birth, and young men who were talented musicians or hurlers. As soon as the ‘Good People’ had targeted a likely victim they would prepare by first deciding how they would carry out the act, and who or what they would use as a replacement for their victim that would prevent the family realising their loss immediately. For replacements they could choose an elderly fairy transformed into the shape of their victim through magic (Changeling) or transform a simple object into the shape of a human corpse for burying (a Stock).
A family might become suspicious that one of their own had been kidnapped if, for example, a baby, a child, or a young adult should suddenly change physically or mentally, indicating that a ‘Changeling had taken their place. The many descriptions of this that have been recorded suggest that these changes were often connected to illness. These ‘Changelings’ have consistently been described as having chronic health conditions, and in most cases loses or, if an infant, never gains the ability to walk.
Any person who suspected that one of their own family had been replaced by a ‘Changeling’ or ‘A Stock’ the immediate problem facing them was how they might get their family member away from the fairies. Their first task was to contact a ‘Fairy Doctor’, who was mortal person with a great deal of knowledge about the ‘Good People’ and their ways, and once engaged it was left to the ‘Fairy Doctor’ to deal with the matter and negotiate with the ‘Fairy Folk’ for the return of ther family member. Admittedly, most of these negotiations ended without gaining any positive result and the ‘Fairy Doctor’ brought only consoling messages back to the family. Lady Wilde, the famous folklorist related one incident, describing how a young man had suddenly died on ‘May Eve’, but his family knew that rather than being dead he had been carried off to a ‘Fairy Rath’. The family immediately employed the services of the ‘Fairy Doctor’, who told them that he would have the young man back among in nine days –
“Now on the ninth day a great crowd assembled to see the young man brought back from Fairyland. And in the midst stood the ‘Fairy Doctor’ performing his incantations by means of fire and a powder which he threw into the flames that caused grey smoke to arise. Then, taking off his hat, and holding a key in his hand, he called out three times in a loud voice ‘Come forth! Come forth! Come forth!’ On which a shrouded figure slowly rose up in the midst of the smoke, and a voice was heard answering, ‘Leave me in peace; I am happy with my fairy bride, and my parents need not weep for me, for I shall bring them good luck, and guard them from evil evermore.’
“Then the figure vanished, and the smoke cleared, and the parents were content, for they believed the vision, and having loaded the ‘Fairy Doctor’ with presents, they sent him away home.”
In those cases, were there was a ‘changeling’ the ‘Fairy Doctor’ would usually advise the family to take brutal steps in order to rid themselves of it. If a ‘changeling’ was mistreated and abused sufficiently his fairy family would be horrified and would return the human victim to reclaim their own. It was precisely because of this that it became commonplace to mentally and physically abuse those who were suspected to be ‘changelings’, although they might only be children with severe health problems that caused them to act so strangely. They would be beaten, hit and cut with iron, burned severely, dunked into cold water, exposed to the elements, and even poisoned. In fact, there are many court records of such treatment being administered to family members who came under suspicion by their parents or relations.
In those cases, were there was a ‘changeling’ the ‘Fairy Doctor’ would usually advise the family to take very brutal steps to rid themselves of it. It was believed that if a ‘changeling’ was mistreated and abused with great force the ‘fairy folk’ would be sufficiently horrified to bring back their human captive and reclaim the ‘changeling’ that they had left in the captive’s place. As a
result of such beliefs it became normal for families to mentally, and physically, abuse those whom they suspected of being ‘changelings’, ignoring the possibility that they might only have been children with severe health problems. The abuse would involve the beating and cutting with iron implements, suffering severe burns, and dunking in ice cold water, subjection to exposure to the elements and even poisoning. Reading through court records of the period reveals that there were many accounts of such treatment being inflicted upon family members by suspicious parents and relatives.
Unfortunately, not all cases of families employing ‘Fairy Doctors’ went as well as that described above. One such case was recorded in an issue of ‘The Spectator’ on 17th September 1864 with an account of court proceedings held in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. On this occasion the ‘Fairy Doctor’ was called Mrs. Mary Doheny, who was accused of falsely advertising her alleged activities with the local fairies. Evidence suggested that Mary had convinced two local families that several of their departed relations were not dead but being held by the ‘fairy folk’. Mary was said to have told the families that she alone could bring them back to their families if they would donate food and tobacco to the cause.
According to fairy lore at this time it was believed that mortals who ate fairy food were destined to stay with the ‘Good People’ forever. Mary, and others like her, said that the family donations of food would assist the victims of fairy kidnapping not to eat any food given to them by their fairy captors. The head of one family, persuaded by Mary Doheny, was a policeman called Joseph Reeves and with his son Mary took him to a place where she pointed out several figures walking in a field whom, she said, were their dead family members. Joseph Reeves, despite being a policeman, did not check if these were what Mary described but was totally convinced by Doheny’s claims. Even at the subsequent trial in Carrick-on-Suir Reeves remained totally loyal to Mary Doheny, which resulted in his complete humiliation and forced retirement from the police. In his evidence to the trial Joseph stated that, through Mary Doheny’s services, he had received several letters from the ‘Fairy Rath’ that promised he would acquire land in the near future.
There were other tricksters in the country who were able to convince families that they were their dead children or spouses, and that they had escaped the clutches of the ‘Fairy Folk’. Many of the readers may wonder just how intelligent people could fall so easily for such tricks. You should remember, however, that these people may have spent many long years seeking out some word about what had happened their lost relatives. Because of the prevalence of ‘fairy lore’, differences in appearance was often explained by the passing of years and the magical abilities of the ‘Good People’ to transform a person.
When the children of a family did not thrive, or when an adult would suddenly fall ill, the ‘Fairy Doctor’ would often be called upon to ascertain if these were ‘changelings’ or not. If he identified a ‘changeling’ the ‘Fairy Doctor’ would immediately begin the brutal and ritualistic abuse of the suspected creature. An excellent account of the treatment was written in Kilkenny during 1834, describing in detail just how ‘changelings’ were put to the test. The report tells of a young, adolescent girl called Brown who had suddenly taken ill with ‘Brain Fever’ while working in the fields. The local medical doctor could do nothing to heal the suffering of the girl and the family decided that they should call upon a ‘Fairy Doctor’ called Edward Daly, who was also a house painter. Daly had gained some recognition as a ‘Fairy Doctor’ after claims that he had lived with the fairy folk for many years and had learned much about their ways. He was taken into the girl’s sick room where he spoke to the patient in a gruff voice, “Ha, my old boy, it’s well I know you, and so I may for I was long enough with you --- and you know me well too, and many the time I whistled I whistled for you when I was with you.” Daly had allegedly recognised the fairy who was supposed to have taken over the young girl’s body.
Daly roughly dragged the half-naked girl out of her bed by her hair, flogged her wickedly with a wet towel, punched her viciously, and stamped on her many times. Eventually the poor girl died because of the treatment she had suffered, and Daly was subsequently summoned to the local court where, surprisingly, the young girl’s family supported his actions and were very reluctant to testify against him. Edward Daly, fearing the worst, had made himself scarce before the trial began, but at least one witness suggested that the girl’s family were afraid to testify against Daly on the grounds that he might turn them all into fairies. This case, however, was just one of thirty that involved serious mistreatment of alleged ‘changelings’ and were recorded throughout the nineteenth century. But such cases were reported only after those alleged ‘changelings’ had been killed.
There were occasions when so-called ‘Changelings’ were dealt with only by their own family members and not the ‘Fairy Doctors’. Often these members of the family had already been pushed to the very edge of madness by circumstances and in this state of mental instability they acted with great violence and often killed the ‘changeling’. When they were subsequently taken to court many of them were acquitted on the grounds of insanity, which is not so surprising when you consider the fact that the ‘Fairy Folk’ often featured in insanity cases within Ireland during the nineteenth century. It cannot be denied that in many cultures deeply ingrained supernatural traditions can be the trigger for mental illness.
 Lady Wilde, “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland”, Chatto and Windus, London 1919, p.106.
WHO ARE THE FAIRY FOLK?
History has always been a popular subject for study because it shows the actions of human beings based on the principles and instincts prevalent at a time when the conditions of life were less complex than they are today. Then, having obtained this knowledge of these actions in simpler times, they provide us with a valuable clue as to what can be done, even in the more complicated circumstances of modern life. We might even speak about distinct historic ages when, in truth, there is no real distinction as the world glides from one age into the next, like an old year is followed by the new. In those earlier ages of the world civilisation made no distinction between supernatural beings and the spirits of the dead, which moved freely among us. The distinction that now exists to separate the fairy folk and their like from us is the result of the spread and influence of Christian teaching. To some the idea of a beneficent spirit is foreign to their minds and ascribe to them the unconscious reflections of their own individual natures.
The main result of religious teaching appears to be fear of the unknown, and this is true of the ancient worship performed by the Irish as it is with the spread of Christianity in this island. From birth until death man has always been a slave to his superstitions. In sickness and health, in peace or in war, mankind looks for guidance and counsel to a spirit being that combines in himself the functions of priest, prophet, and physician. But we cannot mock such beliefs because we would only be mocking ourselves for the frenzy of the shaman, the ecstasy of the saint, and the antics of revivalists all have their origins in ancient superstitions. In fact, it appears the only supernatural beings or spirits that the ancient people believed in or truly feared were the dead that belonged to his own clan or tribe. Although the spirits of the dead from another clan were thought to be a source of harm, they only held an all prevailing dread of the spirits of their own dead. It is said that such beliefs were the reason why, when hiding their treasure, the pirates of the sixteenth century would often kill someone and bury them as guardians. They believed that the ghost of the slain person would haunt the burial place and frighten away those who would seek the treasure.
In the heart of the savage man there is no distinction made between good and bad spirits and are only considered to be so by their actions when met. It is an advantage to us, therefore, for spirits to be divided into the good and the malignant, and an even greater advantage when they can be further classed into beings of superhuman character and can be described as either gods or demons. In our more modern times, alleged sightings of ghosts and other spirits is usually put down to the result of religious fanaticism or fraud; simply the product of and imagination caused by great anxiety, overwork, or illness. Perhaps it is our fear of the living that helps preserve the framework of our society, while our fear of the unseen preserves the framework of our religious beliefs. That sort of fear demonstrated by a child when it is alone in the dark, and the fear which can fill a person passing by a churchyard at night, demonstrate to us all the sentiment which was brought to man in the days of their most primitive religious beliefs. Today, there are many who deny the existence of spirits, but continue to show their belief in the presence of these spirits by their fears. Many primitive societies continue to worship those beings that instill them with fear and dread, as well as those beings they believe contribute to their needs. In some societies a woman pays homage to rain as a creation spirits and offers sacrifices to it, as well as paying homage to the implements that help reduce their labour in the fields and in the home.
Within Irish folklore the fairy folk have been divided into two distinct classes; The demons and the magic race of the ‘Tuatha de Danann’, who, after being conquered by the Milesians, transformed themselves into fairies. It should be always borne in mind, however, that although fairies are invisible to all in daylight, they continue to keep close observation of all that happens, and especially anything that is of concern to them. Moreover, it is extremely inadvisable to mention them by name and so people often resort to describing them as ‘The Good Folk’, or the ‘Little People.’ In many areas of the country stoats were greatly dreaded by the ordinary country folk, for they were supposed to steal milk from cows, to spit fire, and to be endowed with the power to injure both man and beast. Here again, however, the idea that these animals have a malign purpose would persuade a countryman, when seeing a weasel, to tip his hat and address it in Irish as "pretty lady". Within our folklore, when a man comes across something he dreads and feels powerless to control he seeks to appease it.
The people of this country have, through the ages, tried to reconcile heathen and Christian traditions when it comes to the fairy folk. As a result, they continue to hold on to their ill-defined belief that the Sidhe (Shee) are fallen spirits, driven from heaven, and condemned to dwell on earth until the day of judgment. The legend says that, at the time of Satan's rebellion in heaven, some angels remained true to their allegiance, others sided with Lucifer, whilst a third group remained neutral. At the end of the rebellion, those who sided with the Almighty remained in heaven, and those who fought against Him were cast into Hell. But those who had remained neutral, were deemed unfit for either heaven or hell and were compelled to dwell in the rocks and hills, seas and lakes, bushes, and thickets. It was in these places that they were to remain until the day of judgment, when they hope that they will have the chance of salvation. Like many mortals, they are said to have grave doubts about their future, although they have hope to be restored to their previous happy position in heaven. It is for this reason that they begrudge mankind, whom they are sure will be certain of eternal life in heaven. The actions of the fairies, therefore, are a mixture of good and evil. While their passions are often vindictive, their inclinations are generous and humane in equal amounts.
On landing in Ireland, the fairy folk found ready made places in which to live within the ancient ring forts, also known as ‘Fairy Raths’, which are to be found all over the island. In these ‘Raths’ the fairy folk settled into a way of life that mirrored the life being lived by the mortals around them. Like their human neighbours they had marriages, births, and even deaths among their own kind. Death means they were not immortal, and it is possible that the gift of immortality given to them by God was withdrawn by God after the attitude they had displayed during Lucifer’s rebellion. In her book, ‘Ulster Folklore’, Elizabeth Andrews records the following – “While, as we have seen, the fairies are endowed with many supernatural qualities, they have much in common with ordinary mortals; there are fairy men, fairy women, and fairy children. I have more than once heard of a fairy’s funeral; they intermarry with mortals, and I have been told that those who bear the name of ‘Ferris’ are descended from fairies. I presume ‘Ferris’ is a corruption of ‘Fir Sidhe’. Fairies are never associated with churchyards, nor are they usually looked on as the spirits of the departed.”
There are also stories that tell us that the underground fairy kingdoms were often filled with feasting and other celebrations that would occasionally spill over into the world of the mortals. There are numerous reports of passers-by hearing magical music, dancing, and the playing of games that entertained the ‘Good People’. These reports commonly involve night-time encounters when Humans would approach a ‘Rath’ carefully and quietly. Any human foolish enough to fall asleep on the ‘Rath’, it was said, would be kidnapped, or ‘shot’ by angry fairies whose missiles could maim mortal beings. Moreover, those who dared to damage the ‘Raths’, or the ‘Fairy Trees’ that often grown within them, would risk the worst of the anger from the ‘Good People’ and would bring very serious consequences, including death.
There are plenty of accounts of the ‘Good People’ showing their extreme displeasure and in the middle of the nineteenth century a local historian carefully recorded one particular event. This involved a white hawthorn tree (Fairy Tree), which was standing within a half destroyed ‘Rath’ located in central Ireland. It is said that a tenant farmer foolishly took the decision to cut the ‘Fairy Tree’ down and remove it because he considered it an obstacle to his cattle grazing, despite warnings from neighbours to leave it in place. The resident clan of ‘Good People’ in that ‘Rath’ retaliated by killing all the man’s cattle, and then his children. By their actions, the ‘Good People’ resident in that ‘Rath’ had placed the farmer and his family in utter poverty, which quickly led to their eviction from their home. The stump of the tree, however, soon began to sprout fresh leaves and branches, but the family that took up the vacant tenancy would not prosper from its revival. One member of the new family took it upon themselves to chop one of the new branches off the tree, which reignited the fury of the resident fairy folk. As punishment a family member suffered a broken arm and another became insane, causing the entire family to find somewhere else to live. This brought a third family to the farm, who were more fortunate than their predecessors and were still on the farm when the local historian recorded the story many years later. During their tenancy they were unlucky enough to accidentally knock the hawthorn tree over and, in their terror at what might happen, they made every possible effort to lift the tree back in place. It is assumed that the ‘Good People’ recognised the fact that the damage had been accidental, and that the family had made every effort to restore it to its original condition. Nevertheless, the tenant farmer lost two cows, had one son crippled, and was driven into poverty.
Now, even in modern day Ireland, the decision to cut down or remove a ‘fairy thorn’ is ill-advised and often proves to be fateful. At the beginning of December 1977 my new wife’s uncle was working with the tractor in his fields, which contained a ‘fairy fort’ and a ‘fairy thorn’. The farm itself was quite extensive and was among the most prosperous in the district. As he worked in the fields, Uncle John accidentally damaged the tree, knocking it down from the place it had stood for many generations. John was concerned because of local superstitions surrounding the fairies, and several neighbours suggested that he be careful when in that field over the coming days and weeks. Just a few days after the accident, while working in the field, the tractor overturned, and John was killed. From that moment the family was driven apart by arguments and selfish desires, which saw the family land sold-off and all that is left is an abandoned home stood in about one acre of ground.
From what we have seen, ‘Raths’ are central to the existence of the ‘fairy folk’ in Ireland, but we must also recognise that their powers extend well beyond these ‘fairy forts’ to the country as a whole. There is a newspaper report in April 1863, which concerns a farmer who was ploughing his field when he had a sudden and curious experience. Without warning a hole opened up in the ground just in front of the horse pulling the plough, and into this large hole the horse disappeared. The farmer, naturally, ran forward to the large hole and saw that his horse lay dead in a pool of water some fifty feet below him.
This had been an unexpected and extraordinary event for the farmer and news of what happened attracted a large crowd of locals to see the ‘fairy hole’ that the ‘Sidhe’ had created. The locals were sure that the ‘Good People’ had opened up a doorway into their world, dragging the horse into it. Some of those who had gathered claimed they could see figures moving around at the bottom of the hole, though it may have been reflections in the water of those people at the surface. At least one observer, however, insisted that they were Fairies mocking those who were gazing down the hole.
It was common in the mid-nineteenth century rural areas of Ireland for the peasantry to describe unusual or extraordinary events as being the work of the fairies. There were other reports published in the local newspapers prior to that described above. One such report described a house that had been built in just twenty-four hours and came to be known in the local area as the house built by the fairies in one night. Several years later, in another part of the country, there was a large hole that appeared in a ‘Rath’ overnight. From its size locals said that it would have taken at least twenty men many hours to excavate, and some suggested it might be due to men reclaiming hidden weapons for use in an uprising. Most locals, however, claimed that the huge hole couldn’t be anything but the work of the ‘Good People’. The strangest incident, however, happened in Youghal where a wall was being constructed as a barrier to the sea. Unfortunately, the wall kept being washed away by the sea and this became so frequent that the local people said that it was the work of fairies who opposed the construction. There was a deep-seated fear that grew among the local people and there was no one who would work on the wall because they were afraid of what might happen to them. Finally, there was another incident in County Cork where a church fell down three times while under construction. It was alleged that the ground on which the church was to be built was enchanted and belonged to the fairy-folk. As if to confirm this there were statements from people who said that they had heard various strange noises on the night the church collapsed.
With the Irish peasantry of the mid-nineteenth century so enmeshed in fairy lore there was a certainty among them that the fertility of the land was dependent on the ‘Good People’. During the ‘Great Irish Potato Famine’ that ravaged the country between 1845 and 1850 the population of Ireland was halved through starvation and emigration, both voluntary and forced. The staple food of the Irish peasants at this time was the potato and they believed that it was the anger of the fairies that brought the dreaded blight to the potato crop.
Lady Augusta Gregory, a famous Irish folklorist and friend to W.B. Yeats, related a story that she was told – “Last year I was digging potatoes and a man came by, one of them, and one that I knew well before. And he said, ‘You have them this year and we’ll have them the next two years.’ And you know the potatoes were good last year and you see that they are bad now, and have been made away with… And the sister told me that half the food in Ireland goes to them, but if they like they can make out of cow dung all they want, and they can come into a house and use what they like and it will never be missed in the morning.’ Lady Gregory added, “I have been told that a great battle for potatoes preceded the ‘Great Famine’. What decays with us seems to come out, as it were, on the other side of the picture and is the spirits/ property.”
Lady Gregory also relates another story that she was told – “One time I was out putting seed in the ground, and the ridges all ready and the seaweed spread in them; and it was a fine day, but I heard a storm in the air, and the I knew by the signs that it was they who were coming. And they came into the field and tossed the seaweed and the seed about, and I spoke to them civil and they went into a neighbour’s field, and from that down to the sea, and there they turned into a ship, the grandest I ever saw.”
 See Note 1
 ‘The Fairy Hole at Curraghagoil’, reported in The Roscommon Journal, April 1863
 Ref: Simon Young; Paper ‘Nineteenth-century Irish Fairy lore, downloaded from Academia website June 2020.
 Lady Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, G.P. Putnam and Sons, New York and London, 1920: Pgs. 109-110
 Ibid p.118.