FAIRY FOLKLORE True or False
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.