29. Jul, 2020


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Any person who suspected that one of their own family had been replaced by a ‘Changeling’ or ‘A Stock’ the immediate problem facing them was how they might get their family member away from the fairies.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.”[1]

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.

[1] Lady Wilde, “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland”, Chatto and Windus, London 1919, p.106.