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Irish Fairies

by Teresa Martin


This plot of land where I stood

reminded me of my childhood in Ireland, and of the legends that brewed there. Especially, of the fairy folk. The fairies I knew, were derived from the myths and lore of Celtic lands.  We heard about these stories in school, teachers used them to warn us into submission, saying the pooka, or boogie man, would come. Friends added to the terror, telling me tales of fairy antics resulting in more than a few sleepless nights.  This fairy-inspired terror particularly recurred when I cycled home from piano lessons on dark winter afternoons.  The route brought me to a dark clump of bushes and trees.  As I passed, I would pedal as hard as I could, poignantly looking away from the dreaded patch, entirely convinced a fairy was waiting for me.  More specifically, I dreaded that the Banshee would appear, and start shrieking.  The bone-chilling keen of this fairy, classified by some to be a ghost, was heard when the death of oneself or a family member was imminent. 

Fairies were known for malignant actions towards humans,

even bringing about death.  Some would do so by luring people to a precipice or a hole in a bridge resulting in fatal falls.  Others would confuse people at night so that they wandered aimlessly through the dangerous countryside to the point of madness.  Very disturbing for a young one were the tales of fairies, who would steal children away from their families, replacing them with “changelings.” These looked and talked just like the abducted child, so parents would not know their real loved ones were gone and demonic entities had taken their places. The livelihoods of people were also in peril from the fairies who would spoil meat, steal portions of milk to prevent butter from being made, scatter cattle, or cause pestilence and sudden death.  These creatures were not the friends of humans.


Fairies were credited with leading people to their deaths in the dark and treacherous countryside.


But from where did these fairies come,

and what motivated them to menace humans? There are many different beliefs about their origins.  One version tells how the fairies were part of the epic battle described in the Bible when certain angels rebelled against God.  The fairies were spirits who remained neutral, and so were not granted a place in Heaven, but neither were they evil enough to go to Hell.  Therefore, God allowed fairies to dwell on the Earth with humans, but apart in secret dwellings.  The fairies then came to resent people because of the favored status God gave them, so their antics were inspired by envy.  Another theory asserted that fairies were manifestations of demons, the minions of Satan, whose goal was to ruin people’s souls so that they would go to Hell after death.  Whatever the specifics about the origins, the beliefs about fairies which were held in common was that they wished people ill, and harsh consequences awaited those who toyed with them.

     Hence, the priority of humans was to keep fairies happy to ensure that they would not become targets of these creatures.  This could be accomplished simply in feeding the fairies by providing them with milk and water, or leaving crumbs that fell off the table for them.  Another way to stay on the fairies’ good side was to avoid fastidiously any disturbance of their dwellings.  These were the so called “fairy-forts”, that are really the ruins of stone circles, early Christian settlements, or pre-Christian burial mounds.  No one would build on these ruins or even venture into them.  Violation of this unwritten rule could have dire consequences for the trespasser and the locals.  Fortunately, these superstitions had the unintended consequence of preserving the ancient monuments for posterity.



A ‘Fairy Fort’ in Dingle, Ireland

Humans also utilized proactive defenses against unseemly behavior.

For example, to prevent bread from being ruined, the Sign of the Cross was drawn on the dough.  Holy Water and prayers would likewise be employed to keep them at bay.  To protect the young from abduction, a piece of clothing from the father could be placed over the child at night.  Moreover, nobody actually used the word “fairy”.  They were most commonly called the “Good Folk”. ​


Today in Ireland it is still traditional to draw the Sign of the Cross into bread.
     Yet, as with all creatures, not all were completely hostile. There were some fairies that could be benign, even protective, and attached to certain families.  However, these were in the minority and interactions were risky since the benevolence could always turn against those to whom the fairy was connected.  Hence, even the most positive associations were fraught with danger.
     Surrounded with these cautionary fairy tales of my youth, I have quite a bias against fairies. They’re creatures that must be approached with a healthy fear.     
Crocker, Thomas Crofton.  Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland.  Philadelphia: Lea Blanchard,         1844.
Curran, Bob. A Field Guide to Irish Fairies. Belfast: Apple Tree Press Ltd, 1997.



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