Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Irish Fairies, Changelings and Folklore

A few years ago I received an interesting letter from a reader in County Kerry, Ireland who described her belief in Irish fairies...who she referred to as The Good People. She thought she may have captured these beings on her digital camera while exploring an old abandoned house. I recently came across a pair of anecdotes that reference 'The Good People.'

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Taken By 'The Good People' - Ireland

I was serving my time to the cattle trade, with a man the name of Lynch -- God be good to him! I suppose I was no more than twelve years of age at the time. 'Twas a very out of the way place and mountainy.

Well, not far from my master's house there was a family of the Brogans. 'Twas the will of God that Mrs. Brogan took sick, and there was a baby born, but the poor woman died. Well, the sister, a younger girl than the woman that died, came to nurse the child. After some time she began to look very delicate and uneasy. The naghbours were beginning to talk amongs themselves about her, and it came to Brogan's ears, and, begor, it made him vexed. So he asked the sister what was up with her.

"Well, John," says she, "I did not like to tell you, but Ellie" -- that was the name of the dead woman -- "comes every night, and takes the baby and nurses it, and goes away without a word."

"By my word," says John, "she is not dead at all, but taken, and I will watch her to-night."

Good enough, he remained up, and about 12 o'clock in she came, and he put his arms around her, but as he said, felt no substance.

"You can't keep me now," says she, "for I'm married agin; but if you come to the Bottle Hill field to-morrow night, there will be about 40 of us goin' t'words Blarney, and we will all be on horses, with our husbands. All the horses will be white, and I and my man will be last. Bring a hazel stick woud [with] you and strike the horse on the right side, and I will fall off. Just as I fall, ketch me with all your might. You will know my man, for he is the only one of them that has a red head."

Well, he went, and he must have a great heart, for on they come, gallopin' like mad. Just as the man with the red head's horse came he stood one-side and struck. She fell and he gripped her like iron. Well, such a hullabaloo as there was, was never heard, and all the other men makin' game of the red-headed man.

Well, he brought her home, and they lived for years after, and had a good family, and were the happiest people around the place. I often see some of her children; of course they are all married now, and gone here and there, but that's as true as my name is Tim Brosnan.


Twenty Years With 'The Good People' - Ireland

I had a gran'uncle, he was a shoemaker; he was only about 3 or 4 months married. I'm up to fourscore now. Well, God rest all their souls, for they are all gone, I hope to a better world!

Well, sir, he says to his wife, and a purty girl she was, as I hear um say, -- the fortune wasn't very big but 'twould buy him a good bit of leather, and I might tell you, 'twas all brogues that was worn at the time, and faith, you should be big before you would get them same.

Howisever, he started one day for Limerick would [with] and ass and car, to bring home leather and other little things he wanted. He did not return that night or the next, nor the next. Begor, the wife and some frinds went to Limerick next day, but no trace of the husband could be found. I forgot to tell you that the third morning after he was gone the wife rose very early, and there at the dure [door] was the ass and car. The whole country was searched, up high and low down, but no trace. Weeks, monts and years came and went, but he never turned up.

Now the wife kept on a little business, sellin' nick-nacks to support herself, and a son, that grew to be a fine strapping man, as I hear um say, the picture of his father.

Now, sir, the boy was in or about twenty, when one day, himself and his mother were atin' their dinner, whin in comes a man and says, "God save ye!"

"And you too," says the mother. "Will you ate a spud, sir?" says she.

He rached for the spud, and in doin' so the sleeve of his coat shortned as he reached out his hand. He had a mole on his wrist and she see it, and her husband had one in the same spot.

"Good God!" says she, "are you John M'Namara?" -- for that was his name.

"I am," says he, "and your husband, and that's my son, but I can't tell you for some time where I was since I left you. But some time I might have the power, but not now."

Well, lo and behold you, in a week's time he started to work, and the boots he made were a surprise to the whole country round, and I believe he lived for nine or ten years ater that, but he never tould her or any one where he was, but of course everbody knew that 'twas wood [with] the good people. - Folk-Tales from County Limerick collected by Miss D. Knox - Folk-Lore a Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution ,& Custom ...Volume 28

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The reader from County Kerry, Ireland forwarded her description of Irish fairies:

"Fairies in Ireland are not the homogenized 'Disney' version. They can shape shift, and are usually mischievous, and even dangerous. They don't like to be referred to as 'fairies', but instead to avoid injury by them, you should always call them 'The Good People'."

'The Irish Path' website describes these beings:

"You need to know Irish fairy superstitions in order to learn how to keep them happy so they don't cause any problems in your life. They have been known to cause many problems and just generally make your life miserable.

The most well known of Irish fairies has to be the Leprechaun . A close second is the Banshee . You may or may not have heard of the Pooka . These are some of the solitary fairies. The Merrow are Irish sea fairies or I should say the sea fairies of Ireland. The Dullahan are the most feared fairies.

There are many stories concerning the social or trooping fairies. The trooping fairies travel in large groups or hosts. If you see a sudden gust of wind that swirls up dust and leaves or just blows on the leaves of some trees but not others nearby, that is a cavalcade of fairies passing by. The fairies themselves unseen by human eyes."


The website offers thoughts on the origin of these beings:

"The first thought is they are the Túatha Dé Dannan. The Túatha Dé Dannan were in original gods of Ireland. They were defeated by the Sons of Mil thought to be the final Gael conquers of Ireland. The Túatha Dé Dannan were not banished from the land. They were diminished in size and told to go live among the hills, mounds and plains. They do not die of old age. They are not visible to humans but they can be seen if they want to. They have supernatural powers, they are gods after all.

The second thought of their origin is that they are fallen angels. This idea probably came with the coming of Christianity in the fifth century. After all everyone knew fairies existed so they had to conform to the new Christian belief. When Lucifer rebelled against God some of the angels hesitated about which side to join. For this behavior they were cast from Heaven. Some fell on land to live in elf mounds called Sidh. Some fell into the seas, lakes and rivers of Ireland and are bound to live there. A few fell into Hell and were taught by the devil to do ill to mankind, these are the malevolent fairies.

All fairies will not know death until the 'Last Day' comes. Then they will simply vanish away forever, that is their fate. They are very jealous of humans because humans will be granted immortality on that day."
- The Irish Path

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Irish Changeling Beliefs

I also came across a study written by Thomas Johnson Westropp in Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review in 1921, titled 'Folklore on the Coasts of Connacht, Ireland':

"Caesar Otway in A Tour in Connaught also notes beliefs among the people of Inishbofin which I found flourishing over seventy years later in that primitive place. It was firmly believed that the hills were full of fairies, "romping and carousing within," and that they carried off children and robbed milk and butter. The sprites could exercise malignant power on infants especially before baptism, stealing the handsome ones and replacing them by puny withered changelings. The only way to get rid of these was to set a pot on the fire and threaten to boil the fairy child, who then vanishes and the real child was brought back. Women who die in childbirth are believed to have been carried off to fairyland.

I met everywhere, from Ballycastle to Inishbofin, beliefs as to the existence of changelings. Lady Wilde gives several from Inishark which seem to be good local tales. I must only give the shortest condensation of the beliefs.

An old woman came into a house and looked at a child without saying "God bless you"; it got ill, a strange "wise woman" told the parents that it had been changed and directed them to get a bit of the old woman's cloak. This made the elf sneeze and the true child was brought back.

A man saw the fairies carrying off a boy, and, signing the cross, rescued the infant. He found the mother weeping over the supposed corpse, which he made her throw into the fire, where it came to life and flew up the chimney. He then gave her the real baby.

A man, whose young wife had long been childless, taunted her, and she soon after bore a lovely boy. One day to his horror it suddenly grew a long beard, and he beat his wife, at whose screams two red-capped women came and beat him till he asked pardon. The real child sent a tuft of rushes to the mother, and she was able to enter the fairy palace. An old woman brought her to the king and said she was the nurse of his own son. He restored her own child and said the man who beat her was a fairy disguised as her husband. She invoked God's name and fell senseless, eventually recovering and returning home to find she had been three years absent. She found that her husband had detected the changeling and put it on the fire, when it shrieked and flew up the chimney.

Mary Callan of Shark while sitting alone with her newborn child was wrapped in a cloak by two men and carried away to the Fairy Hall. She touched her eye with the fairies' ointment and saw a crowd of her neighbors' supposed-dead children who told her that they could not return till Doomsday. One also told her that the men were waiting to steal her child till the candle she had lit should go out, and bade her tell his mother that he was alive. He gave her a leaf to crush when in trouble, and she found herself outside of the Hill, returning home, to find her child dying, she crushed the leaf and the infant recovered. The leaf was put into an amulet.

A changeling, found playing pipes behind a tub of meal, was put on a shovel over the fire and vanished."


NOTE: Fairy and changeling folk tales abound across the British Isles. This was just a small sample that I offer today. In the future, I promise to highlight a few of the more interesting anecdotes that pertain to these legendary beings...Lon

Suggested Reading:

The Good People: New Fairylore Essays

Ancient cures, charms, and usages of Ireland; contributions to Irish lore - an excellent resource!

Irish Folktales (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry



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