The Wee Folk. An Examination of the Fairy and Mythological Culture of Ireland

Research Paper (undergraduate), 1979
236 Pages





1 Fairy
2 Other Fairy Figures
3 Figures fulfilling role of Fairy
4 Conclusion

1 General Information
(i) Categories
(ii) Origins
2 The Trooping Fairies
(i)Dwelling Places
(ii) Appearance
(iii) Activities
(iv) Contact with Humans
3 The Solitary Fairies
(i) Leprechaun (Irish: Leith Bhroghan)
(ii) Cluricaun (Irish: Clobhair-cean)
(iii) Ganconer/Gancanagh (Irish : gean- canogh)
(iv) Far Darrig (Irish: fear dearg)
(v) Far Gorta
(vi) Far Dorocha
(vii) Far Liath
(viii) Pooka (Irish: puca)
(ix) Dullahan
(x) Banshee (Irish bean sidhe)
(xi) Leanhaun Shee (Irish: leanhaun sidhe)
(xii) Changeling
(xiii) Grogach
4 The Heroic Figures as Fairies
5 Influence of the Fairies on Humans
6 Comparison

1 Attitudes to the Fairy Tale
2 Characteristics
(i) Generality
(ii) Characters
(iii) Morality
(iv) Cruelty/ Directness
3 Audience
4 Continuing Popularity
5 Style
6 Conclusion

1 Introduction
2 The Tale in Ireland
(i) Geographical Position
(ii) Story-telling Tradition
(iii) Audience
(iv) Celtic Background
(v) Present Day Measures
3 Irish Folk Material
4 Comparison between the Irish Tales and the Fairy Tale in General
5 Common Motifs
6 Specific Irish Elements
(i) Atmosphere
(ii) Magic Mist
(iii) Geasa
7 Audience of the Fairy Tale in Ireland
8 Style
9 Continuing Popularity

1 Accounts of Witnesses
2 Reasons
3 Future

Appendix 1
Appendix 2
Appendix 3
Appendix 4
Appendix 5
Appendix 6

Primary Literature
Secondary Literature


During a year- long period spent in Ireland (1975-6), I was struck by the very evident belief of the great majority of the population in what were usually referred to as "the wee folk", "the good people", or "the gentry" - that is, in the fairy creatures, including such internationally renowned figures as the Leprechaun, as well as the more obscure Ganconer, the Leanhaun Shee, and the like. It was clear to me at that time that the attitude of the Irish to their fairy folk

was neither eccentric nor academic, but that the fairy culture constituted as matter-of-fact an element of day to day life as did religion. (The importance of religion in Irish life is proven by the continuing unrest in the north of the country, which is, to some extent, fired by religious fervour.) My more recent research of the situation has provided no evidence to dispute this earlier opinion. There existed and still exists in Ireland an unselfconscious acceptance of the supernatural which is rarely found in other parts of the western world. There is no sense of embarrassment or shame in discussing the fairies, no sense of having to "admit" to a belief in them; any reticence which does occur arises more from a reluctance to offend the fairies by repeating experiences concerning them rather than from an unwillingness to offer information. Only on extremely rare occasions did I encounter such reluctance; on the contrary, people were usually anxious to provide, as much as assistance as possible.

Generally speaking, fairy belief is evident throughout - the whole of Ireland. During my stay, I was based in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, and the most industrialized city in the whole of the country. Even there, however, I found the same acceptance as I experienced in the rural communities of the outlying areas of the south; Further, belief in the fairies is not only widespread geographically speaking, but also through the various social strata. Similar attitudes are displayed by all levels of society: middle class professional families reveal as convincing a faith in the fairies l existence as do their working class contemporaries. Likewise, level of formal education does not necessarily cancel out belief in the fairies; such belie f is also traceable among academics and intellectuals. One acquaintance, who holds a Masters degree, is often seen to leave a scrap of food on her plate, or a little liquid in the bottom of the glass, "for the fairies". Linda M Ballard, of the Department of Non- Material Culture of the Ulster Folk Museum , in a letter dated 19 November 1984 , offered the following comment on distribution of belief throughout Northern Ireland:

It would not be true to say that everyone here

believes in fairies , but there is still a strong

tradition to be collected more detailed study

and collection of stories is required before it is

possible to make absolute statements about urban

as opposed to rural ideas, about beliefs and

religious groupings etc. A sweeping generalisation

would perhaps claim that fairy belief is or ought

to be, confined to rural Catholics. This is not

the case.

Since the energy of the Irish belief in fairies presents such a contrast to the position in the rest of Europe, where acceptance of a supernatural culture is very much a thing of the past, I was prompted to investigate the Irish fairy culture as it exists in the present day, basing my conclusions largely on information and evidence collected from the Irish people themselves.

At no time did I encounter hostility or total refusal to discuss the subject, and I would like to express my appreciation to all those interviewed for their assistance and information; the most important of these are documented at the end of this paper. I would also like to express my gratitude to Professor George Stockman of the Celtic Department of Queens University Belfast for his help, and to Linda M Ballard of the Department of Non- Material Culture of the Ulster Folk Museum for her ready assistance and valuable information. My thanks go to the staff of Belfast Central Library, and to the library staff of St Mary's College, Belfast, for their constant enthusiastic help. I am indebted to Miss Elizabeth Moore for her invaluable work as a "liason" between Austria and Ireland. In particular, my thanks go to my friend Miss Joan Smith, for her tireless assistance, which took many forms: relating of tales, information about customs, beliefs, traditions and superstitions; singing of folk songs; correcting and typing of the manuscript. I am indebted to her for constant support, and above all, for her unshakeable belief in the fairies, which frequently provided practical evidence of theoretic a l points.

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor Univ. Prof . Mag. phil . Dr. Dr. Erwin A Stürzl, for his advice and guidance throughout the writing of this paper .


The word "Ireland" conjures up various images in the

mind's eye: scenic countryside, a leisurely way of

life, the inevitable lush green grass. Another aspect

of Ireland, however, evident even to the most casual

visitor, is the widespread and sincere belief in all

supernatural beings. Not only do the Irish follow

their religion with fervour, they are equally enthusiastic

in their attitude to those other non- humans,

the "little people".

Through examination of Irish fairy figures, the chief

sources of information about them (namely, the folk and

fairy tales recorded from oral tradition), and modern

evidence regarding attitudes to the fairy folk, and

through comparison of these aspects with their counter

parts in Europe and elsewhere, I shall attempt in

this paper to offer some information about the little

people of Ireland , and through this, to discover why

the Irish, unlike other European nations, whose

belief in their own fairy cultures has been subject

to "enlightened" attitudes, have maintained a healthy

respect of, and affection for, the "wee folk".


The following definition of "fairy" is given in the

Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth and Legend:

A term loosely used to denote a type of supernatural

being, usually invisible, sometimes

benevolent and helpful, sometimes evil and dangerous,

sometimes just mischievous and whimsical,

dwelling on the earth in close contact with man.

It is clear from the necessary vagueness of this

definition, that many differing figures could' be

included within its bounds. Fairy figures are found

all over the world, and fairy tales occur in all folk

literatures. Despite the wide range of fairy figures,

and in spite of the considerable differences which

are inevitable between widely differing cultures, there

is still a common bond existing among the fairies.

Since a detailed study of individual fairy figures,

apart from those which are still felt to be present

in Ireland, lies beyond the range of this paper, only

the generalities which can be applied to most, if

not all, fairies will be treated here.

1 Fairy

Probably the most celebrated fairy figure, mainly due

to the influence of the well- known international fairy tales,

is the fairy godmother. The most obvious

examples are the fairies in the stories of Sleeping

Beauty and Cinderella, which exist throughout the

European traditions, in various versions. This type

of fairy can be included in the above definition, since

she is both benevolent and helpful. However, the

typical characteristic of the fairy godmother is her

ability to counteract the effects of evil. She is

never found using her powers capriciously, but seeks

through them to redress some wrong suffered by virtuous

humans. In the tale of The Fairy for instance,

the younger daughter is treated unfairly be the


There was once upon a time a widow, who had two

Daughters…This mother loved even to distraction

her eldest daughter, and at the same time

had a frightful aversion for the youngest. She

made her eat in the kitchen and work continually. 1

Through having to fetch water at some distance from

the house, this poo r creature meets the f airy of the

title, disguised as a beggar woman , who asks for a

drink of water, which the girl offers immediately,

demonstrating all the goodness and eagerness which is

to be expected from such a heroine. The fairy ("for

this was a Fairy, you must understand, who had taken

upon her the form of a poor countrywoman to see how

far the civility and good manners of this pretty girl

would go." 2) rewards her by causing a flower or jewel

to come out of her mouth whenever she speaks. The

elder daughter, favoured by the mother, tries to win

the same rewards, by going to fetch the water. This

time the fairy appears as a fin~ lady, appropriately

dressed, but she is shunned by the elder daughter,

and grants, as a reward for her incivility, that a

snake or a toad comes out of her mouth with every word

she utters. From this tale it is obvious that the fairy godmother

exercises her powers quite deliberate, rewarding

good with good and evil with evil. Nor does it matter

from which quarter the suffering for the virtuous figure

comes. In the above example, the instrument of evil

1 Opie, Iona and Peter: The Classic Fairy Tales. London, 1974. p 100

is the mother . In Bleeping Beauty, the evil is

portrayed by the wicked fair . The good fairy

godmother counteracts the wickedness of her action,

and saves the princess's life.

Not all fairies are good; there are also bad ones,

who are prompted into acting against humans by some

neglect or offence suffered by t hem. The Sleeping

Beauty gives a good example of this type, where the

fairy godmothers receive the best of treatment at the

hands of the king:

After the ceremonies of the Christening were over,

all the company returned to the King's palace,

where there was prepared a great feast for the

Fairies. There was placed before every one of

them a magnificent cover with a case of massive

gold, wherein was a spoon , knife and fork, all

of pure gold set with diamonds and rubies. 1

The one fairy who had been omitted from the celebrations

(although the tale provides little opportunity

for blame to be attached to the royal family in this

case) is mortally offended, and as a result curses

the princess. The version given by Jacob and Wilhelm

Grimm even though in some respects less elaborate

than that quoted above, is even clearer as regards

the use of super natural powers as a means for revenge:

[Der König] lud nicht bloß seine Verwandten,

Freunde und Bekannten, sondern auch die weisen

Frauen ein, damit sie dem Kind hold und gewogen

waren. Es waren ihrer dreizehn in seinem Reiche;

weil er aber nur zwölf goldene Teller hatte,

von welchen sie essen sollten, so musste eine von

ihnen daheim bleiben…Als Elfe ihre Sprüche

eben getan hatten, trat plötzlich die dreizehnte

herein. Sie wollte sich dafür rächen, dass sie

nicht eingeladen war. 2

1 Opie: p 85

2 Grimm, Jacob und Wilhelm. Kinder- und Hausmärchen. München, 1974. p 181

It would thus appear that fairies possess their powers

and are free to use them independently, as they see fit.

In The Sleeping Beauty, for instance, the evil wrought

by the s lighted fairy is undone, or at least weakened,

by the action of a good fairy - a conventional fairy

godmother figure. It is interesting that the figure

of the wicked fairy in fairy tales is often equated

with that of the human stepmother :

Es war einmal eine Frau, die was eine rechte

Hexe und hatte zwei Töchter, eine hässliche und

böse, und die liebte sie, weil sie ihre rechte

Tochter war, und eine schön und gut, die hasste

sie, weil sie ihre Stieftochter war. 1

Brüderchen nahm seine Schwesterchen an der Hand

und sprach: „Seit die Mutter tot ist, haben wir

keine gute Stunde mehr; die Stiefmutter schlägt

uns alle Tage, und wenn wir zu ihr kommen, stößt

sie uns mit den Füßen fort. 2

Other notable examples are Snow White and Hansel and

Gretel. The good fairy, on the other hand, is often

referred to as “godmother”:

Her godmother …asked her what was the matter?

I wish I could -, I wish I could - ; she could not

speak the rest, her tears interrupting her. Her

godmother, who was a Fairy, said to her …be

but a good girl, and I'll contrive thou shalt


The connection between good behaviour and suitable

reward is again quite clear.

2 Other Fairy Figures

Besides the actual fairies, there are a number of

1 Grimm : p 26,

2 ibid p 52

3 Opie : 124

other figures which inhabit fairyland, and as such

qualify as fairies. Some of these are quite distinct,

and are clearly definable, such as the Scottish

Kelpie ( a water spirit of Scottish folklore, inhabiting

every lake and stream in the country. He is a mischievous,

usually malevolent being who appears in the

form of a horse, sometimes grazing on the banks of

lakes, sometimes appearing at the fords of streams.

He will lure travellers to mount him, then plunge into

the waters and drown them. To see him is a sure sign

of drowning.1), or some of the Irish fairies, dealt

within detail below. There are also various general

terms used for supernatural creatures, and there is

a certain amount of overlap between categories.

It is, thus, inadvisable to attach too much importance

to classification, or to insist on strict divisions

between groups (For instance, the fairy godmother

figures in the version of Sleeping Beauty given by

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are referred to as "weise

Frauen " rather than fairies; they are, however,

equipped with magical powers, able to grant virtue

and favourable attributes to the baby princess, as will

as dilute the curse of the evil fairy.).

It should be noted that there is a constant problem

with translation. In the German version of Snow White,

the seven positive figures who adopt Snow White are

referred to as "Zwerge". The normal translation of

"Zwerg" into English is "dwarf" or “goblin", both of

which have negative implications. The definitions

given in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth and

Legend include such descriptions as (referring to

dwarfs) " . . They often tease both children and adults …

Thievery is one of their bad habits; so is the kidnapping

of women and children ..” ; (in reference to

1 cf The Standard Dictionary of Folklore , Myth and Legend.

goblins ): “A…spirit ... of capricious and erratic

temper , mischievous and prankish… " None of these

terms - Zwerg, dwarf, goblin - is overtly or entirely

negative, but the dwarfs in Snow White are totally

positive figures, displaying no unattractive characteristics

at all. However, Rumpelstiltskin is also

generally referred to as a dwarf, and he is usually

held to be one of the more evil and unappealing

figures in the well-known tales. It is, then, advisable

to treat translations with caution, and not to attempt

to classify fairy tale characters too rigidly.

The following are some of the more common names applied

to various types of fairies, together with their

definitions as given in the Standard Dictionary of

Folklore, Myth and Legend.

Brownie: A household spirit ... usually thought

of as wearing a brown hood and cloak.

He attaches himself to families;

especially he frequents farmhouses,

barns and byres. He does the chores

at night, while the people sleep. He

helps with the churning or brewing,

sweeps the rooms, saves the corn.

Some brownies have even been known to

assist at childbirth, or to help their

masters win at draughts. But if ever

they are criticized, they will break

dishes, spill milk, turn the cows

astray, spoil the crops, and work all

kinds of small revenge. Special cakes

and bowls of milk are set aside for

them, but never, never any wages or

reward …

Dwarf: Dwarfs are renowned in Europe an tradition

as members of a separate community,

usually a kingdom with a king of its

own. They were underground supernatural

beings; they lived in the mountains,

in hill and caves, sometimes in rivers,

or near a spring. Their dwellings were

described as splendid palaces. A

dwarf was full grown at 3 years of age

and a greybeard at 7. Some of their

characteristics are indicated by the

names given to them: Little Gray Man

Flat-foot, Goose-foot, etc.

Dwarfs have faces like men, but with

wrinkled, leathery skin, wide mouths,

think heads, long beards. They are

either flat-footed, goose - or duckfooted,

or have their feet on backwards.

…They dress in gray or green and

wear little red caps with a long tapering


Dwarfs love feasting and dancing...

Otherwise they are busy at their forges…

They are marvellous smiths and workers

in all kinds of metals; their women

excel in weaving and spinning...

Dwarfs can see into the future and are

good weather prophets. They give good

advice, and are helpful both in the

house and the field…They often tease

both children and adults ... Thievery

is one of their bad habits; so is the

kidnapping of women and children…On

the whole, dwarfs adjust themselves

fairly well to the outside world; but

if anyone offends them, they take a

rude revenge.

Gnome: One of a species of deformed and dwarfish

underground being, whose element

is the earth itself, and whose function

is usually said to be guarding hidden

treasure and quarries. Jewish cabalistic

tradition locates them in the

very centre of the earth. The word

was popularized by Paracelsus; in his

usage it designated a group of beings

who could swim through solid earth as

fish swim through water.

Goblin: A household spirit …very helpful

around the house, but also of capricious

and erratic temper, mischievous

and prankish, given to rapping on walls

and doors, moving furniture in the

night, breaking dishes, banging pots

and pans around, snatching bedclothes

off sleepers, etc…Gnomes frequent

homes where the wine is plentiful and

the children pretty…They are fond

of horses and often ride them in the

night , but also often tangle their manes.

Kobold: The household spirit or familiar of

German folklore, helpful but full of

pranks and tricks, occasionally malicious.

He will often hide household or

farm implements, but he is also good at

finding lost objects... He will sing

to the children, help with the work,

curry the horses. He must be properly

fed, however, or he will raise a great


Pixie: One of a class of supernatural spirits

or fairies of southwest England…Mrs

Bray, a Devonshire of the early nine-tenth

century, wrote to Southey that …

many people believed them to be the

souls of unbaptized children. Pixies

typically dance by moonlight to the music

of crickets and frogs. They pinch

untidy or careless maid servants, blow

out candles, tap on wall just to

startle people, kiss girls in the dark

just to hear them shriek…One of

their main pranks is to lead people


Troll: A supernatural being of Scandinavian

folklore, originally gigantic, but

later conceived of as dwarfish and

inhabiting caves and hills. They…

were wonderful and skilful craftsman.

In Scandinavian folktale the trolls are

usually huge ogres with the great

strength and little wit of the typical

ogre. They live in castles, guard

treasure, hunt in dark forests, and

burst if the sun shines on their faces.

Despite the past tense used in reference to dwarfs and

trolls, there is, evidence to indicate continuing

belief in such supernatural beings. The gremlin is

a twentieth century spirit:

Gremlin: Any airborne supernatural being (spirit,

demon, imp) whose function is to cause

pilots and aircrew (especially military)

trouble and inconvenience. So far as

it is known, these little people first

began taking to the air during World

War I , particularly among the RAF.

gremlins comprise a rather cosmopolitan

citizen army of spirits…

… not all the activities of gremlins

are destructive.

From these definitions, it is clear that the distinctions

between individual species are not always exact.

It is possible, however, to divide the fairies into

three broad groups: those who are generally positive

towards humans, those who tend to act negatively,

and those who are either neutral or unpredictable in

their actions. Belonging to the group of figures

generally viewed in a negative light are the gnomes,

goblins and trolls, while the pixies and kobolds are

examples of the undependable, more neutral type. The

brownies and dwarfs are at times very positive, at

times quite inimical to men; their actions depend to

a large extent on the treatment they receive. The

evidence for the character of the gremlin points to

him as a negative spirit, but as the definition above

indicates, he is not entirely harmful.

Accepting the limitations of the definitions, there

are nonetheless numerous examples of all types of

fairies to be found. The story of The Elves and the

Shoemaker 1 shows fairies helping virtuous, hard-

working humans, and being rewarded for their assistance

by the grateful humans doing them a good turn, while

there are similar instances of positive action among

the tales of the Carinthian “Salige”; these spirits

frequently give advice about the choice of crops, and

the treatment of livestock; they have been known to

help with the harvest if bad weather threatens. They

1 cf The Elves and the Shoemaker, Ladybird Series. London

are not merely good- natured fairies, however; on occasions,

like the dwarfs, they act as foretellers of

future events. 1

Examples of the evil spirits are equally numerous. The

yellow dwarf, in the story of the same name, conforms

to all the conventional features of this creature, even

as regards appearance

... the yellow dwarf ... wooden Shoes, a coarse

yellow Stuff Jacket, and without any Hair to

hide his large Ears ... 2

as indeed does his friend, the Desart-Fairy, who appears

later in the story , and who is described as “old,

decrepid, and extremely ugly”. 3 Albrecht , in Wagner’s

“Ring” cycle, is another example of the negative

gnomelike figure, while the troll in The Three Billy

Goats Gruff provides further evidence of the wicked

qualities and characteristics of some of the fairy


It can be argued, however that these negative figures

are not all bad, but that their actions are the result

of the treatment they receive at the hands of humans.

Rumpelstiltskin, for instance, is generally held to

be one of the wicked fairies, since he tries to take

away the first child of the miller's daughter, who has

become queen, and he comes to a deservedly violent


… das Männlein… stieß mit dem rechten Fuß

vor Zorn so tief in die Erde, dass es bis auf

den Leib hineinfuhr, dann packte es in seiner Wut

den linken Fuß mit beiden Händen und riss sich

1 Graber, Georg: Sagen aus Kärnten, 4.Auflage. Leipzig, 1927. pps 53-62

2 Opie: p 70

3 ibid p74

selbst entzwei. 1

It should be borne in mind, however, that the dwarf

kept his side of the bargain which he made with the

miller's daughter, whereas she went back on her word

when her child was born. Likewise, the old fairy in

the story Sleeping Beauty has been slighted by not

being invited to the princess's christening, and by

then being offered an inferior present as compared

to those presented to the other fairies. Her vengeful

action is, then, if not excusable, at least understandable.

(The question of the justification of the

acts of these characters will be dealt with below.)

The fairy in the tale The Three Wishes 2 provides an

example of the neutral type. She agrees to grant

three wishes to a man and his wife, but refuses to

advise them how best to use these wishes, nor to help

them when they misuse their good fortune.

3 Figures fulfilling role of Fairy

There are numerous other figures occurring in the

fairy literature, which perform the function of

fairies, that is, they represent the supernatural

element necessary in a fairy tale. They are not,

however, fairies in the strict sense of the word. The

giant in Jack and the Beanstalk (cf Opie: pps 162-74)

is an example of this type, as is the ogre in Little

poucet (cf Opie: pps 130-6), or the witch in Hansel

and Gretel (cf Opie: pps 236-44). Occasionally even

seemingly ordinary people provide this supernatural


1 Grimm: p 203

2 Opie: pps 153-4

… and old soldier … passed through the country

where this king reigned, and as he was travelling

through a wood, he met an old woman, who

asked him where he was going. “ I hardly know

where I am going, or what I had better do”,

said the soldier; “but I think I should like very

well to find out where it is that the princesses

dance, and then in time I might be a King.”

“Well,” said the old dame, “that is no very hard

task: only take care not to drink any of the wine

which one of the princesses will bring to you

in the evening; as soon as she leaves you pretend

to be fast asleep.” 1

In some fairy stories, this supernatural aspect is

provided by animals, as in The Three Bears, Little

Red Riding Hood, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, and

numerous others. There is no limit to the powers

these animals possess; they can cook, speak, reason,

in fact, display all the attributes one expects from

a human character, besides showing the normal instincts

of animals.

4 Conclusion

The characters of fairy stories, then, are not all

strictly speaking fairies, but are a variety of

human-like and animal figures; their common feature

is their supernatural quality. The actual fairies

range from the positive through the neutral to the

negative, sometimes with reason for their actions,

sometimes seemingly unpredictable and capricious as

far as their behaviour is concerned.

1 Opie: p 191


The Irish fairy folk can be divided into various

categories, each species having its own particular

idiosyncrasies and personal characteristics. They

are all, however, regarded as the daoine maithe -

the "good people” or the "gentry" - by the Irish, and

afforded suitable respect and awe (to varying degrees,

it must be admitted; the majority of fairies should

not be disturbed by mortals if at all possible. On the

other hand, the Leprechaun is considered as fair game

to be caught and forced to give up his treasure.

Whether this less than reverent attitude is on account

of human avarice or because he alone among the fairies

plies a human trade, that of the cobbler, is a matter

for conjecture.).

The extent to which individual species interfere in

human life varies also, but the acceptance of the

little people even to-day is indisputable. Compare

the following comment given by the chief administrator

in a major health centre in Belfast:

Of course I believe in the fairies. I was

brought up to believe in them. My grandmother

often told us stories of people having strange

experiences, and she always put them down t o

the wee folk. And she had a series of people

who came to the door, and she always gave them

a penny or two and a glass of buttermilk - she

wouldn't turn anyone away empty- handed, for

she said one could never be sure of who one

would be doing a disservice to. The fairies

were - and still are - an integral part of life. 1

1 Miss Estelle Tate

1 General Information

(i) Categories

Broadly speaking, the fairies can be divided into two

main groups: the solitary type, and the so-called

“trooping fairies”, who “go about in troops, and

quarrel, and make love, much as men and women do”. 1

Fairies in general are referred to as the daoine sidhe

or aes sidhe – “the people of the mound or hillock” -

and each individual member is a sidheog. The mound

referred to is often the fortification or rath which

was built round the larger Celtic farmsteads, and thus

it has been claimed that the fairies came into existence

after the Celts, as a direct development of the

Celtic lifestyle; they thus take their name from their

dwelling. However, the opposite view can also be

supported, since for the Celts these forts had a religious

significance, in that they were regarded as a point

of contact with and entry into the perfect world of

the after-life. It can thus be argued that the supernatural

residents of the forts were already in residence,

and that the Celtic farmers chose these sites for both

practical and superstitious reasons. It is interesting

to note that the messenger of this Celtic other world

was most frequently a beautiful woman with long golden

hair and supernatural characteristics:

…they saw on the round rock up over the ford

a young woman, having a dress of silk and a

green cloak about her, and a golden brooch in

the cloak, and the golden crown that is the sign

of a queen on her head. 1

…they saw coming towards them from the west

a beautiful young woman, riding on a very fast

slender white horse. A queen's crown she had

1 Yeats, W: Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. Gerrards Cross, 1975. p 383

2 Lady Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men. Gerrards Cross, 1976. p 232

on her head, and a dark cloak of silk down

to the ground, having stars of red gold on it;

and her eyes were blue and as clear as the

dew on the grass, and a gold ring hanging down

from every golden lock of her hair; and her

cheeks redder than the rose, and her skin whiter

than the swan upon the wave, and lips as

sweet as honey that is mixed through red wine.

The resemblance to the traditional, universal view

of the fairy is striking; one need only think of the

descriptions of the fairy figures of many of the tales

offered by European collectors, or of the heroines,

such as Snow White:

… her skin was as white as snow, her cheeks

as rosy as the blood, and her hair as black as

ebony… 2

(ii) Origins

The origin of Irish fairies has proved to be a thorny

problem. One theory is that they are the remnants

of the fabulous Tuatha de Danaan, the divine beings

descended from the goddess Dana (or Danu), who came

to Ireland in a magical mist from the north and conquered

the Firbolgs, thus taking possession of the

land. (Their progress and exploits are documented in

Gods and Fighting Men.) The fact that the names of

the fairy chiefs are similar to those of the old

Danaan heroes, that the fairies are nowadays connected

with the hills and mounds of the Danaan, and that the

Tuatha de Danaan used to be referred to as the "fairy

host” or “cavalcade” (sheagh sidhe) can be cited as

evidence for this view. Also, when the Tuatha de

Danaan first came to Ireland, their most revered

1 Lady Gregory: p 333

2 Opie: p 177

objects were the plough, the sun and the hazel-tre ,

and they had possession of nine hazels of inspiration

and knowledge of poetry. Among those who came were

"Diancecht, that understood healing, and Neit, a god

of battle", and also "Eadon, the nurse of poets; and

Brigit, that was a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped

her, for her sway was very great and noble. And she

was a woman of healing along with that …” 1 The

connections with poetry and the medical arts, and the

significance of the hazel-tree are still relevant today.

The fairies are said to be able to play the three

strains on the harp previously only known to the Dagda,

the king of the Tuatha de Danaan, namely, to lull their

listeners to sleep, to inspire them to ceaseless laughter,

and to move them to tears. Among the women who

came with the Tuatha de Danaan were "many shadow-forms" - 2

again, a description which accords with the common view

of the fairy figure.

In this connection, it is worth mentioning the relationship

between the fairies and the Milesion race, who came

to Ireland after the Tuatha de Danaan, and who defeated

the Tuatha de Danaan at the battle of Tailltinn. The

following extract is recorded by Linda-May Smith:

Referring to the Danes' Cast, the ancient earthwork

on the borders of the Ulster counties of Down

and Armagh, traditionally known by this name, and

also as the "Run" or "Race of the Black Pig", or

the "Black Pig's Dyke", he [ the informant]


And the Danes' Cast there were two distinct

people that infiltrated into Ireland were at the

building of the Danes Cast and I remember one

of them was the Milesians. I read that somewhere,

in some old book. The Milesians, they were small

people, very small in stature and very numerous

and where they came from I don't know, they

1 Lady Gregory: p 27

2 ibid

belonged em I don't know where they ... they,

but the old people referred to the Milesians.

The last man I heard talking about the Milesians

was an old man called James Shevlin and I went

to see him when he was sick, and while talking to

him he turned round and he said to me he says,

I says, "Are you alone?" "No, "he says, "I am

not," he says, "I have the Milesians with me."

He turned round and looked back into the room,

but whether it was a figment of his imagination

or not I couldn't say. And he said, "I have the

Milesians with me in the room, I'm not lonely."

So at eh…the Milesians it was common knowledge

you know in those days about the Milesians. 1

It would seem, then, that there is some connection

in the minds of the Irish between the fairy people

of the present day, and the "old folk", the peoples

of former times, with no definite distinction between

the various tribes.

Alternatively, the fairies are popularly held to be

fallen angels, that is, angels who "sat on the fence"

during Lucifer's revolt against God. As such they

were expelled from Heaven, but on the intercession of

St Michael, were not damned to Hell, but were permitted

to take up residence on earth. Some fell on land,

some into the sea, and some remained in the air. This

accounts for the different types of fairies, such as

the Merrows, who dwell in the sea. Yeats quotes the

following account:

"Ghosts … there are no such things at all, at

all, but the gentry, they stand to reason; for

the devil, when he fell out of heaven, took the

weak-minded ones with him, and they were put into

the waste places. And that's what the gentry


1 Smith , Linda-May: Aspects of Contemporary Ulster Fairy Tradition, in Folklore Studies in the Twentieth Century. Venetin Newall, 1980. pps 399- 400

2 Yeats: p 6

This belief almost certainly arose through an attempt

by the Church to reconcile the fairies with conventional

religious teaching, and perhaps thereby to redirect

the faith and enthusiasm for what is basically a pagan

creed to its Christian counterpart. Details have been

carefully worked out; St Colmcille is said to have

informed the fairies that they would be barred from

Heaven (a belief still prevalent in Donegal and Galway,

where, however, the little folk are supposed to accompany

the souls of humans to the gate of Paradise). St Patrick,

on the other hand, held that they would not achieve

Paradise until the Day of Judgement. (These beliefs

are quoted by Carol White in A History of Irish Fairies,

Dublin, 1976.) The opinion that fairyland is a sort

of Limbo for souls in penance is also subscribed to;

both the Far Darrig and the Changeling are thought by

some to be humans masquerading as fairies in order to

escape for a variety of reasons.

Another aspect of this belief is given by this County

Armagh story- teller:

Yes, I've heard they were a race of the "Fallen


and that they had a time to do on this earth

before they were recalled back to their original

places. It was said by the old people that

that's what the fairies actually were, "Fallen


that they were cast out of Heaven that the

Bible refers to the "Fallen Angels".

cast out of Heaven for pride and arrogance

and been taken back.

I would say that they have gone forever. 1

According to this source, however, the fairies did not

1 Smith: p. 400

seem to relish the idea of returning to celestial bliss:

the last night, the farewell party, that…

that farewell was a lamentation which was described

by the old people as a lamentation of sorrow on

that night… When on that hill at…Glenlochin,

I can see the hill yet, I know it very well, and

that's where it took place, and it was a night

of lamentations, just as might have taken place

with the ordinary folk of losing a friend or

going away, emigrating. These fairies were


(Interviewer) And they were sorry to be leaving.

They must have been called back because… they

had… a gathering on this hill and… they made

their way and… their first stop was.. in

Williamson's Back Rock, it wasn't Williamson's

Then… in that rock or the back field there was

a fairy tree and it was round this…fairy thorn

at times they met. But this particular night

they .. stopped there… and they left there…

they went on and he added for the village of Acton

and they went down and they went into McBrides'

Hill, and in that hill was another fairy thorn

and they h ad their last…gathering at that thorn.

So they left there sometime early in the morning,

they crossed McBrides' Hill and headed for County

Down, but that's the last now was heard of the

fairies. 1

Further examples of this movement to reconcile the

Church and fairies can be found in the song sung

by (among others) the famous Irish tenor John McCormick,

"The Fairy Tree" (reproduced in Appendix 1), as well

as in common folk belief. A charm for curing styes on

the eyes, for example, was to point the thorns of a

ninethorned sprig of gooseberry at the inflamed eye,

then discarding the thorns over the left shoulder. This

cure was said to be effective because the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus

was made of nine thorns.

1 Smith: pps 400-1

2 O' Farrell, Padraic: Superstitions of the Irish Country People. Dublin, 1979. p 38

Yet another view is that the fairies were indeed fallen

angels, but that these angels became the gods of the

earth; thus the two theories can be reconciled.

Certainly, there is little sense of incompatibility

between the fairies and the heroic figures, and the

Sidhe people were obviously active in the days of the

Fianna. "Creatures of the high air”1 are mentioned in

the account of the Battle of the White Strand, while

in The Cave of Cruachan,' Cascorach suggests going

"to the door of the hill of the Sidhe" 2 to confront

the Sidhe woman who raids the herds at Samhain.

Likewise, St Patrick is quite convinced by Oisin's

tales after his return from Tir-na-n-Og (the Land of

the Ever Young), where he had been taken by Niamh of

the Golden Head (who is described in terms similar

to those conventionally applied to fairies - see

Lady Gregory, p 333). Indeed, it would seem as if some

of the heroes (and their animal , which were of great

importance to them - consider Oisin's concern about

his dog's eternal fate:

OISIN: O Patrick , tell me as a secret, since

it is you have the best knowledge, will my dog

or my hound be let in with me to the court of

the King of Grace? 3

achieve a sort of fairy-status:

And as to Finn, there are some say he died by

the hand of a fisherman but it is likely that

is not true, for that would be no death for so

great a man as Finn, son of Cumhal. And there

are some say he never died, but is a live in some

place yet. 4

As to Caoilte …after a while he went into

1 Lady Gregory: p193

2 ibid p 224

3 ibid p 347

4 ibid pps 335-6

a hill of the Sidhe to be healed of his old

wounds. And whether he came back from there

or not is not known ... 1

Bran…died on the moment…But some say

Bran and Sceolan are still seen to start at

night out of the thicket on the hill of Almhuin. 2

It is difficult to gauge present- day beliefs as to

the origins of the fairies. With the renewal in interest

in the mythical literature of Ireland, there is some

support for the view that the fairies are the remnants

of the Tuatha de Danaan, or indeed the Milesians. Yeats

offers the explanation that "the pagan gods of Ireland

the Tuath-De-Danan - robbed of worship and offerings,

grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination,

until they turned into the fairies, the pagan heroes

grew bigger and bigger, until they turned into the

giants. " 3 However, modern opinion still tends towards

the fallen angels theory, probably because of the major

influence religion exercises in the day-to-day lives

of the Irish. The fairy folk are more easily incorporated

into this life style if the angels view is

adherred to. It is widely believed that religion does

have some power over the fairies: the utterance of "God

bless you", or some similar Christion exhortation, or

the act of crossing oneself can turn away fairy power.

(A good example of this is given in the story of

Guleesh, in the collection Celtic Fairy Tales, edited

by Joseph Jacobs, London 1968.)

1 Lady Gregory: p 335

2 ibid p 333

3 Yeats: p 235

2 The Trooping Fairies

There are two types of trooping fairies, those that

live on the land, and those who have their dwellings

in the sea.

(i)Dwelling Places

The land fairies live in communities, often near

white thorn bushes. In Ireland, it is considered

unlucky to cut down a "fairy thorn" for fear of disturbing

the fairies. It is a common sight to see a

thorn standing in the middle of meadow land, or even

a cultivated field, left there by the farmer. It is

also unlikely that a builder will cut down a thorn

tree to erect a house or other construction, since no

luck could be expected for its occupants if the

little people had been offended because of its erection.

Compare , for instance, the extract from "The Belfast

Telegraph" , reproduced as Appendix 2, in which this

situation is reported as recently as December 1984.

The following account of the fairy thorn was given

to me by Mrs Margaret McCombe, of Whitehouse, County


There was a fairy thorn in the garden of our

old house [in Fairyknowe Park, part of the

Fairyknowe estate in the north of Belfast. I

assume the name of the estate is indicative of

a long-lasting connection with the fairies in

the area], and once they were working at the

road outside the house, and the contractor came

and asked Hugh [Mrs McCombe's late husband] if

he would cut it down, for the driver of the bulldozer

refused to work near it. It seems on the

last job he had done, he'd been made to dig up a

thorn tree, and just after, his digger had overturned,

and he'd been quite badly injured.

Well, Hugh refused of course; we didn't want

to annoy the gentry, and eventually the contractor

came and dug up the bush himself. A couple

of days later, he had an accident in the car, and

was seriously injured . It's no good annoying the

fairies; no good will ever come of it.

Below is a photograph of the fairy thorn in Kilrea,

Northern Ireland. It stands on the footpath in the

main street of the village, and as can be seen, a

wall has been built around it in order to protect it

from passers-by, and also to indicate its special

position in the village. Mrs Anne Lyle, a lecturer in

Domestic Science in one of the government training

centres in Belfast, and whose father owns both the

local milk delivery business and undertakers, and as

such is a respected and successful member of the

community, comments on the fairy thorn thus:

The fairy thorn? We wouldn't dream of disturbing

it. It's been there for years, and hasn't

been touched. Anyway, it wouldn't do to cross

the little people. My father certainly wouldn't

think of doing anything to it, and it's not in

anyone's way, is it? Do I think it's dangerous?

Not at all - the fairy thorn would only fall

if we had done something to persecute the fairies -

and I don't think there's anybody in Kilrea

would be likely to do that.

Other similar examples are provided by Maureen Donnelly

in The Nine Glens (Downpatrick, 1975), p 82, and pps


illustration not visible in this excerpt

The anxiety of humans to inconvenience the fairies as

little as possible is shown by the construction of

traditional Irish houses, which, if they have two

doors, have these opposite each other, in order to

give the fairies a clear passage through, should they

wish to pass.

The communities of the trooping fairies have their

residences in raths, or "fairy -forts". (The informant

mentioned above, Mrs Margaret McCombe, tells of having

been down a fairy rath. She describes it as "going

round and round; you would never come to the end of

it.") Inside the rath is a fairy palace, since each

fairy community has its own king and queen. These

palaces are reputed to be splendid edifices of gold

and crystal. The king is responsible for entertainments

such as racing, or for leading expeditions into

the mortal realms to capture beautiful women. The

king of the western fairies is Fionvarra. His queen,

Oonagh, like all fairy queens, organizes feasts and

entertainment in the fairy court. The revels of a

fairy court are described in the tale of The Captive

Piper. Although there is no king in this case, the

queen lives up to all human expectations, as do the


Hundreds of glowing lamps lit up a grand hall of

vast proportions, spanned by an intricately decorated

ceiling which was supported by monumental

marble pillars… on a throne of state…a lady

of great beauty. With a crown of gold that sparkled

with diamonds resting on her long golden hair,

she was holding court for the crowds of tiny

figures that thronged to pay her homage. 1

All fairy communities also include some sort of clown

or fool, known as the Amadawn, for the purpose of

1 McGarry, Mary: Great Fairy Tales of Ireland. London, 1973. p 27

Amusement. Once a year, in June, he roams among

humans, frequently destroying the wits of those he


Fairies are the possessors of considerable treasure

hoards, guarded by serpents (otherwise extinct in

Ireland, since being banished by St Patrick), and

black cats (commonly regarded as lucky). It is said

that the fairies occasionally offer their treasure

to mortals, on the condition that the recipient keeps

the source of his new-found wealth a secret for seven

years; if he bet rays the origin of his good fortune,

however, the treasure will turn to dust. (With the

Irish reputation for "blarney ", it is not surprising

that there are few cases of fairy treasure being

successfully retained.)

The water-fairies, or Moruadh ("sea - maiden"), are

almost exclusively female, although Munster tradition

attests to the existence of a male of the

species. They live in underwater palaces, sumptuously

decorated with pearls. Their treasure hoards are under

the care of water cows.

(ii) Appearance

It is difficult to find definite evidence concerning

the physical appearance of the fairies, since they

tend to keep themselves very much to themselves, out

of the way of humankind; but basically they seem to

conform to the conventional view of fairies. They

are generally small in stature, although Yeats warns

against always thinking of the little people as little:

Everything is capricious about them, even their

size. They seem to take what size or shape

pleases them. 1

1 Yeats: pps 11-12

In parts of Ireland, the fairies are considered to be

the size of quite big children, and generally they are

held to be of similar form to humans. The female of

the species at least have long golden hair, although

it is often asserted that the fairies have red hair.

Red and green are the colours commonly associated with

fairy dress, with a distinction sometimes made between

the trooping fairies, who are said to prefer red, while

the solitaries prefer green; fairy clothes are adorned

lavishly with jewels and gold. Fairy kings are said

to wear green, with red caps; the fairy queens, like

all fairy women, wear light floating gowns.

The Moruadh (commonly referred to as "Merrows") are

less conventional or uniform in appearance. Sometimes

they are like hornless cows, sometimes like humans

with fishes tales. In The Lady of Gollerus (cf Yeats,

pps 328- 332) , the hair of the Merrow is described as

being of a "sea- green colour; and how the salt water

shining on it appeared… like melted butter upon

cabbage. " 1 The Merrow also has webbed hands, but

the skin between the fingers is “as thin and white as

the skin between egg and shell.”2 The only article

of clothing the Merrow seems to wear is a little red

cap, known as the cohuleen druith ("little enchanted

cap"), without which she cannot return to the sea. The

male of the species is generally believed to be non-existent,

but in The Soul Cages (Yeats, pps 61-71) a

male Merrow is described as follows:

… a Merrow…. with green hair, long green teeth,

a red nose, and pig's eyes. It had a fish's

tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms

like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked

hat under its arm…3

1 Yeats: p 328

2 ibid p 329

3 ibid P 63

(It is sometimes thought that the Silkie is a type of

Merrow, but in fact the Silkie is a Scottish fairy.

Exclusively female, she is a seal-woman, who, like

the Merrow, can be captured by any human who takes

possession of her seal-skin.)

I quote the following account of a sighting of a

merrow in full, since, although lengthy, it shows the

characteristics of this type of fairy, and also the

attitude of the common people to it. This version of

the merrow tale is given by a Rathlin islander (Rathlin

is an island lying off the east coast of Northern

Ireland, said to be the stepping stone carried by

Finn MacCool's mother as she set off to Scotland to

search for whiskey for her son.):

I don't know if you heard the tale of this fisherman.

He was on the north side of the island, and

even in the present day, the descendants of this

man can be pointed out, he used to fish on the

north s ide of the island, off the shore. He

hadn't got a boat. And he'd been going for quite

a number of evenings to the shore, and fishing

off the rocks, and he seen this mermaid up on a

rock… he watched her for a good few evenings,

and he decided now he would catch her.

So there was an old woman on the island, and she

was supposed to know everything, so he went to

her… this man was single, you see, and he was

looking for a wife… so he was talking to this

old woman and said to her, "Did anybody ever

catch a mermaid? "And she said to him, "Oh aye,"

she says, "It' s possible to catch a mermaid, but

if you catch them you must …when you take them

home with you, you must take the tail off them,

and they're just like any normal human being. But

once you take the tail off them, you must hide

it, and they must never get it again, because

if they do, they'll go back to the sea again…

So anyway, he kept note of the rock that this

mermaid was going on, and he noted that she was

sitting there, she was coming in with the high

tide and she was staying there when the tide fell.

He decided that he could run out, round behind

the rock, he'd catch her, you see. Anyway, this

is what he done, he waited till the tide fell and

he got out behind the rock and he caught her and

he took her home with him. And he done what this

old woman said you see. He took her tail, and he

hung it up, you know, hid it in the barn , in the

roof of the barn, you see. So, this is alright,

they seemed to live happily together for a number

of years. And they had a girl and a boy.

So one fine day this man went away to Ballycastle

or to the mainland and…the two children , they

were playing around , and…they went into the

barn, and they found this thing, and they went

in…and said to the mother to come and see this

funny thing they'd found, you see, it was her

tail. So…they took her out to the barn, you

see, and they showed it to her, and the father

came home, he says to them ... "Where's your

mother?" And…they told him what happened, and

damn but he knew then that she ' d found the tail,

and…they sat that night, you know, the children,

he couldn't work with the children the same as

the mother could, and he'd terrible trouble

getting them settled at night, but they say after

he went to bed, she returned to the house to look

after the children, and clean up, but the fisherman

never seen his wife after it She went back

to the sea. 1

(iii) Activities

Fairies live life for enjoyment, and little else.

Their life seems to consist of much festivity and

merry-making, and the three activities most commonly

associated with them, namely feasting, love-making and

music-making, are closely connected with this life

style. Accounts of fairy revels are to be found in

countless stories; examples are The Captive Piper,

Jamie Freel and the Young Lady and Hie Over to

England, all of which are featured in the collection

Great Fairy Tales of Ireland, by Mary McGarry (London,


1 Ballard , Linda-May: Seal Stories and Belief on Rathlin Island. IN: Ulster Folklife, Volume 29, Belfast, 1983. pps 35-6

Fairies are said to eat and drink sumptuously, although

they never eat salt. Their food is almost exclusively

stolen from humans, and it is common in Ireland to

leave a little in the bottom of a glass, or on a plate,

"for the fairies", perhaps in the hope of discouraging

them from taking more valuable food.

Fairies are also renowned for their love-making prowess,

and mortal women are lured away: by them for this express

purpose. Mortal men, too are subject to this kidnapping,

but not so frequently. The effect of the Leanhaun Shee

on the human male is discussed below. Occasionally,

children are kidnapped by the fairies for a variety

of purposes. The section on the Changeling gives some

information on this aspect of fairy behaviour. The

story of Clionna’s Wave (de Valera: Irish Fairy Tales,

London, 1973. pps 99-109.) gives an example of infant

abduction, as does the well-known folk song, reproduced

as Appendix 3. In his popular poem, The Fairies,

William Allingham describes the abduction of Little

Bridget, who was kept by the fairies for seven years,

and who never recovered from the experience. In the

story Teig O’Kane and the Corpse (Yeats, pps 23-35),

the hero is kidnapped by the fairies, in order to

complete the task of transporting a corpse for them. In

some ways, it almost seems as if his abduction is a

reward for his rough and unruly ways, and indeed he

learns his lesson after his sojourn with the little


Fairy music is perhaps the most reputed element of

fairy life. The fairies make the most beautiful music

ever heard by the human ear (as a result of their

Tuatha de Danaan origin? Or did they learn this in

tha courts of Paradise before the Fall?), and mortals

are powerless to resist its call, although they pine

for it again. Many of the most beautiful Irish folk

tunes (most notably "The Pretty Girl Milking her Cow" -

see Appendix 4) are said to have been stolen from the

fairies, and the renowned harper Turlough O'Carolan

achieved his exceptional talent through sleeping one

night on a fairy rath, and thus subconsciously absorbing

the fairy music. A blind fiddle player, interviewed

in the article Aspects of Contemporary Ulster Fairy

Tradition, said he often heard fairy music in glens and

lonesome places.1

Fairy music is described in the

tale The Legend of Kockgrafton (Yeats, pps 42-47):

…ravishing music…It was like the sound of

many voices, each mingling and blending with the

other so strangely that they seemed to be one,

though all singing different strains, and the

words of the song were these -

Da Luan, Da Mort, Da Luan, Da Mort, Da Luan,

Da Mort;

when there would be a moment’s pause, and then

the round of melody went on again. 2

The informant Helen Marks gives the following comments

about fairy music:

The fairies aren't so obvious to our generation

as to our forefathers, but that's really our

fault rather than theirs. We live near the

sea, and they say often that what we think is

the waves thrashing on the cliffs is really the

Merrows making music. And up in Aberdeen,

where I went to university, they said that the

sea-fairies' music was what most people thought

was the wind blowing in the caves and inlets

of the coastline. They were totally convinced

of the existence of fairies in that part of

Scotland, and fishermen wouldn't have done

anything that might have offended them , for fear

of adverse reaction when they were out at sea.

1 Smith: p 399

2 Yeats: p 44

Fairies play fiddles, bagpipes and drums, and dance

with great enthusiasm to the music. The so-called

fairy rings - circles of darker grass - are made by the

feet of the little people dancing, according to popular

tradition, and no Irish person will step on them for

fear of treading on the dancing fairies. This fairy

activity necessitates the existence of the only industrious

figure among the fairies, the Leprechaun (see

section below), who mends the fairy shoes, and humans

who have joined in the fairy revels have been known

to have danced their shoes and even their toes away.

The following description of fairy dancing is given

in The Priest’s Supper (Yeats, pps 18-21):

On a nice green sod by the river’s side were the

little fellows dancing in a ring as gaily as

may be, with their red caps wagging about at

every bound in the moonshine, and so light were

these bounds that the lobs of dew, although they

trembled under their feet, were not disturbed

by their cape ring. Thus did they carry on their

gambols, spinning round and round, and twirling

and bobbing and diving, and going through all

manner of figures…1

Mr John McElwee describes an instance of fairy dancing,

admittedly not in Ireland, but in Scotland; the same

Celtic traditions are still strong in that, country too:

Near where I went to university (St Andrews, Fife),

there was a fairy glen. It was a lovely place,

with woodland walks, a waterfall, and so on.

The local people called it the Fairy Glen because

at the beginning of this century, a local girl

met the fairies there regularly, and danced

with them. She was the only one ever to see

them there, and so some folk say that she didn't

really see them dancing at all, but only saw

the sun dancing on the water. But most people

believe she was in contact with the little folk -

she wasn't regarded as being mentally disturbed,

or anything like that.

1 Yeats: p18

The little folk of Ireland usually travel on horseback,

although their steeds are not normal human

animals; instead, they merely get astride rushes or

ragwort, and these instantly become suitable mounts,

as described in the story of Master and Man (Yeats,

pps 79-84). These horses, like everything connected

with the fairies are animals of the finest quality,

and possess exceptional speed and talent:

they went all together, riding like the wind,

faster than the fastest horse ever you saw

a-hunting, and faster than the fox and the hounds

at his tail.

The cold winter's wind that was before them,

they overtook her, and the cold winter's wind

that was behind them, she did not overtake them. 1

Besides feasting, fairies also fight with gusto. The

cause of their clashes is often unclear, but the

participants use blackthorn sticks as weapons (or

sometimes hurling sticks - hurling is a game enthusiastically

indulged in by the little people. A fairy

hurling match, with its particular conditions and rules,

is described in Paddy O'Kelly and the Weasel, see

Jacobs, Joseph: More Celtic Fairy Tales, New York, 1968.

pps 46-56). On occasions, the fairies are said to

fight for the health of a sick human, and even if t he

person dies, the fight can be continued in the grave yard.

Every seventh year, they fight at May Eve for

the best of the coming corn harvest. To human eyes,

fairy fights often appear as dust- storms, or leaves

whirling, but with no apparent wind to move them.

1 Jacobs, Joseph: Celtic Fair y Tales. London, 1968. p 6

Not all fairy fights are entirely without significance,

however, as the following account shows:

There's a well ouside his house and he was in

contact apparently with the fairies, and they told

him they were all leaving, they were going to

Scotland, they were going to a battle, between the

Scots and the Irish.

And that if the water was clear in so many days

they'd be back, all would be well.

But if the water turned red in the well, they

would hardly be back for they would have been

defeated, and…so he told me that his grandfather

went out and there the water began to turn

reddish and he got no more trace of the fairies in

his part of the country from that … 1

(iv) Contact with Humans

The land fairies tend not to interfere in human lives,

but if they do, it is difficult to determine whether

they will act for good or ill. Judging from the

information offered by the sources, it would seem that

Irish fairies are as likely to turn milk sour, spoil

butter, stop the hens laying or blight the potatoes, as

to stack turf, cut corn , or save hay from the rain.

Their powers even extend to making men lame, or alternatively,

healing illnesses. They occasionally steal

a human child and leave a fairy one in its place (the

Changeling; see below.), but they have also been known

to reverse the process. The habit of abducting humans

to serve as lovers for the fairies has already been


The Merrows are equally undependable in their contact

with the mortal world. They seduce fishermen, and

rouse storms, but should one be trapped by a human by

1 Smith : p 401

his capturing her cap, she becomes an attentive, caring

and obedient wife and a conscientious and loving mother.

The powers of the Merrow in her native element is

considerable, however. This is clearly illustrated

in the following extract (again, I quote the passage

in full):

They also say, and it is a fact, you always get

three very large seas coming, and the. you'll get

a calm spell, you'll get three small ones . They

always come in threes. I know from having connections

d own the west coast , they say that they come

in lots of seven. You get s even very big heavy

seas coming in , then you'll get seven smaller

ones . Up in this part of the world you always

get three- very big ones coming. So there's a

saying, if you're ever caught like that now, this

was round the back of the island, there's a big

reef, what we call "bows". If you were talking

to somebody, and they said they seen a "bow"

breaking what they would really mean is, one of

the reefs, seen the big swell breaking on it

There was a bow round the other side of the island,

and there was three fishermen out on it, out

fishing, and instead of rowing out round the back

of this bow, they decided to go underneath it. It

was a short way of doing things. Now, you can

stop, as I've said before, the seas always come

in lots of three, three big and three small ones,

but somehow they miscounted it, and they say if

you do that , there's one way of stop… saving

yourself, If the sea is going to overwhelm you,

which it will, if you get a very big one, if you

have a penknife of steel in your pocket, anything

sharp, of steel, you know, something that will

penetrate the flesh, and cast it into the middle

of the wave, you'll be quite safe.

These three men were out fishing, the other side

of the island, they'd miscalculated this, and

instead of counting three big waves going in,

they'd only counted two. As they were underneath

the reef, and they see the third wave rising,

so they realised then that they had miscounted it

and they knew they were going to be overwhelmed,

so John says to the father (there was a father

and a son and a neighbour in the boat). He says

to his fat her, he says, "We're done for ," he

says, “There's no way we're going to get clear.”

“There's no point in rowing,” he says, “we're

not going to get clear of that.” And the father

says to him , “Oh,” he says, “Aye,” he says,

“Pull away,” he says. His father was steering the

boat, and the sea was coming after him and the

boat was running ahead of it, and there was no

way they could do it. So the father says, “Don't

worry,” he says, “we'll be alright.” And he put

his hand in his pocket , and he took out his knife

and he opened the knife , and just as the sea

was about to overwhelm him , he fired his knife

into the centre of the wave, and it just went on

by them, and they were alright . But as it went

by them, a woman appeared in the back of the

wave, and she said as the sea was going by (this

woman appeared, and the knife was stuck in her

breast) and she says to them, she says to the

father, “Johnny,” she says, “draw the knife.”

And he says, “I won't.” And she says, “John,

draw the knife.” And he says, “I won't.”

So that was alright. The father didn't go back

to sea again, so he explained to the son all about

it… that the next one would have got them . So

he says to him , he says, that he couldn't go back ,

because some misfortune would happen him in the

boat, that this was his one chance , he had taken

his chance , he had forfeited his chance , and that

he couldn't do it again. So he would have to pay

a price for it. Now if he had went back they say

that the boat would have maybe capsized, or upset,

or the sea would have taken them back, anyway,

so this is why he never went back to sea.

So, they say that if this happens you're supposed

to take out your knife and throw it in the centre

of the wave, but that's it. You'll save yourself,

and you 'll save everybody on the boat , but you

must forfeit something, you must give up the

fishing. 1

(The collector refers to this tale as one which belongs

to the category of takes which “personify the sea” 2

but the figure in the story shows very close similarities

with the Merrow, and as such can be included as relevant


1 Ballard: Seal Stories and Belief on Rathlin Island. p 40

2 ibid p 39

The fairies' capricious nature is cited as evidence

for their origins both as angels and as gods. On the

one hand, it is claimed that they are continuing to

display the unreliability and indecision which resulted

in their fall from grace. However, this lack of dependability

of spirit is matched by a similar attitude

among the figures of the heroic legends, where the code

of life alternates between rigid adherence to the

accepted rules of chivalry, and a leaning towards the

view that discretion is the better part of valour.

When the Tuatha de Danaan first came to Ireland, they

exchanged weapons with the Firbolgs , whom they had

come to defeat, and even agreed to a “delay of a quarter

of a year for preparation” 1 for the battle. Likewise,

Finn , a descendant of the Tuatha de Danaan , shows the

same regard for chivalrous behaviour:

And when the Red- Haired Man was dead, the

Fianna were no way inclined to go to Inis Caol

to bury him. But Finn said he would break his

word for no man, and that he himself would bring

his body there. 2

The same Finn is not above using trickery, however,

to gain his own ends and ensure his own survival (as

demonstrated in the story Finn and the Big Man , see

O' Sullivan, Sean: The Folklore of Ireland, London, 1974.

pps 35-43.) A common explanation for the Giant's

Causeway in the north of Antrim is that Finn built

it intending to walk across to Scotland to fight a

giant there. When he had got far enough with the

construction to see that giant in Scotland, he realised

that he had met more than his match, and promptly

called a halt to the building programme.

1 Lady Gregory: p 30

2 ibid p 164

Fairy behaviour is not entirely capricious, however;

they are frequently said to be on friendly terms with

humans who are cooperative to them. For instance,

farmers' wives have been known to have been asked to

throw water, potato skins, vegetable scraps, and so

on in different places because the damp rubbish makes

the chimney of the fairy rath smoke excessively. No

reprisals are taken if the family in question acquiesces

with the demand. In the story of Paddy Concoran’s

Wife (Yeats, pps 35-7), the figure mentioned in the

title is ill with an undetermined disease, from which

she has been suffering for seven years. "All the art

o' man" 1 proves useless in effecting a cure, and it

turns out that the illness is a reprisal taken by the

fairies for her inconsiderateness:

For all the time you've been ill, if you'll take

the thrubble to remimber, your childhre threwn

out yer dirty wather afther dusk an' before

sunrise, at the very time we're passin' yer door,

which we pass twice a -day. Now, if you avoid

this, if you throw it out in a different place ,

an' at a different time, the complaint you have

will lave you… 2

Similarly , the custom of “smooring” the fire is mentioned

by Donnelly. A woman's last duty as night before

retiring to bed was to bury a live turf in the fire

so that it could be easily fanned into life. This was

doubtless done with the practical application of

a conveniently quick heat in the morning in mind;

however, it is claimed that it was also an act of

courtesy to the fairies, who would be upset if there

were no fire for them to sit at through the night.

In such cases, the fairies can be seen to reward good

with good and evil with evil. On the whole, there is

a feeling in Ireland, that humans should stay as far as

possible on the right side of the little people. Mrs

1 Yeats: p 36

2 ibid

Margaret McCombe admits to greeting shadows, for fear

of offending fairies.

When the fairies are angered, they use fairy darts,

that is, they hurl any handy object at the offender.

By all accounts, these darts are most effective

weapons; depending on the degree of offence involved,

they enter the human body, without breaking the skin,

most frequently in the fingers, which then swell and

become inflamed, or for more severe punishment, at

internal organs or more important limbs, which cease

to function and become paralysed. It is not only

humans who are subject to this sort of attack; Donnelly

refers to cows being "elf-shot" 1. She comments:

The inhabitants of the glens of Antrim are able

to show you a spot where the cow had been struck;

at this point there is a hole in the flesh but

the skin is unbroken. The cow gives no milk… 2

Sometimes these fairy darts are said to have a concrete

form, which is usually an arrow-shape. They often

coincide with arrow-heads found near the Celtic raths,

which are , of course, felt to be the home of the

little people.

A more extreme form of fairy intervention is the fairy

blast, which is used by the little people when they

desire something from the mortal realm. Food , animals

and even people can appear to be rotting, ailing or

even dead, but in reality, they are only coveted by

the little folk. In the case of a human being spirited

away by the fairies, there is usually some form of

compensation, such as increased prosperity, or constant

yield by the cows. In the North of Ireland, the fairy

blast is referred to as the "blink", and is indeed a

1 Donnelly, Maureen: The Nine Glens. Downpatrick, 1975. p 104

2 ibid

serious thing. Compare the following account:

They were a superstitious lot in the Glens in

the old days.. If you had looked into their byre

you would have seen the red yarn on the cow's

horn and on the goat' s too. That was to keep

off the blink . There's a story about an old

boyo, "Oul Ranal", who could put the blink on

anything. There was this old mare he couldn't

stand the sight of. One day he and the man that

owned the mare and the mare were all going down

the road. All of a sudden the mare lay down.

Stone dead she was…1

One other form of fairy intervention in the lives of

humans is the fairy grass, which is enchanted grass;

anyone walking on it will suddenly grow weak from

hunger. The situation is not usually serious, however,

and can quickly be remedied by eating something

substantial. The victim of the hungry grass in the

story of the same name (de Valera, Sinead: Fairy Tales

of Ireland, London , 1974. pps 58-65.), however, is

only rescued from his hopeless predicament by kind

and generous action by a woman who is equally kind

to the fairies.

The interference of the Amadawn, the fairy fool, in the

lives of human beings when he is on his travels during

the month of Juna has already been referred to.

These examples of contact between the fairies and their

human neighbours are the exception rather than the

rule; generally speaking, there is relatively little

association between the two. Likewise, although there

is a certain amount of support to be found for the

view that fairy behaviour is capricious and unpredictable,

on the whole the feeling of the Irish is that the

1 Donnelly: p 81

fairies are fair in their dealings with humans . The

story of A Donegal Fairy (Yeats , p 47) illustrates

this opinion . If the fairy had been scalded by the

woman of the house , she could have expected some

sort of reprisal , but since the fairy in question was

responsible for his own injuries, his companions agree

to say and do nothing against her:

the gentry, sure enough - they can be unfriendly

if they're angered , an' they can be the very

best o' gude neighbours if they're treated

kindly. 1

At four times in the year, however, the fairies are

abroad among humans. These are the four "Quarter

Days”, dating back to the times of the Celts, The

first of these was known to the Celts as Imbolc, and

was dedicated to Brigid (who came with the Tuatha de

Danaan, and who later developed into the Christian

St Brigid). The fairies are not particularly active

at this time in comparison to the other three Quarter

Days, but more so than at other times of the year, and

the Irisry tend to be wary of unexpected happenings

during this period.

The second Quarter Day, Beltaine was originally the

feast of the Celtic god Benelos or Baal, when the

cattle were traditionally put out to graze after the

winter. This is the most magic time in Ireland , according

to all sources. The fairies are said to change

their abode at this time, and are in a state of uncertainty.

If they are disturbed at this time, they will

react most destructively. However, this is also a

season of rejoicing for them, and they celebrate the

coming of spring with enthusiasm and vitality, dancing

1 Yeats: p 47

round the hawthorn bushes. Mortals can take precautions

against the fairies when they are in this celebratory

and unsettled frame of mind; flowers attached to the

windows of houses will discourage them entering, as

will fire, while livestock can be protected by flowers

(particularly the primrose), holy water and fire. It

is advisable to leave some milk for the little people

to prevent them taking all the butter out of the

milk, which they traditionally do before dawn on May

Eve. It is believed that any spell cast on May Day

will prove effective for a year; as such, it is

inadvisable to give fire or water, or indeed dishes

or butter-churns out of the house at this time, since

their beneficial qualities will go with them. It is

also possible to win fairy favour at this season.

Often cattle are driven between two fires on May

morning to ensure good yield (a custom deriving from

Celtic times), and it said that the green-spotted

fairy cow, the "glas gaivlen", appears in the fields,

resulting in good luck for the farmer concerned. The

first dew of May morning contains magic properties

(probably from the enchanted dancing which has taken

place on it during the preceding night), and the Irish

rise early to collect it. It is said to bring beauty

to those who wash in it, and alternatively can be used

to bring b ad luck to others. If the dew from a neighbour's

grass is drunk, or if a rope is dragged through

his grass and the act accompanied by the chant "Come

all to me, come all to me", his cows will give little

milk, or at best, only milk which will not churn into

butter, while the perpetrator will enjoy an increase

in both milk and butter.

Linda-May Ballard gives an account of this tradition:

my great uncle…was going to the fair at

Ballyshannon, it's away back, I suppose it would

be about…in the late eighties, you know, one

he came walking along, and he heard someone

speaking in a field, and he looked in, and he saw

this old woman . She was sitting in the field, and

she was saying "All the butter in that house come

to me, and all the butter in that house come to

me." And she kept on at this , and he stood watching

her and he said, "And half of it to me."

And it was a Saturday morning, and Monday morning

he got up to help his mother to churn, everybody

used to churn at the time you know. And…they

weren't very long churning when the butter started

to come up out of the churn, and it actually came

out on the floor. 1

It is at this time every seventh year that the fairies

fight for the best of the corn; only a dust storm or

whirling leaves and grass betray these battles to humans.

The third Celtic Quarter Day was Lugnasa, sacred to

Lug, originally occurring between mid-July and mid-August,

with its high point around the first day of

August. However , through being subject to the pressure

of the Church , this celebration of 1idsumme r is now

observed on St John's Eve, the 23rd June, also known

variously as' Hill Sunday, Garlic Sunday, or Bilberry

Sunday. It is then a conjunction of the second and

third Quarter Days, and there is generally an air of

celebration at this time. The herb St John's Worth

is brought into homes, and rowan berries are tied to

stable doors and masts of boats to ward off evil.

Bonfires are lit, which prove focal points for dancing

and singing , and almost everyone finds a reason to

walk through the fire, or jump across it: to ensure

good luck for coming enterprises, future marriages, the

health of expected children, and so on. Livestock, too,

can be driven through to encourage good yield in the

coming year. It is the custom f or young, single women

to pick a rose on St John's Eve, and then to hide it

away until Christmas Day. They then wear the rose, and

the first man to ask the reason for the faded and

1 Ballard, Linda- May: Ulster Oral Narrative: the stress on authenticity. In: Ulster Folklife, Volume 26. Belfast, 1980. pps 37- 8

withered flower will eventually marry the girl.

Fairies are at their most joyful around Midsummer.

The Amadawn is on the loose, with ill-consequences

for mankind.

The last Quarter Day, Samhain, is at Hallowe'en, the

eve of All Saints' Day, November 1st. This originally

marked the beginning of winter in Celtic tradition, and

also the coming of the New Year. The fairies frequently

fight among themselves at this season, and solitary

fairies like the puca (see below) roam freely; the puca

is said to spoil the blackberries at Hallowe'en -

they should not be eaten after this date. Witches and

ghosts also move among humankind at this season.

There are many traditions attached with this festival

still alive among the Irish to-day. Pairs of chestnuts

representing couples about to be married are roasted by

an open fire; the reaction of the chestnuts to the heat

foretells the course of the marriage. Piles of salt

are placed on a plate, each pile standing for a member

of the family. Should a pile collapse, it is taken

as a sign that that member will die during the coming

year. A girl may see the likeness, or "set", of her

future husband in a mirror if she looks at midnight;

alternatively, if she peels an apple without breaking

the skin, and throws the skin over her left shoulder,

it will form the first letter of her future lover's

name. Bonfires are common, and nowadays, fireworks

are let off. It is, however, still reckoned to be

advisable to leave some form of refreshment (most

commonly milk), for any fairies who should happen to

pass by.

3 The Solitary Fairies

The solitary fairies tend to be less attractive in

character than the sociable trooping fairies; each

has some disagreeable trait which makes the carefree,

fun-loving life of the fairy troop inappropriate.

(i) Leprechaun (Irish: Leith Bhroghan)

The most celebrated member of the fairy population

in Ireland is the leprechaun . Exclusively male, he

is the only industrious worker among all the fairies;

he is the fairy shoemaker, and as such is much in

demand due to the trooping fairies ' inclination for

dancing. The leprechaun is small in stature, and

ugly in appearance; he is generally dour in manner , and

is said to be fond of alcohol. He is believed to be

the offspring of an evil spirit and a debased fairy.

Traditionally the leprechaun wears a grey coat, and

leather apron, as well as a red hat, although it is

also accepted that the trooping fairies wear green

coats, and the solitary fairies, including the leprechaun,

red ones.

Here is a recent account of a leprechaun-sighting:

Terry and Paddy, both of them, along with myself,

that we saw that…these little people, or

leprechauns, or whatever they are, are still in

existence in places, in isolated places and we

were coming home from working late at…and

this little person was on the roadside and…

dressed in a kind of cape which went to the

ground and a little hood over the head and what

seemed to me to be…well, it was red in colour

from this down…from the waist right down to

the ground, but I could see…I couldn’t see the

feet or anything like that but I did walk up

close against this, and looked down and saw it

and when I my attention…they spoke out of

the car, attracted my attention, I looked round,

when I went back it was gone. 1

1 Smith: p 401

As well as caring for fairy footwear, the leprechaun

is also custodian of a treasure hoard , known as his

"crock of gold". This he buries, but its location is

always marked by a rainbow settling over it, the gold

being at the end of the rainbow. Thus, theoretically

at least, it is possible for mortals to discover this

treasure, but so imprecise is the rainbow's end, that

the crock is rarely in actual danger of being found.

It is more likely that a leprechaun will be captured

by a human (probably because of his over-indulgence

in alcohol), who can then try to make the fairy betray

the location of the gold. Leprechauns are, however,

extremely adept at escaping, and can usually manage to

retain their treasure , if not by well - timed movements,

then by cunning, as demonstrated by the tale The

Field of Boliauns (Jacobs, Joseph: Celtic Fairy Tales,

pps 26- 29.)

(ii) Cluricaun (Irish: Clobhair-cean)

This fairy is sometimes considered to be a type of

leprechaun, but he differs in some accounts from the

leprechaun in that he does not work (and thus never

wears the leather apron of the shoemaker), but amuses

himself by raiding wine-cellars; in this respect he

resembles the leprechaun in his liking for alcohol.

He also entertains himself by riding sheep and sheepdogs

to the point of exhaustion during the night.

The figure who appears in Master and Man (Yeats,

pps 79- 84) is a cluricaun. His physical description

and the emphasis on his penchant for alcohol confirm


a little man in a three-cornered hat, bound

all about with gold lace, and with great silver

buckles in his shoes, so big that it was a wonder

how he could carry them, and he held out a glass

as big himself , filled with as good liquor

as ever eye looked on or lip tasted. 1


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