When most people think of fairies, they imagine the Hollywood version – adorable, winged creatures living in woodlands among pretty flowers, waving tiny magic wands. But this is a far cry from the Irish version of a fairy.
In Irish folklore, the Tuatha de Danann were the one of the original inhabitants of Ireland – that is, until a warrior tribe, the Milesians (or Celts) arrived. The Milesians attacked and won a war against the Tuatha de Danann, eventually driving them underground. The Tuatha de Danann used their innate magic to become the Sidhe (pronounced Shee) – today known as the “fairies”, “little people” or the “wee folk”.
Like most folkloric events, the fairies and their magical, mysterious ways are often used to make sense of the indescribable or incomprehensible; Pre-Christian monuments are said to have been built by fairy folk, bad luck and illness a result of offending the fairies and people who disappear have been kidnapped by the little people. Even natural (and supernatural) phenomena can be explained by fairies. In general, it’s best to avoid angering the fairies, because who knows what they might do?
Entrances to the Otherworld of the fairies are everywhere – caves, tombs, barrows, forts, even tree hollows and roots. One example is a small cave in County Roscommon, Oweynagat Cave, which was long said to be the entrance to the Otherworld. This was later Christianised, like much of Irish ancient history, to become known as the “Entrance to Hell.”
Lone Hawthorn trees – such as the tree pictured – are often referred to as ‘fairy trees’. Some places inhabited by fairies are visible only to humans who have “the gift”.
Other places are visible just once every seven years – one example is “Green Isle,” a fairy island said to sit off the Causeway Coast near Rathlin Island.
In early Christian times, the people of Ireland associated anything vaguely pagan in origin as being related to the fairies, and in many people the belief persists to this day. In fact, there are still some folk today who will claim to have seen fairies.
Fairy forts are essentially the remains of Iron Age/early medieval ring-forts, of which there are thousands still remaining in Ireland today. Farmers and landowners often plough and mow around them so as to not incur the wrath of the little people. They will also avoid disturbing Neolithic tombs, stone circles and standing stones, all thought to be connected to the fairy world.
In fact, in 1999, a new motorway was re-routed to save a fairy tree. Fear of fairy retribution has caused many major projects to topple, protecting these heritage sites and monuments associated with the wee folk.
Folklore has played a greater role in protecting these monuments and trees than the official government institutions.
There are countless stories of humans seeing fairies, interacting with them or even visiting the fairy world themselves. In many tales, the fairies live much the same way as the Irish; they farm, they work and they party.
According to Irish folklore and oral tradition, humans and fairies brushed shoulders on a frequent basis – the trick was to get along with them and not do anything that drew their attention.
Certain methods were employed to keep the fairies at bay; garlands of marigolds and primroses at your door, the wood of the ash, rowan and blackthorn or a bag of clover around your neck were all means of self protection from fairies. Another way was to turn your coat inside out when passing a fairy. And they aren’t fond of iron, salt or bread either.
There are accounts of humans being stolen away by the little people, either in mind or body, or both. In versions of the tale, their loved ones attempt to rescue them. Usually, this was with the help of a wise woman with experience of the fairy world, following precise, and sometimes bizarre, instructions. And if they were followed exactly, a loved one is returned, and if not, they live on in the fairy world.
If you were fortunate, you would be returned without any intervention. But the snag is, that time works differently in the fairy world and one night can equate to a year.
Fairies were said to employ humans to work for them, for either one or seven years. And if you spent seven years with the fairies, you would return with a magical gift – the number seven being an important symbol in Irish folklore.
These humans hired to work either as servants or farm labourers, often return with a warning not to talk about their experience, and not to point out or recognise the fairies. Failure to do this usually results in a punishment, such as losing one’s voice or memory.
In some ways, this story seems like an easy justification for why certain individuals disappeared at harvest time when their labour was needed the most, and returned sometime later full of tales they couldn’t tell.
Payment from this work was a funny thing too. Oftentimes, compensation from the fairies did not work in the human world – it would disappear. Other times, it worked as a sort of “magic coin” that would always reappear after spending but held its own curses.
Like humans, fairies liked to have a good time and enjoyed parties, banquets and drinking. And Fairy Forts are said to be where they carried out their celebrations, and so were treated with reverence and wariness.
If they invited you into the fairy fort, you could travel to their world. They could even transport you to other parts of the Earth. Though you had to be careful given time doesn’t always work the same there – you could lose years of your life.
Other worries arose too – if you reject their invitation, you could be overrun with fairies and unable to get them out of your house and life.
It is said the only way to rescue someone from a fairy fort was to pull them out with the branch of a mountain ash tree.
In oral stories passed down through generations, fairies were known to be at odds with Christianity. They represented something Pagan, bad, cursed or unknown. The wise women were replaced and the best way then to get your life back to normal after a bad encounter was with the help of a priest.
The question of whether fairies could go to heaven or not was apparently undecided, and something that weighed on rural folks’ minds. This topic, too, made it into fairy folklore.
Places once associated with the fairies or other pagan things like Neolithic tombs or monuments were later modified to have a Christian relevance. Entrances to the fairy world might now be entrances to hell, or simply bad places. (Interested in Neolithic Ireland? Read more here).
Brigid’s history was adjusted so that she was now a Catholic saint. Throughout Ireland, place names and stories are peppered with sly fairies and good priests, almost always at odds with each other.
These stories, much like fairy tales in other cultures are there to serve as a warning, reminding the Irish of their Christian duties, and what happens to those who turn their backs on them.
Though today the number of people who claim to have seen or interacted with the fairies has gone down significantly, fairies are still very much a part of Irish culture and Irish folklore. The stories still get passed down through generations and told at the fireside.
Ireland is a rich source of folklore. And though times have changed and people are less likely to believe in the supernatural, there is still wary reverence to sites that are said to be “fairy touched”.
And so, although fairies hold less of a place in the everyday lives of Irish people, good luck trying to find someone who would destroy a fairy fort, tree, ring or any other such spot.