World and I,
March 1998 v13 n3 p186(8)
Twilight places: Ireland's enduring fairy lore.
Abstract: The Emerald Isle in Ireland is thought to possess
the ancient lore between the visible and the unseen world. Everything
is charged with symbolizing the supernatural, gentle, and magical. The
place has the reputation for being a fairy place, haunted by ancient
memories, gods, and cultures. The portal dolmen are estimated to be at
least five thousand years old and shaped by supernatural forces.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 News World Communications, Inc.
In the 1940s, Irish writer Sean O'Faolain recounted how a Cork
woman had been asked whether she believed in fairies. "I do not," she
replied after pondering the question, "but they're there." The Emerald
Isle has been left spellbound by Celtic enchantments, and the notion of
a barrier between visible and unseen worlds often seems but a fancy.
Stick the proverbial pin into an Irish map and there's every chance of
homing in on some locality that resonates with the jumbled messages of
lore. From the black hexagonal highway of the Giant's Causeway to the
witchy fingers of Kerry's Dingle Peninsula, the pre-Christian age of
wonders always threatens to break from the bounds of storybook and
Girdled in pagan traditions, this is a landscape where time
stands still, the darkness at the edge of town pulsates with eerie
magic, and westerly winds carry a fading whisper of otherworldly
voices. Anything and everything is charged with the supernatural:
standing pillars, dolmens, the mysterious earthen burial mounds known
as raths; river crossings, sea caves, turreted craggy outcrops; lakes,
islands, and sunken grassy pathways; even the solitary blackthorn bush.
All have the reputation of
being "gentle" places, fairy places, haunted by apparitions of the
And while it's rumored that the door between past and present
remains forever ajar, that gateway creaks fully open on the high days
of the old Celtic calendar. According to folk belief, Halloween, May
Eve, and Midsummer's Eve are hazardous times to wander crooked
trackways. These are nights when magic is afoot, and the unquiet
spirits of the otherworld walk in the mortal realm.
Even in our technologically obsessed age, fairy beings such as
the banshee remain firmly rooted in Ireland's psyche. Beyond the
cities, the veneer of modernity is as thin and fragile as gossamer.
Electricity didn't illuminate the rural west until the 1950s, and many
older folk remember spending gloomy winter evenings in the local
"rambling house." Here people gathered to sing the old songs and hear
the seannachie, the storyteller, embroidering the legends of momentous
events and of those who had
passed this way before.
The seannachie thrilled his audience with elaborate creation
myths and stories of heroic victories achieved with the aid of magical
weapons. He told of doomed love affairs between mortal men and fairy
women; of lone warriors like Cuchulainn battling against malign
supernatural forces; of the four children of Lir, turned into swans by
a jealous stepmother. He also spun vivid yarns about spirits like the
shape-changing pooka, the crafty leprechaun, and fish-tailed merrows,
who hoarded the souls of
drowned fishermen inside lobster pots.
The Good People
Many tales revolve around the Tuatha de Danaan, the People of
the Goddess Dana, Ireland's pantheon of shadowy Neolithic deities who
were banished into an underworld existence by the hero gods of the
invading Celts. Greatly reduced in size and power, these immortals
lived on as the sidhe (pronounced "shee"), an Irish word for fairies.
In his Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry, W.B. Yeats concluded
that once the old gods were deprived of their worship and offerings,
they were diminished in
the popular imagination. Eventually they evolved into fairies.
A much-noted nineteenth-century theory was that fairies were
fallen angels, or alternatively, the heathen dead. Unable to attain
heaven, not wicked enough to deserve hell's torments, they were
confined to earth's twilight places. According to the Victorian
folklorist Thomas Keightley, Irish fairies were "very uneasy respecting
their condition after the Final Judgment."
Many stories claimed they dwelled inside raths (fairy forts),
but the far west also told of cave fairies and phantom islands such as
Hy-Brasil, which traditionally shimmers on the Atlantic horizon for one
day every seven years. Others said the fairy realm was Tir na n'Og, the
Land of Youth, which could sometimes be glimpsed in the depths of a
lake, down wells, or beneath the ocean.
Rural superstition agreed on one point: Sidhe neighbors
demanded respect. These weren't the winsome sprites of English picture
books, flitting around foxgloves and making daisy chains. Sometimes
known as the People of the Mounds, or in placatory terms as the Good
People, Ireland's spirit creatures had the power to bring prosperity to
a farm--or, conversely, to withhold their favors.
If neglected, the sidhe could prove spiteful. Thanks to
pishogues (fairy spells), hens refused to lay eggs; milk went sour;
livestock wandered astray. Both farmer and cattle alike would sicken if
struck by fairy darts, tiny Neolithic arrowheads that continue to be
found today. Naturally, every spell had its counterspell: The
four-leaved shamrock, a motif of good luck, is thought to guard against
To the gossipmongers, accidents and untimely deaths were proof
that the sidhe had been badly slighted in some way. A grievous insult
was to build a new house across a fairy path, an act guaranteed to
bring misfortune. In 1891, Yeats wrote with all seriousness of two
farmers being killed by the sidhe for the crime of tearing up a fairy
In Irish lore, a lone tree growing in the middle of a
sheepfold, beside a well, or on a hilltop is protected by
environmentally conscious spirits called lunantisidhe. The blackthorn,
or fairy thorn, is especially sacred; not even dead branches should be
removed. Rumor whispers that a fairy thorn in Ulster was chopped down
to make way for the DeLorean car plant, an ill-fated venture if ever
there was one.
In a more credulous age, some superstitions may well have led
to darker tragedy. Two centuries ago, for instance, midwives warned
against leaving baby boys unguarded in their cradles; in some districts
it was recorded that boys wore petticoats until reaching the age of six
or seven. This fooled the fairies into thinking they were
girls--unwanted mortals--and thus made it unlikely they'd be snatched
Not that cradles remained empty: Careless parents invariably
found a sickly fairy child left in exchange. Various black arts might
indicate whether a suspect child was a changeling. In a stow about
fairy kidnapping he calls "The Brewery of Eggshells," the
nineteenth-century folklorist T. Crofton Croker recounts how a "bit of
a shrivelled-up fairy" replaces a bonny baby boy. A wisewoman instructs
the grieving mother to "take the red-hot poker and cram it down his
Lady Wilde's Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions
of Ireland brutally suggests that an infallible method of reversing
such fairy theft is to lay the changeling in a blazing fire. A
particular incantation is chanted: "Burn, burn, burn--if of the devil,
burn; but if of God and the saints, be safe from harm." The changeling
then vanishes up the chimney with a horrendous shriek, and the stolen
baby is miraculously restored.
Leprechauns and banshees
A mainstay of Irish souvenir shops, the figure most associated
with fairy folklore is the miserly leprechaun. As everyone knows, he's
the fairy shoemaker who tricks greedy mortals out of a promised
treasure. Often depicted as wearing a red frieze (rough, woolen) coat
and cocked hat, his original name in Irish is lobaircin, meaning
Youngsters still reel off the tale of Tom Fitzpatrick, a
farmer's son who spies a leprechaun mending shoes behind a hedge.
Knowing that once you take your eyes off a leprechaun he'll vanish like
smoke, Tom grabs the manikin and employs dire threats to discover the
whereabouts of his crock of gold. The leprechaun shows Tom a vast field
of yellow ragwort plants and the particular flower under which the
treasure lies. As Tom doesn't have a spade, he marks the plant by tying
a red garter around its
Forgetting the warnings about fairy trickery, Tom unwisely
releases the leprechaun. Racing home for a spade, he returns to find
every ragwort in the field now carries red garters. There are far too
many plants to dig up and his prospects of riches have gone, as has the
Possibly the same spirit in different guise, the fear dearg is
the otherworld's malevolent practical joker. Red is the color of magic,
and his name means "red man." Yeats heard a Sligo seannachie telling of
a fear dearg who tricked famished travelers into cooking a corpse on a
spit. If in a good mood, the silver-tongued scoundrel can be summoned
to release trapped humans from the dim caverns of fairyland.
Some legends feature the cluricaun, a household spirit with an
appetite for raiding larders and wine cellars. On moonlit nights, he
enjoys drunken sprees through the countryside on the back of a
sheepdog. The only benefit of having a cluricaun in the home seems to
be his ability to ward off other potential thieves.
Some figures of Irish folklore are more ominous. One of the
most terrifying is the bean si (banshee), whose appearance and eldritch
wail near a dwelling supposedly herald a death in the family. Sometimes
manifesting herself as a beautiful young woman in fine clothes,
sometimes as a grizzled crone draped in a winding-sheet, the banshee
escorts dying individuals to the sid, the otherworld. At Irish wakes of
times past, mourners keened for the dead by echoing the banshee's cry.
Most of the old Irish families are said to possess their own
banshee. Writers often emphasize the hereditary nature of these
ancestral spirits, suggesting that the banshee evolved from ancient
ideas of a land goddess as patroness of chieftains. Reports of banshee
lamentations still occur in towns as well as rural areas.
Bean si translates as woman of the otherworld. Their queen is
Aine, a name synonymous with the pagan goddess Dana. Her traditional
southern stronghold is Cnoc Aine (Knockainey), a hill overlooking Lough
Gur in County Limerick.
Published in 1879, D. Fitzgerald's Popular Tales of Ireland
recounts how local people gathered on the hill for the summer solstice,
lighting bonfires in Aine's honor. On one occasion, some young girls
stayed late and were astonished when Aine herself appeared among them.
After thanking the girls for their visit, she bade them return home as
her people wanted the hill for their own festivities. The bravest girls
then peeped through Aine's ring and were rewarded with a glimpse of the
realm's fairy host.
The friends had a lucky escape, for the banshee queen also
apparently appeared in the 1870s to another local man, James Cleary, at
a Lough Gur landmark called the Housekeeper's Chair. As it was believed
those who saw Aine were driven witless by her beauty or came to an
unpleasant end, Cleary's neighbors were largely unsurprised when his
boat sank on the lough a few days later. A coincidental drowning, the
irresistible call of the banshee, or a sacrificial victim of the old
pagan goddess? Legend
tells that this sacred lake claims a life every seven years.
Sightings of the deathly pale beannighe, the Washerwoman at the
Ford, were especially disastrous. In heroic myths, warriors fated to
perish in battle encounter her beside river crossing places, wailing
and rinsing out bloodstained clothing. Ireland's High King, Brian Boru,
seemingly met Aibhill, the bean-nighe of Clare, on his way to the
Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Although the Irish triumphed over the Norse
invaders, Brian Boru was killed in the battle.
A particularly ghastly apparition is the dublachan, a headless
phantom usually seen driving the black and coffin-topped silent coach,
the coitse bodhar. Yet another omen of doom to any house where it
stops, it travels along green lanes, the sunken trackways of Ireland's
ancient road network. According to Croker's informants, those who
opened their door to the silent coach got a basin of blood thrown at
Nineteenth-century peasant superstition is one thing, but in
1972 the Irish Folklore Commission found villagers around Lough Gur who
still spoke of the Dead Hunt. Phantom dogs, heard but never seen,
chased their invisible quarry from this world to the next. It was
suggested that only older people could hear the hunt; the following day
inevitably brought them news of a local death.
A tash or thevshi is a ghost. Sometimes held here by anger
against the living, sometimes rejected by the banshee, these lost souls
are said to be the restless spirits of suicides or murder victims.
Attached to particular houses or localities, some attract attention to
their unhappy plight by antics such as moving furniture around.
A thevshi sometimes appears in animal guise. In Lady Wilde's
story "The Black Lamb," a wandering ghost is accidentally scalded by
boiling water. That night it enters a farmhouse in the shape of a badly
burnt lamb. Collapsing at the fireside, it emits piteous moans and
proceeds to die. Although the remains are buried, the same lamb appears
night after night. Only when a priest is summoned to perform an
exorcism is the ghost finally laid to rest.
In the 1840s, the fear gorta (Hungry Man) reputedly stalked the
blighted potato fields. The harbinger of famine, this emaciated spirit
was believed to have arisen from the Hungry Grass--patches of land
where an unshriven corpse had lain. Hapless individuals who tread on
the Hungry Grass are stricken with insatiable and everlasting hunger.
Another malign phantom is the leanhaun sidhe, the fairy
mistress who seeks the love of mortal men. She targets bards and poets,
vampirically feeding on their life-force until they waste away. She is
often described as the Celtic Muse, and her lovers can only escape by
finding another to take their place. Ancient myths tell of the bard
Oisin, taken to Tit na n'Og by his fairy lover, Niamh. Pining for his
companions, Oisin returns from the Land of Youth to find his comrades
all dead and forgotten.
The moment his foot touches Irish soil, he ages by three hundred years.
No roll call of nightmarish apparitions is complete without the
pooka, or puca. "A drunkard's sleep is his kingdom" says Yeats of this
shape-changing demon that can take on various beastly forms. His
favorite guise is that of a black horse, but pookas can be bulls,
goats, and dogs, too. In horse form, his usual trick is to offer a
weary traveler a welcome ride, which results in a demented gallop
across boggy countryside. The petrified rider is then ignominiously
dumped in a ditch miles from
Last century, a Kerry boy told Croker that "pookas were very
numerous in the times long ago. They were wicked-minded black-looking
bad things that would come in the form of wild colts with chains
hanging about them." To this day, children are told not to eat
blackberries once the seeds appear because that's a sign the pooka has
spat upon them.
The next generation
Many of Ireland's old superstitions simply refuse to go away.
Maybe it's a case of for whom the bell tolls, but some people worry
about walking through bluebell woods: To hear a bluebell ring is to
hear the sidhe signaling your impending demise. Another curious custom
that survives among elderly women in County Roscommon is that of
sprinkling primrose petals on the doorstep on May Day morning. This is
done so "they" will bring good luck.
Each generation has its own visions and stories, its own dreams
and magic. In the wider context, Ireland's fairy lore hasn't yet been
entirely supplanted by the current flirtation with beings from outer
space. Sidhe kidnappings, alien abductions. Don't they strike the same
Look for similarities and imagination soon finds them. Fairies
and aliens alike are credited with an ability to invisibly infiltrate
this world. Both are said to frequent lonely places, both make contact
with believers, both wait to take the earthbound on soaring flights of
Whether those fantasies are of Tir na n'Og or some far-flung
galaxy doesn't really matter. Like our forebears, there are times when
we too yearn to let go of the leaden balloon of reality.
Steenie Harvey is a freelance writer based in Ireland.