Irish nymph

Irish nymph DEFAULT
‘We believe in fairies like the next person believes in God, angels or miracles’

Over the centuries many folklorists and storytellers such as Seamus MacManus, Francis McPolin, Henry Glassie, Patrick Kennedy, William Butler Yeats, Sinead De Valera, Eileen O’Faolain, Ruth Sawyer, Michael J Murphy, Sean O’Sullivan, William Carleton, Katherine Briggs and Eddie Lenihan (to name only a very few) are like butterfly collectors searching for stories of Ireland’s mystical people, The Sidhe or Shee, better known as the fairy folk or the Fey. Only they set them free again for others to go and find them again for themselves.

As the storyteller Eddie Lenihan told us when we asked him about collecting stories: “These stories are not yours or mine, they belong to the people who were kind enough to tell them to me, while they were still able to. I in turn regard it as my duty to share them with others. Through this process, hopefully, the stories will live on.”

These enigmatic creatures go under many names such as The Good Folk, The Wee Folk, The Gentle People, The Fey and even The Other Crowd. The term Fairies is merely an Anglicisation for something that cannot be defined or pigeon-holed, just like the Sidhe themselves.

But the fairies of Ireland are not the magical or elaborate fairies that we know from stories such as Cinderella or Peter Pan or the paintings created by Victorian and Edwardian artists such as Richard Dadd and Edward Robert Hughes or the photographs of the Cottingley Fairies taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths during the reign of King George V, nor are they the delicate sweet fairies we see in a Disney film.

The Sidhe lend themselves more to the imaginings of Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft, Harry Clarke, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, hence the title of our book, Irish Gothic.

In fact Stoker, an Irishman born in Clontarf, Dublin in 1847, listened to many strange and disturbing stories about the Great Famine and the Good Folk from his dear mother. It was such stories that helped create the literary landscape for Stoker’s 1897 masterpiece Dracula.

It was believed that the Famine was indeed caused by the Sidhe. According to folklore historian Simon Young: “There was the belief among some Irish potato growers that it was the fairies’ disfavour that brought down the blight on the land. Fairy battles in the sky – fairy tribes both fought and played hurling matches against each other – were interpreted as marking the onset of the famine: a victorious fairy army would curse the potatoes of the enemy’s territory.”

The one question that I always asked while interviewing folk about the Sidhe was and still is “What do they look like?”

We both came from storytelling backgrounds. I grew up listening to my grandmother from Galway tell me stories about the Good Folk and she was also a huge fan of the Hammer Horror franchise. This fascination with the sublime and the strange stayed with me throughout my life in the literature, film, visual arts and even music that I loved. As a teenager I was fascinated with the Gothic Rock sub-culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s with bands such as Bauhaus who wrote a song dedicated to the Sidhe entitled Hollow Hills. The Virgin Prunes from Dublin were an androgynous and bizarre otherworldly group that emulated the mystery, beauty and horror of the Sidhe and then there was Siouxsie who literally incorporated the Sidhe into her own realm with the Banshees.

An illustration from Irish Gothic by James Patrick Ryan

These artists along with many others from the genre were the soundtrack to my life at a time when I was living in a very remote and rural part of Co Kildare surrounded by ancient castles, forts and folklore. Their music still resonates with me today.

I have written three books already on folklore, Down Folk Tales (2013), Kildare Folk Tales (2014) and Monaghan Folk Tales (2017). The research gave me a great insight into folklore, folk tradition and of course the Sidhe. This is my first collaboration and I felt Paula was a good choice for she helped me research Monaghan Folk Tales and she comes from a magical place and is a true believer in the fairy folk.

The one question that I always asked while interviewing folk about the Sidhe was and still is “What do they look like?”

Some people have told me the fairies are just “Wee folk”, who seldom grew more than three feet tall, but resembled ordinary human beings in every other way. Their clothing was old-fashioned and their features were plain, more ugly than handsome. Others have said that they look just like us and one could be standing beside you and you wouldn’t know, but there is a strange look in their eyes that gives them away. Some have said that they are beautiful beyond belief and when you see them your life will never be the same. I have heard tell of them being terrible monsters and creatures from your wildest nightmares. Many folk believe that the fairies are fallen angels that had nowhere to go for they could neither enter Heaven or Hell and we can’t see them at all.

I have spoken with many people old and young who experienced first-hand the mischievous ways of the fairy folk. Some have been trapped in fields for hours and days and some have been tormented after cutting a bush or a tree, but what I have found is that most people, whether they believe in fairies or not, both respect and fear them in equal measure and don’t tempt fate by interfering with what they feel is fairy property.

The folklorist Francis McPolin was struck by the strong hold that these folk and fairy stories had on the imagination of most of the older generation during the 1940s. He stated that he found that at least a third of those over 60 years of age were proud and professed believers in The Little People. He also found that about half of the remainder believed in fairies but were not open about their beliefs.

McPolin documented a story dating back to the mid-1800s, told by an old-timer known as Blind Dan, explaining that the fairies were a group of fallen angels, who had repented after being cast out of Heaven just in time before they reached Hell. So they were partly restored by God and allowed to take up residence below the earth.

Most of them lived in underground caves with secret entrances into the fairy forts, which can still be seen in varying states of ruin and preservation on most of the hillsides in the surrounding countryside. It’s believed that there was a definite hierarchy or aristocracy among the fairies and these nobles lived in underground palaces that could only be entered via the larger forts which stood upon the higher hilltops.


The general consensus is that the fairy-world is composed of the original fairy people known as the Tuatha De Dannan or The People of the Goddess Danu. According to the Armagh folklorist Michael J Murphy these were an early Irish race who were skilled in magic and able to escape the physical death of mortal man. They were, however, compelled to dwell in fairy forts or rassans. They entertained themselves by showing off their superiority over ordinary people by playing tricks on them. This tended to take place on certain times such as May 1st and October 31st, Halloween, when the ethereal wall between the human world and the fairy world is at its thinnest.

If you are lost in a fairy fort or fairy ring you take your coat off, put it back on inside out...

On these dates humans were carried off or abducted by the fairies and kept in fairyland permanently. These humans are known as changelings. To protect themselves from such abductions, Murphy stated that the old people would place iron tongs across a cradle. Apparently fairy folk cannot perform magic when confronted with either iron, steel or the Bible.

There is the famous story of Michael Cleary, a Tipperary man who murdered his wife Bridget in 1895 as her family members including her own father looked on because they all believed she was not of this world. They believed that Bridget had been taken by the fairies and a changeling or a witch was left in her place. After her death Michael was seen smartly dressed, waiting for days outside the local fairy fort for her return.

An illustration from Irish Gothic by James Patrick Ryan
An illustration from Irish Gothic by James Patrick Ryan

But there are softer ways to outwit the fairies. One is if you are lost in a fairy fort or fairy ring you take your coat off, put it back on inside out, put your left shoe on your right foot and spin around three times… if you do this you will find your way out of the fort or ring. The reason for this is that the fairies fear madness for they believe that it is contagious. (This was told to me by fellow storyteller and folklorist Francis McCurran). In fact all the knowledge we have today about the Sidhe has been passed down by storytellers going back centuries when the written word and literacy was only for the privileged classes and stories existed through the oral tradition.

The Sidhe are not unlike ourselves in many ways for they also fall in love but they also fall out with each other. They have been known to have great battles with other Sidhe from the various provinces and counties. They have even been known to have hurling matches to settle their differences. In Eamon Kelly’s beautiful fairy story The Golden Ball there is a brief description of one of these fairy hurling matches.

As a storyteller myself, I have had the privilege and a pleasure to work with other storytellers and hear their tales of the Sidhe. It has been particularly fascinating to hear firsthand accounts of experiences that people have had with The Other Crowd. Paula and I have spoken to folklorists, musicians, religious people, academics, artists, poets, farmers, fishermen, mountain folk, storytellers and characters from every background imaginable with regard to this book.

It was through storytelling that I and Paula first met. She has always had a keen interest in what lies beyond the ethereal wall that separates our world from theirs. Since Paula was a young child living beside the mountains she would sit and wait for the fairies to come and keep her company.

Her brothers were older than her and as she lived in an isolated area there were not kids her age to play with. As a result her imagination was her playground, Paula had a powerful imagination from a young age and this helped her songwriting in later years. Paula would sit in her garden wishing and hoping the fairies would come and visit her. Although she has never seen one she felt a powerful connection and belief towards them. As she grew older her connection to the fairies did not fade and this caused many people to think she herself was away with the fairies.

But she remained true to her belief and very much an individual. It quickly became apparent as she got older that not many share her belief in fairies, yet when she asked those people if they would cut down a fairy tree they would always reply “No way!”

Paula’s love of storytelling did not come out of nowhere for her cousin was the late great John Campbell, one of Ireland’s most celebrated storytellers. His son John Campbell jnr was headmaster at Forkhill Primary School where Paula was a pupil.

When Paula and I met, we shared our belief in the Sidhe and this is a bond we feel is powerful and sometimes more powerful than ourselves. Writing this book has been a wonderful experience but has also had many drawbacks for we feel the fairies interfered with our plans on several occasions and did not make this journey easy for us, both as story collectors or as a couple, for we feel many times the fairies have tested our faith, in both them and in each other.

An illustration from Irish Gothic by James Patrick Ryan
An illustration from Irish Gothic by James Patrick Ryan

During the writing of this book huge obstacles were put in our way to see if we would falter or give up. Initially we found it difficult to get people to share their experiences with us. We found this very interesting and disturbing as many individuals even in the 21st century still talk of the Sidhe in hushed tones, for fear of being heard and quite possibly punished. It is for this reason that the Sidhe are often referred to as The Good People or The Gentle People, so that they will not take offence or umbrage if they hear mortals speaking of them. Some folk did not want to speak of them at all and it proved quite difficult to gather stories from each county.

At two crucial stages in this process we lost all our work due to computer problems. We managed to recover most of it but some of the material had to be rewritten and redocumented. In the early stages all of Paula’s research was wiped from her iPad. The camera that I used to document my illustrations for the book completely packed in and a new camera had to be purchased.

Paula had lots of sleepless nights and bad dreams while writing this book and at a few stages questioned if we should keep going. She felt for a time that maybe the fairies were telling us not to write the book, and we were involving ourselves in something that we really do not understand. I had read and heard of accounts of individuals being sabotaged by the fairies whilst trying to get close to them and I was beginning to think it was a bad idea myself.

But after consulting some folk who are lucky enough to have met the Fey, they assured us the fairy folk would want us to write this book and they want the people of Ireland to know about them, and it’s natural and important to fear them but it’s much more important to respect them. It is also true that anything worthwhile is never easy.

These are only a few examples of the struggles we faced while writing this book. We believe the fairies were testing our belief to see if we were serious, and maybe to see our motives for writing a book about them. We did not give up despite everything that was put in our way, we still believe in the fairies and each other and maybe even more than ever. Our belief in them and each other has become stronger as a result of writing this book.

People often snigger when they hear the word fairy. Yet time and time again when asked “Would you cut down a fairy tree?” the answer is always “No!”

After collecting the stories another large part of the procedure was creating the artwork depicting the Sidhe, I created a set of illustrations from what we heard and the various descriptions that were given to us. It was indeed exciting, trying to imagine the Sidhe and their world visually. And to help us with this process was another journeyman who helped us on our expedition in the fairy realm, my old art college friend James Patrick Ryan. He was a wonderful support throughout this project. He created a set of wonderful coats of arms, one for each county, and a series of ornate borders that pay tribute to the plates of the great master of fairy illustration Arthur Rackham.

James, a native of Co Limerick, provided us with a chilling fairy story told to him by his grandmother. This story provides the chapter for Co. Limerick complemented by his own illustration.

While we were researching the book, Paula and I found that not everyone is a believer in the Good Folk, and there was a bit of scepticism.

People often snigger when they hear the word fairy. Yet time and time again when asked “Would you cut down a fairy tree?” the answer is always “No!”

Business tycoons in Ireland have been left penniless and the planning of motorways have been interrupted and every time fingers have been pointed towards the fairies.

In 1992, Cavan business man Sean Quinn’s lost his multibillion-euro fortune and it was believed that the reason was down to a fairy curse known as a pishogue. He gave the go-ahead for a 4,000-year-old megalithic burial tomb to be relocated to make way for a quarry for Quinn Concrete.

If you grew up in Ireland you would have heard people talk about fairy trees and forts and most people wouldn’t dream of messing with them

In the North of Ireland one of the slip roads off the motorway from Ballymena to Antrim was built around a fairy thorn because locals didn’t want to see it cut down. In the west of Ireland, the Ennis bypass in Co Clare was also re-routed to avoid disturbing a lone hawthorn tree. The hawthorn tree is native to Ireland and believed to be the dwelling places and watchtowers of the fairy folk. This campaign was led by storyteller Eddie Lenihan. Eddie is a true believer and a voice for the fairies.

If you grew up in Ireland you would have heard people talk about fairy trees and forts and most people wouldn’t dream of messing with them. There are far too many stories about the ill fate people have met as a result of tampering with such things, to simply write it off as mere coincidence.

Although all the stories came from the oral tradition and were often passed down by ordinary folk, many of whom were illiterate, fairy stories were a big part of the world of literature and academia.

In his book The Green Fool (1938), Patrick Kavanagh admitted that he was taken by the fairies when he was a young man, Flann O’Brien referenced the Good Folk in his first novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) and WB Yeats was also a great believer.

My own father Pat Lally was a scientist and often told me that not everything can be explained through science, and there are many things that we as humans simply cannot comprehend.

Our aim was to find the best stories from each county and we hope we have done just that. We feel it is important to preserve these stories and share them with everyone. It was massively important for us to represent the 32 counties of this island.

We have always felt the Good Folk brought us together. And we hope you will enjoy reading the stories as much as we did collecting them. We feel it important to say that they are believers. Just because we don’t see fairies doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We believe in fairies like the next person believes in God, angels or miracles. What’s the difference?

Paula and I feel it’s important to respect the land and our ancient monuments and tombs. We have established that in the 21st century people still very much believe in the fairy folk.

Irish Gothic is published by the History Press. Steve and Paula will be performing as The Bard and the Banshee in Hodges Figgis Bookshop, 56-58 Dawson St, Dublin, on Wednesday, March 6th, at 6 pm. Steve will be telling a selection of stories from the book and Paula will be singing some old ballads.


Irish Fairies

By: Steven Forsyth

Although dozens of nations have fairy folklore, Ireland has one of the strongest traditions. Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no linear path regarding tracing the development of such folklore in Ireland. Typically, fairy folklore is a combination of Celtic, Greco-Roman and Germanic elements.

As a result, while the Ancient Celts may have had their own folklore (such as the Tuatha de Danann), stories about fairies such as Leprechauns that are associated with Ireland came much later. As you’ll discover, Irish Fairies seldom resemble the ‘traditional’ depiction of fairies. Artwork featuring flying beings with wings was created in the 19th century; Irish Fairies possess supernatural powers such as the ability to fly without wings.

History of Irish Fairies

In the era when the Celts were still pagans, storytellers, also known as the seanchaí, remembered and recited a variety of Irish legends featuring supernatural beings such as fairies. In the age of Christianity, the mixture of Celt and Christian folklore was combined into many of the stories told today.

Image of Irish Fairy

The legend of the Changelings is popular throughout Europe, but especially here in Ireland.

Tales of the Tuatha de Danann go back thousands of years. Translated as ‘tribe of Danu’, they were a race of people that possessed incredible, almost God-like, powers. According to legend, they ruled Ireland from the early 19th Century BC until the end of the following century. The tribe was defeated by the Milesians, so they fled into the Sidhe underground. After that, they became known as the Daoine Sidhe and had children with the likes of Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Also known as the Aos Sí, these underground people became smaller over generations. The tales of these diminutive figures is in line with the Celtic tradition of believing in tiny people forced into hiding by hordes of invading humans. Other figures such as the Pooka are also possibly from Celtic pagan times; the Pooka is associated with the Samhain festival.

In the post-Christian era, other tales emerged including the legend of the Banshee. There are accounts of this female spirit dating from as far back as the late 14th century. Indeed, it is likely that the Banshee is pre-Norman mythology. You may be surprised to learn that the Leprechaun is probably a relatively recent fairy (more on that later). The first mention of these little people in the English language was apparently in 1604.

In the early modern era, belief in Irish fairies was still relatively widespread. Tales of various unusual creatures were told and believed in Dublin well into the 19th century while the belief remained strong in the western parts of Ireland until the middle of the 20th century. There are a handful of stories that speak of sightings in the 21st century.

The Fairy Realm

Thousands of years ago, people believed that the Fairy Realm was located in the Hollow Hill where the Tuatha de Danann was forced to flee. It is a magical portal which allows gods and fairies to come and go as they please between worlds. Another concept in the old Celtic tradition was that the Fairy Realm was located in a place called Tír na nÓg, which means ‘The Land of the Young.' This wonderful land could be found across the sea from the West of Ireland and those who lived there avoided death and remained eternally young.

Tír na nÓg

One of the most famous of Fairy Realms must be Tír na nÓg - The Land of the Young.

Other tales suggest that the legendary Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill, lived in a place now known as the Hill of Allen in County Kildare. However, there are suggestions that fairies made themselves known all around Ireland. Possible locations include the far West of Kerry, Lough Gur and a small patch of untilled land near the Burren in County Clare.

Types of Irish Fairies

There are numerous fairies specifically associated with Ireland, but we will look at five of the best known.


Also known as ‘bean-sidhe,' or ‘woman of the fairy,' the Banshee is a harbinger of death. According to legend, she appears to members of certain Irish families to warn them of impending death. In the 17th-century text Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe, the Banshee is described as a woman in white with a ghastly pale complexion and white hair. She appears as a wailing spirit and sometimes wears the bloodstained clothing of the person about to die.

The Banshee

This fascinating wailing spirit is extensively covered in our popular Banshee article.

It is important to note that the Banshee is seldom seen. One famous case involved King James I of Scotland who was visited by the wailing woman and told of his forthcoming death at the behest of the Earl of Atholl in 1437. While some legends say that if you hear her piercing shriek, you will die within 24 hours, there are cases when the soon to be deceased person is a relative of the individual that hear the cry.


The Leprechaun is arguably the most famous Irish fairy of them all. They are Earth Fairies that specialise in shoemaking. Leprechauns are known for being extremely small, wearing green clothes and hiding treasure. Despite their popularity, the first accounts of Leprechauns don’t appear in English literature until the early 17th century.

There is a suggestion that they appeared in The Adventure of Fergus mac Leti as early as the 7th or 8th century. In that text, Fergus, the King of Ulster, discovered three water sprites and asked them for the power to swim underwater. However, this luchorpain (small water sprite) bears little resemblance to the modern depiction of Leprechauns.

According to W. B. Yeats in his 1888 book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, leprechauns are small, withered old men. The popular image of these little men also suggests they are ill-tempered and mischievous.


Also spelled Puca, this Irish fairy is one to fear because he appears after nightfall and can transform its shape into all manner of horrific forms. There are various tales of the Pooka which tell of its ability to change into bats, eagles, dogs, goats or black horses. In the middle of the night, the Pooka may destroy crops and terrify livestock, but not all stories are negative.

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, written by Lady Wilde in 1887, she writes about how a Pooka helped a young man named Phadrig enjoy a life filled with joy and prosperity. He made friends with the spirit who in turn helped thresh the corn. Phadrig was so happy that he created a special suit of clothes for the Pooka.

The spirit disappeared, but on the day of Phadrig’s wedding, he found a goblet of wine. Phadrig guessed it was a gift from his old friend and drank it. He married his bride and enjoyed happiness and prosperity for the rest of his days.


This Irish fairy appears as a ghostly horseman and is associated with County Sligo and County Down. A number of people claim to have seen the Dullahan as it rode past; it is depicted as a headless horseman who holds his head under the crook of his arm. The head apparently glows, so the Dullahan uses it as a lantern to help guide him during the night.

According to legend, this fairy is capable of looking into its head and seeing the home of a dying person. In a rather macabre twist, the Dullahan uses a human spine as a whip!


The legend of the Changelings is popular throughout Europe, especially in Ireland. These creatures are the deformed children of fairies who are abandoned. The parents tend to swap the Changeling with a human baby, and these creatures are described as sickly and abnormal. They either fail to pick up language or else their language skills are remarkably advanced. Some Changelings are constantly hungry and always crying.

The W. B. Yeats poem The Stolen Child was inspired by tales of fairies stealing human children and leaving Changelings in their place. The tale of these unwanted fairy babies continues to inspire literature and even movies in the modern era. The famous movie Labyrinth acknowledged the famous work of Maurice Sendak who wrote about Changelings in Outside over There in 1981.

Fairy Sightings in Ireland

Lady Fanshawe and the Lady of the Lake

One of the most famous sightings of a fairy in Ireland is arguably Lady Fanshawe’s brush with a banshee in County Clare in 1642. Along with her husband, Sir Richard, Lady Fanshawe stayed with Lady Honora O’Brien in her castle which was either near Castle Lake or Bunratty. She stayed in a room dozens of feet from the ground which overlooked a lake.

One night, she was awakened by a high-pitched scream and saw the apparition of a girl at the window. The spirit had red hair and pale skin. The spirit eventually vanished leaving the frightened Lady Fanshawe to ponder just what she saw.

The following morning, she was told about the death of a relative who had been hiding an illness from her. According to legend, the spirit she saw was that of a peasant woman. She was the wife of a previous owner of the castle. The unfortunate lady was murdered by her husband who drowned her in the lake.

Leprechauns in Limerick?

While there have been countless sightings of fairy folk going back many centuries, you may be shocked to discover that there are a reasonable number of 20th-century sightings too. In 1938, schoolboy John Keely claimed to have spoken to a fairy in the west of County Limerick. When he told his friends, they told him to go back and speak to it; this statement was made in jest because they didn’t believe him.

When Keely returned to the spot, the fairy was still there and when the boy asked him where he was from; the fairy replied: “I’m from the mountains and it’s all equal to you what my business is.” The following day, Keely met two fairies and held the hand of one. Had his friends not been spotted by the fairies, they may well have kidnapped the boy! It transpires that the other boys were setting up an ambush which suggests the fairies might have been leprechauns and the children wanted their treasure.

Encounters with Changelings

Several people have reported encounters with changelings including Kate Moloney who lived in a small village near Tulla, County Clare. In 1869, she was concerned about her daughter who had undergone a strange transformation and was in poor health. A ‘wise woman’ confirmed that Kate’s daughter had ‘changed’ and unfortunately, the child died soon after.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Reverend J.M. Spicer told Evan Wentz about a woman, who he referred to as Mrs. K., who was almost kidnapped by fairies in Castletown. She went to find her daughter, and at nightfall, she was suddenly surrounded by fairies that were in the process of bringing her towards the South Barrule Mountain. Mrs. K was only able to escape after calling out for her son.

Final Words

If someone claims to have seen or spoken to an Irish fairy, their tale is usually dismissed as fanciful. The thing is, sightings of fairies are so commonplace that it would be remiss of us to ignore them all completely. One thing is certain, these magical, some would say mythical, creatures are synonymous with Ireland, and they will continue to fascinate us till the end of time.

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Do Irish People Believe In Fairies?

The world over has its legends of goblins, ghosts and giant snowmen. Tales abound of beasts and brides of the sea.

Here in Ireland, we have our own magical creatures. Banshees, leprachauns and, especially, fairies still inspire respect in Ireland.

Read on to find out more about Irish fairy mythology.

Do Irish People Believe In Fairies?

Ask the average Irish person, 'Do you believe in the fairies?' and you may be surprised by the response.

For hundreds of years, the average Irish person held strong beliefs that fairies — or the 'Little People' — were everywhere.

Stories about fairies helped explain natural phenomena. The places, plants and objects associated with the 'Little People' commanded respect.

Today, particularly in the countryside, Irish people still hold dear the traditions and beliefs of their ancestors about supernatural or otherworldly happenings.

Do Irish People Believe In Fairies? Fairy Rag Tree in Killary Harbour, Ireland

Why is this?

Some clues lie in Ireland's lack of industrial development for the past 100-odd years. It is sometimes said that Irish society moved from the 19th century straight into the 21st.

For example, some of the most remote parts of Ireland were not fully electrified until the late 1970s. A couple of decades later, 'dotcom' start-up companies were leading the Irish Celtic Tiger economy of the late 1990s.

Ancient lore of myth and magic still exists alongside modern motorways and digital hubs in Ireland. The contrast is sharp.

If you're lucky enough to have visited Ireland, you'll know that this clash of cultures is part of the charm for visitors.

The Fairy Tree That Moved A Motorway

Nothing sums up this contrast between the ancient and modern worlds more than the reluctance of Irish people to interfere with the hawthorn tree.

The famous rag hawthorn tree of Killary Harbour

Hawthorns are a common, wild shrub that grow in hedgerows all over Ireland. They are also known colloquially as whitethorn due to their display of tiny white flowers each summer.

Back in 1999, a motorway (freeway) was planned in the Latoon area of Clare. Locals protested. Why? They believed that a large hawthorn bush along its planned route was the meeting point for clans of opposing fairies.

Eddie Lenihan, a local folklorist, led the campaign. He warned them that...

"If they bulldoze the bush to make way for a planned highway bypass, the fairies will come. To curse the road and all who use it, to make brakes fail and cars crash, to wreak the kind of mischief fairies are famous for when they are angry, which is often."

The story captured international attention. "If you believe in the fairies, don't bulldoze their lair," went the headline in the New York Times on June 15th, 1999.

Eddie Lenihan must have been a most persuasive man. The motorway was rerouted to save the fairy bush. And the sacred hawthorn tree is still visible to passersby on the motorway.

Rag Trees

The Rag Tree tradition provides yet more evidence that belief in fairies and the ethereal lives on in Ireland.

As we tour around Ireland, our surprised guests will often point out a particular tree, growing in some remote spot.

"Hey, why are there pieces of material tied to that tree?!"

People hang coloured rags on hawthorn trees to gain good forture or to render a sick relative or friend well again. This tradition lives on to this day. Rag trees are often located near holy wells.

Fastening a charm to a fairy rag tree in Ireland

A well-known rag tree, or raggedy tree, grows at the head of Killary Harbour.

Fairy Forts / Ring Forts

Another place where fairies meet is at Ring Forts. Prehistoric monuments dot the island of Ireland. They are so numerous that an accurate account of Ireland's dolmens, hill forts, ring forts and stone circles is impossible.

 Summoning the fairies at a stone circle in Kerry

Their origins are still mysterious today, with multiple theories by archaeologists about their purpose. In the past, Irish people used fairy folklore to explain their presence. To them, these monuemnts were simply fairy forts; the places where fairies lived.

Where Can I Find Fairies In Ireland?

The Burren is a great place to find fairies in Ireland. This region of spectacular limestone pavement is a regular attraction during our small-group tours of Ireland.

 A fairy house in IrelandHowever, it's the hidden fairy forts that lie below this otherworldly landscape that can really catch our guests' imaginations.

First-time visitors to the Burren come alive with wonder when they learn of the fairy forts, their mysterious purpose and their great age. Are these ring forts really single-family settlements over a thousand years old? Or are these fairy forts gateways into another world populated by fairies?

It feels surreal and eerie wandering past such ancient and potentially magical sites. Maybe, just maybe, its the presence of the fairies watching you!

What Do Irish Fairies Look Like?

Irish fairies are not to be confused with the small, winged figures you'll find in a Disney movie.

Selling fairy doors at a market in Ireland

In olden times, Irish believed that fairies in Ireland were neither human nor ghosts but rather natural beings with supernatural powers. They are small.

They can die; just as they can give birth to children. They can be generous and bring good luck and fortune. But if you harm them or their property, they can be extremely vengeful.

Mixing Christian dogma with older pre-Christian traditions, country people often saw fairies as fallen angels.

WB Yeats and the Fairies

The famous 20th century Irish poet and playwright, William Butler Yeats, took fairies seriously.Statue of William Butler Yeats

He was drawn to mysticism, spiritualism and the occult throughout his artistic work and daily life.

"Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand.

For the world's more full of weeping

than you can understand".

Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He's recognised as one of Ireland's greatest treasures.

Come Away With The Fairies

All in all, if you wish to come "away with the fairies", Ireland is the place for you.

Short line nymph tactics on the river Suir Ireland

The Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats's Early Works

The fin de siecle, or late 1800's, was an era not unlike our own: now we see many seeking "New Age" enlightenment; likewise, Yeats and many of his contemporaries looked for meaning in various areas of the supernatural. Ripe as the late 1800's were for spawning occult study, those were also times of political turmoil for the Irish, and Yeats became involved with Irish nationalism as well. His desire to express this nationalism was given voice through a Celtic literature that he hoped would inform and inspire his countrymen. Falling in love with a beautiful firebrand Irish patriot (who also had a taste for the occult) only served to further ignite the Celtic flames of imagination in Yeats.

References to supernatural Celtic beings and the Irish spirit world abound in Yeats's early poetry. To make these passages seem less arcane, a look at the Tuatha de Danaan, the Sidhe, and the fairies is helpful.

The Tuatha de Danaan literally means "people of the goddess Danu," Danu being a Celtic land or mother goddess, perhaps derived from the Sanskrit river goddess, Danu. Other associated names for her were the Welsh "Don," Irish "Anu" or "Ana," "Mor-Rioghain," and "Brighid."

The Tuatha de Dannan were considered supernatural, angelic-like beings who came to Ireland and encountered two groups that they successfully overcame. Epic battles were waged to defeat both the Firbolgs and the Fomorians.

The Firbolgs, early Irish settlers, were a short, dark race of men who derived their name from carrying clay in bags, or boilg, hence the name "fir bolg" meaning "bag men." Believed to be of early Greek origin, the mortal Firbolgs were overthrown by the god-like Tuatha de Danaan.

The other army that lost in combat with the Danaan fighters were the Fomorians, another supernatural race, but from cold northern climes, evil and generally grotesque, not settlers like the Firbolgs, but sea-raiders.

The victory of the Danaan race was short-lived, however, for they were likewise conquered by the Gaelic Sons of Mil from Spain. At their defeat, the Tuatha de Danaan chose to "go underground" and live in barrows and cairns. This new habitat led to another name for the Tuatha de Danaan when they became known as the Sidhe.

Sidhe literally means "a mound" or "a thrust," and since the Danaan people were associated with mounds, barrows and tumuli, they became known as the People of the Sidhe. Their association with the wind came from a belief in Danaan presence in a whirlwind, "sidhe gaoithe," literally, a "thrust of wind." The more common, widely-known name of "fairy" came from the unwillingness of the people to call the Sidhe or Danaan folk by their name, for that was considered bad luck. Euphemisms such as "hill folk," "the gentry," "wee folk," "good folk," "blessed folk," "good neighbors," or "fair folk" abounded, and "fair folk" was shortened to "fairies."

Other names worth noting in the Irish fairy lore are Banshee, Leprechaun, and Puca. The Banshee (bean si) is the female, or "Ban" sidhe, but more particularly, had the function of keening like a mortal woman when a family member died, whether the deceased was present in the family home or not. The Leprechaun (luprachan) is widely known in America, but less so in Ireland. It was a localized term from north Leinster for a diminutive guardian of hidden treasure. Yeats said the leprechauns were descended from the Fomorians (Jeffares, Commentary, 12). The Puca (Puck) was originally a supernatural animal that took people for nightmarish rides, leaving them exhausted the next day.

All the Sidhe (or Si, in modern Irish) were associated with many supernatural abilities. Believed to live side by side with the human world, both beneficial and harmful interactions would take place. Fairies were feared to be interested in stealing people, especially babies of new mothers, and if someone took ill, they could be accused of being a "changeling," left by the Sidhe in place of the original healthy individual. The dreaded "Slua Sidhe" of fairies was an evening cavalcade, out to do some mischief or harm. Fairies, however, were also welcomed when they helped the poor, did chores, left money for people or endowed them with great talent, so they weren't always considered devilish. Not knowing quite how to consider the fairies presented a conundrum that was partially addressed in Christian times by the proposition that they were fallen angels, left where they fell, hence, in water, air, or land.

The uncertainties that these creatures presented made people seek various protections for themselves against fairy mischief. Among the measures taken were: putting iron on a barn or house (hence, the familiar horseshoe over a door), tying on a red ribbon or religious amulet, or sprinkling rooms or people with urine (fairies were considered too fastidious to abide this). It was believed dangerous to disturb fairy dwellings, including raths (ancient forts), lisses (abandoned homesteads), and hills. Isolated trees and bushes were also regarded to be their domain and, therefore, to be left untouched. If a person was taken to a fairy kingdom, cautionary tales warned not to partake of the food if one wished to ever return to mortal realms again. If people spent too much time with the fair folk, they could get "fairy stroke" or "poic sidhe," and become all- knowing, yet fools.

May Eve and Samhain Eve (Halloween) were especially associated with fairy movement, so people tended to stay indoors or would at least avoid fairy paths on those nights. Bad luck was also linked to any construction on fairy paths at any time.

Because the fairies could use their "glamour" (enchantment) and could change form or put on the "feth fiadh" (cloak of concealment) at will, attempts were made to keep them appeased. Food was left out for them; the first drops of milk were put on the floor for them, and walls would receive a libation of the first drops of whisky from a still.

This rich plethora of folklore was woven into Yeats's childhood. In Sligo, his mother shared local fairy stories in the kitchen with neighbors, and his uncle's servant, Mary Battle, provided local tales as well. Paddy Flynn, an old man of Ballisodare, loved to recount local legends, and all these tales of the fair folk interested young Willie Yeats.

Although his mother had raised him with a belief in the supernatural, including both church-going and fairy stories, his father was outspokenly skeptical. Always fascinated by the spirit realm, but not seeking answers in the traditional church, Yeats began to explore ways to refute his father's arguments, including the study of Esoteric Buddhism and Theosophy, and he incorporated the same interest in mysticism and the supernatural into his writing.

A relationship with the Irish patriot John O'Leary honed Yeats's desire to produce an Irish literature that would accomplish the goals of educating the Irish about their heritage, linking their heroic past with their somewhat uncertain present, giving them a sense of pride and a literature of nationalism. He wanted to create a literature not so political but more personal compared to what had been the style of the popular patriotic writing of his time. Yeats wanted to serve Ireland's needs, but not at the price of sacrificing his own artistic goals. He wrote to Lady Gregory, "I have always felt my mission in Ireland is to serve taste rather than any definite propaganda" (Skelton, 6).

In 1886, the Irish orientation in Yeats's poetry was first manifested in "The Stolen Child" with its haunting refrain, "Come away. . .for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand" (Poems, 18). This was the beginning of a major theme that Yeats used repeatedly in his poetry, the idea of fairyland as an escape from the real world to a timeless place, a perfect realm of no feeling or emotion, hence, no pain, and the very human temptation to flee from pain into such an escape. Fairy realms were indeed associated with death, but escape to the immortal realms for Yeats meant not just a physical death, but rather death to the will and the ego.

The yearning to leave this world was a major element in "The Wanderings of Oisin" (351- 386). Yeats's identification with the warrior-poet, Oisin, chosen by the lovely fairy creature Niamh, coincided with his own desire to leave his celibate isolation. Niamh convinced Oisin to go with her to the Land of the Young, where they visited for one hundred years , each: the Island of Dancing, the Island of Victories, and the Island of Forgetfulness. The poem shows how the escape to the unconscious or spirit side does not satisfy, for all these different forms of the escape did not content Oisin. As Niamh told him, "None know" (374) where an "island of content" may lie, but it does not exist in Tir-Nan-Oge (the Land of the Young). Longing to return to his mortal companions, the Fenians, causes him to go again to the earthly realms, desiring a departure from what Yeats later calls "vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose" (347), for nothing of the world of the spirit, the unemotional, timeless realm of imagination and aspiration, can completely satisfy the human soul; his warrior nature craves again the human action and power that are meaningful for him, and so seeks his former fighting companions who operate in the realm of experience and will. An accident forces him to stay in that human realm, but he's no longer satisfied with it, either, for time, another human element, has affected and changed it.

Another theme Yeats explored in his fairy symbolism is one of tension between the spirit world and ours. Because the Sidhe world existed side by side with the human world, both sides needed each other. The immaterial world needed the material one, and vice versa, but couldn't become one; day and night, moon and sun, silver and gold: all were related, but distinctly different from each other. The tension between the two worlds reverberates in "The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland" (43-45), in which the dreamer of the poem can find no comfort in this life when his thoughts are constantly turned to the other. The interaction between the two worlds may produce artistic creation, as in the poetry of "Red Hanrahan" (Mythologies, 211-261), but this interaction is at a great cost. Hanrahan lived an ascetic and solitary life after his encounter with the Sidhe, and found no joy or comfort in this life. He therefore suffered the same fate as the man who "Dreamed;"discontent haunted him after his life was deeply influenced by the world of imagination.

The balance of attraction and tension of one world with the other is seen in "The Wanderings of Oisin" as well. Niamh is attracted to Oisin because of his poetry; she said his words are "like coloured Asian birds at evening." (Poems, 357), yet when he arrives in Tir-Nan- Oge, the fairies can't stand to listen to his songs that are so full of human emotion. Neither can he bear to stay forever in Niamh's world, but craves his own again, in spite of his love for her.

One example of these diverse worlds mixing successfully is perhaps in Cuchulain, the offspring of both a supernatural and a mortal being. He was certainly a man of great accomplishment, so perhaps Yeats saw some hope for the occasional profitable linking of the two worlds.

Artistic accomplishment such as poetry, was certainly an evidence of one world influencing the other with a successful outcome. Beauty, also, could be a reflection of the influence of the supernatural upon this world. The Danaan race was always portrayed as beautiful, and Yeats certainly seemed to have had "fairy stroke" when he dealt with the subject of Maud Gonne.

His description of their first meeting was as if she were of the supernatural world; he said her beauty belonged to "poetry, some legendary past. . .she seemed of a divine race. . .she seems like a goddess. . ." (Jeffares, Man 59).

She so enchanted him that he tried all the more to incorporate Irish themes into his writing to prove to her his patriotism, as well as to show his personal love and admiration for her. She shared his interest in the Irish folklore, so it was natural for Yeats to continue to write in a way that incorporated these elements.

"The White Birds" (Poems, 41-42) was inspired by a comment she made about wanting to be a seagull (Jeffares, Man 68), and she enjoyed traveling about with many birds in cages, so perhaps those became part of the inspiration for Yeats's prolific use of bird imagery. "The White Birds" offers again an escape into fairy land, since fairy birds are white, and twilight, the time of mingling of the two worlds, is mentioned several times. He wishes to escape mortal concerns as he is "haunted by. . .many a Danaan shore" (Poems, 41), and "time" and "sorrow," elements of the mortal realm, have no place there.

Maud is compared in "The Rose of the World" (36) to Helen of Troy, who was sired by a god, so her beauty, and beauty in general, is related again to supernatural elements. That same connection also made her like Helen, a source of trouble because of such great desirability.

Beauty, if too ethereal, leads to disaster, and Yeats's unrequited love must have left him feeling like the character in his "Song of Wandering Aengus" (59), who spent his life seeking a beautiful but unattainable fairy figure. Too much commerce with the fairy world can drive one to become a fool, here exemplified by always seeking the twilight manifestation of something that cannot exist in the light of day.

Yeats's relationship with Maud was also echoed in the early play, "The Countess Kathleen": although the bard, Kevin, like Yeats, would sing to Kathleen of fairy stories to take her mind off her social work, Kathleen, like Maud, sees her work for the poor as being of primary importance in her life. Kevin's love and his poetry, even when filled of tales from the world of imagination, can't win her away from this world. Yeats must have felt similarly frustrated. He portrayed Kathleen as in danger of losing her soul in order to save the poor, for whom she cared so much. Kevin couldn't convince her to change, nor could Yeats convince Maud to change.

The Sidhe, the Danaan race, or fairies, whichever you prefer, all represented the world of the unconscious, the imagination, the timeless, and the perfect in Yeats's early poems and prose. They made an ideal symbolic contrast to the changing human world of ego, will, time, and emotion, and gave Yeats a mighty framework for expression of his ideas in his writing. Yeats's fascination with the bountiful history and folklore of Ireland provided this wealth of symbolism for his writing, as well as a vehicle to express his national pride and his love for a woman. We are all the richer that Yeats did, "cast my heart into my rhymes" (51), and that heart was, indeed, Irish.

References and Works Cited

Bord, Janet. Fairies: Real Encounters with Little People. London: O'Mara, 1997.

Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Norton, 1979.

Gregory, Lady. Gods and Fighting Men. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Jeffares, A. Norman. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Stanford, CA:

Stanford UP, 1968.

Jeffares, A. Norman. W.B. Yeats: Man and Poet. New York: Barnes, 1966.

Malins, Edward. A Preface to Yeats. New York: Scribner's, 1974.

O hOgain, Daithi. Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition.

New York: Prentice, 1991.

O' Suilleabhain, Sean. Irish Folk Customs and Belief. Dublin: Folklore, 1967.

Skelton, Robin, and Ann Saddlemyer, eds. The World of W.B. Yeats, revised ed. Seattle, WA:

U of Washington P, 1967.

Yeats, W.B. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, 2nd revised ed. Ed. Richard J. Finneran.

New York: Scribner, 1996.

Yeats, W.B. Mythologies. New York: Collier, 1959.


Nymph irish

Aos Sí

Supernatural race in Irish and Scottish mythology

"Sidhe" redirects here. For other uses, see Sidhe (disambiguation).

Aos sí (pronounced [iːsˠ ˈʃiː]; older form: aes sídhe[eːsˠ ˈʃiːə]) is the Irish name for a supernatural race in Celtic mythology – spelled sìth by the Scots, but pronounced the same – comparable to fairies or elves. They are said to descend from either fallen angels or the Tuatha Dé Danann, meaning the "Tribe of Danu", depending on the Abrahamic or pagan tradition.[1]

The aos sí are said to live underground in fairy forts, across the western sea, or in an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans. This world is described in the Lebor Gabála Érenn as a parallel universe in which the aos sí walk among the living. In the Irish language, aos sí means "people of the mounds", as the "sídhe" in Irish are hills or burial mounds (consistent with Geoffrey Keating's suggestion that the aos sí came from the Land of the Dead). In modern Irish, the word is ; in Scottish Gaelic, sìth; in Old Irish, síde, and the singular is síd.[2] In modern Irish the people of the mounds are also called daoine sídhe[ˈd̪ˠiːnʲə ˈʃiːə]; in Scottish mythology they are daoine sìth.[3] They are variously said to be the ancestors, the spirits of nature, or goddesses and gods.[4] Some authors such as W. B. Yeats refer to aos sí simply as "the sídhe".[5]

In Gaelic folklore[edit]

In many Gaelic tales, the aos sí are later, literary versions of the Tuatha Dé Danann ("People of the Goddess Danu")—the deities and deified ancestors of Irish mythology. Some sources describe them as the survivors of the Tuatha Dé Danann who retreated into the Otherworld when fleeing the mortal Sons of Míl Espáine who, like many other early invaders of Ireland, came from Iberia. As part of the terms of their surrender to the Milesians, the Tuatha Dé Danann agreed to retreat and dwell underground. (In later interpretations, each tribe of the Tuatha Dé Danann was given its own mound.) Geoffrey Keating, an Irish historian of the early 17th century, equates Iberia with the Land of the Dead, providing a possible connection to the aos sí.

In folk belief and practice, the aos sí are often appeased with offerings, and care is taken to avoid angering or insulting them. Often they are not named directly, but rather spoken of as "The Good Neighbors", "The Fair Folk", or simply "The Folk". The most common names for them, aos sí, aes sídhe, daoine sídhe (singular duine sídhe) and daoine sìth mean, literally, "people of the mounds" (referring to the sídhe). The aos sí are generally described as stunningly beautiful, though they can also be terrible and hideous.

Aos sí are seen as fierce guardians of their abodes —whether a fairy hill, a fairy ring, a special tree (often a hawthorn) or a particular loch or wood. It is believed that infringing on these spaces will cause the aos sí to retaliate in an effort to remove the people or objects that invaded their homes. Many of these tales contribute to the changeling myth in west Europeanfolklore, with the aos sí kidnapping trespassers or replacing their children with changelings as a punishment for transgressing. The aos sí are often connected to certain times of year and hours; as the Gaelic Otherworld is believed to come closer to the mortal world at the times of dusk and dawn, the aos sí correspondingly become easier to encounter. Some festivals such as Samhain, Bealtaine and Midsummer are also associated with the aos sí.

The sídhe[edit]

Sídhe are the hills or tumuli that dot the Irish landscape. In modern Irish the word is ; in Scottish Gaelic, sìth; in Old Irish síde and the singular is síd.[2] In a number of later, English-language texts, the word sídhe is incorrectly used both for the mounds and the people of the mounds. However sidh in older texts refers specifically to "the palaces, courts, halls or residences" of the otherworldly beings that supposedly inhabit them.[6] The fact that many of these sídhe have been found to be ancient burial mounds has contributed to the theory that the aos sí were the pre-Celtic occupants of Ireland.

Others present these stories as mythology deriving from Greek cultural influence, deriving arguments mainly from Hesiod's Works and Days, which portrays the basic moral foundation and plantation techniques of the citizens of Greece and describes the races of men, created by the Greek deities. However, many of these views have been deemed unlikely, and the influence can be explained by the similar moral foundations stemming from the two cultures' Indo-European background.

Daoine maithe[edit]

Daoine maithe is Irish for "the good people", which is a popular term used to refer to the fairies in Irish folklore. Due to the oral nature of Irish folklore the exact origins of the fairies is not well defined. There are stories enough to support two possible origins. The fairies could either be fallen angels or the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann; in the latter case this is equivalent with Aos Sí.[7] In the former case, it is said that the fairies are angels who have fallen from heaven, but whose sins were not great enough to warrant hell.[1]

They are generally human-like, though there are exceptions such as the Puca or Mermaid. The defining features of the Irish fairies are their supernatural abilities and their temperament. If treated with respect and kindness, Irish fairies can be quite benevolent; however, if they are mistreated they will react cruelly.


The banshee or bean sídhe (from Old Irish: ban síde), which means "woman of the sídhe",[8] has come to indicate any supernatural woman of Ireland who announces a coming death by wailing and keening. Her counterpart in Scottish mythology is the bean sìth (sometimes spelled bean-sìdh). Other varieties of aos sí and daoine sìth include the Scottish bean nighe: the washerwoman who is seen washing the bloody clothing or armour of the person who is doomed to die; the leanan sídhe: the "fairy lover"; the cat sìth: a fairy cat; and the Cù Sìth: fairy dog.

The sluagh sídhe — "the fairy host" — is sometimes depicted in Irish and Scottish lore as a crowd of airborne spirits, perhaps the cursed, evil or restless dead. The siabhra (anglicised as "sheevra"), may be a type of these lesser spirits, prone to evil and mischief.[9][10] However, an Ulster folk song also uses "sheevra" simply to mean "spirit" or "fairy".[11]


Creideamh Sí[edit]

Creideamh Sí is Irish for the "Fairy Faith", a collection of beliefs and practices observed by those who wish to keep good relationships with the aos sí and avoid angering them.[4] The custom of offering milk and traditional foods—such as baked goods, apples or berries—to the aos sí have survived through the Christian era into the present day in parts of Ireland, Scotland and the diaspora.[4] Those who maintain some degree of belief in the aos sí also are aware to leave their sacred places alone and protect them from damage through road or housing construction.[4][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abCroker, T. Crofton (2001). Thomas Wright (ed.). Fairy Legends and the Traditions of the South of Ireland. Ann Arbor: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints. ISBN .
  2. ^ abDictionary of the Irish Language: síd, síth
  3. ^James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), s.v. daoine sídhe.
  4. ^ abcdEvans Wentz, W. Y. (1966, 1990) The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe Humanities Press ISBN 0-901072-51-6
  5. ^Yeats, William Butler (1908). The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats. Stratford-on-Avon, UK: Shakespeare Head. p. 3.
  6. ^O'Curry, E., Lectures on Manuscript Materials, Dublin 1861, p. 504, quoted by Evans-Wentz 1966, p. 291
  7. ^Yeates, W. B. (1977). Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. Buckinghamshire: Collin Smythe Gerrards Cross. ISBN .
  8. ^Dictionary of the Irish Language: síd, síth and ben
  9. ^MacKillop, James (2004) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
  10. ^Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland, Vol. 1, p. 271
  11. ^"The Gartan Mother's Lullaby" published 1904 in The Songs of Uladh, lyrics by Seosamh MacCathmhaoil (Joseph Campbell)
  12. ^Lenihan, Eddie; Carolyn Eve Green (2004). Meeting the Other Crowd; The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. chapter comments. ISBN .

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First Sighting of a Pixie

Forgotten Fairies of Irish Folklore

You may also like this article:

Guide to Irish Folk Tales - all about the different types of stories found in Irish folklore.

Irish Folklore Beyond Leprechauns...

Irish fairy tales and folklore are populated with a wonderful collection of magical creatures and supernatural beings. Leprechauns are so famous they can sell breakfast cereal, and many people have heard the legend of the Banshee—but what about the rest? From the shapeshifting selkies to the mischievous pookas, and from lonely giants to the terrifying dullahan, these fascinating characters of Irish folklore deserve to be remembered and shared with future generations around the world.

Coming up in this article:

  • Early celtic gods and goddesses
  • Supernatural sea-folk
  • Giants
  • Little people
  • Harbingers of death
  • Irish fairies in literature

Origins of Irish Folklore

From pre-Christian times until the end of the Middle Ages, one of the most important figures in Irish society was the seanachie or storyteller. These learned bards remembered and recited the great early-Irish myths where mortal warriors did battle with a variety of supernatural beings and deadly shape-shifters. These great battle sagas and love-tragedies were first written down by early-Christian monks despite the pagan way of life they depicted. Gradually these myths were replaced as Celtic customs mingled with Christianity, and the Irish grew a rich tradition of fairy tales based on nature spirits, giants, magical sea-folk, and dark figures that augured death. These figures became integrated with Christian tradition, believed to be fallen angels who weren't good enough for heaven but weren't bad enough for hell.

A wealth of superstitions surrounded these beliefs in supernatural beings—quite a few of which survived into the twentieth century. There are even one or two superstitions related to the fair-folk which are still practised on the island today. You can still sometimes see a tree standing alone in the middle of a ploughed field. These are fairy trees, and it is considered terrible bad luck to cut one down for the fairies that live there will curse you for destroying their home.

Early Gods and Goddesses

The pre-Christian celtic people of Ireland told tales of a supernatural race called the Tuatha de Danaan (the people of the Goddess Danu). There were gods of fertility, for example Dagda and his cauldron of abundance, and goddesses of war and destruction such as the Morrigan. Over the years many of these figures, beautiful fairy women, fierce warriors and master-craftsmen, began to merge with each other and some survived into the Christian era in a changed form. The Tuatha de Danaan were tall, luminous beings with a highly-developed society. When they lost the battle for the land of Ireland to a band of humans, they disappeared underground into the otherworld and only come back from time to time. It is hard to believe but they seem to have changed over many centuries into the sprites and fairies of more recent stories.


Selkies were the name the Irish gave to the shape-shifting people who live in the 'land under the sea' as seals, but who can shed their seal skin and emerge onto dry land in human shape. They were a beautiful people, known for their love of freedom - they couldn't be tied down. Various tales are told of a beautiful selkie woman who had her seal skin stolen by a lonely man who wanted her for a wife. Without her seal skin she was under her power, but as soon as she discovered the skin's hiding place she slipped it on and disappeared back to sea leaving husband and children behind her.

More familiar to a worldwide audience are the merrows , from the Irish 'muir oigh', meaning mermaid. These maidens had long red hair and their bottom half was a fishtail. Their songs are said to be irresistible to anyone who hears them, and they can lure boats onto dangerous rocks. They are also said to have occasionally married a land-dweller. In the early twentieth century, the poet and folklorist WB Yeats recorded that a woman in county Cork who had very scaly skin was known locally to be the descendant of a man and his merrow bride. The legend of the merrow has recently been revived in the Neil Jordan film Ondine where Colin Farrell pulls a strange and beautiful woman from the sea.


While Ireland is well-known for its belief in the little-folk, it may come as some surprise to learn of the fondness of the Irish for tales of giants. 'Balor of the Evil Eye' was a giant who locked his own daughter in a tower and tried to kill his own grandson. But they weren't all cruel monsters - the giant Finn McCool was credited with building the Giant's Causeway and using his wits rather than violence to defeat a visiting Scottish giant. In the times before Irish people understood about the effect of the ice-age on the landscape, or the megaliths built by their ancient ancestors, stories about Giants explained how natural featues had been formed and why large stone structures could be found across the Irish landscape.

The Little People

Leprechauns are the most famous of the 'little people' outside of Ireland, but traditionally on the island the pooka was much more frequently sighted and had a much greater effect on how people lived their lives. Pookas are small fairies, feared and respected for their ability to cause harm and mischief. They come out at night and cause havoc around homes and farms. The pooka causes milk to curdle, frightens hens into stopping laying and will break property if he is not kept appeased. Pookas were kept happy by being offered a small portion of the harvest each year.

The fir dearg , or red man, is another solitary mischievous fairy said to dress always in a red coat and a red cap. The fear dearg was blamed for household accidents, and for bringing bad dreams at night.

Harbingers of Death

Most scary of all are those supernatural Irish creatures who are said to bring death in their wake. They evolved out of earlier legends of vengeful gods and goddesses who demanded human sacrifice. In Christian times they morphed into dark figures who foreshadowed a death.

The banshee is a direct descendant of the Celtic-triple goddess of death and destruction. Her name means fairy woman. She has never been seen but whoever hears her high and piercing shriek knows that they will die within 24 hours.This legend is dying away now in Ireland but still hangs on in rural areas - I have a friend who swears her great-uncle heard the banshee's cry the night before he died.

The dullahan is much less well-known but is even more scary. This headless horseman rides a black stallion across the countryside on certain nights of the year with his head held firmly in the crook of his arm. It is said that wherever the dullahan stops, someone will instantly die. This dark horseman does not warn of death, he brings it.

Irish Fairies in Literature

The Irish fairytale tradition has influenced many of the leading figures of English literature. For example, Jonathon Swift wrote Gullivers Travels while he was living in Ireland and it is likely he was influenced by the Irish storytelling tradition which had tales of both giants and little people. WB Yeats, the Nobel-laureate, wrote many poems inspired by Irish mythology and with his friend Lady Gregory he was instrumental in recording Irish folklore for posterity. JRR Tolkien was very familiar with Irish fairy tales as well as those of Scandinavia, and there is more than a hint of the Tuatha de Danaan in his depiction of the elves, while his 'black riders' are very reminiscent of the terrifying Irish dullahan.

It seems that however much we turn to modern entertainment, the forgotten Irish fairies will continue to live on, ever-changing, on the edge of our imaginations.


mark hawkins on February 07, 2020:

I have little people living in my trees plus a funny looking man 5 inches tall long white beard bald his fingers and toes aren't like ours there are thousands of orbs around with animals in them their are little monkeys in the trees to I have photos of all this stuff

Kierra on May 30, 2019:

What is the name of the red-haired fairy in the 1st image? Does she have a name and back story?

Wesley on February 19, 2018:

thanks for bringing sum back.

Leanan Sidhe, Lady worth the risk.

Dónal Óg on December 09, 2017:

Merrows were not mermaids, they had legs and could pass as humans and sometimes married humans. Wore sealskin.

chloe on August 30, 2017:

can anyone tell me where the faireys orginated from and why

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on December 15, 2015:

I'm glad you enjoy them!

myska on December 13, 2015:


You' ve got great to read them :-)

Thank you!

Will English on April 12, 2013:

Very cool and interesting hub. Always been interested in this sort of thing ^_^.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on January 01, 2013:

You are not the first person to tell me they heard the banshee. Life can be full of mysteries....

ade on December 31, 2012:

Brought up on irish folklore by my mother unfortunately believe I heard the wailing of the banshee, didn,t realise at the time

night my mother passed away - so definitely believe. My

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on November 19, 2012:

Your Nana sounds like a strong-minded lady! Glad you enjoyed the hub...

Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on November 19, 2012:

Ah the wailing of the banshee! My beloved Irish Nana used to tell us the sound of the wind was really the wailing of the banshee's and if we weren't' good we would be introduced!

Great write

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on November 11, 2012:

Glad you enjoyed! Thanks for the feedback.

Nancy McGill from United States on November 10, 2012:

Very interesting, and thank you. Our family is Irish, and I love reading about the Irish people!

carolemarie from Upper Michigan on May 24, 2012:

I like this article, it helps me to know more about them and it is refreshing and enhancing to the part of the old believe..

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on May 23, 2012:

I am glad to bring back such memories!

James Hayes on May 23, 2012:

I come here to remember the stories I heard from the old folk of my family...It is like stepping back into mu youth...


Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 27, 2012:

I certainly believe fairy tales can have an element of truth to them - whether they simply personify forces of nature, or whether the world really used to be a much more magical place....

whowas on April 27, 2012:

What a wonderful and beautifully written summary of Celtic faery lore. I wonder if you agree with the notion that the various faery forms are folk-memories of earlier, prehistoric divinities of nature?

flashmakeit from usa on February 06, 2012:

I start really liking fairies after I had a dream of a fairy in a large forest so I started painting fairies and my friends love them. Now I want to learn more about them so thanks for adding this.

Sam on September 06, 2011:

To the people that belive, its so much more than folklore its a way of life. Its more than just a story that has been told. Has anyone ever asked why they only still exsist in Ireland? Its cause they still believe and they still please these creatures decendant from their gods and goddesses. I am very pleased with having come from such a vast rich and magical culture and as for me I still believe.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 14, 2011:

Glad you have enjoyed the hub. I have always found myths and folktales really inspiring - looking forward to writing some related articles in future!

Buddhist Hotdog on April 14, 2011:

I love myths, folktales, ghost stories... I like the 'harbingers of death' section, scary!

MMPG on March 16, 2011:

I, too, am a lover of Irish myth and folktales. I think the Selkie is one of the most interesting of the fairies. I love its depiction in The Secret of Roan Inish. Great info here.

arhaider3 from Lahore on March 06, 2011:

very good information

chspublish from Ireland on March 06, 2011:

It's great to see your piece on Irish faeries and such. Always loved the legends and myths - the stuff of dreams and story writing. you bring it all back. Thanks a mil.

Ghaelach on March 04, 2011:

Hi Marie.

Just love it. Like the Finn McCool story and the Selkies. I've got a giant Irish fairy tale for you. My next hub. LOL.


Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 04, 2011:

I agree. I feel really lucky to have grown up with these womderful, magical stories.

Casey Coulter from Wisconsin on March 03, 2011:

As an Irishmen myself I can't help but love the Irish histories and beliefs. They seem so imaginative and full of rich and well written history that it makes me wonder why I am yet to visit this vastly magnificent place of wonders that I have descended from. Great hub and thanks for sharing!

Stay Happy and True - Mylife

William Benner from Savannah GA. on March 03, 2011:

Cool hub...I just love Irish Myths!


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