The Irish Fairy Folk

The Irish peasants left to fend for themselves in a world dominated by a corrupted church, oppressive landlords and an absence of local government and medicine turned to their own imaginations to understand and order the world around them-to make their peasant culture work. Stories like Nera and the Dead Man helped children to remember rules for staying healthy and safe and to maintain sanitation. Images from the ancient tales combined with observations -the wind in the winter forest-the Banshee- helped them to explain natural occurrences. You too should know them when you meet them!!

Yeats on the Fairies clickit here


The Sociable Fairies
l.The Sheoques: Lived in sacred thorn bushes. Thief fairy music lead humans astray. Sometimes they switched a child with a fairy child to create a changeling which they caused to die in one year.

2. The Merrows: Seen as little horn less cows but really they have fishes tails and wear a red cap (cohuleen driuth). The men have green teeth. green hair, pigs eyes and red noses-women are beautiful and prefer human mates.

The Solitary Fairies
1.The Leprechaun: The one shoemaker seen mending shoes. Catch him and get crocks of gold.A thrifty professional. Take your eyes off of him and he vanishes. Red Coat seven buttons in each row and he spins sometimes on the point of a cocked hat. For our main Leprechaun page click here.

 2.The Cluricaun: Robbing wine cellars and riding sheep and shepherds dogs the live long night-found panting and mud covered in the morning.

3.The Gonconer(Ganconagh)-Love talker,Idler,appears making love to shepherdesses and milkmaids -smokes a pipe.

4.The Fear Darrig-Red man,Joker gives evil dreams

5.The Pooka-A horse ass etc... takes rider on a wild ride and shakes him off in the grey of morning especially drunkards-a drunkards sleep is his kingdom.When it rains with sun shining that means he will be out that night. When berries are killed by frost it is the Pooka's spit which is upon them and they should not be eaten.

6.The Dullahan-Headless or carrying his head.Black coach a bower with headless horses it goes to your door and if you open it a basin of blood is thrown at you-death omen.

7.Leanhaun Shee-Fairy mistresses seeks love of men-if they refuse she is their slave -If they consent they are hers-her lovers waste away -you must find one to go in your place.

8.The Fear Gorta-Man of hunger-brings good luck to those who give him food.

9.Banshee-Fairy woman -morning-wails over dead and calls for them.

10.The Fear Sidhe: Male Fairy (there are also fairies for parts and aspects of the home,for water(sherie) light Soullh and a host of lake fairies, dragons and ghosts)

A good Source: W.Y.Evans Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries., Humanities Press,Atlantic Highlands,N.J.,Original 1911, 1977

To return to the top click here

William Butler Yeats On the Fairies



The Irish word for fairy is sheehogue \sidhe6g\ a diminutive of " shee " in banshee. Fairies are deenee shee \daoine sidhe\ (fairy people).

Who are they ? " Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost," say the peasantry. " The gods of the earth," says the Book of Armagh. " The gods of pagan Ireland," say the Irish antiquarians, "the Tuatha De Dandn, who, when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high."

And they will tell you, in proof, that the names of fairy chiefs are the names of old Danan heroes, and the places where they especially gather together, Danan burying-places, and that the Tuath De Danan used also to be called the slooa-shee \sheagh sidhe~\ (the fairy host), or Marcra shee (the fairy cavalcade).

On the other hand, there is much evidence to prove them fallen angels. Witness the nature of the creatures, their caprice, their way of being good to the good and evil to the evil, having every charm but conscience—consistency. Beings so quickly offended that you must not speak much about them at all, and never call them anything but the "gentry," or else daoine maithe, which in English means good people, yet so easily pleased, they will do their best to keep misfortune away from you, if you leave & little milk for them on the window-sill over night. On the whole, the popular belief tells us most about them, telling us how they fell, and yet were not lost, because their evil was wholly without malice.

Are they " the gods of the earth ?" Perhaps! Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hoards. The visible world is merely their skin. In dreams we go amongst them, and play with them, and combat with them. They are, perhaps, human souls in the crucible—these creatures of whim.

Do not think the fairies are always little. Everything is capricious about them, even their size. They seem to take what size or shape pleases them. Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music. They have only one industrious person amongst them, the lepra-caun—the shoemaker. Perhaps they wear their shoes out with dancing. Near the village of Balliso- dare is a little woman who lived amongst them seven years. When she came home she had no toes—she had danced them off.

They have three great festivals in the year—May Eve, Midsummer Eve, November Eve. On May Eve, every seventh year, they fight all round, but mostly on the " Plain-a-Bawn " (wherever that is), for the harvest, for the best ears of grain belong to them. An old man told me he saw them fight once ; they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed- When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl as it passes, that is the fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, " God bless them."

On Midsummer Eve, when the bonfires are lighted on every hill in honour of St. John, the fairies are at their gayest, and sometime steal away beautiful mortals to be their brides.

On November Eve they are at their gloomiest, for, according to the old Gaelic reckoning, this is the first night of winter. This night they dance with the ghosts, and the pooka is abroad, and witches make their spells, and girls set a table with food in the name of the devil, that the fetch of their future lover may come through the window and eat of the food. After November Eve the blackberries are no longer wholesome, for the pooka has spoiled them.

When they are angry they paralyse men and cattle with their fairy darts.

When they are gay they sing. Many a poor girl has heard them, and pined away and died, for love of that singing. Plenty of the old beautiful tunes of Ireland are only their music, caught up by eavesdroppers. No wise peasant would hum "The Pretty Girl milking the Cow" near a fairy rath, for they are jealous, and do not like to hear their songs on clumsy mortal lips. Carolan, the last of the Irish bards, slept on a rath, and ever after the fairy tunes ran in his head, and made him the great man he was.

Do they die ? Blake saw a fairy's funeral; but in Ireland we say they are immortal.




Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child, or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying, and being buried. Most commonly they steal children. If you " over look a child," that is look on it with envy, the fairies have it in their power. Many things can be done to find out in a child a changeling, but there is one infallible thing—lay it on the fire with this formula, " Burn, burn, burn—if of the devil, burn ; but if of God and the saints, be safe from harm" (given by Lady Wilde). Then if it be a changeling it will rush up the chimney with a cry, for, according to Giraldus Cambrensis, " fire is the greatest of enemies to every sort of phantom, in so much that those who have seen apparitions fall into a swoon as soon as they are sensible of the brightness of fire."

Sometimes the creature is got rid of in a more gentle way. It is on record that once when a mother was leaning over a wizened changeling the latch lifted and a fairy came in, carrying home again the wholesome stolen baby. " It was the others," she said, " who stole it." As for her, she wanted her own child.

Those who are carried away are happy, according to some accounts, having plenty of good living and music and mirth. Others say, however, that they are continually longing for their earthly friends. Lady Wilde gives a gloomy tradition that there are two kinds of fairies—one kind merry and gentle, the other evil, and sacrificing every year a life to Satan, for which purpose they steal mortals. No other Irish writer gives this tradition—if such fairies there be, they must be among the solitary spirits—Pookas, Fir Darrigs, and the like.



The Merrow, or if you write it in the Irish, Moruadh or Murrtighach, from muir, sea, and otgh, a maid, is not uncommon, they say, on the wilder coasts. The fishermen do not like to see them, for it always means coming gales. The male Merrows (if you can use such a phrase—I have never heard the masculine of Merrow) have green teeth, green hair, pig's eyes, and red noses ; but their women are beautiful, for all their fish tails and the little duck-like scale between their fingers. Sometimes they prefer, small blame to them, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers. Near Gantry, in the last century, there is said to have been a woman covered all over with scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage. Sometimes they come out of the sea, and wander about the shore in the shape of little hornless cows. They have, when in their own shape, a red cap, called a cohullen druith, usually covered with feathers. If this is stolen, they cannot again go down under the waves.

Red is the colour of magic in every country, and has been so from the very earliest times. The caps of fairies and magicians are well-nigh always red....

,/ Lepracaun. Cluricaun. Far Darrig.

"THE name Lepracaun," Mr. Douglas Hyde writes to me, '' is from the Irish leith brogi.e., the One-shoemaker, since he is generally seen working at a single shoe. It is spelt in Irish-/£2?^ bhrogan, or leith phrogan, and is in some places pronounced Luchryman, as O'Kearney writes it in that very rare book, the Feis Tigh Chonain"

The Lepracaun, Cluricaun, and Far Darrig. Are these one spirit in different moods and shapes ? Hardly two Irish writers are agreed. In many things these three fairies, if three, resemble each other. They are withered, old, and solitary, in every way unlike the sociable spirits of the first sections. They dress with all unfairy homeliness, and are, indeed, most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms. They are the great practical jokers among the good people.

The Lepracaun makes shoes continually, and has grown very rich. Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own. In the early part of this century, according to Croker, in a newspaper office in Tipperary, they used to show a little shoe forgotten by a Lepracaun.

The Cluricaun, (Clobhair-ceann, in O'Kearney) makes himself drunk in gentlemen's cellars. Some suppose he is merely the Lepracaun on a spree. He is almost unknown in Connaught and the north.

The Far Darrig (fear dearg], which means the Red Man, for he wears a red cap and coat, busies himself with practical joking, especially with gruesome joking. This he does, and nothing else.

The Fear-Gorta (Man of Hunger) is an emaciated phantom that goes through the land in famine time, begging an alms and bringing good luck to the giver.

There are other solitary fairies, such as the House-spirit and the Water-sheerie, own brother to the English Jack-o'-Lantern ; the Pooka and the Banshee—concerning these presently ; the Dallahan, or headless phantom—one used to stand in a Sligo street on dark nights till lately; the Black Dog, a form, perhaps, of the Pooka. The ships at the Sligo quays are haunted sometimes by this spirit, who announces his presence by a sound like the flinging of all "the tin porringers in the world" down into the hold. He even follows them to sea.

The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress), seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.

Besides these are divers monsters—the Augh-iska, the Water- horse, the Payshtha (piast=bestia), the Lake-dragon, and such like; but whether these be animals, fairies, or spirits, I know not.


Witches and fairy doctors receive their power from opposite dynasties ; the witch from evil spirits and her own malignant will ; the fairy doctor from the fairies, and a something—a temperament—that is born with him or her. The first is always feared and hated. The second is gone to for advice, and is never worse than mischievous. The most celebrated fairy doctors are sometimes people the fairies loved and carried away, and kept with them for seven years; not that those the fairies' love are always carried off—they may merely grow silent and strange, and take to lonely wanderings in the " gentle " places. Such will, in after-times, be great poets or musicians, or fairy doctors ; they must not be confused with those who have a Lianhaun shee \leanndn-sidhe\, for the Lianhaun shee lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.

Those we speak of have for their friends the trooping fairies —the gay and sociable populace of raths and caves. Great is their knowledge of herbs and spices. These doctors, when the butter will not come on the milk, or the milk will not come from the cow, will be sent for to find out if the cause be in the course of common nature or if there has been witchcraft . Perhaps some old hag in the shape of a hare has been milking the cattle. Perhaps some user of " the dead hand " has drawn away the butter to her own churn. Whatever it be, there is the counter-charm. They will give advice, too, in cases of suspected changelings, and prescribe for the "fairy blast" (when the fairy strikes any one a tumour rises, or they become paralysed. This is called a " fairy blast" or a " fairy stroke "> The fairies are, of course, visible to them, and many a new-built house have they bid the owner pull down because it lay on the fairies' road. Lady Wilde thus describes one who lived in Innis Sark :—" He never touched beer, spirits, or meat in all his life, but has lived entirely on bread, fruit, and vegetables. A man who knew him thus describes him—' Winter and summer his dress is the same—merely a flannel shirt and coat. He will pay his share at a feast, but neither eats nor drinks of the food and drink set before him. He speaks no English, and never could be made to learn the English tongue, though he says it might be used with great effect to curse one's enemy. He holds a burial-ground sacred, and would not carry away so much as a leaf of ivy from a grave. And he maintains that the people are right to keep to their ancient usages, such as never to dig a grave on a Monday, and to carry the coffin three times round the grave, following the course of the sun, for then the dead rest in peace. Like the people, also, he holds suicides as accursed ; for they believe that all its dead turn over on their faces if a suicide is laid amongst them.

'"Though well off, he never, even in his youth, thought of taking a wife ; nor was he ever known to love a woman. He stands quite apart from life, and by this means holds his power over the mysteries. No money will tempt him to impart his know ledge to another, for if he did he would be struck dead—so he believes. He would not touch a hazel stick, but carries an ash wand, which he holds in his hand when he prays, laid across his knees ; and the whole of his life is devoted to works of grace and charity, and though now an old man, he has never had a day's sickness. No one has ever seen him in a rage, nor heard an angry word from his lips but once, and then being under great irritation, he recited the Lord's Prayer backwards as an imprecation on his enemy. Before his death he will reveal the mystery of his power, but not till the hand of death is on him for certain." When he does reveal it, we may be sure it will be to one person only—his successor. There are several such doctors in County Sligo, really well up in herbal medicine by all accounts, and my friends find them in their own counties. All these things go on merrily. The spirit of the age laughs in vain, and is itself only a ripple to pass, or already passing, away.""

The spells of the witch are altogether different; they smell of the grave. One of the most powerful is the charm of the dead hand. With a hand cut from a corpse they, muttering words of power, will stir a well and skim from its surface a neighbour's butter.

A candle held between the fingers of the dead hand can never be blown out. This is useful to robbers, but they appeal for the suffrage of the lovers likewise, for they can make love- potions by drying and grinding into powder the liver of a black cat. Mixed with tea, and poured from a black teapot, it is infallible. There are many stories of its success in quite recent years, but, unhappily, the spell must be continually renewed, or all the lore may turn into hate. But the central notion of witchcraft everywhere is the power to change into some fictitious form, usually in Ireland a hare or a cat. Long ago a wolf was the favourite. Before Giraldus Cambrensis came to Ireland, a monk wandering in a forest at night came upon two wolves, one of whom was dying. The other entreated him to give the dying wolf the last sacrament. He said the mass, and paused when he came to the viaticum. The other, on seeing this, tore the skin from the breast of the dying wolf, laying bare the form of an old woman. Thereon the monk gave the sacrament. Years afterwards he confessed the matter, and when Giraldus visited the country, was being tried by the synod of the bishops. To give the sacrament to an animal was a great sin. Was it a human being or an animal ? On the advice of Giraldus they sent the monk, with papers describing the matter, to the Pope for his decision. The result is not stated.

Giraldus himself was of opinion that the wolf-form was an illusion, for, as he argued, only God can change the form. His opinion coincides with tradition, Irish and otherwise.

It is the notion of many who have written about these things that magic is mainly the making of such illusions. Patrick Kennedy tells a story of a girl who, having in her hand a sod of grass containing, unknown to herself, a four-leaved shamrock, watched a conjurer at a fair. Now, the four-leaved shamrock guards its owner from all pishogues (spells), and when the others were staring at a cock carrying along the roof of a shed a huge beam in its bill, she asked them what they found to wonder at in a cock with a straw. The conjurer begged from her the sod of grass, to give to his horse, he said. Immediately she cried out in terror that the beam would fall and kill somebody.

This, then, is to be remembered—the form of an enchanted thing is a fiction and a caprice


Ghosts, or as they are called in Irish, Thevshi or Task (taidhbhse, fat's), live in a state intermediary between this life and the next. They are held there by some earthly longing or affection, or some duty unfulfilled, or anger against the living. " I will haunt you," is a common threat; and one hears such phrases as, " She will haunt him, if she has any good in her." If one is sorrowing greatly after a dead friend, a neighbour will say, " Be quiet now, you are keeping him from his rest;" or, in the Western Isles, according to Lady Wilde, they will tell you, " You are waking the dog that watches to devour the souls of the dead." Those who die suddenly, more commonly than others, are believed to become haunting Ghosts. They go about moving the furniture, and in every way trying to attract attention.

When the soul has left the body, it is drawn away, sometimes, by the fairies. I have a story of a peasant who once saw, sitting in a fairy rath, all who had died for years in his village. Such souls are considered lost. If a soul eludes the fairies, it may be snapped up by the evil spirits. The weak souls of young children are in especial danger. When a very young child dies, the western peasantry sprinkle the threshold with the blood of a chicken, that the spirits may be drawn away to the blood. A Ghost is compelled to obey the commands of the

living. " The stable-boy up at Mrs. G 's there," said an old

countryman, "met the master going round the yards after he had been two days dead, and told him to be away with him to the lighthouse, and haunt that; and there he is far out to sea still, sir. Mrs. G was quite wild about it, and dismissed the boy." A very desolate lighthouse poor devil of a Ghost 1 Lady Wilde considers it is only the spirits who are too bad for heaven, and too good for hell, who are thus plagued. They are compelled to obey some one they have wronged.

The souls of the dead sometimes take the shapes of animals. There is a garden at Sligo where the gardener sees a previous owner in the shape of a rabbit. They will sometimes take the forms of insects, especially of butterflies. If you see one fluttering near a corpse, that is the soul, and is a sign of its having entered upon immortal happiness. The author of the Parochial Survey of Ireland, 1814, heard a woman say to a child who was chasing a butterfly, " How do you know it is not the soul of your grandfather." On November eve the dead are abroad, and dance with the fairies.

As in Scotland, the fetch is commonly believed in. If you see the double, or fetch, of a friend in the morning, no ill follows ; if at night, he is about to die.



-Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry,William Butler Yeats, 1888, p. 1.

 To return to the top click here



Directory of This Irish Studies Page 

Literature and Verse Resources for Irish Gaelic Folklore and Seasonal Celebrations Drink and the Pub A lake of Links
Music and Song Humor Ireland-The Island Feedback History