Forgotten Fairies of Irish Folklore
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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
- 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.