The Fairy Folk of Ireland

What kind of image does that expression, ‘the fairy folk’ conjure up when you hear it? Something a bit like this…

fairy pic

Maybe you see something a little more ‘Tinkerbell’, a sweet pretty little thing with gossamer wings, so tiny it could fit in the palm of your hand?

That’s the traditional view, but let me tell you, Ireland’s fairies are a whole other kettle of fish. Oh, and by the way, don’t ever refer to them with the ‘F’-word, as I have done here… they are not over-fond of the term, and may do you a mischief you may come to regret!

In Ireland, these magical beings are known as ‘the Sidhe’ (prounounced Shee), also the Aos Sí, and Daoine Sídhe, and in Scottish lore, the Sith, although it’s still pronounced the same. They are named after the mounds which dot the Irish landscape, and which are said to lead to their homes below the ground. In folklore, they are often referred to as ‘the Fair Folk’ (hence fairy), or the ‘little people’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Well. You know what I mean.

They are not tiny. They never were. In fact, they were larger than the indigenous people of Ireland. Think of the elves from Lord of the Rings: beautiful, terrible, tall, slim, powerful, magical… well, where do you think Tolkien got his ideas from? He borrowed from many mythologies to create his masterpiece, and he wasn’t the only one… Star Wars, anybody?

According to the Lebor Gebala Erenn, an ancient medieval text describing Ireland’s history as its Christian scribes understood it, the Danann were a supernatural race of people who invaded Ireland and defeated the Fir Bolg people, who ruled at the time. You can read more about them in my posts, Who were the Tuatha de Danann Really? and The Tuatha de Danann Come to Ireland.

In the Book of the Dun Cow and the Book of Leinster, the Tuatha de Danann are described as ‘gods and not-gods’. This is interesting because it seems to imply that whilst they possessed many of the powers one would expect of a deity, they were god-like, rather than actual gods.

I’d just like to point out here, that although it is popularly believed that the Danann constitute a pantheon of Celtic/ Irish pagan gods, the ancient texts such as Lebor Gabála Érenn and Cath Maige Tuireadh name them not as Gods but as Kings.

Now whilst this could simply be a case of demotion by monks who believed there could only be one true God, we must also consider the fact that perhaps these really are the tales of remembered chieftains, warriors and heroes of times gone by. My personal opinion is that the antiquarians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries interpreted their archaeological findings, and the ancient texts, using the only model they had: their education in the Greek and Roman classics.

Now, back to the ‘not gods’. An example would be the question of immortality. The Danann were long-lived, but they did not live forever. They could be killed by injury, as in battle, or sickness, like any mortal, but not by old age, as they did not seem to age at all. This can be very confusing, if you think of immortality in its absolute sense, ie life everlasting.

High Kings held the crown for extraordinarily long terms. The Dagda, for example, was said to have reigned for 80 years. He eventually wasted away from a sickness caused by a wound he had received in battle from a poisoned sword.

Lugh of the Long Hand, another Danann High King, was murdered in a revenge attack, yet still popped up several centuries later to father Cuchulainn on mortal woman, Dechtire. Some years later, when Cuchulainn was grievously wounded, he returned to tend his son’s wounds for three days, and nursed him back to health. Not something a ghost could do, methinks.

In the end, the Danann were defeated and tricked out of Ireland by a race of mortal man known as the Milesians, or Sons of Mil. The Danann were forced to retreat to that half of Ireland which lay below ground, whilst the Milesions took ownership of the surface. You can read this story in my post, The Retreat of the Tuatha de Danann. From then on, the Danann and their descendants became known as ‘the Sidhe’.

According to the Book of Leinster, the Danann then took revenge on the sons of Mil by destroying their wheat and souring their milk. This apparently forced a treaty in which the Milesians were to supply the Danann with milk and butter, and no doubt other goods they no longer had access to.

The Sidhe did not disappear altogether, however; there are many stories in which they interacted with humans, although not always favourably. But as time passed, inevitably a distance grew between men and the Sidhe, and with it, distrust.

The Christians, when they came, severed any final loyalties and friendships that remained, by claiming them as devils, demons, evil spirits, and the like. This fostered fear, resentment and the rise of superstitions; gifts/ bribes would be left out in order to placate ‘the Good Folk’, for example, and fairy forts, mounds and certain trees thought of as the Sidhe’s property would not be harmed, for fear of earning their wrath.

Apart from their long lives, and apparent eternal youth, the Sidhe possessed other powers humans could not explain. They could shape-shift; the Morrigan was famous for transforming into a crow and flying across the battlefield, crying harsh encouragement to her men, and striking fear into the hearts of the enemy.

When her amorous advances were spurned by Cuchulainn, she shifted into a red-eared heifer and tried to knock him over whilst he was engaged in combat with another warrior; then she turned into an eel, wrapping herself around his legs, before finally becoming a grey wolf which lunged for his sword arm. Unperturbed, Cuchulainn managed to keep his enemy at bay whilst, of course, he defeated her every attack; he broke the cow’s leg, trampled the eel underfoot, and poked out the wolf’s eye, and went on to kill his opponent shortly after. What a hero! 😍

They also had strange, inexplicable magic. What we might call technology. Nuada was fitted with a bionic arm an arm of silver when his limb was cut off in battle; he also carried a light sabre sword of light. They arrived in spaceships dark thunder clouds in the sky and lighted on the mountain Sliab an Iarainn. Lugh had a flame-thrower burning spear. They had a sound system to rival any current band a talking rock which announced the rightful king in a roar which could be heard across the land.

Ok. It’s a bit disrespectful calling the Lia Fail a talking rock. Sorry. But you get the picture. Oh, and the Dagda had a bottomless cauldron from which everyone went satisfied, ie he fed them till they were full… any ideas on what that particular piece of technology could be?

Visitors from the Otherworld crop up often in the old stories. They often took mortal lovers. Niamh of the Golden Hair appeared on a white horse to Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, to confess her love for him, and took him back with her. Ciabhan, Prince of Desmond,  risked his life in a little fisherman’s curragh on the stormy high seas, chasing after Cliodhna, having spent a few hours of passion with her on the beach. And Cuchulainn actually had an affair with Fand, the wife of Manannán, the sea-God… the audacity of that man!

Interactions between man and Sidhe were not always so benign. As a boy, Fionn mac Cumhall was the only warrior capable of slaying the fire-fairy, Aillen mac Midhna, who for many years had been laying waste to the Hill of Tara with fire every Samhain festival.

Often, the Sidhe would fight amongst themselves, and sometimes, humans would be caught in the crossfire. This happened on one occasion to Fionn, when he and five members of his Fianna were hosted overnight by the Sidhe after getting lost whilst out hunting. The next morning, they awake to find they are expected to fight on behalf of their hosts against the massive Sidhe army led by Bodb Derg lined up outside the mound. Of course, being particularly honourable humans, they don’t hesitate to jump into the fight.

And that’s your lot. I could go on, but it’s nearly midnight already, and I have uni in the morning… doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? 😜


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54 Comments on “The Fairy Folk of Ireland

  1. Ali! I finally got back over here, reading your post lit up my day. Yes, the Tuatha De Danann definitely get offended by the “f” word…they are such a noble and at times formidable race of people and the other word was, I think, sadly intended to diminish them.

    Here’s another interesting thing. I have heard from some people that the name sidhe actually refers to a much larger group of people of many sizes, and that the Tuatha De Danann got lumped in with them around the time of Christianity and the growing fears people had of other kinds of beings than themselves. Other people speculate that the sidhe and the Tuatha De Danann have always been synonymous. People can get pretty caught up in that discussion, but I don’t know of any of the Tuatha De Danann themselves who care either way. And at least one of them shared that they might seem somewhat god-like, but are not gods. (They’ll answer to the god title though because, why not if people insist on it?)

    Here in California, I have seen, and once met, very tiny otherworld beings who identified themselves as fairies. These ones have wings, and they move very quickly so when you are watching it is like seeing many lights go by or flash under a bush or take off over the ground. Some people call them nature spirits. And they have nothing to do with the sidhe, and I am not sure whether they live in Ireland but wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

    You’re post also reminded me of a dream I had a few months ago. An absent but pretty malevolent nonphysical person was the main focus of the dream, so toward the end, when I actually felt someone standing behind me, I just assumed it was the dream character and got pretty scared. I could tell even facing away from him that he was extremely tall and imposing. He tried reaching out to connect with me, and I instinctively moved away, and the next several minutes were him trying and eventually succeeding in calming me down. By then I was half awake and he was still there. He told me I had been dreaming, and that I was safe with him. So I asked who he was… he didn’t give me a personal name, just said he was Tuatha De Danann. I wish we’d had time to keep talking, but he disappeared when I opened my eyes.

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    • Hi Éilis,
      You’re lucky to have seen a fairy.
      On my wall I’ve got a photo called The Fairy Bower and its caption reads: A photograph of genuine fairies taken by Frances Griffiths in Cottingley in 1920. It has been signed by Frances’s daughter.
      What are your thoughts about leprechauns? This is what I found when I looked up the word:
      Like other Irish fairies, leprechauns may be derived from the Tuatha Dé Danann –
      Squire, Charles (1912). Mythology of the Celtic People. London. p. 403. ISBN 0091850436.

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      • Hmmm, I know that the word leprechaun originated from an Irish word meaning shoemaker. They might just be craftspeople in the sidhe realm. They are not Tuatha dDe Danann, and I am sure they were greatly reduced in size and status during early Christianity, as happened with so many others. Ali might have more insights about this. My hunch is that the pot of gold/association with shamrocks etc has little to actually do with them. I have never met one so I can’t say much more unfortunately!

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  2. Nothing like walking on egg-shells when it comes to faerie folk! I’ll restrict my use of the F word to ordering it with chips. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent work as ever Ali; love the header image. One great thing is that we can use the uncertain nature of the ‘fair folk’ to imagine and write about them in different ways without fear of being proved inaccurate 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating history/mythology, Ali. I love how it blends so that the edge is blurred between reality and fiction and we are left speculating about the truth. The Christian influence mucks it up further, although at least those accounts still exist and give historians something to wonder about. Thanks for another fascinating read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, we are lucky to have those accounts, even if they are a bit murky. That bit you’re talking about, between the reality and fiction… that’s the magic. I think you know all about it… you weave lots of it into your stories. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  5. okay okay okay….. hyperventilates there’s so much to say!

    SO, let’s not beat around the bush – you know who/what I am talking about so not even going to explain that again, BUT

    eternal youth – supposedly the annunaki can live for anything between 40,000-500,000 years (on earth)- what seems eternal to us but isnt. SUPPOSEDLY they can live for millions of years on their planet. Some genetic quirk they didn’t pass to us, yeah cheers for that, and also because the radiation is meant to be lower on their planet, so they have shorter lives here because they can’t cope with the radiation. They are tall, oh guess who else is tall….

    sound machines? What like the ones that lift big fat rocks and build pyramids? GAAAAAAAAAH SO MANY COMMONALITIES

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahahaha! I know, I know! Calm down! Love discovering common links. Btw I read somewhere recently that the ancient celts counted their age in lunar months rather than solar years, which is why they seemed to all live so long. Don’t know if that’s true, but its worth investigating.

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  6. You didn’t mention the leprechauns, that evil invention of the monks later used to caricature the Irish. How else would the Church depict the old shining heroes except as wizened cantankerous dwarfs? Good post Ali, as usual 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

        • Hey! How are you today? Feeling better, I hope. You’ve not had a good run on health this year, have you? Maybe the fresh country air and peace and solitude will help when you move. Roll on, that great day!

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          • The bug has almost cleared up, thanks. I moan every time I catch the slightest thing; I’m very fit apparently, the doctor says, except for the hidden lurgy… Roll on the move, as you say.

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  7. I consider myself as one of the fairy folk. I don’t have any wings and may not be very tall and slim, but get me angry and everyone knows about it.
    Another delightful insight into the myths of Ireland, Ali.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. When I was little I thought of fairies in the more ‘traditional’ tinkerbell-type sense, but certainly as I’ve grown older and read more I think of the Fair Folk, the tall, beautiful race from somewhere… beyond. There are so many mysteries in those stories, Ali – it would be wonderful to have a time machine and go back to find out what the reality was behind them, especially the technology they wielded. Fascinating post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. People always say “the real fair folk are nothing like Tinker Bell” but really they are.
    In the original stories the Lost Boys were the homeless street boys of London. Tinker Bell literally stole their souls from going to heaven after they starved or were beaten to death in the streets. She took them to Neverland so she could play with them like toys.
    Peter Pan was a living baby she thought was cute and stole him from his stroller while his parents looked the other way. He only aged when he returned to our world, which none of the Lost Boys could do because they had died.
    Tink is much more darker than Disney lets in.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Interesting. I’m afraid when your original question, my image actually was rather similar to the picture. I stand corrected. The Sidhe sound a lot more interesting and dynamic (not to mention bigger).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d love too, Colin, but its a good way from here, and I don’t know if I’ll have the time. I wanted to go for Samhain last year, but never made it then either! Sigh…

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