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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
Changelings, thieves of the young and the fair
While most people nowadays believe fairies to be gentle creatures, prone to mischief perhaps and capricious by their natures yet well intended for all that, in Ireland they have a more sinister reputation. Some say, and some still believe, that the fairies will take small children and young people, leaving in their place creatures known as changelings or Sibhreach, or other names which will not be spoken here!
Often a baby might become ill, or take on a strange appearance, or a person might be left unable to move their limbs, fairy-struck as they called it, and the local people would begin to suspect fairy work.
And it didn't stop with that – the family under whose roof a changeling dwelt would have no luck from that day forward, but still they must care for and love the changeling if they ever wanted to see their own child again! For the fairies would treat their hostage in the same manner or worse.
Babies are most at risk, although the Sidhe fear nothing more than iron and fire, so a pair of scissors or tongs may be left near to the crib, or the crib left close to a fireplace, and draping a garment belonging to the father of the child over the baby as it sleeps is also said to be a preventative.
Sometimes they won't even leave one of their own behind but rather a lump of wood or bundle of twigs called a stock, enchanted to seem like a baby, which will sicken and die before its parents eyes!
But what, you may ask, will the fairies do with abducted children? And well you may ask but the truth is nobody knows. Some say they are offered to dark powers once every seven years in exchange for freedom to walk the earth, others that fairies need new blood from sturdy humans to keep their lines strong – even with all their carousing they don't have many young, and birth is difficult for them – and yet others that changelings are old fairies, near to death, and the children are meant to take their place.
Looking upon a baby with envy, called “overlooking the baby” is frowned upon in Ireland unless it is also accompanied by a blessing and a prayer, for such a gaze may also draw the attention of less kindly eyes.
Babies alone were not in peril from the fairies mind you, any young gentleman or maiden, fair of form and sound of mind and body was at risk, for the wee folk crave beauty with the jealousy of a lover. Although tales do tell of the odd individual who voluntarily went went them, and returned years later with a gift, whether that be an understanding of herbs or some other more eldritch knowledge.
The signs by which the old folk knew a changeling were several, but mainly a change in demeanour was noted, from happy to sullen, and a wizened appearance came upon the person, and an appetite that grew while they lost weight. Innocence would fade from their eyes to be replaced with darkness and a shifty look.
So great is the love of music among the fairies that leaving an instrument near a crib and listening for a virtuoso performance was a good way to confirm any suspicions.
Changelings were crafty sorts as well so you had to have your thinking cap on when dealing with them. One young mother by the name of Maureen Doherty felt something was amiss with her child, so she went to consult with a wise man, a storyteller who lived several miles away.
When she returned, taking his advice, she emptied out the yolks from several eggs and filled them with water, seeing out of the corner of her eyes that the babe watched her every move closely.
“What are you about, ma?” asked the baby.
Her heart lurched in her bosom then for what child could speak at that age.
“I'm brewing, my lovely child,” she said hoarsely, placing the eggshells in the fire.
“What's that you're brewing then, mother,” said the babe, craning out of its crib with narrowed eyes.
“Why eggshells of course,” she replied, upon which the child burst out in a great gust of dry high laughter, like an old man who's seen a dancing chicken wearing a bow tie.
“My eyes have seen the burning of Rome and London, but they haven't yet seen the likes of this!” the creature cackled, and Maureen turned with her heavy iron ladle in hand, raised as if to strike, and rushed at the crib! But she tripped over and hit her head, awaking to find the changeling gone and her son back safe and sound.
Not all stories end so happily of course, there are as many ways to restore a lost child or person as there are tales of their stealing. Some say a dunking in foxglove water will do the trick, while others advise waiting outside the nearest fairy mound for when they go a-trooping, which they do several times a year. If you know the right words, you can give them back their own.
Feeding the person the first milk of a cow after calving, supposed to be like ambrosia to the fairies, was meant to return the original to their rightful place.
Fairies are terrified of fire, so holding a burning brand next to the mouth of one suspected of being a changeling and asking their true names three times may drive them forth. Readers, it shouldn't need saying, I am sure know that much of this was before our modern understanding of afflictions both of the mind and body, and not make the mistake of Michael Cleary of Tipperary, who burned his wife to death in 1895 under the foolish belief that she was a changeling. He served fifteen years in prison and fled the country upon his release.
If after all a changeling is left unaccounted for, they may grow up to become a person slow of wits and of poor manners, what was called an ouphe or oaf, while their human counterparts either pined away under the hill or lived quite happily among the dancing folk.
“The summer sun was sinking
With a mild light, calm and mellow,
It shone on my little boy's bonny cheeks,
And his loose locks of yellow.
The robin was singing sweetly,
And his song was sad and tender;
And my little boy's eyes as he heard the song,
Smiled with sweet soft splendour.
My little boy lay on my bosom,
While his soul the song was quaffing;
The joy of his soul had ting'd his cheek,
And his heart and his eye were laughing.
I sat alone in my cottage,
The midnight needle plying;
I fear'd for my child, for the rush's light
In the socket now was dying.
There came a hand to my lonely latch,
Like the wind at midnight moaning,
I knelt to pray--but rose again--
For I heard my little boy groaning!
I crossed my brow, and I crossed my breast,
But that night my child departed!
They left a weakling in his stead,
And I am broken-hearted!
Oh! it cannot be my own sweet boy,
For his eyes are dim and hollow,
My little boy is gone to God,
And his mother soon will follow.
The dirge for the dead will be sung for me,
And the mass be chaunted sweetly;
And I will sleep with my little boy,
In the moonlight church-yard meetly.”
A man in the village of Dowra claims to have been taken and returned, and you can find the little village on the map below.
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