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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Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland
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Times were hard in Ireland back years ago, and while some might say they've had it tough today, it was not a patch on the hardships people endured in times gone by. And so it was with Michael McGovern, a poor farmer with hardly an acre of stony soil to rent, who looked upon his three young sons with love for the life of them and fear for their ... [more]
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A woman was out one day looking after her sheep in the valley, and coming by a little stream she sat down to rest, when suddenly she seemed to hear the sound of low music, and turning round, beheld at some distance a crowd of people dancing and making merry. And she grew afraid and turned her head away not to see them. Then close by her stood a you ... [more]
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Near to the town of Fermoy in Ireland lies the great stack of Cairn Thierna, not as wide about nor as tall as some mountains perhaps but feared and respected by the local people nonetheless. For all around it and along its flanks are tall heaps of stones they say are the work of the fairy folk, or the old people who lived here long ago. And you ... [more]
On the road going down to Cork there's an old set of four walls that used to once be called Ronayne's Court. Although there's little enough to see of it nowadays still the stack of the chimneys stands proud, and on it can be seen the coat of arms of the family that built it and used to live there. They were a fine couple and had one ... [more]
It was known in times past in Ireland that there were men and women who could talk to the fairies, ask favours from them, and even live among them, and some used this acquaintance to work their will on the world, for good or for ill. Most famous, perhaps, among these people were the fairy healers of old. Biddy Early is the best known of their ki ... [more]
James Mac Neill was as strapping a young fellow as you could hope to meet, and likely with it. Never did he walk away from a tussle or a drink, and never far from his hand was his shillelagh. He had no fears save the lacking of a pint, no cares except for who would pay for it, and not a thought in his head but how to have fun after it. One cold ... [more]
Maurice Mulreaney was well known for travelling about the countryside without fear of anything living or otherwise, as quick to cross a graveyard or fairy mound as you or I would be to cross the street, for he didn't believe in that which he couldn't see with his own two eyes or touch with his own two hands, and he didn't bother with ol ... [more]
It wasn't a bad life for Fergus O'Hara in Owenmore, for all that himself and his wife Rose had little, the little they had was enough for them. Some goats, pigs and poultry ranged far and wide about their few acres, and a field of oats and potatoes kept them busy for the harvest and brought in a few pennies. It so happened that there lay ... [more]
In many cultures those that used to be called insane held a special place of reverence, and were treated almost as envoys from another place, or as though they could see something nobody else could, or were dancing to music only they could hear and the rest of us were deaf to. From far-off India and China to more familiar shores people would doff t ... [more]
The children of De Danann once ruled the island of Ireland, before they departed back to their own lands in the farthest west or went below the earth in their fairy mounds to dance and sing forevermore, but if you're lucky – or unlucky! – you might still come across them in the wild places and those deep forests yet untouched. An ... [more]
Some of the Sidhe in times of old would take a fondness for one particular family, protecting it and helping it rise in the world, and so it was with the O'Briens, who were known as the Dál gCais, or the Dalcassians. Their fairy guardian was called Aoibhell, whose name means burning ardour or beauty, depending on who you ask. She had ... [more]
Irish legends from time immemorial have a great deal to say about the land of the fairies, the home of the Tuatha De Danann, or the world of the Sidhe. There are those who claim it lies beneath fairy mounds or on the other side of deep caves where Druids once held tryst and shared magical secrets, while other tales tell of heroes and adventurers, e ... [more]
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 changeli ... [more]
It's well known among those who know of such things that fairies love to dance more than anything else, and they take it ill should anything interfere with their merriment. And if someone wanted to spoil a dance, they could come up with few better ways of doing so than to send a herd of cattle wandering through! The hill atop Knockshegowna w ... [more]
The cheerful Leprechaun is about as well known an emblem of Ireland as you could want, but what truth lies behind the stories? Well the truth is nobody really knows the truth, for leprechauns are are a cagey bunch at the best of times, not prone to gossip or holding forth on the important events of the day or the local hurling results, even after a ... [more]
After the Tuatha De Dannan were defeated in battle by the great race of Milesians, who held sway in Ireland long after, some of the Tuatha decided to leave and go elsewhere while some chose to stay in Ireland. Those that stayed agreed that they must live beneath the earth, and they were led by a great King in the west, Finnbhear son of Dagda, who i ... [more]
The Pooka or Puca is one of the most ancient fairy creatures of Ireland, and is known further abroad as well, called Puck or Pook. In some places he is feared and in others respected. He can take many shapes, most commonly that of a wild horse wrapped in chains with sulfurous or blazing crimson eyes - the night mare - a huge dog, a raging bull, a h ... [more]
Old Jack Doherty was a kindly and good natured sort of fellow, as well he might be for he had chosen to live in a strange and desolate part of the country, by a coast of jagged rocks and sucking tides. And why might that be cause for merriment, you may ask? Well, it was many's the night and many's the storm that blew an unfortunate ship too ... [more]
Some might wonder, who or what are the fairy folk? There are stories upon stories of them and their doings in many places, but most of all in Ireland, where it was said they lived longest and if they still walk the earth, where they can yet be found! The country folk claim they are fallen angels lacking the merit to stay in heaven while being kindl ... [more]