Emerald Isle

When Fairies Attack

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

There's a common misconception some might have about fairies, which is the idea that fairies are nic

There's a common misconception some might have about fairies, which is the idea that fairies are nice friendly little spirits, trailing pixie dust and turning pumpkins into luxury vehicles. As any of the old folk of Ireland could tell you, nothing could be further from the truth, for a fairy in wrath is more dangerous than a hive of wasps or a cook with a grudge!

People in olden times would cut corners off their houses to avoid obstructing a fairy path, which should never be travelled by mortals, and cottages were built with the front and back doors in line, so that the fairies could troop through all night, if it took their fancy. Before building a house you should lay out four stacks of stones or four hazel twigs where the corners of the building were to be, then come back the next morning and if a stack has tumbled or a twig is out of place, you were building along a fairy path.

Places like fairy forts and old mounds were, and should be, left undisturbed, with not even a snip of the blackthorn bush around them or a twig from a fairy tree – the hawthorn – being cut, for fear of death following soon after!

An offended fairy might follow you for many years, putting nettles in your pillow and pinching you at inopportune moments, disturbing your sleep with strange visions and yowling outside your window. And that's to say nothing of their kidnapping young babies and replacing them with wizened looking elders of their own race! The fairy stroke was most feared of all, being shot by a fairy dart and suffering paralysis, madness, blindness or permanent lameness for the rest of your life.

A Púca could carry you away on wild rides to the Cailleach's court, and the Sluagh could make you one of them, a wretched undead, in their wild hunt between the worlds. The brood of old stoop of the many glooms come in forms innumerable, peering out from the shadows of their haunted glades and forests.

So what to do if you've made an enemy of such a fearsome foe, accidentally or on purpose?

Here are a few things that have been used in times gone by to foil the mischief of the fairy folk.

Before recounting these ancient ways, we should remember that they aren't always consistent – what works for one fairy might not work for another, as perhaps they have their own geases, or binding curses, of things they must avoid or do, just like the old people of Ireland had.

Four leaf clovers are said to turn away fairies, and not only that, but the ancient Gaels used to keep several in a pouch at their neck, for by carrying these leaves, they could see the invisible, including the fairies! You could only see one for each four leafed clover you carried, and see through their glamours, fogs, disguises and magical illusions as well.

Marsh marigolds and primroses were noted for their protective effect against the sidhe, being made into garlands and hung over barn doors to stop the horses being ridden to exhaustion at night, and laid along and above doorways and windowsills for safety.

Another plant known as St John's wort was know to be as good as a fierce dog for keeping off the fairies. Daisy chains kept children from being spirited away.

Red flowers and berries were avoided by the little folk, and the wood of the ash, rowan and blackthorn likewise, especially in the form of a stout walking stick. A length of mountain ash will help pull a person out of a fairy ring should they be cause like flies in a spider's web, since the fairies fear the tree like little else.

One strange means of self protection upon being assailed by the fairies is to turn your coat inside-out. How or why that works isn't related, but any part of the clothes will do, whether it be a glove or a sock.

This was used to good effect by one widow whose house was used as a meeting place and market by thieving fairies, who rewarded her tolerance by giving her a coin after each auction. One night, she decided to turn her coat inside out just as they had deposited their plunder on the floor, and so they fled, leaving her wealthier by far than before! But never again could she wear that coat, for the agonies of a thousand needles pierced her when she tried.

Bread was another thing that attracted or repelled fairies, being given as an offering with honey and milk it might prevent their attentions from turning malicious, or when put into a pocket before going to a fairy-haunted place it would keep them away. In County Wexford it was known that you shouldn't bring an infant outside after dark unless there was a piece of bread wrapped in its bib or dress.

Salt was put to use as a potent protection against fairies, although some say it had to be blessed in the same manner as holy water to have any effect, or that fairies would be forced to stop and count every grain before they could pass, and so it was sprinkled across thresholds and windows.

Knowing the true name of a fairy could grant a person power over it, binding it to service, or drive it off if applied with vigorous insults!

Stones with holes in them, especially flint, would serve as a defence, and were hung over barns and doorways, as would running water, although a still pond never scared a fairy. Often enough they liked to frequent the more stagnant and marshy places, dancing above them in the shape of little lights. Fairy wells were also their abodes, and they demanded offerings on threat of flooding and drownings.

The sound of church bells, hymns being sung and generally anything blessed by the Christian religion was as scorching fire to the fairy folk, running them off quicker than a wink. Holy water, prayers, consecrated ground and any pious exclamation all seemed to sever their link to whatever allowed them to walk the earth yet.

Other fairies have specific remedies to divert their attention – the headless horseman of the southern parts of the country could never pass a golden pin, or any gold at all, and holding on to grass still rooted in the ground would prevent kidnap by other fairies, since they were forbidden from harming a single blade. Something dirty and something red were also reputed to be effective defences, depending on the situation.

One other thing most fairies fear is the touch of cold iron. Keeping an iron nail in your pocket would pin you to the earth so they couldn't carry you off, and hammering an iron nail into the footprint of a fairy would cause it intense agony. An iron cross or a pair of iron shears hanging near a child's bed would stop the changeling, and old horseshoes nailed to a wall on their side like the letter C would likewise offer protection.

If a sharpened scythe was placed edge-up in a chimney it would repel fairies, and an iron bolt or lock on a door would guard a house, while an axe placed under the pillow would protect the sleeper and striking a fairy with iron will result in its instant disappearance. Should a person be lured into an open fairy mound by the sweet music and fragrances emanating from within, putting an iron knife at the entrance would prevent it from closing behind them. A knife with a black handle was especially useful in these situations!

Some say a wound from an iron weapon, dealt to a fairy, will never heal, and slowly poison them, which might in turn draw the wrath of their kin!

And remember, above all else, never eat or drink of fairy food, lest you be caught with them forever!

The fairies have been known to dance at the spot marked on the map below.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

If you'd like to leave a tip, just click here!

Archaeological information is licensed for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence from the National Monuments Service - Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

Note that this license DOES NOT EXTEND to folkloric, mythological and related information on the site. That data remains under full private copyright protection