The Fairy Folk of Ireland
Updated: May 12, 2020
What kind of image does that expression, ‘the fairy folk’ conjure up when you hear it? Something a bit like this…
Maybe you see something a little more ‘Tinkerbell’, a sweet pretty little thing with gossamer wings, so tiny she 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’ (pronounced 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.
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. Given him by a woman warrior, Cethlenn, I might add, who was the wife of Balor, King of the Fomori.
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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