In Ireland, a fairy didn’t just mean the sweet little “Tinkerbell” type. Fairies were also dark, and could bring all sorts of strife to human life. It was a constant worry and an annoying pain to everyday life.
We Irish people weren’t satisfied having just normal fairies they had to be fearful of. No, we went way further with it. We insisted on scaring ourselves with goblins, trolls, gnomes and sprites. And worse – Irish folklore describes how to prevent fairies from stealing babies and substituting changelings in their place. This is all the work of bad fairies.
All types of fairies needed to be appeased and you could never upset them. People from past generations would call the fairies the wee folk, good folk, people of peace, or the fair folk, just so fairies would think that Irish people held them in high esteem.
Much of the stories and folklore that came out of Ireland concerns humans seeking protection from a scorned fairy’s malice. One way people could protect themselves from bad fairies was by putting out cold iron (iron is like poison to fairies, and they will not go near it) or charms of rowan and herbs, which fairies avoided. But other things are regarded as detrimental to the fairies: wearing clothing inside out, running water, bells (especially church bells), St. John’s wort, and four-leaf clovers. In much of the Celtic folklore, baked goods were a traditional offering to the folk, along with cream and butter.
In terms of protection, bread was the business. Before going out into a fairy-haunted place, it was customary to put a piece of dry bread in your pocket. In County Wexford, Ireland, in 1882, it was reported that “if an infant is carried out after dark a piece of bread is wrapped in its bib or dress, and this protects it from any witchcraft or evil.”
Certain locations, known to be haunts of fairies, were to be avoided. In particular, digging in fairy hills was unwise. Paths that the fairies travel are also wise to avoid. Home-owners have knocked corners from houses because the corner blocked the fairy path, and cottages have been built with the front and back doors in line, so that the owners could leave them both open and let the fairies troop through all night.
Locations such as fairy forts were left undisturbed; even cutting brush on fairy forts was reputed to be the death of those who performed the act. Fairy trees, such as thorn trees, were dangerous to chop down. (Irish people might have been overly scared but the Scots were worse: One thorn tree was left alone in Scotland, though it prevented a road being widened, for seventy years.)
One common theme found among the Celtic nations describes a race of tiny people who had been driven into hiding by invading humans. In Irish, their home underground was known as the Sídhe. The first glass of any new batch of poitín was always thrown on the ground as an offering to the fairies of the Sídhe. They like a spot of the drink, just like humans.
Also, fairies hate being told ‘thank you’, as they see it as a sign of one forgetting the good deed done, and, instead, want something that will guarantee remembrance. Thus more offerings were given to appease the fairies.
The original word Fairie used to be used as an adjective, meaning “enchanted” (as in fairie knight, fairie queene). Then the word morphed into a noun meaning “enchanted creature.” And it is not only the fairy name that has evolved. In Victorian times, fairies were known as delicate and pretty winged creatures. But this is a diversion from the folklore. Way back when, fairies didn’t have wings; they flew using magic. Or they sometimes flew on ragwort stems or the backs of birds.
In Celtic culture, it is possible that pagans had minor goddesses that they worshipped, such as nymphs or tree spirits, but with the coming of Christianity, these goddesses lived on, in a dwindled state of power as fairies, eventually becoming outdated folk belief. At the time, fairies were reputed by the church as being evil beings.
In some folklore, fairies bit humans if caught by them. And while fairies were known to confuse humans with words and deceptions, they couldn’t actually lie. So humans sometimes had an advantage over fairies, other than offerings.
Even today, even though we don’t believe in fairies, we sort of do, too. An Irish person will always wonder…what if…