In Ireland, a fairy didn’t just mean the sweet little “Tinkerbell” type. Irish fairies were also dark, and could bring all sorts of strife to human life. It was a constant concern of everyday life.
But it’s worse than that. We Irish weren’t happy just being fearful of fairies. 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 was 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.
Many Irish stories and folklore were concerned with 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.
Other things are also 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 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, even though it prevented a road being widened for seventy years.)
A 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 underground home 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 apparently hated to hear ‘thank you’ because they considered it a sign of forgetting the good deed done. Instead, fairies wanted something that would 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.
Perhaps the Celts worshipped minor goddesses, such as nymphs or tree spirits, that lived on in a dwindled state of power as fairies after the coming of Christianity. Fairies were denounced by the church as 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.
Nowadays, even though we don’t believe in fairies any more, we sort of still do. An Irish person will always wonder what if…