The Darker Side of Irish Fairy Lore: When Encounters Turn Dangerous
When we think of fairies many of the more popular tales tend to have an almost playful nature but it would be wrong to assume that this is means that fairies are always benign.
Many accounts within Irish folklore describe people who have had a much more disturbing fairy encounter and those who speak of these experiences are very often traumatised by what has happened to them.
That is providing they recover enough to even speak about it because meeting the fairy folk can lead to abduction, madness and even death.
We do hear of warnings of course; don't step into the fairy circle - whether it be a ring of mushrooms or a group ancient stones. Sometimes, though, people actively seek to enter the land of the fairies and deliberately visit a place associated with the good people in order to commune or seek a gift of some sort.
A fairy ring made from naturally growing mushrooms ( CC by SA 3.0 )
An example of the latter is a place called the Ring of the Rath on the Wicklow/ Carlow border. This ancient site has two main attributes supposedly connected to the power of the fairies.
The first is that a couple who cannot conceive can visit the Rath at certain times of the year and ask the fairies for help. This is also the case for a person seeking to marry; they can make a request to the fairies and ancestor spirits of this place and it is said that if their wish is granted they will be married within a year providing the ritual has been done correctly.
The second fairy gift associated with the Ring of the Rath is that musicians can sleep here overnight during one of the ancient Pagan festival dates and when they awake they will receive the gift of otherworldly musicianship. At a price, of course. There's always a price.
But these are not the traumatic experiences I have alluded to at the start of this article.
When a person, or even a child, goes missing there are repercussions which manifest in the local folklore and attitudes to the fairies.
One example of this is the case from Co. Wicklow when a young girl vanished for three days. The whole community searched high and low for her, looking in the fields, ditches and woodlands but to no avail. When the girl finally reappeared she told her parents that she had been taken away by tiny men in red. The girl managed to overcome her ordeal but the site of the abduction was recorded by the locals and preserved so as to make sure nobody else suffered the same fate.
A little girl from Wicklow vanished for three days ( Stefan / Adobe Stock)
We can only imagine the distress and anguish of parents looking for a child or family member. As illustrated in the above example, the whole community comes together to look for the missing person but they also recognise the ancient danger of straying into a place associated with fairies and this fear informs their behaviour going forward.
In fact, when someone claims to have returned from a fairy realm (because there seem to be more than one realm!) their lives are often changed forever just by recounting what has happened to them.
In another infamous example of an Irish fairy abduction a woman went missing overnight and when she was returned she told those who had been searching for her that "... she was in lovely cities and saw lovely women, who all bowed to her."
There seems to be a tantalising parallel to more contemporary UFO abductions in this encounter as the woman is describing a more technologically advanced destination than the area of rural Ireland where she initially encountered the fairies.
An Irish woman reported that she was abducted and taken to a lovely city ( khius / Adobe Stock)
Other researchers such as Jacques Vallee have commented upon these similar motifs in the past. Indeed, the description of the inside of fairy mounds being artificially lit, as mentioned in the book The Secret Commonwealth by 17th century folklorist Robert Kirk should give us pause for thought when considering similar shamanic encounters with spirit beings from around the world.
While this particular experience does not seem to be traumatic, as such, the reputation of the woman seems to have been irrevocably damaged based on how she was then seen by her neighbours. And this is often the crux of the matter; many darker fairy encounters are less well known simply because people are very often reluctant to speak about them.
Another grizzly fairy encounter concerns the fate of a Carlow man who decided to dig in a local fairy mound because it was rumoured that it contained fairy treasure. The man began digging and hacking away at the ditches and hawthorn trees around the mound and before long he began to notice a murder of crows gathering in the nearby trees. A faintness soon came over the man and he decided to head home but when he arrived he began to bleed from his eyes. Was this a punishment for digging and searching where he should not have trespassed?
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A man became ill after damaging a fairy hill, like the one pictured ( CC by SA 2.0 )
There are many tales of physical correspondence occurring to someone who damages a fairy tree or fort. This is most likely another example of this. Extreme bad luck to the extent of death is another outcome which is well known in Ireland when a person cuts down a fairy tree. Often people will suffer the consequences and only later reveal their mistake in having damaged fairy property. This is not only because people are afraid of what others will think of their beliefs, but also because the person has now witnessed the consequences of disrespecting a fairy place and knows that to try to avoid punishment may bring even more wrath down upon them.
Another less discussed manifestation of a fairy encounter is madness and an inability to process something so otherworldly that a person falls into a complete breakdown never to return to normal life again. These are often experiences a person will only reveal when you have gained their trust or the trust of a connected family member who has witnessed the effects of the event first-hand. Embarrassment and confusion and indeed a person’s reputation can often dictate whether their story is even told at all.
Many times the surrounding strangeness of these events manifest phenomena which simply cannot be processed without shattering an existing world view. They often sit outside any rational explanation and this is why they end up discarded. The Australian writer Joan Lindsay described similar experiences in her childhood which led her to write her novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. In this case, perception, time and the Otherworld all converged to create a classic 'fairy' experience without the usual fairy terminology.
Some people have reported strange events and even madness after encountering fairies ( public domain )
Finally, as an example of this darker aspect to fairy encounters this account from the Irish folklore archives demonstrates the upset and the confusion which many feel before they can even speak about what they believe happened to them.
In this case a family happen to live close to an ancient fairy fort and one morning as a woman is using a spinning wheel she noticed a tiny person standing by the door of the house. When the woman stood up and walked to the door to investigate she was taken away by a group of small people.
When the family arrived home and noticed their aunt had vanished they searched everywhere in the vicinity but found no sign of her. They searched the drains, the ditches and even the fairy fort itself. It was on the third day of her disappearance that one of the family was walking by the fort when they saw the aunt kneeling next to it. She had vanished while holding a carving knife and this was stuck in the ground next to her. The aunt could not speak for days after her return and it was only then that the family learned of her fairy abduction.
So, as we can witness by these less well known examples of Irish fairy encounters, not all meetings with the good people are light and humorous. Very often they are traumatic and full of otherworldly strangeness which cannot be easily explained or categorised. It is no coincidence that within Irish fairy folklore the good people should not be approached or called upon. They belong to another realm and one that is very often not the safest place for human beings.
Top image: Half-man, half-supernatural being living in nature ( Glebstock / Adobe Stock)
By David Halpin
Kirk, R. and Lang, A. (1893). The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies .
National Folklore Collection. Fairies. The School’s Collection, Volume 0914, p 404.
National Folklore Collection. Fairies. The School’s Collection, Volume 0914, p 477.
National Folklore Collection. Fairies. The School’s Collection, Volume 0250, p 142.