Many customs in Irish cottage life have been traditionally dominated by superstitious beliefs, the greatest of which is the conviction that faeries exist. In this context they are not harmless little ‘fairies’ in the Disney sense but powerful unseen other-worldly beings capable of perpetrating acts of malevolence. It was believed that they must be respected and appeased or they could cause ruin. Rural Irish people so feared the faeries that it was considered bad luck even to refer to them by name, and they were instead called ‘The Good People’ or ‘The Other People’.
The unexplained: Also known as sióg, faeries were accepted to occupy a parallel universe, often conducted underground, and invisible to the human eye. There is no real consensus on what faeries were supposed to actually look like. It was believed that if faeries were upset by humans there would be repercussions in the form of ‘bad luck’: such as people’s farm animals becoming unhealthy or crops failing. Similar notions were typical in past rural farming societies that had little understanding of the real science of life, of weather and disease. Things that could not be explained were attributed to the Others; for example, when milk did not churn into butter, the faeries were blamed (they were thought to have a special fondness for stealing or disrupting the production of dairy products).
Abduction: But the really dangerous aspect of faeries was they could abduct certain humans and bring them to live in the ‘Other World’.
The term ‘away with the faeries’ was used in Ireland to describe someone suffering from mental illness, an apt description as such types of illness can leave a person depleted, ‘not themselves’, a shadow of their former selves.
The fear of children being abducted by faeries was prevalent. The belief was that faeries took the infant and left a ‘changeling’ in its place: this creature looked exactly like the child but acted strangely, was contrary or bad tempered. Mothers would sometimes tie a string to their wrist and the other end of it to their baby to ensure they were not stolen. It was common, when leaving a cradle unattended, to put the cooled poker from the fire across the cradle (iron was hated by faeries). Little boys were often dressed as girls to confuse the Others as it was thought that boys were more likely to be abducted (see picture above, from: National Library of Ireland).
Thwarting the faeries: The Roman Catholic church discouraged Irish belief in faeries, but faery-lore was too deep rooted, ancient and persistent. However aspects of Catholic piety were considered potent forces against faery activity. Crucifixes and prayers were considered great protection, as was Holy Water which was sprinkled copiously over most things: including ploughed land, doorways, hatching hens, sleeping children, and departing visitors.
To counteract their power, iron, which was considered particularly useful against faery activity, was placed (in the form of horseshoes or nails) over windows, doors and other ‘liminal’ areas – the openings, places that were thresholds of the home, where things could get in and out.
The colour yellow was supposed to be loathed by faeries and yellow flowers and objects were often used as deterrents.
Night was believed to be a time when faeries were particularly active and at their most powerful. When travelling at night a quenched coal or a hazel or blackthorn stick was carried for protection against them.
Appeasement: Appeasing the faeries also became important to building and everyday life. When planning the building of a cottage the selection of a site was not to be over a faery assembly place or near a path thought to be used by them. When a site was selected, and the house was marked out, a pile of stones was left on the four corners of the house-to-be. If the stones were left untouched for three consecutive nights it was considered the go-ahead for the construction from the Others.
Superstitions continue: Belief in faeries, in some form or other, persists in Ireland today. Lone whitethorn trees (thought to be the places where the Others meet) in fields are left untouched by most farmers and are prominent in the landscape throughout Ireland. Traditions surrounding the faeries continue: when milk is spilled accidently, the thought is that the faeries caused it because they needed milk; when distilling illegal poitín, the first drop produced is spilled on the ground 'for the faeries'; and when someone sneezes, the observer’s reaction should be to say ‘bless you’, because a fit of sneezing means imminent abduction by faeries.
Belief in 'something' today: Faery-lore was used in the past as an excuse for unexplained things that happened in life. Until the twentieth century and in the absence of scientific explanations belief in faeries filled the void.
The faith in faeries in Ireland is deep rooted. Long after the majority of Irish people converted to Christianity, belief in the Other People persisted. Today faery belief in Ireland has sharply declined. Many Irish will attest to ‘not believing’ and joke about the subject, however if pressed would profess a reluctance to, for example, damage a faery tree. A kernel of belief in the Others is still alive in Ireland.