We admire our Celtic Ancestors, don’t we? We take pride in the resilience, intelligence and irrepressible spirit of our Irish forebears. This ancient land, steeped in history and pulsing with a culture both admired and envied by others, has produced generations of Irish men and women who have impressed the world with their literature, music and folklore. A lesser known (or discussed) fact, is that many of our Ancestors, believed in Fairies. Noble and peasant alike, men and women from all walks of life firmly believed there lived beside or nearby them, a race of Fairy folk and creatures.

As a testament to the connection between people of Ireland and their Fairy neighbours, some Fairies are known to have followed Irish families who emigrated abroad: most notably, the Banshee.

The Banshee, also known as the harbinger of death, does not discriminate to status or faith. For generations, she has cried a mournful wail near the home of an Irish person, at home or abroad, for whom death is imminent. She is even known to announce a death which occurred abroad at the ancestral home in Ireland.

‘One morning Jack Leonard was cutting turf on Gilmore’s old bog when he saw a Banshee coming towards him and wailing. He ran shouting into Gilmore’s cottage. “Oh, I’m done now,” said he. “Why, what did you see?” said Mrs Gilmore. “A Banshee, I must be going to die”. Both went out and could hear the Banshee crying all-round the house of people called McLoughlins, who owned it long ago, but weren’t there for years, having emigrated to America.

The following day Mrs Gilmore had a letter from her sister in America saying she had attended Mrs McLoughlin’s funeral the day before she wrote.’ – As told by Mrs Black, Sheepstown, County Westmeath.

While some were reluctant to share their experience with Fairies, many who saw or interacted with them in the 20th century spoke openly on the subject. You might be surprised to discover that some of our Ancestors documented their personal Fairy encounter in published works by Irish dramatist and folklorist (and friend of W.B. Yeats) Lady Gregory, Irish Poet (and Mother to Oscar) Lady Wilde and American anthropologist and writer W.Y. Evans-Wentz.

Perhaps the most comprehensive record of encounters with Irish Fairies can be found in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. This collection includes local beliefs, traditions and encounters with the Fairy Folk and was collected from across the 32 counties of Ireland in the 1930’s and 40’s.

We can imagine these intrepid folklorists travelling to remote villages and farms, popping up unannounced and approaching unsuspecting country folk asking if they’ve ever seen a Fairy!

Folklorists made field recordings on Ediphone (wax cylinder) recording machines, gramophone disks and tape recorders, balanced their equipment on stone walls or 3-legged stools, asking questions beside hearths and on the side of a road. We recognise their dedication as extraordinary, but many may wonder what could motivate their efforts and why on Earth people were so keen to share their personal experiences of Fairies? The answer could be as simple as: they truly believed.

Douglas Hyde, Gaelic scholar and first president of Ireland published his personal experience with a Fairy in Evans-Wentz’s book ‘The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’. Let’s not forget the two Irish Nobel Laureates, W.B. Yeats, and Samuel Beckett, who also believed in Fairies.

Yeats’ fervent belief in Fairies is evident in his celebrated poem ‘The Stolen Child’. Yeats delicately crafts an image of kindly Fairy folk lightly enticing a small Human child to come away with them. Speaking in sweet, gentle tones the Fairy describe their home as an ethereal-like sanctuary, steeped in the beauty and abundance of the natural world. Over and again, the Fairy seeks to persuade the child to leave the suffering and hardships of his world and be received into the peace and endless pleasures of the Fairy realm.

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our Faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a Faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping, than you can understand.

Is the Human child tempted? Does it follow the Fairy ‘hand in hand’? If you are yet to read this poem, do yourself a favour and read it today. Then read it again. You may find that, which each reading, you are still unsure of the Fairy’s intentions. Was it truly an act of kindness? A wish to save the child from a life of hardship? Or was this a devious attempt to lure and kidnap a vulnerable Human child?

Our Celtic Ancestors were well aware that on occasion, Fairy would steal healthy children and babies, and leave a Changeling in their place. In this poem Yeats recognises the dual nature of Fairies and carefully sits on the fence, leaving the motivation, and true nature of the Fairy in this poem, for the reader to decide.

Here in the 21st century we live in an age where communication is easier and faster than ever before, information flows freely and fewer subjects are taboo and yet… most people would rather have root canal therapy/fall in a pit of snakes/walk barefoot over hot coals than publicly admit they believe in Fairies!

So, you might be wondering why many of our Ancestors had no qualms in speaking openly about Fairies. It’s simple: because they knew Fairies were living near their homes, in hills, forts, woodlands and rivers because they saw, heard, sensed and smelled them regularly. Our canny Ancestors not only accepted their presence, but when necessary based practical decisions to facilitate the Fairies.

If a new cottage or barn were to be built, foundation corners would be pegged out with stones and left for several nights to ensure it was not situated on a Fairy Path. If the stones were found disturbed in the morning, it was widely agreed the cottage was on a Fairy Path and a different plot of land marked out for testing. Indeed, many who had unfortunately found themselves living in a cottage on a Fairy Path, were forced to demolish corners of the building to give Fairies free passage or leave doors and windows open to allow Fairies easy thoroughfare. And if they didn’t? Well, that would depend on the nature of the Fairies, some would simply open doors and windows themselves as they passed through, while others would set about destroying the cottage or barn: beginning by bringing down the roof. If the people rebuilt the roof? The Fairies would tear it down again and again.

The less charitable of us might wonder why the Fairy would cause such destruction just because they had to deviate a little from their path. Surely, they could just travel around the cottage or barn and be on their merry way? Fairy Paths offer a perfect example of the challenges our Ancestors faced in their efforts to live in harmony with the Fairy Folk.

The Fairy race is as old as the hills. It is believed they were here long before us and have watched the emergence and settlement of people with a mix of amusement and disdain. They have withdrawn further into wilderness and isolation, but there are certain places they will not yield to us. At times they are known to stand firm and, with or without warning, take decisive action against us. To this day, Fairy will not abide obstruction to their paths or roads.

It’s fair to say that encounters with Fairy are less common now than they were 100 years ago, but that doesn’t mean they are gone. I was recently contacted by a Dublin man who experienced a terrifying ordeal while camping in the Wicklow mountains earlier this year. What began as an enjoyable walk and dinner around the campfire for the two friends and their two dogs, ended in an eight-hour night of terror, huddled inside their tents at the mercy of an inexplicable creature seemingly hellbent on driving them away.

At the first light of dawn the men packed up and fled the area, with no plans to ever return.

Their frightful experience reminds us of how the Fairy folk can behave when we intrude on what they consider to be their space. In this case, I believe their camp was on a Fairy Path. So, let’s set aside all thoughts of Tinkerbells and jolly Leprechauns, real Fairies must never be underestimated. Our Ancestors understood and accepted this and carved a way to live both harmoniously and precariously beside them.

~Story by Kitty Phelan