The belief of the abduction of humans into the fairy world is a common theme in our Irish folklore tradition, as it is in most fairy beliefs throughout Europe. Pre baptised children and young brides are often common targets. Parents may be shocked when they first see that their infant child has been replaced by ‘a wizened fairy’, and quickly realise that the child is a changeling. Although these events are shrouded in mystery, there was often a satisfactory explanation, allowing us to understand the occurrence in human terms.
The fairies seek new born children, generally boys, because it was believed fairies were decedent from angels expelled from Heaven. New blood would allow them back. Parents often dressed their baby boys as girls to confuse the fairies; but once baptised the children were usually safe enough.
It was not all bad news for the parents of a changeling either. In reality the ‘changeling’ was often a pre-medical understanding for a Down Syndrome child, or children afflicted with unexplained diseases, or development disabilities. Because the child was a changeling, an intervention from the fairy world, the child was minded and nurtured not only by the parents, but by the community where he or she lived and played.
A more sinister changeling is the sudden transformation of a new bride. Again a young bride is taken by the fairies (and she is still often taken by them! ), to breast feed their own babies, and soothe their restless menfolk. She is replaced by a scold, who grumbles constantly. It is probably mainly men who believe this phenomenon.
But who can forget the sobering Bridget Cleary case, when a 26 -years-old cooper’s wife, went missing on March 15 1895. After her marriage to Michael, they settled in a small house (beside a fairy fort ), while Michael continued to work in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, a few miles away. Bridget thrived as a small farmer. From her egg money she bought a Singer sewing machine, and successfully made dresses to order. Michael apparently was not happy at this. He had married a gentle country girl. She was now a successful businesswoman.
Bridget fell ill for some time, during which she was seized by her husband and her father, and some visiting relatives, and either burnt alive; or burned immediately after her death.
During the sensational trial which followed, the men convinced the jury that they believed the woman they killed was a changeling, not Bridget Cleary. They were convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
‘God Bless you’
Patricia Lysaght, the renowned folklorist, in an interesting interview with Jenny McGlynn, who has absorbed fairy and ghost traditions throughout her life in a small Leinster town,* retells the story of a particularly beautiful young bride that the fairies had their eye on. Some of them climbed up into the rafters where they could watch the marriage celebration. As the bride danced below they awaited their chance to whisk her away.
One of the fairies moved and, inadvertently, scattered some dust from the rafter which fell on the bride. There was such fun, music and laughter, that no one heard her sneeze, to say ‘God Bless!’. Then she sneezed again. No one heard her. The fairies grinned believing they had their girl. The bride sneezed a third time. Luckily her husband heard her, and shouted “God Bless you wife!’ Immediately at the mention of God, the fairies scampered away.
Jenny McGlynn is sceptical about the abduction of young brides. Whereas she believes firmly in death omens, the return of the dead and the power of the devil, she believes that much of the fairy world, which she generally accepts and believes, can be explained by human coincidence or tradition.
The fact that a young wife might appear to change when she wakes up after all the celebrations of her wedding, and realises that she must share a small house with her in-laws, keep fuel for the fire and water for the tea ready at all times, to cook the meals, and be nice to neighbours, and suffer, in whispers, her husband’s late home coming from the fair, and raise a large family of her own, is probably enough to make any woman grumble…..
NOTES: *Traditional Beliefs and Narratives of a Contemporary Irish Tradition Bearer By Patricia Lysaght, Dublin. In the new home after her marriage Jenny McGlynn added considerably to her repertoire of supernatural lore and has became an active bearer of tradition. From her parents-in-law, as well as from the men who regularly gathered in the house at night, she learned much supernatural lore concentrated in the landscape, particularly in relation to ghosts and the fairy world.