Until recent times there was widespread belief in fairies; both the malignant and the more innocent kind. Many people believed that the fairies would steal away certain children, or an adult, and replace them with a changeling. These beliefs were mostly found in rural communities; and were often an attempt to explain, or to invite compassion or ‘kindness’ for a handicapped child, or someone who was temporarily ‘not themselves.’ The phrases used to describe this transformation are various; but locally included the words ‘touched’, or ‘swept’, or ‘taken’.
There were more sinister explanations too. I discussed before the notorious Brigit Cleary case in Co Tipperary in 1895. Her husband, Michael, believed that after some years of marriage, strongwilled Brigit was no longer the woman he had married. After a few days of forcing her to swallow various herbal medicines, he, and neighbours, burnt her to death. During the trial that followed the jury accepted the husband’s plea of manslaughter, apparently agreeing that his wife had been transformed into a changeling by the fairies; and only by a concoction of herbs and fire would she be released from her spell. Poor Brigit never returned.
Prof Angela Bourke suggests that changelings, mysterious disappearances, death by sudden illness, suicides, a man who wants to get rid of a wife who became a scold, children born with disabilities, even children born to single mums, death giving birth, or the sudden death of a child, could all be rationalised, as the intervention of the fairies.
In 1920 Lady Augusta Gregory published two volumes of stories she heard and wrote down from people in south Galway and the Aran Islands. Published a little more than two decades after the Brigit Cleary case they became best sellers.*
There is always a sense of mystery about these stories, which run into the hundreds. The mystery, however, only strengthens the belief that the happenings described have ‘an other world’ quality about them. From the hundreds of stories quoted in her books, I am quoting a few; and only abbreviated versions. You can judge for your self which were told to cover a man’s deceit; or were given for people’s comfort, or which were genuine fairy.
Dead who never leave the world
- ‘There’s a man now living between this place and Kinvara. Fannen his nane is, and he goes away with them, and he’s got delicate and silly like. One night he was in that bad place that’s near the chapel of Kinvara, and he found a great crowd of them about him and a man on a white horse was with them, and tried to keep him, and he cried and struggled and they let him go at last.
I wouldn’t be afraid of him when I’d meet him on the road, but many of the neighbours would be afraid.’
- ‘There was a woman in Ballinamore died after the baby was born. And the husband took another wife and she very young, that everyone wondered she’d like to go into the house. And every night the first wife came to the loft, and looked down at her baby, and they couldn’t see her; but they’d know she was there by the child looking up and smiling at her.’
- ‘There was another man though, and his wife was away from him four years. And after that he put out the old hag was in her place, and he got his wife back and reared children after that, and one of them was trained a priest.’
- ‘ There are many that die and don’t go out of the world at all. The priests know that. There was a boy dying in a house up the road, and the priest came to him and he was lying as if dead, and the priest said, “ The boys have a hand in this.” He meant by that the fairies. I was outside the house myself at the time, for the boy was a friend of mine, and I didn’t want to see him die.
And you never saw such a storm as arose when the priest was coming to the house, a storm of wind and a cloud over the moon. But after the boy died, the storm went down, and the moon shone out as bright as before.’
‘They’ll be unkind to me’
- ‘ There was a man got married, and he began to pine away, and after a few weeks the mother asked him what ailed him. And he opened his coat and showed her his breast inside, that was all torn and bloody. And he said: “ That’s the way I am ; and that’s what she does to me in the nights.” So his mother brought her out and bid her to pick the green flax, and she was against touching it, but the mother made her. And no sooner had she touched three blades of it but she said , “ I’m gone now,” and away with her.’
- There was a girl at Inniskill in the east of the country, was lying on a mat for eight years. When she first got the touch the mother was sick, and there was no room in the bed, so they laid a mat on the floor for her, and she never left it for the eight years. One night there was a working man came to the house, and they gave him lodging for the night and he watched from the other room, and in the night he saw the outer door open, and three or four boys come in, and a piper with them or a fiddler - I am not sure which - and he played to them and they danced, and the girl got up off the mat and joined them. And in the morning when he was sitting at the breakfast, he looked over to her where she was lying and said, “You were the best dancer among them last night.”
- There was an old man on the road one night near Burren and he heard a cry over his head, the cry of a child that was being carried away. And he called out some words and the child was let down into his arms and he brought it home. And when he got there he was told that it was dead.’
- ‘ There was a girl used to be away with , you’d never know when it was she herself that was in it or not till she’d come back, and then she’d tell you she had been away. She didn’t like to go but she had to go when they called her. And she told her mother always to treat kindly whoever was put in her place, sometimes one would be put, and sometimes another, for she’d say “ If you are unkind to who ever’s there, they’ll be unkind to me.”
- ‘ An old woman from Loughrea told me that a woman, I believe was from Shragwalla close to the town, was taken away one time for 14 years when she went out into a field at night with nothing on but her shift. And she was ‘swept’ there and then, and an old hag put into the bed in her place, and she suckling her young son at the time..
‘It was a great many years after that, there was a pedlar used to be going about, and in his travels, he went to England. And up in the north of England he saw a rich house, and went into the kitchen of it, and there he saw that same woman, in a corner working. And he went up to her and said, “ I know where you come from.”
“Where’s that?” said she.
And he gave her the name of the village. Not long after she came back and walked into her own house. The husband never knew her, but the boy, that was then 14 years, came up and touched her.
Well the old hag was in the room within, in the bed where she’d been lying a long time, and they thinking she was dying. And when the smoke of the fire went in at the door she jumps up and away with her out of the house, and tale or tidings of her were never had again.’
NOTES: * Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, collected and arranged by Lady Gregory, still in print. Try Charlie Byrne’s; or directly from the publisher, Colin Symthe, 38 Mill Lane, Gerard’s Cross, Bucks, SL9 8BA .