Myth and Reality

The fairies fell from Heaven. Before Christianity they were called fairies and they played hurling in Killaraght and, indeed, all over Ireland. After Christianity came to Ireland the fairies were sometimes called angels and instead of playing hurling they now sing in choirs. It must always be remembered that fairies were never human. Christians believe they originated from Lucifer the rebellious angel. As these rebellious angels were falling towards hell, suddenly they stopped. Some angels were left in mid-air, others in the earth and some in the oceans and lakes. These angels are very jealous of Christians but they still hope to get back to Heaven some day. And they will get back to Heaven, make no mistake about that, when they have enough blood in their veins with which to write their names. Regardless of this story, they are and will forever be called fairies by the majority of humans. Fairies live in the air, under the earth and in water and they may be just a little smaller than humans. They may also be so tiny that a grazing cow could blow hundreds of them away with every breath.

Ghosts, on the other hand, are the spirits of humans who once lived on this earth. When a person died, there were gentle hints given to the spirit of the dead person that it was now time for it to leave this earth and it was urged, through symbols, to start its long journey into the next world. The clock was stopped, about a half hour after the death, which indicated that there was no more time left for the spirit on this earth.. In that half hour the spirit had time to say goodbye. It was called "the leave taking." Later in the death ritual, the chairs in the house were upturned just in case the spirit might decide to return and sit on one of them. All mirrors were covered. This mirror covering applied more to the spirits of women than to the spirits of men as women had the reputation of being very interested in "looking glasses". The ritual of mirror covering encouraged the spirit to leave, otherwise the spirit might prolong its stay by indulging in that practice called "mirror gazing". The houses of neighbours and friends, where the person had often been a rambler, closed their curtains. This symbolised that these houses were now closed and asleep with no welcome left for the spirit. At Hallowe'en (Oiche Shamhna) a fire and food were left for the spirits and if the dead wanted to come back that night they could. On November day, we, as Christians, say special prayers for the spirits. We also pray to the spirits but we call them the Holy Souls.

The Leprechaun is just a slave and should not be confused with the fairies. The leprechaun is constantly guarding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. His uniform is a scarlet cap and a coat of green.

The duty of the Bean Sidhe is to wail before members of certain families die. She is also associated with the "Silent Hearse".

Jack o' the Lantern, or sometimes called the Will o' the Wisp, is the spirit of a gambler who beat the devil playing cards. When the gambler died the devil would not let him into hell and St. Peter would not let him into Heaven. However, St. Peter gave him a lantern and told him "to be off with yourself". For ever he will have to wander the bogs of Ireland but he has the lantern to guide him at night and, with the help of this light, he will not fall into a bog hole.

Back to the fairies, it is well known that there are many colonies of fairies in Killaraght due to the fact that the landscape has a fort in almost every second field. These colonies are made up of good, bad and wicked fairies. These fairies and all the other creatures of mystery were part of Irish folk religion and Irish folklore. The word folklore was coined by William Thoms in England as early as 1848.

Invisible and imaginary people formed part of an oral culture in Killaraght and throughout Ireland. Oral culture was found in Ireland and all over the world until well into the twentieth century.

Fairies have a lot in common with humans but, of course, there are differences too. They keep cows and they sell them at fairs, factories and marts. They enjoy whiskey and they love music. They like gold, milk and tobacco. Fairies hate iron, fire, salt and the Christian religion. They have an intense hatred of dirt, especially hen droppings. It is believed that there are no women among the fairies.

These imaginary people never suffered from poverty and in years gone by there were no demands made on them by landlords, police or clergy . The fairies of Irish legend inhabit a world that is sensuously colourful, musical and carefree. To tell a fairy legend, and at the same time hold the interest of the listeners, was indeed a very complex work of art. In popular legend they lived in forts (rath). Forts are dark and mysterious places and when walking near a fort, fairy abduction of a human, especially a woman or child, could happen. Humans can hide there too, unseen, especially when these humans are about to do something which the community may find dangerous to the physical or emotional well being of the community members. People were advised, through fairy stories, to stay clear of the forts, especially at night, or indeed at twilight. A human scream for help might be ignored and be interpreted only as the cry of the Bean Sidhe. Fairies did not live in the open landscape. It is quite easy to see the reason and there is no need to ask the question "why". If you must ask why, it just means that the fairies are not looking after you. Cows were discouraged from going near the forts at night in case they might be lured into these secret private places and their milk might be stolen.

Fairy legend, based on an oral culture, can be compared to a code or, in modern terms, to a computer. It is a way of storing information on personal and family safety, hygiene, childcare, the care of women and men in the community as well as covering all the physical and emotional realities of daily life. Here is a very simple example of this code: by saying, "that person is away with the fairies" could be decoded as follows - "that person has stolen something" or it could mean "that person is two-timing". To decode the fairy legend it was essential that the listener was alert and able to translate the core message as the story would be highly embellished with changelings, butter, milk, hares, white stallions and mares. The same story could be told again and again with a slight variation and this slight variation would alter the core message. This medium of communication would be very complex for a listener who did not know the key reference points but overall it was very clever as it avoided open confrontation with other people. When people are dependant on each other, open confrontation is the last thing they want. Some people believed that the fairies were real. Like to-day, some people believe that the soap operas "Fair City" and "Eastenders" are real and not just a reflection of everyday life

Again, like to-day, there were quacks with cures who tried to draw power and attention to themselves in the name of "fairy men" and "fairy women". The cure was in the herbs and in the quack only to the extent that he knew and understood the herbs. On many occasions some humans tried to take the power from the fairies and claim it for themselves. Overall the humans who tried this trick were not very bright and they were forgiven and excused as just simple foolish people.

Fairies gave humans permission to name things after them - fairy cake, fairy thimble, fairy tale, fairy rose, fairy god-mother, fairy light, and fairy reel. Humans were also given permission to compose songs and poetry with fairy themes.

The fairies had great power over milk and butter. Quite a lot of that power vanished around 1895 when creameries appeared at almost every crossroads. The fairies were very annoyed and could be seen going from fort to fort as they plotted and planned their course of action. Their plans on this occasion did not succeed as the creameries could produce one pound of butter from two and a half gallons of milk as against the home dairy which could produce only one pound of butter from three gallons of milk. The women, however, were not all that happy with the creameries either as they saw part of their usual income going into the hands of their menfolk. Traditionally milk and eggs were under women's' control due to the fact that hens and the care of milk were demanding and labour intensive. Around that time, 1895, however, the floating dairy thermometer, made in Germany, came to the rescue of women with domestic churning. This inexpensive German thermometer measured the correct temperature of sixty degrees for churning milk . The temperature of the milk could be increased by adding tepid water (not boiling) and the temperature could be decreased by adding cold spring water . Once again, the fairies were very cross as they saw their power over milk and butter being further depleted.

It was very difficult, without the help of a domestic dairy thermometer, to gauge milk temperature as the temperature of milk would vary quite a lot, depending on the natural temperature of the day on which the churning was made. When the milk temperature was too high, the milk would "break" too soon with a disastrous result. When the temperature was too low, the milk might not "break" at all. No wonder the fairies were seen to have power over butter. The care of milk and the making of butter with the right colour and taste was a great skill. By adding carrot juice to achieve the right colour was a help but not a great success and absolutely no intervention at this stage of the process could change a bad taste. In time the fairies accepted the thermometer. The good butter maker had pleasant dreams and the taking or not taking of a "dreas" by the neighbouring red haired woman, or by the neighbouring man with the short step, never turned the dreams of a skilled butter maker into nightmares.

There is an extremely dangerous bend on the Ardsoran, Killaraght road which is a memorial to fairy control and power. Around 1925 the working men refused, out of fear, to lay a portion of this road through a fort. In order to by pass the fort the men created this deadly bend which is there to-day as evidence. Some of these men were of tug-o-war material; others prided themselves in being able to lift, single handed, a full grown pig into a cart. Those with wives would have no trouble in back answering their women folk and refusing sound advice when it was given to them. The colony of fairies which guarded that fort made cowards of those men and left them like a flock of frightened sheep.

Fairy stories covered the light and darkness in human nature.

Up to 1830 the masses of Irish people, our ancestors, were illiterate but educated and skilled in the oral tradition They did not rely on the written word for cultural rules and regulations. Instead, they regulated their lives through the oral culture which included fairy lore, spirits, ghosts, leprechauns and the bean sidhe as well as proverbs, prayers, music, songs, symbols and imagery. They had a strong appreciation of good and evil and they expressed their hope for eternal life at wells and holy places. Fairies were used as part of their medium of everyday communication whereas the spirits were part of their faith story. Spirits were everywhere -- in the water, in the corn, in the fire, in the trees and in the land. When cutting the corn a small patch was left near the headland which gave refuge and rest to the corn spirit as the spirit would be exhausted from all the effort it had made in escaping the reaping hook. After a long winter sleep, the spirit re-entered the field of new growing corn in Spring with a renewed growth energy.

Ireland got Catholic Emancipation in 1829. After about 1850 a strongly conformist Irish Catholic middle class emerged. An extensive programme of church building took place in the 1870's/80's. These middle class people, along with the church clergy, were authoritarian. They belonged to the late Victorian era. Class divisions were promoted and these class divisions reflected very little of the core Christian message "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" The Victorian era was so extreme that in England, during the reign of Queen Victoria, people covered the legs of the tables for the purpose of protecting the modesty of the tables. Later in Ireland, some church clergy and the middle class became strongly identified with the Nationalist political struggle. As an authoritarian attitude increased control, the practice of religion and spirituality became more and more centralised and church building oriented. All forms of folk religion, even though most of it by now had developed a strong Christian tone, were seen as very dangerous, sometimes evil, and uncivilised.

From 1800 to 1900, prisons, police stations, schools, workhouses, factories, churches and hospitals appeared all over the landscape. Instead of people continuing a ministry to each other, the new institutions set about organising punishment, curing, feeding and defining the laws with which to merit salvation. No effort was spared to eliminate oral culture. It was silenced but not entirely eliminated. Long live the fairies!! A salute to the spirits and the imagination of our ancestors and one day we will all sing in a choir!

If we dismiss this oral culture as foolish and backward, we dismiss our ancestors. The dismissal could be compared to reading the middle pages of a story book - you miss the beginning and the end. And if you do that, you will never know what the story was all about. The fairies do not like censorship!.


Modern people are inclined to define vulgar language as a curse. Vulgar or crude language is just vulgar or crude and there is no dark side to these expressions. A curse (piseog) on the other hand is very dark and sinister, where the power of evil is being invoked.

Extract from "The burning of Bridget Cleary" by Angela Bourke, Senior Lecturer in Irish at U.C.D.

"In oral culture a curse was usually expressed through a symbol. A fresh egg is the symbol of fertility and a rotten egg is the symbol of infertility. When rotten eggs were placed in hay, and in a place where a hen could not possibly lay , the message being given was evil. People who would allow envy to dominate them to the extent of hiding rotting matter on a neighbour's land were dangerous to everyone, but so too were those who were selfish, or impatient, or overly materialistic, or who acted, for whatever reason, without consideration for past and future generations. The huge oral repertoire of Irish fairy-narrative constantly reinforces the idea that it is a mistake to sacrifice long-term stability for short-term gain, or to place individual interests above those of the community. In some cases of very bad or persistent piseogery St. Benedict was invoked for protection. Often medals of St. Benedict were blessed by a priest and these medals were left in the house and outbuildings of the farm or buried in the fields".
Rotten eggs exploding in hay can release a virus which causes spontaneous abortion and infertility in cows. (reference Ballintubber publication)