Ask most people in Ireland if they believe in fairies, and they will say no. But ask them if they would ever disturb a fairy fort, and they will say “no way” — because the belief persists that if you disturb a fairy fort or a fairy tree, you will suffer grave misfortune.
A fairy fort is the remains of a stone circle — ‘ringfort’ —, or other circular prehistoric dwelling; a fairy tree is a hawthorn tree. Both fairy forts and fairy trees are considered the dwelling places of fairies, also known in Irish mythology as ‘the good people’.
beautiful and powerful
Irish fairies are believed to be the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a superior race who came to Ireland and conquered the people there. In contrast to the fairies in Disney films, they are believed to be the same size as humans, beautiful and powerful, and to live in harmony with nature.
In Irish mythology, there are many different types of fairies, including diminutive creatures called ‘leprechauns’ and portents of death called ‘banshees’. Nuala Hayes is an expert on Irish folklore. As she told Speak Up, stories surrounding the leprechaun and other fairy folk aren’t encouraged as much in the promotion of Ireland as before:
Nuala Hayes (Irish accent): The leprechaun is a bit controversial now in Ireland. Fáilte Eireann, they’re the tourist board, they won’t be encouraging you too much because they don’t really want Ireland to be associated with such kind of ancient mythology as the leprechauns. There are a number of words which were used for what in Irish would have been called ‘Na daoine maithe’, ‘the good people’, or ‘the other people’. And they come from a belief that what we see and the world we’re living in is just the world of now, of reality, but that we are in a very, very old land that went back and back and back, and under our feet and all around us in the country, there are evidences of other people living there before us. And the fairy people were not fairies that are like associated with wings or anything, they are the races, the energy that went before us. And the fairy place, their forts, their ‘lisna’, are places that are protected in Ireland because of the stories.
PROTECT THE PAST
While the Irish consider themselves a progressive nation, some ancient superstitions are sacred to them, says Hayes.
Nuala Hayes: When you’re going around Ireland and you ask people, “Do you believe in fairies?” and people will say, “Oh no, not at all.” But you might say, “Well, see that tree over there in the middle of the field, why is that tree just standing there? Everything else is cut down. Your field is green. Why is there a tree there?” And they’ll say, “Oh, well, we wouldn’t touch that tree, that’s a fairy tree.” And there would be a belief and a mythology that there were certain places, and usually where these trees are were places that were sites in ancient times, so it’s a way of protecting the past…
And leprechauns are still said to be hiding great treasures.
Nuala Hayes: They had names for the different characters of these little people. The basic name is ‘luchorpán’, which means small person. It was kind of a word for small people, dwarves. And the mythology was that the leprechaun, or the luchorpán, was a small little man wearing a green suit and a cap. And the one thing that all the leprechauns had in common was that they were hiding money. They were very very cute, very very glic. They were supposed to be hiding gold somewhere, and there were all sorts of tricks people would do. They’d grab a hold of him, and say, “Right, show us where your gold is. I know you have the money. You have the gold.” And if you took your eyes off him for a minute, turn around and he’d be gone! The leprechaun was also supposed to be very handy, very smart with his hands. He was either a taylor or a shoemaker. But in general, the belief was, they’re out there, but leave them alone. You don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.
Perhaps the most terrifying of Irish mythical figures are the screaming banshees, as Hayes explains.
Nuala Hayes: The banshee is a very interesting figure. She’s a portent of death, and you don’t want to hear the banshee. ‘Bean sí’; ‘bean’ is a woman and ‘sí’ is ‘of the fairy people’, and if you hear the banshee, it’s likely she is announcing the impending death of somebody. She will wail, you will hear her crying, and she is said to follow certain families, and those families would probably associate themselves with the great Irish aristocratic families.
And the banshees have apparently adapted well to modern city life.
Nuala Hayes: You might be out at night in the darkness and you hear this screeching cry and you say, “Oh, it’s the banshee, it’s the banshee, somebody’s going to die.” But she has actually migrated to the city. Very often, I would go to schools in city areas, particularly right in the middle of Dublin, working class areas and the kids would always tell me about the banshee, that there was a certain house where somebody had heard her, and that night or the next day, the old grandmother in the house had died.
Banshees are usually heard rather than seen, but one woman has claimed to have spotted one, says Hayes.
Nuala Hayes: I only ever met one woman who told me she actually saw the banshee, and she was a woman called Jenny McGlynn, and she lived in the small town of Mountmellick in County Laois. And she said that on the night that her mother was dying, her brothers went out to the pub. She told them, “Go out and have a drink, and I’ll look after the mother,” and that night, she heard this wailing inside, and she opened the door and saw a small little woman with long, grey hair, and her mouth opened, crying, outside the window. But she got such a fright, she ran in and she slammed the door. And next day, her mother passed away.