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Sunday, February 14, 2021

Darn It Yeats, You Had One Job: A Look at the Popular Rewriting of Irish Folklore

 This title is taken from something I often say when talking about the Echtra Nera: "Darn it Nera you had one job". Its a reference to the fact that in the story Nera is given the job of watching his son's cow by his wife and when he falls asleep the cow is 'borrowed' by the Morrigan, resulting in not only the Táin Bó Regamna immediately but ultimately the Táin Bó Cuiligne as well. In other words one small failure on his part of a given duty causes untold misery and bloodshed. 

Yeats grave in Sligo

How does this relate to WB Yeats? As much as I like Yeats poetry, and I do, the blunt fact is his versions of Irish folklore are often more fiction than folklore, and so his 'one job' of accurately relaying folk beliefs in his books about Irish folk beliefs failed as miserably as Nera's assignment watching fairy cows. The result is a popular strain of fairy belief based largely or entirely on Yeats works that do not in fact bare any resemblance to the actual folk beliefs they purport to reflect. I'll give two examples here to illustrate:

The Leannán Sidhe - Leannán sidhe literally means 'Otherworldly lover' referring to one of the aos sidhe that takes a human lover. Yeats wrote about this being in his 1888 'Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry' where he said this: "The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom." This short description has formed the foundation for the wider modern understanding of this being and is how many people conceptualize them. 
    The problem is, Yeats' characterization is almost entirely his own ideas of the poet's dark muse, popular at the time he was writing, rather than any native Irish idea of what a Leannán Sidhe was. His clear gendering of the being as female is one sign of this, as the term leannán isn't and has never been applied only to women. In point of fact the term can be found going back about a thousand years or so used for any of the aos sidhe who took a human lover - one example is Aoibheall, a queen of the people of the sidhe in Munster. Aoibheall is seen as the protector of the Ó'Brien clan because it is said in stories that she was either the lover of king Brian Boru or possibly his son Murchadh.  Gearóid Ó Crualaoich in his 'Book of the Cailleach' relates an more recent example of a leannán sidhe (male) who was seen gathering herbs with a bean feasa [wise woman] on several occasions. 
    Now we can find both concepts of the leannán sidhe in belief, as illustrated by the definition of leannán in the Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla which encompasses both the straightforward 'fairy lover' (1 e, i) as well as a 'baleful influence' (e, ii) and 'a chronic sickness' (2). 

The Geancánach - probably meaning 'love talker', the Geancánach is most well known from Yeats writing, where he is characterized in 'Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry' as a solitary being who haunts lonely places smoking his pipe and seducing women who then fade away and die, apparently having lost the will to live. Yeats account which was said to be quoting a direct source, claimed that the Geancánach was 'of the same tribe as the leprechaun' but unlike the leprechaun was the embodiment of 'love and idleness'. This idea of the Geancánach as a seductive and dangerous solitary being has become common, even finding print in Katherine Briggs' book ' A Dictionary of Fairies'.
   What we find in accounts from Irish folklore however, such as those in are a very different being. In these accounts the Geancánach is described synonymously with the Leprechaun, wearing red and green, smoking a clay pipe, and offering gold or wishes to those who capture him; the term is also used interchangeably with the English word fairy. They have no inherent connection to seduction or the deaths of women, and the dictionary definition of the word to this day means 'a fairy cobbler'. 

Why does this matter anyway? I think its important to understand the various threads of folk belief out there. Yeats stories have been circulating for well over a hundred years and there are many people now who entirely believe them, despite their lack of historicity or deeper cultural veracity. There are also still extant beliefs about the same things Yeats talks about which are entirely different in nature and description and that must be respected rather than argued against based on Yeats. I do think its important to understand the variety and difference and to appreciate that Yeats writing was more his own ideas than actual folk beliefs of the people around him. That doesn't mean to entirely dismiss these versions, as I said they've been around now for over a hundred years and have a lot of modern belief behind them, but we must be clear that those popular versions aren't reflective of older or even necessarily modern Irish folk beliefs. There are complexities and nuances here rooted in Yeats place in his society, his passion for poetry and story, and his willingness to use the bones of Irish folklore for his own purposes that all must be considered as factors for why he is not a reliable source for folklore (and I say that as someone who has used his work as a source previously) and for understanding his writing within its own context. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

7 Things About Fairies and Iron

"‘Gold is for the mistress — silver for the maid —
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.’
‘Good!’ said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
‘But Iron — Cold Iron — is master of them all.’"

- Kipling, 'Cold Iron'

Folklore about the Othercrowd stretches back centuries, with much of the recorded material we have focusing on protection against them. This is logical as they were thought to be able to harm humans as well as steal humans away. One of the main items recommended for protection against fairies is iron, although in the modern world I see a great deal of confusion on the subject and related topics. I thought it might be helpful to have a discussion here about iron, its uses, and some of the beliefs around it, so to that end I'm offering 7 points on fairies and iron:

1. Apotropaic Iron

Iron is said in folklore to protect against a wide range of spirits and negative magics including many of the Good Neighbors and Alfar, Ghosts, Demons, and witches. Iron objects deter the majority of the Other Crowd who are averse to its presence and things like knives, scissors, nails, and horseshoes were recommended as protective objects. It is said that cemeteries had iron fences to contain any ghosts inside. Similarly older folklore said that demons were also repelled by iron, and it was believed to break the magic of witches. A horseshoe hung up above a doorway kept out a wide range of spirits as well as protecting from baneful magic.
There is no set understanding of why iron works for this, but the belief is very widespread. 

2. Fairies and Iron

Across Western European folklore, particularly in the Celtic language speaking cultures and the Germanic cultures, we find the idea that iron is an ideal protection against Otherworldly beings. There is no agreement whether this must be blacksmith forged iron or any form of iron, but as mass production has come in since the industrial revolution there seems to be no indication that iron in any form is less effective. In fact we do have British accounts claiming that railways and trains drove off the Good People as they came into new areas, something that is also attributed to iron church bells; while we can argue about whether the iron here was the crucial feature as opposed to the sound, it does at least support that mass produced iron can be associated with protection. 
ts always best to remember that fairy is a general term, like animal, that applies to a wide array of beings. Iron is recommended as a superlative protection against fairies, but there will always be those who are not bothered by it. If we were to say that about 80% of fairies can't bear the touch of iron then the other 20% have no problem with it, and those would include mine faeries, forge spirits, and some house spirits; basically any fairy that would naturally exist or dwell near iron or iron ore. Also any of the aos sidhe connected to smithing don't seem to be bothered by iron.

3. Iron or Steel?

 Iron is hard to come by these days and although it is the best protection steel will also work in a pinch. Steel is between 90 and 98% iron depending on the alloy, so a steel object is obviously mostly an iron object. Iron and steel are effectively the same substance and have been treated that way in folklore and for apotropaic purposes historically, where we find references to both iron and steel being used to ward off fairies.  Generally the type of item isn't as important as the material in this case so anything made of iron that you can procure can be used for protective purposes. In tradition any worked iron can be used to ward against fairies including iron weapons, iron nails, iron horse shoes, iron scissors, iron fire tongs, etc.,. There’s no indication in folklore or anecdotal material that the form of the iron matters, only its presence. There is debate about whether it has to be hand worked iron or not, and I doubt that will ever be settled, but we have accounts of non-hand forged being used successfully.
Steel has the same effect as iron because steel is almost identical to iron in substance. Or put another way steel, while it has some other metals alloyed in it, is still mostly iron.
4. Cold Iron
Many people are familiar with the term 'cold iron' and associate it today with pure or simply worked forged iron - what is technically called 'pig iron' or 'crude iron'. There are also some who draw on role playing games to understand this concept and believe that cold iron is iron that was cold forged. While interesting these are decidedly modern views on the concept, relying in part on technology that didn't exist when some of the older references to cold iron were made. Historically the term cold iron was a poetic term for any iron weapon and is synonymous today with the term 'cold steel'. Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar tongue defines cold iron as "A sword, or any other weapon for cutting or stabbing"; in modern parlance cold steel would refer to a gun or similar weapon. When you see a reference to cold iron it is talking about an iron weapon, usually a sword or knife.

5. Using Iron

There are several ways to use iron to protect yourself and your home from fairies, if it's needed. Lady Wilde suggested protecting infants from being taken as changelings by sewing a bit of iron into the hem of the child's clothes (Wilde, 1888). I was taught a modern version of this, where it was recommended that a steel safety pin be attached to a child's clothing, particularly sleepwear. Another commonly recommended protection for children and babies was to hang a pair of scissors, opened into the shape of a cross, above the cradle (Briggs, 1976). A horseshoe can be hung up over the door way, points up, which not only acts to ward off fairies but is also said to draw good luck. An iron knife or cross is also an excellent protection, either carried or hung up above the door or bed (Briggs, 1976). Robert Kirk in his 1691 treatise on the Good Neighbours mentions the practice of putting "bread, the Bible, or a piece of iron" in the bed of a woman giving birth to protect the infant from being stolen. In Welsh belief a knife, particularly of iron, was so effective a protection that should friendly fairies visit a home all knives were hidden from sight lest they be offended and if a traveling person was attacked by the Othercrowd he had only to pull his blade for them to disappear (Sikes, 1880). Another method found in Germanic and Norse traditions is to hammer an iron nail into a post near the doorway or alternately part of the door frame. Additionally it is said to be as effective to draw a circle using an iron nail or knife around what you want to protect (Gundarsson, 2007).

A more modern, but still useful method, is the use of iron water. Fill a small spray bottle with water and add iron filings, iron dust, or a piece of iron, and allow to sit for a few days. The water can be sprayed into a room or around the home as needed.
As always keep in mind that the use of iron will not effect all fairies, as some - including mine fairies and house fairies - are not bothered by it. For those that are sensitive to it, though, it is a superlative protection. 

To summarize; ultimately the amount doesn't seem to matter as long as the content is iron. The shape is also not important although it is more often recommended in a form that is sharp - a knife or nail - or combined with a holy symbol like a cross. The placement is best either on the person or very close by, especially near where they are sleeping. When placed above or next to an entrance it is believed that the presence of iron will keep out any Otherworldly beings. Although in today's world iron may be more difficult to find steel is fairly easily obtained and will work as well.

6. Fairies and Blood

There is an idea I have occasionally run across that the Good People would be or are averse to human blood because it contains iron. There are some anecdotal accounts which claim fairies have white blood and and are averse to or avoid the colour red and human blood (see: Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries and The Good People for more on this). However these are late 19th century and 20th century accounts which hinge on the Catholic belief that fairies have white blood because they are not mortal and have been denied Heaven/salvation and they avoid human blood not because it contains iron as some people are now alleging but because it represents the afterlife they are barred from. We also have a multitude of evidence that red is a colour associated with fairies and that many fairies are known to wear red which contradicts the idea that they would avoid that colour. 
While there is at least one anecdotal account, recorded by Lysaght in the Good People, of a belief that the Good Folk were averse to the color red and to blood, we see far more stories of fairies eating red meat, cooking bread with blood*, and in some cases eating humans even the ones who are averse to iron, so it doesn’t seem like blood and forged iron have the same effect.
Further to that point, the iron in human blood, aka hemoglobin, is not the kind that would ward against fairies anyway. Iron in human blood is a very miniscule amount; there’s only something like 4 grams total in a grown man altogether including blood, bone marrow, etc., Second of all hemoglobin is chemically different from ferrous iron which almost certainly makes a difference. 
In short - iron or steel in any form protects against fairies. Human blood does not.

7. Can Iron be 'Tamed'?

There are some modern magical practitioners that believe that iron can be rendered ineffective against the Good Folk, intentionally, by quenching it or washing it in a particular herb, often foxglove. This process is referred to as taming. The furthest back I can trace this idea in writing is to the 2005 book 'Viridarium Umbris' by David Schulke; the author cites no sources for the concept. I have talked to a few people who also believe and use this process, avow to its effectiveness, and existence before Schulke's book. All I can really say here is that it isn't anything found in Irish folklore or practice, or more generally in fairy folklore, and may be something particular to modern grimoire material. 

End Note
*this is from a story where a servant girl fails to leave out fresh water overnight for the Good Folk to cook with so they prick her and use her blood to make their bread instead, causing her to fall ill. Her health is restored only when she finds out what has happened and manages to get a piece of the bread for herself to eat. 

Gundarsson, K (2007). Elves, Wights, and Trolls
Wilde, E., (1888) Irish Cures, Mystic Charms, & Superstitions
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Grose, F., (1811) Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Sikes, W., (1880) British Goblins: Welsh folklore, Fairy mythology, Legends, and Traditions
Kirk, R., (1691) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
Narvaez, P (1991) The Good People
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Resources for Studying the Daoine Maithe

 I've written before about resources, more generally, for studying the Good Neighbours across the Celtic language speaking cultures that acknowledge them and a few years ago I wrote about good resources for Irish paganism specifically. But I don't think I've ever written a list of resources I trust for learning about the Irish Daoine Uaisle in particular so today seems like a good day to tackle that. There is so much out there that's bad quality, fiction put out as folklore, or just plain wrong that I think its especially important for people to know where the good sources are. Below I'll give all the people, books, and sites that I consider trustworthy sources on this topic specifically


  • Eddie Lenihan – a renowned storyteller and also the author of several books, Eddie Lenihan is a great resource for folklore about the Good Folk. His book "Meeting the Othercrowd' in particular, as well as his new Youtube channel and the various other interviews of his available in that site.
  • Lora O’Brien – has a series called 'folklore friday' as part of a wider YouTube channel which often features fairylore and stories of the Irish Othercrowd. Lora also offers several classes through the Irish Pagan School covering the subject.
  • Dr. Jenny Butler – Dr. Butler has several videos on Youtube discussing the Good People, and also offers a class through University College Cork called 'Myth and Magic an Introduction to the Study of Irish Folklore and Mythology' which discusses vital aspects of the Good Folk and the Otherworld. 
  • Michael Fortune – a great resource for Irish folklore, including stories of the Othercrowd. Michael Fortune has a series of youtube interviews he’s done with people around Ireland discussing folklore, beliefs, and practices which includes a series of first and secondhand accounts of people interacting with the Daoine Maithe.
  • 'The Banshee' by Patricia Lysaght - the author's dissertation this book is literally everything you could ever want to know about the Bean sidhe
  • 'Meeting the Othercrowd' by Lenihan and Green - mentioned above this book is a collection of stories about the Good Folk.
  • 'Tales of the Wicklow Hills' by Richard Marsh - a collection of stories and legends, as well as anecdotal accounts, from the Wicklow area. Includes accounts of púcaí, fairy trees, and fairy forts. 
  • 'Away With the Fairies' by William Henry - A collection of folktales and folk beliefs from Galway, including various stories of na Uaisle.

  •  Ireland’s Folklore and Traditions – excellent blog about traditional Irish beliefs, traditions, and folklore, with a great article about the 'reality of Irish fairies'. 
  • Blúiríní Béaloidis – a podcast about Irish folklore with some excellent discussions of the Good People
  • Circle Stories – a facebook page that features articles discussing Irish folk beliefs, with many great articles about the Othercrowd and Otherworld.
  • Dú – a treasure trove of folklore recorded in the early 20th century including many very important stories about the Daoine Maithe. 

So I know I usually tend to seem a bit harsh on fiction but there are several books that deal with the Irish Good People in a creative way that I do like and which I feel stays true to their nature as depicted in folklore. So I'm going to include them here as well to wrap up this article.
  • Ruth Frances Long – this author has several series, but I especially want to highlight the Dubh Linn series which begins with ‘A Crack in Everything‘. It heavily involves the Good Folk, as well as a blend of other folklore and belief. 
  • Peadar Ó'Guilín - this author has a two book series 'The Grey Lands' which looks at an alternate world Ireland which has been cut off from the rest of the globe and is at the mercy of the Othercrowd. 

lone tree on the path to an Ceathrú Chaol

Monday, February 1, 2021

Man Recovered From the Fairies - A Story


I was recently asked on my Patreon by one of my patrons if I could translate a modern Irish piece from the school's collection at I'm not fluent in modern Irish but offered to give it a try as it is one of the school's pieces that was recorded only as Gaeilge. Its also a very interesting piece, recounting the abduction of a newly married man by the Daoine Maithe and his subsequent recovery by a wise woman and her daughter. 

I am including the original Irish story here as well as my attempt at a translation of it, for anyone else who may find it interesting or useful:

Bhí fear ann fadó agus an lá a phós sé, bhí sé féin agus a bean ag teacht abhaile agus do fuaduigheadh é. Do cuaidh sí ghá lorg agus dubhairt gach aoinne sa deire gur guid na daoine Maithe é.Bhí bean taobh thiar de'n nDaingean go nglaodhís Móirín uirthi agus cuaidh sí siar agus dubhairt Móirín go raibh sí féin ró críonna agus nár bhfhéidir léi siubhal ach go gcuirfeadh sí a h-inghean an aonfacht léi.
Cuaidh inghean Mhóirín an aonfacht léi agus cuardaighdeadar gach lios in Éirinn. Thosnuigheadar ar an gceann badh shia uatha go dtí go dthánghadar go dtí an lios seo go nglaodhtar Lios na Daighche air. Is amhlaidh a bhí an bhean sa lios go raibh an fear aici.Bhí sí ag cíoradh a gruaige nuair a connaiceadar í. Cuir inghean Móirín dhá láimh ar a súile agus cuir sí na ceisteanna seo uirthe.
A Clíona a Clíona,
A bean bínn beasac,
Go mbeannuigidh na
Naoimh duit is Aon Mach Dé,
Is fada an stáirseo do thángna id fheachaint,
Feachaint conus ata agat Seán'ac Séamuis.
No bhfuil ar t-eolus aon oig bhean réidh leis.
Dubhairt Clíona.
An tu Móirín ó iarthar Eireann.
Dubhairt inghean Móirín.
Ní mé, ar sise,ach inghean righ iseadh mé.
Dubhairt Clíona.
Dá mbadh inghean rígh thu do bheadh fáinne óir ar gach méar leat
Dubhairt inghean Móirín.
Caithfidh a tú seacht gcéad sean a fuigheach bhleinfionn.
Agus seacht gcéad gabhar agus iad go léir ar aon dath
Agus seacht gcéad bairlle d'airgead réalach.
Ní raibh sí ábalta ar na seacht gcéad bairlle d'airgead réalach a thabhairt dí agus fuaireadar an fear agus thógadar leó abhaile é.

- source page 559 found here

There was a man long ago and the day he got married, he and his wife were coming home and he was kidnapped. She went to look for him and everyone said in the end that he was stolen by the Good People. There was a woman in Daingean that they would call, Móirín, and she went back and Móirín said that she was too old and that she couldn't travel alone she would go with her daughter if she was agreeable. Móirín's daughter agreed and they searched every lios [fairy fort] in Ireland. They started at the head of the bay until they came to this lios, which is called Lios na Daighche. The woman in the courtyard was supposed to have the man. She was combing her hair when they saw her. Móirín's daughter placed two hands over her eyes and asked her these questions. "Oh Clíona, oh Clíona, A sweet, beautiful woman, Blessing of the Saints to you and of the One Son of God, It's been a long time since you came to see, See how you have with you Seán son of Séamuis. Or is any young woman known to be ready for it." Clíona said "Are you Móirín from the west of Ireland?" Móirín's daughter said. "I am not," she said, "but the daughter of a king". Clíona said. "If you were a king's daughter you would have a gold ring on each finger" Móirín's daughter said. "You must have yourself seven hundred old-fashioned white wigs (?). And seven hundred goats and all of them of one color And seven hundred barrels of real money." She was unable to give her the seven hundred barrels of real money and they found the man and took him home.