According to Irish folklore, fairies are supernatural beings that live underground in a parallel universe.
They’re not ghosts, and nor are they human. Instead, the Irish believe they descended from the great tribe of the Tuatha de Danann. Also known as the ‘tribe of Danu’, they were a race of beings that possessed supernatural, almost God-like, powers.
The Tuatha de Danann once ruled Ireland but were defeated by invading tribes like the Milesians. Instead of fleeing the country, the Tuatha de Danann retreated underground, where they became the Daoine Sidhe.
Types of Irish Fairies
Irish culture recognizes and celebrates many different types of fairies, each of which has a unique set of supernatural powers.
Irish fairies, also known as the little people, are generally referred to as ‘them,’ signifying “both their nameless power and their immanence.”
Some fairies make their presence felt more keenly than others and have become well-known both in Ireland and elsewhere.
Arguably the most famous of all the Irish fairies, the leprechaun is usually depicted as a mischievous little man with a long beard and a talent for making shoes. In WB Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, the Leprechaun is described as “a wrinkled, wizen’d, and bearded Elf.”
Unlike other Irish fairies, the leprechaun is a solitary figure and, as such, should be distinguished from the Daoine Sidhe. Although the roguish leprechaun engages in pranks, he doesn’t carry out menacing deeds like some true fairies.
In Irish myths, the leprechaun has great wealth in the form of a pot of gold which he hides at the end of a rainbow. Although humans may pursue the leprechaun to steal his riches, this mischievous Irish fairy always gets the upper hand, using trickery to escape.
Although the leprechaun first appeared in Irish literature in the 8th century, the leprechaun we know today bears little resemblance to the original water sprite. The modern-day version of the leprechaun began sometime during the 17th century and evolved into the character we know today.
The Irish believe that if you catch a leprechaun, he will grant you three wishes in return for his freedom.
Leprechauns are such an integral part of Irish mythology that they’re actually protected by law! In Carlingford, County Louth, an area known as The Sliabh Foy Loop is “a protected area for flora, fauna, wild animals, and leprechauns!”
For the Irish people of Carlingford, leprechauns are alive and well, although not necessarily thriving. According to one local, “there are only 236 leprechauns still living in Ireland,” and one of those is running around with no clothes on! More about that a bit later.
According to Irish myth, the banshee is a supernatural being who warns of the impending death of a family member with a piercing shriek.
In the 17th century, the banshee appeared in the text, Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe, where she was dressed in white, with red hair “and pale and ghastly complexion.”
It was believed that professional keeners, who attended funerals in ancient Ireland, became banshees when they died.
These keeners or criers were paid to perform at funerals, singing “a type of wailing song that lamented the dead.” When this custom died out, the ghosts of these professional mourners became banshees and continued to cry for certain families. According to fairy folklore, these families are “the O’Neil’s, the O’Brien’s, the O’Connor’s, the O’Grady’s and the Kavanagh’s.”
Although banshees are associated with death, to the Irish, they don’t cause it and only appear as an omen of death, sometimes wearing the blood-stained clothes of the one who is about to die.
Like the leprechaun, the banshee doesn’t really belong to the fairy folk but are the spirits of “women who died prematurely, tragically, or unjustly.”
Throughout history, only a handful of sightings of banshees have been reported. One of the most famous of these occurred in 1437 when a banshee approached King James I of Scotland and “foretold his murder at the instigation of the Earl of Atholl.”
In some parts of Ireland, the banshee is called the Bean-Chaointe, or the keening woman, whose cry is so piercing it can shatter glass. Other ancient legends maintain that the Banshee’s wail is more like “a thin, screeching sound,” or “a cross between a cat crying and a baby screaming.”
William Butler Yeats took fairy tales very seriously, especially those about the Púcas, or Pookas. Like the leprechaun, the púca is a potentially mischievous fairy who can transform himself into a great black horse and take unsuspecting travelers on “a wild and terrible horseback ride through the night.”
Many a wayward husband is said to have fallen foul of the Púca and would find themselves “sore and bruised on the roadside at cock-crow in the morning.”
As William Butler Yeats pointed out, the Puca particularly liked to target those who’ve had a few drinks too many, stating, “Especially does [the púca] love to plague a drunkard.”
Púcas are capable of shape-shifting, sometimes taking on the appearance of a horse and at others the form of a goat, cat, or even hare. Regardless of what animal form the Púca chooses, the creature is always covered in jet-black fur.
Although the Púca is most commonly associated with bad luck, some folk tales tell of them “helping farmers with the crops” and even offering presents.
According to Irish folklore, Púcas only appear at night and primarily during the winter. However, last year a group of paranormal investigators believe they captured an elusive Púca on camera in the height of summer.
The Púca was spotted at Lackeen Castle near Lorrha in County Tipperary, where there is a “significant amount of folklore and paranormal activity.”
Legend has it that this particular Púca defended some old hags that were stealing from a dead body. Unfortunately, he was captured by a member of the O’Kennedy family and taken to Lackeen Castle.
“After promising to never hurt any member of the O’Kennedy family, the Púca was released,” but locals maintain that “the Púca can still be seen roaming around the castle to this day.”
Many Irish fairy tales talk about the fairies of the sea, also known as merrows, a name that comes from the Irish words for ‘sea’ and ‘maid’.
Although there are male mermaids, they are said to be so ugly that the beautiful mermaids prefer to take human lovers, often dragging unwilling men into their underwater homes and keeping them there “with magic and enchantments.”
Sometimes, the mermaid lets the man go, but only after pledging to return some years later to claim him.
One myth describes how princess Líban, the daughter of Eochaidh, King of Ulster, was transformed into a mermaid after surviving a great flood. Líban went on to become the Mermaid Saint, whose life is commemorated on the 27th of January.
Mermaids, also known as selkies, are half fish and half human, but in the water, they are seals. When they come to land, they shed their seal skins and take on a human form.
Men who wanted to marry a selkie would, according to Irish folklore, find their selkie skin and hide it away to prevent her from returning to the sea.
Origins and Beliefs about Irish Fairies
Irish fairies are magical creatures descended from the supernatural race of the Tuatha de Danann. They live underground in the other world and move between that world and the mortal one using a variety of portals. These portals, or entrances, are located in fairy trees, barrows or burial mounds, caves, and fairy forts.
The so-called luck of the Irish is intrinsically linked to fairies, with the wee folk, or little people, influencing the health and prosperity of individuals and their families.
Fairies in Celtic Mythology
Fairy folklore dates back to the beliefs of the ancient Celts, who believed in various Gods and godlike beings, including the Tuatha de Danann. “However, there is no linear path that traces the development of fairy lore in Ireland from its origin.”
Fairies are neither gods nor humans, although they have numerous human traits and live in a similar, albeit parallel world. Irish fairies are wingless beings with a strong sense of community and a fervent desire to protect their land.
These fairies help to form a sense of national identity and character, while the “fear of spiritual reprisal” influences almost every sphere of life in rural Ireland.
Irish fairy tales gave its people a way of coping with economic risk and uncertainty, explaining upsets in life and “removing the possibility of random chance as a cause.”
If a child fell ill, for example, it was because a malevolent fairy had snatched her away, leaving a changeling in her place. Unfortunate without a doubt, but at least no one needed to take the blame.
What Are Irish Fairies Known For?
Like the pagan gods of ancient times, Irish fairies have both good and bad traits and can bestow blessings as well as curses.
If you keep the fairies happy, you’ll live a long and prosperous life, but if you do something to upset them, you’ll be cursed for the rest of your days.
Irish fairies are an unforgiving bunch that demand humans perform certain ritual behaviors to keep them appeased.
In some households, the fire in the hearth hasn’t been “allowed to go out for over a century,” because to do so would displease the fairies.
Roads have even been diverted to avoid the removal of a fairy tree for fear that doing so would cause the fairies to wreak havoc in the mortal world.
Fairies in Irish Folklore
Irish fairies symbolize desirable traits in the Irish people and highlight the priorities of the Irish peasantry.
Fairies are good neighbors to those that are good to them but fierce enemies to those that do them wrong. Like the Tuatha de Danann, they are “alternately seen as benevolent and merciless.”
They are skilled, intelligent beings with supernatural powers that enable them to shape-shift, disappear, and fly, even though they lack the characteristic fairy wings.
The fairies are much like the ancient Irish and work, farm, and party just as hard!
Sightings and Encounters with Irish Fairies
There are hundreds of tales of encounters with Irish fairies, and not all of them take place in Ireland!
In 2006, crowds of people descended on Mobile in Alabama, hoping to catch a glimpse of a leprechaun people had reported seeing in a tree on Le Cren Street near Bay Shore Avenue.
Not everyone was convinced it was an Irish fairy they were seeing, with some saying it could be “a shadow from some of the branches being too close.”
Despite those misgivings, millions of people have viewed the footage of the reported sighting.
A more believable story is that of PJ O’Hare, who found what can only be described as a leprechaun suit. He came across the miniature green suit and hat, along with four gold coins and a collection of bones in 1989.
While he never saw the presumably naked leprechaun who previously owned the suit, the local people of Carlingford still head out every year to hunt for him.
Where Do Fairies Live?
Carlingford is a hotspot for fairy spotting, especially around the protected area of The Sliabh Foy Loop. According to Kevin Woods, this is now “the only place in Ireland where Leprechauns live.”
Woods is something of a leprechaun whisperer, having met these magical creatures on several occasions, and regularly communicates with the Leprechaun’s chief elder, Corrig.
According to Woods, whether or not you see the leprechauns is up to you.
Other places you’re likely to see fairies include:
- Brigid’s Celtic Garden in County Galway
- The Hill of Tara – an ancient burrow in County Meath
- Grianan of Aileach – an old ring fort in Donegal
- Knockainey Hill in County Limerick
- Benbulbin – an ancient rock formation in County Sligo
What Should You Do if You See a Fairy?
If you see a fairy, you should respond with an open heart and mind. Most fairies appreciate some kind of offering, be it some picked flowers or a small piece of food, and may send some good luck your way in response.
There are a few rules to encounters with fairies, however. Firstly, you should never be rude to a fairy, but at the same time, you should refuse any gifts or, if you feel you can’t refuse it, destroy it soon after. Never say thank you to the fairy as this suggests that you owe them something.
Never give a fairy your name as it gives them power over you, and be sure to avoid standing in a fairy ring as these are portals to the other world, and you could end up stuck there, unable to leave.
The fair folk of Ireland are inextricably linked to the concept of the luck of the Irish. If you keep the fairies happy, you’ll be healthy and prosperous, but if you upset them, all kinds of bad fortune will come your way.
Irish fairies descended from the ancient supernatural beings that once lived in Ireland but were forced underground by invading armies. They live most of their lives in a parallel universe and pop in and out of the mortal world using various portals.
Like the Irish gods, Irish fairies are both good and bad. They symbolize important traits and help form a sense of national identity.
While fairies rarely appear to regular folk, they often make their presence known in other ways. If you upset a fairy, they may retaliate in any number of horrible ways.
A Púca may take you on a terrible horseback ride as punishment for drinking too much, while, if you’re lazy, the fairies will make you limp for seven years!
Whether you believe in fairies or not, living your life in a manner that will please is likely to bring great rewards. If you are a good neighbor, respectful of the environment, and kind to others, fairies are going to like you.
What fairies want more than anything, however, is for you to believe in them. According to Woods, that’s “because, for every person who stops believing, another Leprechaun spirit dies.”
"Like many so-called Brits, I have a bit of Irish and a bit of Scottish in my blood, which is possibly where the red hair comes from. I’ve been fascinated by the history of Ireland for years, since I discovered the story of the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.