ABDUCTIONS by fairies, and other nefarious activities of Ireland’s ‘sídhe’, are detailed in a new book by Quin’s Michael Houlihan.
The Kerry man, who is a founder of the Quin Heritage Group, has not been sitting on his laurels for long and Irish Fairies – A Short History of the Sídhe is now available in local bookshops.
The recent Púca controversy proves the persistence of superstitions around fairy folk, and Michael outlines where this mischievous character sits in the pantheon of the sídhe, alongside creatures like the banshee, the fairy queens Clíodhna and Medb, the nobles Aengus Óg and the Dagda.
“For thousands of years, the Irish have believed in ‘the fairies’,” Michael said. “In present-day Ireland, however, as in so many modern societies, fairies have been retreating, almost to the point of extinction. Nevertheless, the question might still be asked, what if the fairies were not created or imagined, but remembered?”
As well as considering that key question, the book contains chapters on fairy origins, fairy abductions, fairy doctors and wise women, a map of the principal fairy habitations, stories of sea fairies and more. “Ireland can trace the origins of its fairies to pre-Christian times,” the book outlines.
“The large stone structures and tombs dotting the Irish landscape from the Neolithic Age prompted the immigrant Celts to weave a complex story about the builders, creating a pantheon of early gods. Over time, these evolved into fairy royalty. Their habitations brought the ‘brughsídhe’ or hostels, concentrations of fairy folk in the early medieval landscape. Their residences still stand today.”
Relations between humans and fairies, which form the basis of hundreds of Irish folk tales, could probably best be described as complex. The sídhe lived lives that Michael says “paralleled human existence, but also stood apart”.
Their homes were mostly underground and they revealed themselves only when they chose to. Still, they often chose to favour certain people or to chastise them.
“Fairies could be capricious or generous in equal measure, depending on their mood,” Michael said.
“If a human became a favourite of the sídhe, he might be granted the gift of music or that of a healer or a seer. Contrasting this, the fairies might replace a healthy human child in the cradle with one of their own ailing offspring. This taught us that fairy nature and human nature are not the same.”
Despite the waning of superstition associated with fairy folk, the book reminds us that certain ‘pisrógs’ still linger.
“Ringforts, lone whitethorn trees and other fairy belongings must never be touched,” the book reminds us, providing plenty of detail on placenames and landscape features closely associated with these otherworldly beings. “Every corner of Ireland retains a memory of the fairies – be it a cave, a hill, a tree, a lake or a fort,” the book notes.
“Their memories are intertwined with so many of our place names. Not long ago, they filled our days with wonder, taught us to respect the land, excused our foibles and made the fringes of our society so much more fascinating by their presence.”
Michael has thanked Peter Byrne of the Ennis Local Studies Library as a “constant source of information and encouragement” in writing the book. Photos and maps have been contributed by James Feeney, Richard Maxted, Brendan Cusack, Ross Houlihan, Matthew Stout and Mark Clinton. Michael has also thanked all of those who took time to contribute their stories, saying, “they are the key repositories of our folk heritage”.
Earlier this year, Michael and fellow historian and author Tony Kirby unveiled The Clare Holy Wells Project, supported by the local authority and funded by The Heritage Council and Creative Ireland. The project documents 237 holy wells across the county and is available online at Heritage.clareheritage.org/category/places/holy-wells.
Michael’s previous publications include The Sacred Trees of County Clare, The Holy Wells of County Clare, Puck Fair, An Nollaig – An Irish Christmas Reader and In Search of Dreamtime in County Clare.