The fairy menace

Modern children's tales invariably depict fairies as gossamer-winged pixies sprinkling happy magic. Yet, as Richard Sugg reveals, until recently they were seen as maleficent sprites blamed for animal afflictions, child possession and abductions...

Illustration by Arthur Rackham to the play ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ by William Shakespeare. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In summer 1909 Annie McIntire, an old woman from Donegal, was asked for her birth date by a committee assessing her request for an old-age pension. Her reply, both enlightening and surprising, was: “that she did not know the number of her years, but remembered being stolen by the ‘wee people’ (fairies) on Halloween Night, 1839. Asked if she was certain of this, she replied, ‘Yes, by good luck my brother happened to be coming home from Carndonagh that night, and heard the fairies singing and saw them dancing round me in the wood at Carrowkeel. He had a book with him, and he threw it in among them. They then ran away.’ The applicant added that the people celebrated the event by great feasting and drinking. The committee decided to grant her a pension.”

Nowadays, if children hear about fairies, it is likely to be in the context of ‘wee people’ bringing them something if they are good, or in exchange for a milk tooth. Fairies are, on the whole, imagined or pictured as tiny, pretty, graceful, feminine, helpful and relatively insubstantial.

Girls, in particular, might be regaled with stories such as the hugely successful Rainbow Magic books; more than 150 titles have been published since 2003, including Trixie the Halloween Fairy. Yet for much of history, any child who told their parents they had been with the Halloween fairy was likely to be spanked, or locked up for their own safety.

If you’d grown up in the countryside even a century ago, your impressionable young mind would have been filled with tales of fairy danger. To keep you from venturing out at night, your parents could tell you that the fairies might carry you off. If your family tended livestock, any sickness in your cattle might be explained by their being ‘fairy-struck’ or ‘elf-shot’. This last was believed quite literally by many: fairies were held to shoot little arrows at animals (and sometimes humans), and any Neolithic flint arrowheads unearthed were weapons used by fairies.

Why did people believe in fairies? It was partly because, in popular culture, magic was the norm, and magical scapegoats were also more or less universal – a problem or ailment might be the work of a fairy, witch or vampire. But fairies were bound up with nature, the countryside and fertility in more positive ways, too. Hence, even into the 20th century, people who were persistently short of food would habitually pour a helping of milk for fairies whenever they milked their cows, or leave food out for them at night.

Lost souls or fallen angels?

The fairies had well-defined origins, though specified beliefs varied. Some held fairies to be the souls of the dead. Others conferred on them a more ancient pedigree, believing them to be descended from those fallen angels who had neither made it into hell nor returned to heaven, having run into holes in the earth when God closed up heaven and hell. Such beliefs persisted in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man into the last century.

Accordingly, fairies occupied a curiously intermediate status – between good and evil, between this world and the next. This is true of the earliest recorded fairy types in both western and Judaeo-Christian traditions. Isaiah 13 describes satyrs disporting themselves in the ruins of Babylon, while Homer’s Odyssey opens with Odysseus as a prisoner of the “bewitching nymph” Calypso. Given their status as scapegoats, it is possible that fairies are as old as fear itself.

With the strength of ancient superstitions and the need for people to explain otherwise inexplicable experiences, it’s little wonder that rural folk held such beliefs. More surprising is that fear of fairies persisted until very recently.

Records show that they were certainly very real to the average peasant or farmer, who saw concrete signs of them all around – signs typically imbued with danger. Step into a fairy ring (to a modern botanist, merely an unusual circular fungal formation) and you would have a particularly high chance of being taken by the fairies. Speaking in the early 20th century, a Scottish Protestant minister recalled how, when he was a child, an old woman had yanked him out of a fairy ring for this very reason. Fairy trees, mounds and paths could be seen all over rural Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall, and interfering with them could spark serious repercussions.

Like most magical beings and elements in popular culture, fairies were powerful, if not actually dangerous. Though believed to be small, they were rarely described as tiny, often ranging up to three or four feet in height.

Even those who helped you – as in the many tales of fairies threshing, ploughing, rounding up sheep or doing housework at night – had to be treated with great respect. Fairies were unpredictable at best, and malicious at worst. They were probably not as terrifying as the vampires or witches they resembled (fairies, like these entities, could change shape, taking the form of flies, moths or weasels), but in Lamplugh, Cumbria, four people were said to have been scared to death by fairies between 1656 and 1663.

When ordinary people heard of Annie McIntire’s lucky childhood escape, many would have nodded their heads sagely, recalling one or more of the fairy abduction stories common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in which children were stolen and replaced by supernatural substitutes. The danger in cases of ‘fairy changelings’ came not from what the fairies supposedly did to a child, but rather the actions of parents trying to make the fairies reverse the switch.

Children and changelings

In 1850 the parents of Mary Anne Kelly in Roscrea, Tipperary consulted a ‘fairy doctress’, Bridget Peters, about their six-year-old daughter who had been frail since birth, suffering from partial paralysis and ‘softening of the brain’. By September the child was dead, having been repeatedly dosed with poisonous foxglove essence and left exposed and naked outside. As was often the case, these measures were undertaken with the full agreement of the parents, who believed Peters’ claim that the child in their care was a changeling, and that these methods would make the fairies return the real Mary Anne. Author Carole Silver reports a case in Wales of a child who was killed in 1857, after being bathed in foxglove essence for the same reason.

In 1884 three-year-old Philip Dillon, also paralysed, was diagnosed as a changeling by neighbours Anastatia Rourke and Ellen Cushion in Clonmel in County Tipperary. In the mother’s absence they placed the child on a hot shovel – badly burning him in the process – as a tactic to force the fairies to return the ‘real’ Philip. Some time before 1865 the writer Robert Hunt heard of an Irish mother killing her child in New York with the same treatment.

The interdisciplinary scholar Susan Schoon Eberly has shown that a large number of supposed changelings were children suffering from inherited genetic disorders. Some of these conditions might only become apparent some time after birth, thus reinforcing the belief that the ‘real’ child had been taken, leaving a sickly infant in its place. For example, phenylketonuria results in a voraciously hungry child who screams constantly when not being fed, while Williams Syndrome produces unusual ‘elfin’ facial features – blonde hair, blue eyes, a turned-up nose and pointed chin. Such conditions are much more common in male children in England and Ireland, so we can understand why popular wisdom often held that fairies took only boys, and why this belief was more common in those countries.

If local fairy beliefs were strong enough, almost any abnormality could be blamed on the sufferer being changed or ‘fairy struck’.

In Ballinakil, Ireland in 1840, John Mahony, a boy of around seven, was judged to be a changeling by his father, James – partly because of a two-year spinal affliction, but also because he was “a very intellectual child”. John died – possibly from shock – after being threatened with a heated shovel and ducked under the pump. Before he expired, he actually admitted to his parents that he was a fairy, and that the fairies would reverse the switch if he, the fairy boy, could have one more night’s lodging.

Probably the most notorious Irish case took place in Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel. In March 1895 Michael Cleary became convinced that his wife, 26-year-old Bridget, was a fairy changeling, reportedly on account of nervous problems she was suffering at this time. So convinced was Cleary that he declared the ‘changeling’ to be two inches taller than his real wife.

After a number of violent tests, Michael’s accomplices – including relatives and ‘fairy doctor’ Denis Ganey – decided that Bridget was indeed the real Bridget. However, Michael was unconvinced, and threw lamp oil over his wife, burning her to death. For three nights afterwards he went with a knife to ‘the fairy hill’ in hope of having Bridget returned to him. At the subsequent trial, his initial sentence of death was commuted to imprisonment on the grounds that Cleary genuinely believed Bridget to have been a changeling.

While such cases made for sensational news copy, there were many other kinds of fairy danger that more easily slipped under the public radar. In 1910 an old man called John Boylin recounted the story of an Irish girl, Rose Carroll, who was believed to be “possessed by a fairy-spirit”. Boylin added that “the Carrolls’ house was built at the end of a fairy fort, and part of it was scooped out of this fort”. This implies that Rose’s possession was in part caused by the site of her house – either because it angered territorial fairies or simply because of their proximity.

Similarly, when an Irish house “happens to have been built in a fairy track, the doors on the front and back… cannot be kept closed at night, for the fairies must march through” – so reported a priest in the early 20th century. Though fairy forts (mounds) or trees were usually identifiable, fairy paths were a little more tricky.

In 19th-century Ireland it was common to put “plenty of food in a newly constructed dwelling the night before the time fixed for moving into it; and if the food is not consumed, and the crumbs swept up by the door in the morning, the house cannot safely be occupied”. The Dublin university graduate who explained this in 1910 added that:

“I know of two houses now that have never been occupied, because the fairies did not show their willingness and goodwill by taking food so offered to them.”

Some way into the 20th century, a man called Paddy Baine suffered what seem to have been poltergeist disturbances in his newly built house in County Sligo after failing to take such precautions. When consulted, local wise woman Mairead ni Heine explained that one corner of the house was blocking a fairy path. Paddy had the corner sliced off by a local stonemason, after which the problems ceased.

By this time, though, fairies had already begun to be prettified and miniaturised for some sections of society. The paintings of Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901) and John Anster Fitzgerald (c1819–1906) and the writing of Irish poet William Allingham (1824–89) offer a whimsical escapism into a natural world beyond the ravages of industrialism, where fairies nestle in an intricate harmony with birds and flowers.

The now seemingly axiomatic link between fairies and childhood innocence would be immortalised in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) and the Cottingley fairy photographs created from 1917. In this latter case, the fake fairies created and photographed by young cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were particularly feminine and graceful. Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle believed that the girls’ ability to attract or see fairies was likely to pass, should one of them grow up and fall in love.

Nowadays, the triumph of the miniature female fairy seems almost total. But it was a long way into the 20th century before the dangers of the fairy-haunted landscape were fully banished. Folk in 1930s County Antrim still recalled the man whose head had been turned backwards after he cut down a fairy tree. And in County Mayo in 1958, a crew of 25 labourers refused to bulldoze a fairy mound that stood in the path of a new fence.

As recently as 1999 Irish folklorist Eddie Linehan objected to the construction of a motorway in County Clare. He claimed it would destroy a fairy tree that marked a fairy path, citing a farmer who claimed to have seen white fairy blood on this elfin thoroughfare. Although the field itself was largely destroyed, the tree was preserved, protected by fences. And just last year in Iceland, an unusual rock formation in Álftanes, near Reykjavík, was moved to make way for a new road – but only after protests had been presented to the Icelandic supreme court, and only on condition that this ‘elf church’ would be preserved at the roadside.

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Richard Sugg is a lecturer in renaissance studies at Durham University, and author of A Century of Supernatural Stories (Createspace, 2015).