Fairy tales, folklore, and legends play a notable role in the foundation and development of nearly every culture and society. These stories serve as entertainment, education, and a means of socialization, and can often be linked to other cultural phenomena such as religion and spirituality. The fairy tales of Ireland are specifically rooted in spiritual beliefs and superstitions, and while modern religions have widely replaced these early belief systems, Gaelic and Celtic folklore has shaped the culture of Ireland in significant and lasting ways. Just as the Grimm brothers’ tales were used as entertainment as well as educational and moral lessons for children, Irish fairy tales were aimed at instructing and engaging all ages. According to Joseph Jacobs in his book Celtic Fairy Tales, "nowhere else is there so large and consistent a body of oral tradition about the national and mythical heroes as amongst the Gaels" (Jacobs, xx). The effect of the fairy faith’s absorption of modern Christianity created a canon of tales that intertwines spiritual beliefs, lessons of morality, and entertainment value to create a lively and unique set of fables and a lasting impact on the culture of Ireland.
While the presence of fairies and magic is crucial to many European folk tales, Irish storytelling tradition is especially rooted in the fairy belief, and the varieties of fairy that are presented attest to this. A view of the supernatural was fundamental in Irish folklore, and the fairies that populated these stories were at the heart of that belief. There are three major fairy types in the Irish fairy tale canon—the Sidhe (“Shee”), the Banshee, and the Merrow. Each has its own characteristics that make it unique to Irish folklore. The Sidhe, or the Tuatha De Danaan, were considered a “distinct race, quite separate from human beings, [and] belief in this race of beings who had powers beyond those of men to move quickly through the air and change their shape at will once played a huge part in the lives of people living in rural Ireland” (MacDonald). The Banshee was a variation of the Sidhe, meaning “faerie woman” or “woman of the Faerie mound,” an elfin creature whose mourning call signaled death approaching (“The Banshee in Ireland”). The Merrow comes from the Irish word muir meaning sea and oigh meaning maid, an Irish variation of the popular mermaid archetype.
According to the Reverend John O’Hanlon in his article “Fairy Beliefs—Irish Folklore,” fairies were “generally thought by the peasantry to partake of a mixed human and spiritual nature.” He goes to explain the relationship between humans and fairies, and the Irish peasant’s attitude towards the magical creatures:
Although invisible to men, particularly during day, they hear and see all that takes place among mortals in which they have any especial concern. Hence the peasantry is always anxious to secure their good opinion and kind offices, and to propitiate or avert their anger by civil conversation and practices. Fairies are always mentioned with respect and reserve. It is also considered inhuman to strain potatoes or spill hot water on or over the threshold of a door, as thousands of spirits are supposed to congregate invisibly at such a spot, and to suffer from that infliction. Before drinking, a peasant would often spill a small portion of his draught on the ground as a complimentary libation to the “good people” (O’Hanlon).
These superstitions illustrate how central fairy legend was to the early spiritual and religious beliefs of Irish peasantry, and this underlying faith is the foundation for many Irish tales.
These tales included “the simple stories of the fairies living in the neighboring fort, the giants who did so many and such wonderful things when judged by the eyes of childhood, and the ‘good people’ who held nightly revels in some adjacent house” (Wallace, 5). In the preface to Jeremiah Curtin’s collection Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World, Alfred Nutt discusses the impact of a firmly held belief in fairies and ghosts upon the long-standing conviction of an afterlife, what he calls “a vital faith in the continued activity of a ‘something’ after life has departed the body” (Curtin, vii). According to Nutt, “as far as we can trace Gaelic civilization in Ireland—say 2000 years—these ‘fairy’ mounds are graves, and their sanctity must in some way be derived from their destination” (viii). The banshee, as previously mentioned, was symbolic of a connection between life and death, and while decidedly based in pagan mythology, in Irish Christian theology it was believed to be “the spirit of an old woman who must cry for the dead as penance for sins in a former lifetime” (Conroy, 74). This connection to life after death is further testament to both the early influence of Celtic mythology and religion upon folklore, as well as the impact of burgeoning Christianity upon Irish storytelling.
Each fairy type originates from Irish-Celtic mythology, and represents a hybrid of Christian influence and lingering pagan divinity. When Christianity was first brought to Ireland, missionaries could not completely eradicate the long-standing belief in a God-like race of fairies, so the myths were manipulated and reinterpreted to enforce Christian ideals but still remain as a concession to early fairy belief systems. In Irish Christianity, belief in independent spiritual beings was never completely disregarded, but was changed to a belief in folklore. Fairies, formerly perceived as gods, were now not divine but merely magical. A popularly held belief is that fairies are fallen angels, a Christian spin on the original myth of the Sidhe as god-like creatures. Saints gradually replaced worship of elves and fairies. Christianity radically altered the perception of fairies and the tales about them, an influence that has defined their place in folklore. In Curtin’s introduction to his fairy tale collection, he presents an interview with an Irish farmer who deftly explains both the early and lasting prevalence of fairy tale belief, saying, “When I was a boy, […] nine men in ten believed in fairies, and said so; now only one man in ten will say that he believes in them. If one of the nine believes, he will not tell you; he will keep his mind to himself” (Curtin, 1). Despite its decline, this continuing tradition of fairy spirituality makes Irish folklore uniquely compelling. According to Brian J. Conroy in his thesis “Evidence of religious influence on the folk and fairy tales of Ireland,” “though the Irish people who created and told the later tales of the fairy world were almost entirely Christian in belief and practice, they nevertheless identified, perhaps unconsciously, with a more remote faith, partly Celtic, partly Christian, and partly the making of storytellers” (Conroy, 69). Although literature has shown a regression of fairies from deities to mere tricksters, the fairy presence remains a fundamental part of Irish folklore, with Christian and pagan roots combining to create a singular brand of fairy tale tradition.
The frequency of legends featuring both St. Patrick and fairies in Irish lore is perhaps the best indication of this fusion of influence. St. Patrick is a fundamental part of Irish Catholicism and stands as a central figure in the Irish church. Tales of his interactions with fairies not only validate the longstanding Irish belief in them, they clearly demonstrate the merging of two distinct spiritual identities. While not a traditional fairy tale, “The Colloquy of the Ancients” is a dialogue in which St. Patrick has a discussion with the ghost of Caeilte of the Fianna, an ancient clan of Celtic warriors. In it, Patrick sees a beautiful fairy woman, “robed in mantle of green, a smock of soft silk being next to her skin, and on her forehead a glittering plate of yellow gold,” who Caeilte calls “of the Tuatha De Danaans,” or the Sidhe (“The Colloquy of the Ancients”). Another tale featuring both St. Patrick and fairies is “The Fairy’s Question.” In it, a fairy helps St. Patrick’s servant, Domhnaill, and in exchange has him question the saint in the middle of mass: “what will become of the Little People on the Last Day of Judgment?” to which St. Patrick replies, “They will be lost.” Unhappy with the answer, the fairies shriek and scream, but Domhnaill stays safe by building a deep grave with a spade and a shovel placed in the form of a cross at the top, and staying in it for two days. The story attributes the Irish custom of placing a crossed spade and shovel over a new grave to St. Patrick and Domhnaill’s encounter with the fairies, a claim that is representative of the nation’s distinctive amalgamation of fairyland and Catholic belief systems (Stories).
One of the most prevalent themes in Irish fairy tale tradition is fairy abduction, the practice of snatching a healthy infant from its cradle and leaving a deformed changeling in its place. Irish mothers were always fearful of this fate, and that fear manifested itself in numerous tales of fairy kidnappings and changeling children. A child was not safe until it was christened, a belief that is testimony to changing Christian ideologies and the interplay between these principles and those of fairy lore. The tale of “John Connors and the Fairies,” while not ostensibly about fairy abduction, centers on the practice of christening and is a perfect example of Catholicism and fairy belief coexisting. In it, John Connors is a man with seven daughters and no sons, who refuses to find sponsors for his eighth child’s christening. When he learns that the child is to be a boy, he immediately leaves his parish to find suitable sponsors. As punishment for showing partiality to a son over his daughters, he is tricked by Daniel O’Donohue, King of Lochlein and a fairy chief. The King dupes Connors into coming into his home and keeps him asleep for three days—long enough to send a replica corpse of Connors back to the town. When Connors awakens and returns home wearing nothing but a sheet, he is thought to be a ghost. Ultimately, it is the town priest who reveals the trickery of the fairies, as Connors “was not content with the will of God, though it is the duty of every man to take what God gives him” (Curtin, 4-11). Having Connors punished by a fairy for disregarding God’s will is a prime example of the indivisible threads of Christianity and fairy lore in Irish culture and legend.
This blending of faiths and superstitions is still present in modern Irish Catholicism, as symbols, imagery, and religious artifacts heavily influence this sector of Christianity. It is common for Irish families to have a bowl of holy water in their house, and statues of the saints or the Holy Family figure prominently in households and churches across the country. The Celtic cross is a widespread symbol of Irish Catholicism, and represents the country’s unique brand of Christianity and its inclusion of older values and vestiges of Gaelic mythology. This focus on imagery and symbolism is indicative of the influence of Celtic folklore, and a reverberation of the merging of Christian and pagan belief systems. While belief in the fairy world is perhaps less common today, the remnants of the early fairy faith can still be seen in the deeply emblematic and retrospective culture of Ireland. By looking at the fairy tales of Ireland and their distinctive blend of pagan spirituality, fairy belief, and Christian theology, the rich history and culture of Celtic fairy tale tradition can be seen, as well as its effects on collective Irish identity.
The Banshee in Ireland. YourIrish. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2012.
The Colloquy of the Ancients. Trans. Standish H. O'Grady. Cambridge: In parentheses Publications, 1999. Web. 29 June 2012.
Conroy, Brain J. Evidence of religious influence on the folk and fairy tales of Ireland. Masters Thesis, San Jose Statem University, San Jose. 83 p.
Curtin, Jeremiah. Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1895. Web. 29 June 2012.
Jacobs, Joseph. Celtic Fairy Tales. N.p.: D. Nutt, 1892. Print.
MacDonald, L. "The Sidhe (Shee)." Celtic Society. Dalriada Magazine, 1892. Web. 29 June 2012.
"Stories." St. Patrick. Russian Celtic Society, 2005. Web. 29 June 2012.
Wallace, Kathryn. Folk-lore of Ireland: Legends, Myths and Fairy Tales. Chicago: J.S. Hyland & Company, 1910. Web. 29 June 2012.