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Folklore & Mythology

'Children Lir Enchantment' © 1990, Jim Fitzpatrick
"Children Lir Enchantment" © 1990, Jim Fitzpatrick.

Second in importance to the great mythological epics of ancient Ireland were the “fairy tales” that had to do primarily with mankind’s interaction with the mysterious Otherworld of fairies, leprechauns, mermaids (and men) banshees, hags, and evil and mischievious spirits and creatures of every description.

The fairies, known variously as the shí (“shee”) or sídhe (“sith”), are the “little people” or nature spirits who are believed to live in an “Otherworld” that the ancient Irish and other Celtic peoples believed existed parallel to our own. The sídhe are so named due to the fact that they are believed to live in the mounds, raths, stone circles and various other prehistoric sacred spaces to be found throughout Ireland, the basic meaning of the word sídhe being “mound”. Thus the appelation Daoine Sídhe, or “People of the Mounds”. The fairies are generally divided into two different classes: solitary fairies, such as the leprechaun, and the “trooping fairies”, or macara shí, who are believed to come forth as a group from all of the raths, mounds, dolmens, stone circles, fairy trees, holy wells, and every other type of sacred place in Ireland twice per year: on Beltaine Eve (May 1st) and Samhain Eve (Halloween). W.B. Yeats describes the fairies aptly in his classic, Fairy & Folktales of Ireland:

The Irish word for fairy is sheehogue {sidheog], a diminutive of "shee" in banshee. Fairies are deenee shee [daoine sidhe] (fairy people). Who are they? "Fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost," say the peasantry. "The gods of the earth," says The Book of Armagh. "The gods of pagan Ireland," say the Irish antiquarians, "the Tuatha De Danann, who when no longer worshiped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high." And they will tell you, in proof, that the names of fairy chiefs are the names of old Danaan heroes, and the places where they especially gather together, Danaan burying-places, and that the Tuatha de Danaan used also to be called the slooa-shee [sheagh sidhe] (the fairy host), or Marcra shee (the fairy cavalcade).

As Yeats explained, there are various theories on the origins of the fairies in Celtic folklore, including 1) the fairies were the remnant of the deities of previous inhabitants of the land who had been conquered, their deities shrunk down to a more manageable, less intimidating size; 2) the fairies were the conquered, aboriginal inhabitants themselves who, forced to live on the fringes of society, snuck about and took revenge in small ways, mostly at night; 3) the fairies are the personifications of the powers of nature; and 4) fairies are the spirits of the dead, who live on in a sort of eternal purgatory, neither in heaven, nor in hell. This grey, purgatory concept fits well with a fifth possible explanation first posited by Christian theologians that fairies are in fact a type of fallen angel, of an order that was not good enough for heaven, nor evil enough for hell.

Most fairy tales are essentially stories about interactions between the world of humanity and the world of the fairies, which usually end up badly for all involved, as the general belief was that the two worlds were meant to be kept separate, despite the fact that the fairies often went out of their way to bridge the divinely ordained barrier and comingle with humanity. The stories essentially encompass all stories that deal with the supernatural that did not originate from the Mythological Cycles, including not only fairies, but all types of "magical" and supernatural creatures including but not limited to giants, dwarves, ghosts, banshee, mermaids, monstrous creatures, mysterious and mythical places, people with supernatural abilities, ghosts and spirits of all descriptions, and even giant cats. And though many fairy tales resist strict classification, most of them are divided into the following categories, as first elucidated by Yeats:

The Trooping Fairies

The Trooping Fairies, or macara shi come forth from the fairy mounds, raths, stone circles, fairy trees and every other ancient and sacred place all across Ireland during the major festivals and "troop" across the whole of the island. Comprising the vast majority of fairy lore, their stories are among the most commonly known and enjoyed around the turf fire.

From Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland, edited by W.B. Yeats:
The Fairies
Frank Martin and the Fairies
The Priest's Supper

The sheer number of fairy tales available prevented us from publishing them in our book, Mysterious World: Ireland, so have decided to publish the complete texts here instead for your enjoyment. These categories will be filled out with a wide variety of fairy tales over time, so please visit us frequently to see the latest. To be alerted when the next fairy tale becomes available, click here to sign up for our email newsletter, which will be published quarterly.


Mysterious World: Ireland
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