Irish Creatures

Banshees

Banshee or 'Bean-sidhe' is Irish for fairy woman. Her sharp, cries and wails are also called 'keening'. The English word 'Keen' is from the Irish 'Caoineadh' meaning lament.

There is no harm or evil in her mere presence, unless she is seen in the act of crying; but this is a fatal sign. The wail of a banshee pierces the night, it's notes rising and falling like the waves of the sea, it always announces a mortal's death. She is solitary woman fairy, mourning and forewarning those only of the best families in Ireland, those with most ancient Celtic lineages. Those whose names begin with 'Mac/Mc' or 'O', whose origin dates from the time of the Irish heroes. The banshee loves the old mortal families with a fierce and unearthly caring.

When a member of the beloved race is dying, she paces the dark hills about his house. She sharply contrasts against the night's blackness, her white figure emerges with silver-grey hair streaming to the ground and a grey-white cloak of a cobweb texture clinging to her tall thin body. Her face is pale, her eyes red with centuries of crying. But this is not the only way that the banshee appears, at other times she is seen as a beautiful young girl, with long, red-golden hair, and wearing a green kirtle and scarlet mantle, broached with gold, after the Irish fashion. Or she will appear shrouded and muffled in a dark, mist-like cloak.

White Lady of Sorrow some people name her, and Lady of Death. She is the Woman of Peace and the Spirit of the Air. For despite her wailing, she is somehow graced with a manner of peace.

Unseen, banshees attend the funerals of the beloved dead. Although, sometimes she can be heard wailing, her voice blending in with the mournful cries of others.

Each banshee has her own mortal family. Out of love she follows the old race across the ocean to distant lands. Her wails or keen can be heard wherever the true Irish have settled. But they never forget their blood ties; and neither does she.

The Blarney Stone

A block of limestone known as the Blarney Stone is Ireland's lucky charm. Set in a tower of Blarney Castle in County Cork in 1446, the stone is reputed to have magical powers. Legend has it that an old woman cast a spell on a king as a reward for saving her life. Under this spell, if he kissed the stone he'd gain great powers of eloquence. Today people travel from all over the world to kiss the stone and gain the gift of gab.

The Burren

The Burren, Irish for "gray rocky place," is 50 square miles of great irregular slabs of limestone with deep cracks. Located in County Clare, this humid, eerie moonscape is a natural rock garden, where plants native to the Arctic thrive next to subtropical flora. Beneath the scarred surface are spectacular caves and streams.

There are a number of dolmens (prehistoric gravesites) in the area. The most famous being Poulnebrone Dolmen.

Folk legends associated with the Burren say its holy wells can cure bad vision and its caves are home to ghostly horsemen. It is also reputed that mysterious lakes appear and disappear there, taking with them maidens who have been turned into swans.

Cluricauns

There is much debate over whether cluricauns are actually leprechauns or their close cousins. Except for a pink tinge about the nose, they perfectly resemble leprechauns in all their physical characteristics. But they never wear an apron or carry a hammer, nor do they have any desire to work. They have silver buckles on their shoes, gold laces their caps and pale blue stockings up to the calves. They like to enter rich men's wine cellars, as if they were their own, and drain the casks dry.

To amuse themselves they harness sheep and goats and shepherds' dogs, jump from bogs and race them over the fields through the night.

Leprechauns sternly declare that cluricauns are none of their own. But some suspect they are really leprechauns on a spree, who, in the sobering morning, deny this double nature.

The Dark Man

The Dark Man or Far Dorocha is the chief agent in mortal abduction. He exclusively serves the fairy queen. At her command he brings in the tea tray or rides on his black horse to our realm to escort back mortals she desires. A perfect servant, he never betrays emotion nor wastes a movement. Direct from fairyland, back straight, face set and with never a glance about him, he rides until he finds the desired mortal. Although, he never speaks, all understand his request and, unable to disobey, surrender their wills to his and mount up behind him. Many have ridden with the dark man to fairyland; fewer have joined him on a homeward journey.

Mortals who return and, despite warnings, disclose fairy secrets or boast of newly acquired powers will again encounter the dark, silent man. A fairy queen requires discretion from her former guests who, if they violate the terms of her hospitality, must suffer a reminder by her faithful servant. Quite efficiently he will remove the offender's eye (and thus his fairy sight) or with a touch withers the muscles of an arm or leg. The job completed, the dark man silently removes himself from his victim's presence.

The Demon Bride

The ancient churchyard of Truagh, County Monaghan, is said to be haunted by an evil spirit, whose appearance generally forebodes death.

According to legend, at funerals the spirit watches for the person who remains last in the graveyard. If it be a young man who is there alone, the spirit takes the form of a beautiful young girl, inspires him with ardent passion, and exacts a promise that he will meet her on that day and month in the churchyard. The promise is then sealed with a kiss, which sends a fatal fire through his veins, so that he is unable to resist her caresses, and makes the promise required. Then she disappears, and the young man proceeds homewards; but no sooner has he passed the boundary wall of the churchyard, than the whole story of the evil spirit rushes on his mind, and he knows that he has sold himself, soul and body, for a demon's kiss. The terror and dismay take hold of him, till despair becomes insanity, and on the very day and month fixed for the meeting with the demon bride, the victim dies the death of a raving lunatic, and is laid in the fatal graveyard of Truagh.

But the evil spirit does not limit its operations to the graveyard; for sometimes the beautiful demon form appears at weddings or festivities, and never fails to secure its victims, by dancing them into the fever that maddens the brain, and too surely ends in death.

Dullahan

The dullahan (Gan Ceann) rides during the dead of night. The man is a headless horseman riding wild upon a headless horse; wherever he stops a mortal dies. His face is the color and texture of molding cheese; his head, has a large mouth and huge eyes that dart around like flies. He holds his head firmly tucked beneath his arm. The head of the black horse has flaming eyes and short-cropped ears. The horse's head is longer than the body by six yards or more. This is the dullahan, a ghastly creature always ready to fling a bucket of blood at a healthy man's face. He will come to your door and if you open it a basin of blood is thrown at you, this is a death omen.

Sometimes he, with the grey-haired banshee shrieking by his side, drives a black coach drawn by six black horses with tails sweeping the ground and no heads. Flickering candles set in the hollows of skulls light the way; there's a flash of white from the wheel spokes as they turn--for they are made from a thigh-bone. A man's spine serves as a pole, and a mildewed pall (the cloth that covers a coffin), well chewed by the worms, covers it all. The dullahan serves no master but death.

In fear of the headless rider; men alone in the fields at night cower behind the bushes because of his reputation with a whip. With his whip he can accurately remove the eyes of all mortals foolish enough to spy on his ventures. Since he has no head, he is somewhat defective in seeing and the dullahan resents those with skilled vision.

The dullahan has a number of cousins and headlessness appears to be a family trait. Nothing puts fear into these creatures except gold. You can be saved by as little as the drop of a gold pin.

Fairies

In Ireland two distinct fairy types exist---the trooping fairies and the solitary fairies. The trooping fairies can be found in merry bans about the hawthorn tree or at feasts in gilded fairy palaces. They delight in company, while the solitary fairies avoid large gatherings, preferring to be left by themselves and separate from one another.

The trooping faeries are the major and presiding residents of fairyland; but the solitary ones (leprechauns, selkies, banshees, merrows, etc.) have greater interest in mortal affairs and therefore are generally more familiar to us.

Fairies exist all over the world. In Ireland they are the 'sidhe' (pronounced shee), a name they have retained from the ancient days.

The trooping faeries are found living in the bushes and circles of stones that crop up all over Ireland--the fairy raths. The fairy raths crop up in pastures all over Ireland, and the farmers never plow them up for fear of disturbing the faires who live there and bringing down some bad luck upon themselves.

The fairies are said to be very beautiful, with long yellow hair and perfect delicate forms. They love milk and honey and drink flower nectar as their fairy wine. The fairies can assume any form and can make horses out of straw. They have the power to affect human life, especially unbaptized children. The fairies also love music, often luring mortals into an eternal dance with their piping and singing.

Fairy Animals

Many animals roam the fairy underlands and waterways, and frequently they stray into mortal realms. Great horses have charged nobly out of the sea, only to be entangled, panting and helpless, in a fisherman's net. Cows often rise up from the sea in search of sun-greened grass to feed their calves. On May Day especially, fairy cows appear to and bring good luck to the farmer whose fields they cross. Rarely is a mortal ever honored, except on this day, by the Glas Gaivlen, the sacred milk-white cow studded with bright green spots. Wherever she treads the grass grows greener, the potato bigger and the hay more abundant.

Black cats and lake serpents guard the fairy treasure well. Cats, as legends have it, were once serpents and that is why they are so hard to kill and so dangerous to meddle with.

The most predominant characteristic of fairy animals is their ability to defy natural laws. Cows breathe under water; pigs appear and disappear at will. Trout and salmon converse with mortals in fluent Irish. Fairy hares have been caught, washed, skinned and boiled, but never add a flavor to the soup; nor can a mortal sink his teeth in their flesh. A fairy trout when thrown in a pan will not brown, and has been known to leap from the fire and out the door in the form of a glimmering girl.

This leads to the question whether fairy animals are actually animals at all. The answer is complex. Some are known to be glamored objects, such as the wisps of straw which become for a night great black steeds which cross a mountain at a single leap. A log looks and moans like a dying cow or woman. The fairies have even made an old nag so to resemble a cow that its mortal owners, once they slew and prepare it, were convinced they were eating fresh beef.

Some are suspected to be fairies themselves who take on elusive animal forms to tease mortals; such as the appearing and disappearing hares which men may chase until doomsday but will never catch. Some animals, like the seal, are of ambiguous nature, being part animal and part fairy man or woman. All seals are intimate with the fairies, but one is never sure if all, or only a few, are actually selkies.

Of course, mortal cows and sheep graze in fairyland, having been stolen from mortal realms to nourish the good people. Guarding cats and serpents are animals in their own fairy right. So, are fairy animals fairies? Or are they animals?


Fairy Changelings

When a mother finds a scrawny, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed yellow-faced little man in the cradle, she knows instantly that the fairies have traded her boy for this thing. The dwarfed form and irritable manner convince some that the creature is actually a child, but a smart mother knows that a fairy changeling has entered her home.

Each fairy changeling has a distinctive personality; but ugliness and an ill temper are generic traits. Fairies, in their immortal perfection, are repulsed by these creatures with their restless, coal-burnt eyes, puckered features and textured skin; that is why they eject them from their lands. The fairy changeling's whines, yowls, screeches and cries are so irritating to humans that we immediately want to remove them from ours!

Before they live a year in our world, they grow a full mouth of teeth; their hands are like claws, their legs no thicker than chicken bones. No matter how much food they devour, they still want more, yet remain runty as ever. After a farmer labors to feed the fairy changeling's appetite, little remains for the rest of the family.

A family whose son or daughter is abducted may receive as a substitute a sickly fairy child or a log of wood bewitched to look like their own, which soon appears to sicken and die. They bury and mourn it, never realizing that their own child plucks flowers in fairyland. Yet despite their grief and ignorance, they are more fortunate to suffer such a loss than to have a fairy changeling pounding their floors and raiding their cupboards.

Placing a set of bagpipes by the cradle is a sure test to discover whether the child is fairy. No changeling can resist them. Soon fairy music spills out of the house and into the village, paralyzing with joy all those who hear the sounds.

Boiling egg shells is another way of detecting. A mother boils egg shells in front of the suspected child. In an old man's voice, the changeling will cackle with laughter at the notion of making dinner from egg shells.

To dispose of changelings masking as mortals, there are two time-tested methods recommended: (1) heat a red-hot shovel, shovel the fairy up and cast him onto a dungheap or into a chimney fire and (2) force foxglove tea down his throat and wait until it burns out his intestines. Amazingly, no matter how brutal the punishment of the fairy the original child always returns unscathed.

The Gonconer

The Gonconer (Ganconagh) whispers of love and is an idler. He smokes a pipe and appears making love to shepherdesses and milkmaids.

The Grey Man

The Grey Man or Far Liath appears as a fog and covers land and sea with his mantle. He obscures the rocks so that ships crash upon them and darkens the road so that travelers unwittingly stumble over steep cliffs to their deaths. Because of him many a galleon was wrecked and many a mortal never returned home for dinner.

The Man of Hunger

In times of famine, the Man of Hunger or Far Gorta travels the roads, begging alms. Hardly a layer of flesh clings to his cheeks; and his arms, thin as striped sticks, barely have strength to hold the alms cup. Even in winter, his rags scarcely cover his modesty. Some turn from him in disgust; some, in their selfishness, avoid him; but all those who, despite the desperate times, freely give alms will be blessed forever with prosperous good luck.

Leprechauns

The leprechaun is a solitary creature avoiding contact with mortals and other leprechauns--indeed the whole fairy tribe. He pours all of his passion into the concentration of carefully making shoes. A leprechaun can always be found with a shoe in one hand and a hammer in the other.

Most leprechauns are ugly, stunted creatures, not taller than boys of the age of ten or twelve. But they are broad and bulky, with faces like dried apples. They have a mischievous light in their eyes and their bodies, despite their stubbiness, usually move gracefully.

They possess all the earth's treasures, but prefer to dress drab. Usually grey or green colored coats, a sturdy pocket-studded apron, and a hat---sometimes green or dusty red colored.

They have been know to be foul-mouthed and they smoke ill-smelling pipes called 'dudeens' and they drink quite a bit of beer from ever handy jugs. But the other fairies endure them because they provide the much needed service of cobblery.

Leprechauns guard the fairies' treasures. They must prevent it's theft by mortals. They, alone, remember when the marauding Danes landed in Ireland and where they hid their treasure. Although, they hide the treasures well, the presence of a rainbow alerts mortals to the whereabouts of gold hordes. This causes the leprechauns great anxiety---for no matter how fast he moves his pot of gold, he never can get away from rainbows.

If a mortal catches a leprechaun and sternly demands his treasure, he will give it to the mortal. Rarely does this happen.

Occassionally, especially after a wee too much beer, he will offer a mortal not only a drink but some of his treasure.

Female leprechauns do not exist.

The Lianhan Shee

The lianhan shee is a fairy mistress of dreadful power, for she seeks the love and dominion of mortal men--if they refuse her, she is their slave and if they consent they are hers. Most men find that they cannot refuse her. Only one lianhan shee exists and she is more a force than a woman. Each fairy woman who loves ('Lianhan Shee' means the love fairy) becomes one with her; and for the mortal man who longs for her she is the one and only. She does not play with emotions; all who love her, live for her and their desire for her frequently destroys them. The more suffering she inflicts the dearer she becomes to them. The more they desire her the more she eludes them. Her absence is like a chain pulling them towards her.

An impatient mistress, the lianhan shee creates such desire in her lovers that they will overcome all obstacles to embrace her. She never yields to them in mortal lands, but insists on their meeting in Tir-na-n-Og, so that men must pass through death to enjoy her. All the great poets and musicians loved her; almost all died young. The more they sang the more their bodies withered; until they sang for her forever.

No one has ever described the lianhan shee. Perhaps each stricken man jealously guards his love and fears the worlds knowledge of her. But more likely no mortal can describe her; for she is desire itself and she wishes to elude all attempts to limit her glory. She may select her lovers from our realm, but she never allows her story to remain long on their mortal lips.

Merrows

Good or bad weather, the male merrow sits on a rock, scanning the sea for cases of brandy lost from wrecked ships. He is a friendly fellow with a red nose (some say from a wee bit too much drinking of that brandy). He is a bringer of good luck. He wears a red cocked hat and has a green body, with green hair and teeth. He has the eyes of a pig, scaly legs, arms like fins and wears no clothes. It's no small wonder that the beautiful female merrows seek husbands in mortal lands.

The female merrow (mulrruhgach), also called a mermaid (murúch) or a sea-maiden (maighdean mhara), is lovely and graceful. She has the tail of a fish and web-like scales between her fingers. She sometimes wears a gown as white as the sea foam. The gown is trimmed with red and purple seaweeds. The sea water on her hair glistens like dew when the rays of the sun's morning light shines upon it. She also wears a red hat which suits her alluring face with its mocking eyes. Sometimes she wears a dark sleeveless cloak that clings about her, half-revealing the voluptuous curves of her body.

She teases men with her beauty. In legends the singing of a mermaid, or her sirensong, is described as irresistible. As she lounges upon the rocks, she attempts to attract fishermen to her. But if he comes too near, she dives into the sea, laughing at the men. Little joy do they get from her, for her presence always ensures a storm or a disaster at sea. When a sailor fails to come home from the sea it is sometimes said he "married a mermaid". She upsets the waves and causes rain to fall from the sky. Ships at sea are cracked like straws. Small boats and rafts capsize. To her this is a delightful diversion.

On the sea she is as wild as she is alluring, but on land she becomes shy and submissive to men. Many Irish women emigrated to other lands causing many fishermen to linger by the sea long after work in hopes that a female merrow might appear.

If a man can capture her red cap or cloak, she will forget her past life and quietly marry him. She is an obedient and loving wife. Although she is always mindful of her husband and her household duties, she never quite adjusts to living on land. A married merrow laughs rarely. Her greatest emotions are ones of a quiet caring.

If she finds her cap or cloak (the husband seems to rarely hide the cap or cloak well and they never destroy them), and she sets the cap on her head or the cloak about her body, she will remember her past watery life and will joyfully abandon her home and her mate for the sea. When she remembers her past marine life she regains her youth and beauty that she lost while among the mortals.

The Pooka

The pooka comes out at night, sometimes as an eagle flinging a man on his back and flying to the moon.

Sometimes it's a black goat with wide wicked horns leaping on a mortal's shoulders and clinging with it's claws until the man drops dead or blesses himself three times. It is a bird, a bat, a donkey, a solitary nightmare shape.

Most often it appears as a terrible black horse, huge and sleek, breathing blue flames, with eyes of yellow fire, a snort like thunder, a smell like sulfur, a stride that clears mountains and a human voice deep as a cave. With a sound sometimes like the head-on crashing of trains, sometimes like the ripping of trees from the earth, it haunts rivers and frightens fishermen and sailors so much so, that they are fearful of approaching land. Sometimes it follows the ships to sea. Often at night, as the black horse, the pooka will take a man for a ride clear around the country at breakneck speed until he loses his grip and flies headlong into a bog ditch.

Yet for all its black deeds, the pooka now is a tame creature compared to what it was before Brian Boru curbed it. In ancient days the pooka was lord over all that went forth after dark, except those on missions of mercy. All roads belonged to it; and few who traveled them lived to tell. For the pooka kicked hard enough to crush human bones and could lift a man like an empty sack onto its back and jump with him into the sea, so deep that he drowned. Other times it sprang over a cliff and let the man tumble to the bottom.

But Brian Boru tamed it with a charm made from three hairs from a pooka's tail and thrown round its neck like a bridle. At the first pull, the hairs were transformed into threads of steel. Crossing himself and mounting, he fiercely reined the beast and rode it until it heaved with exhaustion and promised never to kill another man.

Since then it takes only drunkards on its madcap ridings and always returns them to the ditch where it found them, no worse for some bruises and a drunken tale.

When it rains with the sun shining that means that it will be out that night. When berries are killed by frost it is the pooka's spit which is upon them and they shouldn't be eaten.

The Red-Haired Man

In the fairy realm lives a red-haired man who, for no clear reason, has a liking for the mortal race. He warns a young woman to refuse the fairy wine or leads the spell-drugged young man out of the fairy fort. Whenever someone sneezes at a party, he says the necessary 'God bless you' to prevent abduction. More mortals would have been taken to, and fewer returned from, fairyland without the intervention of this kind, red-haired fairy man.

The Red Man (Far Darrig)

The far darrig (or fear dearg) is a near relation to the leprechaun, with similar features and a short stocky body. His face is splotched yellow. He dresses in red from his hat to his tail-trailing cape to the woolen stockings which cling to his calves. This is the reason he is called the far darrig or red man.

He is known not only for his colour (sometimes he travels invisibly) but for his delight in mischief and mockery. He can be a gruesome practical joker. He manipulates his voice, emitting sounds like the thudding waves on the rocks or the cooing of pigeons. His favorite is the dull, hollow laugh of a dead man; which he makes sound as if it's coming from the grave. He has also been know to give evil dreams.

Mortal terror amuses the far darrig. Occasionally, he invites a mortal to enter a lonely bog hut, then he orders him to make dinner out of a hag skewered on a spit. The man usually faints. When he recovers, he finds himself alone with the sound of laughter filling the air, but coming from no distinguishable source. It is advisable to say 'Na dean maggadh fum'-- do not mock me', when you encounter a far darrig, that way you cannot be used in one of his macabre games. Unfortunately, he plans his tricks so well that a mortal is snared long before he realises the need to protest.

With all his pranks, the far darrig desires not to do harm but to show favour. He actually is good natured and will bring luck to those whom he approves; but he cannot resist a preliminary teasing.

Selkies

The selkies are gentler creatures who are seals by day but men and women by night. They are also called water kelpies, seal people or selchies. In their mortal form the selkies are described as posessing an unearthly beauty with dark hair and eyes. Silently they emerge from the sea to shed their skins and frolic on the sand. Like the merrows they have webs between their fingers and toes (or at least wide palms that hint of their watery origin) and must obey anyone who secures their oily skins. Selkies, also, make excellent wives. But they are solitary and quiet by nature. They will frequently wander from their mortal homes to the sea cliffs to meditate and sing their melancholy songs. When their fishermen-husbands are lost upon the sea, they sing from the cliffs to guide them home.

If they ever find their seal skins again, they, too, will return to the sea. But unlike the merrow, the selkie will not forget her husband and children and can be seen swimming close to the shore watching over them.

The Will-O'-The-Wisps

The Will-O'-The-Wisps, or fairy lights, are quiet and helpful. They appear in the misty Irish mountains to help searchers to locate someone lost in a ravine or drowned in a rocky pool. It's said that those who can see the lights have the gift of knowing when their closet of kin are in danger.