Irish Beliefs of the Supernatural

The Irish people have maintained a set of unique beliefs and superstitions that have lived on until the modern day. There is an abundance of stories and superstitions about the mischief of the fairies. The Irish term for the fairies is sídhe (shee); in English they are called by a number of terms, such as “wee folk” or the “good people.” Irish legends suggest that there is an extraordinary diversity of charming and terrifying fairies frolicking in the countryside:

  • Changelings — fairy children left in place of stolen mortal babies; the fairies were said to leave sickly babies after stealing healthy ones.

  • Bean sídhe (banshee) — a female spirit associated with the ancestors of old Irish families, who wails terribly whenever someone in the family dies.

  • Gruagach — a female spirit that guards livestock but requires an offering of milk.

  • Selkies — gentle spirits that are seals by day but humans by night; they sometimes marry human fishermen.

  • Lianhan shee — a sort of love goddess who invites men for trysts in Tír na nÓg (the home of the fairies); loving the lianhan shee almost invariably results in disaster.

  • Leprechauns — short, mischievous creatures known for their skills in making shoes and hiding gold; if a mortal traps one at the end of a rainbow, he can take his pot of gold.

  • Cluricauns — similar to leprechauns, except they don't make shoes and they like to steal shepherds' dogs and goats for impromptu midnight races.

  • Pooka — a spooky spirit who appears as a black eagle, goat, or horse; he has the irritating habit of picking up unwary travelers for terrifying midnight rides, sometimes into the sea.

  • It is widely suspected that the fairies came from one of the races that inhabited Ireland before the Celts arrived. There is an abundance of rings of stones throughout the Irish countryside. Local legend generally attributes these “fairy rings” to Ireland's mystical inhabitants from the past. Superstitious locals have avoided the rings for centuries. Less superstitious archaeologists usually attribute the rings to Ireland's Stone Age inhabitants.

    The spirit world of Ireland has inspired a number of artistic creations, from the poems of Yeats to a particularly deplorable movie series about a nasty leprechaun. A good movie for kids is The Secret of Roan Inish, about a young girl's attempts to communicate with selkies. You'll never look at seals the same way again.

    Irish Superstitions

    The beauty of Irish superstitions is that the Irish adopted all the superstitions of Christian culture without giving up their old Celtic beliefs. The result was a whole cornucopia of beliefs about how to avert disaster, placate the fairies, or attain wealth and love.

    A great many superstitions dealt with relations with the spirit world. The wee folk were notoriously mischievous, so a wise person kept a number of practices in mind — only calling them “the good people,” for example. People called out a warning whenever they threw water out of the house, for fear of hitting an unsuspecting fairy. To stay on the fairies' good side, sensible housewives always left out little plates of food or milk for the little people to enjoy. If someone should be so unfortunate as to cross paths with hostile fairies, it was well known that throwing dust from under one's feet would force the fairies to give up any human captives. When gathering wood for a fire, people would never take anything growing on a fairy mound.

    A number of beliefs dealt with specific holidays. On Halloween it was customary to put up Parshell crosses — two sticks tied together with twine — to keep spirits at bay (the Parshell cross looks suspiciously like the spooky sticks in the film The Blair Witch Project). On May 1, a woman could achieve great beauty by rolling naked in the morning dew. St. Stephen's Day — December 26 — was also known as Wren Day because local boys would hunt down a wren and then parade it around town on a stick for good luck. On Whit Sunday it was considered unwise to go anywhere near water, because it was widely known that the spirits of drowned people would rise up on that day and try to pull down the living.

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