a fairy tale

Nothing prepared me for the shock discovery after months in a writers’ group where I now live in Ireland, that several of our members firmly believe in fairies. Nobody dismissed them as figments of the imagination. I had to look into this.

Joining this group had opened a new window for me into a writer’s world. We meet weekly on Sunday afternoons in a village coffee and book shop serving excellent latte. Attendance varies from three people to eight, not all contributing written pieces, but all adding depth to the discussions. One is a published author of children’s fiction. Three are writing novels, some write stories for children; occasionally poems are read and constructive criticism is welcomed. I alone write articles.



I glimpse aspects of Irish culture, literature and rich historical background during the discussions weaving between the readings, as valuable as the pieces themselves. I learn about Irish funeral customs, family disputes, Irish character, political and social mores. The Irish have long memories. The mid nineteenth century famine was only yesterday in Irish minds, as is the American Civil War in the Southern States. Last year’s centenary celebrations of the 1916 Uprising emphasized this. For hundreds of years Ireland was governed and exploited by the British. There are memorials to Irish patriots executed by British firing squads near the coffee shop where we meet, as in other Irish towns, but soon after the uprising the people triumphed. Many ancient castles built by the invaders to subdue the locals are today tourist attractions, as are the fairy forts.

Centuries of history and superstition are part of Ireland’s culture, and in my fellow writers’ discussion about fairy forts (the background to one writer’s story) I was astonished to realize that fairies are real to them. Three of the men assured me that they exist.

They told me there are hundreds of Fairy Forts dating back to the Iron Age all over Ireland. Are these natural or physical forts? I asked. A fairy fort looks just like a large mound of clay and grass with bushes, or a ring of trees. I’m told, you wouldn’t look twice at it if you didn’t know what it was. Some are in the woods, some in fields. In medieval times these mounds were believed to be the hiding places of the old gods – now reduced to the role of ‘fairies’ – that had been driven into hiding by the Celtic invaders. Fairies are immortal.

In ancient times there were dwellings built for security, within a surrounding bank with a high fence of sharpened logs, sheltering round wooden thatched dwelling huts. Domesticated animals were herded into the gated enclosure in bad weather or as a protection against cattle and horse raiding – common pastimes for the ancient Celts. Naturally formed circles in the undulating ground, are said in Celtic mythology to be formed by fairies dancing around in a circle in a particular spot. For hundreds of years fairy forts were imbued with Druids’ magic and believers in fairies did not interfere with them.

Prehistoric Tumuli were seen as entrances to the world of the ‘Good People,’ so described because fairies are quick to be offended and must be placated, or they might ruin the crops or cause mortal children to fall sick and die. Even cutting brush on fairy forts, especially the white-thorne shrub, was reputed to be the death of those who did so. It’s remarkable that such sites are left standing and not bulldozed away. They are protected by Irish law for heritage reasons and you cannot build within 30 metres of one. Damage to a fairy fort is alleged to bring bad luck upon the land. Occasionally a fort is ignored to allow a motorway, or some expedient development, but for some there are grave misgivings.

As recently as 2011 the financial ruin of developer Sean Quinn was blamed on his moving a fairy fort.

In 2015 the Irish Lore Keeper Eddie Lenihan, author, storyteller and broadcaster.warned the US West Pharmaceutical Company that bad luck was sure to befall them if they built a new factory over a fairy fort near Waterford, employing 150 people. The construction site was over an ancient stone ring fort dating back thousands of years. Lenihan wrote to the company ‘I hope the factory is built on another location because Waterford needs the jobs, but if it is built there, wait and see what happens. It’s not a matter of if it will close but when.’ Locals heeded the call to preserve the ancient fairy fort and took no part in the construction. Workers had to be brought in from outside Waterford to continue the job. According to Lenihan, fairies are not the innocent butterfly creatures you see in Disney movies. They are powerful spirits in old Irish culture that can manifest in any form they wish.

I think developers are Philistines to destroy such an ancient stone monument when there are vast acres of land available.

I google fairies and find that they exist all over the world. In Persia they are called Peri, in Greece Fata or Destines; in Provençal, Fada, in Spain, Hada. All these names imply ‘fate’. Although few mortals have the ability any more to see them, fairies live in good health and still manifest themselves to believers.

How many people think of fairies existing in America? Many of the Native American tribes in both the United States and Canada have their own beliefs in fairies. They call them ‘little people.’ thought to be found in the highest boughs of the oldest trees. There’s a mystery surrounding a mummified little person discovered back in the 1930s in the San Pedro Mountains. Because this was discovered in a cave it was speculated that a race of tiny humans had lived in caves in the mountains. This one had a very tan skin and standing, would have been a little over a foot tall. Unfortunately the little mummy disappeared since its discovery, so no further testing has been done since the 1950s. Most scientists who have studied the photographs claim that it’s the mummy of a foetus, but the question is, why did it have a full set of adult teeth? Could they have been related to the many legends of the fairies from the European continent?

There are many Irish folk tales about supernatural events happening at fairy forts. Real accidents which happened there could be given supernatural explanations. Other traditions hold that a leprechaun may allegedly know of hidden gold. Rudyard Kipling, British author, made allusions to the process of such legends in his 1906 novel Puck of Pook’s Hill.

A workman levelling earthworks in a fairy fort at Dooneeva fell apparently dead. His wife, a ‘wise woman,’ magically brought him back to life.

A farmer’s best cow grazing in a fairy fort was found with broken legs. The farmer killed the cow and his family ate the meat, some fresh and some salted. A year later the cow was seen again in the fairy fort. The fairies told the farmer they had taken the cow because they needed the milk for their children. They had substituted an old stray horse disguised as a cow. The farmer took his restored cow home and became prosperous because the fairies supported him.

A rich farmer’s son investigating why none of the cows would enter a field with a fairy fort, found an old fairy in the fort. The old fairy asked the young man to help him get a young girl for himself. The farmer’s son would not give the girl to the fairy, but instead married her himself. As revenge the old fairy destroyed most of the farmer’s property. The farmer’s son and his wife rode to her parents’ house. She had three brothers. The brothers went to the fairy fort and started digging till they found a large flat stone. The old fairy begged them to spare his house. When they did, he became their friend and restored what he had taken.

Fairies prefer to be left alone. They are deemed spiritual, but distinct from the souls of the departed. They are reputedly beautiful; some are believed to be life-size, others as small as a leaf. They love and hate strongly, making them dangerous. Mortals who disclose fairy secrets must suffer a reminder. An offender’s eye may be removed or his arm or leg muscles may wither. Rocks may be obscured by mist to wreck ships, or travelers may stumble on a dark road over a precipice.

Don’t mess with fairies.

Images: Fairy Fort Somewhere in this Field by Rick’s Images (flickr/CC); Ringfort at Cloonmung by Pamela Norrington (Wikipedia.org/CC); Griahan of Aileach by Jon Sullivan (Wikipedia.org/public domain); A Ringfort by MulkearLIFE achieve (Public Domain); Fort Fey by olhanninen (Myeire.ru/CC); Dingle Fairyfort by jcbonbon (flickr/CC); Knockmany Chambered Tomb by R.J. Welch, Ulster Museum (Shee-Eire.com/Fair Use); The Hill of Tara by Nikky (flickr/CC); Aerial view of the Hill of Tara by ActiveMe.ie (promo/fair use); Fairies-4 by Ellaj Phillips (CC).
Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight is a retired British specialist on trading in Spain, now resident in Ireland. Spanish- and French- speaking, graduate (at 46) of International Politics and History; former editor, interpreter and fundraiser. Her five sons and twelve grandchildren live in four different Time zones around the world. She has lived in England, Wales, Spain, France and Virginia, North America for 11 years. In 2012 she self-published her memoir Plate Spinner and Only Joking, 200 pages of collected jokes categorized for easy reference, as well as What’s On My Mind, her first 50 essays published in Like The Dew. All available on Amazon.com.

  1. Ken Peacock

    Loved the story Eileen, thank you for sharing the experience. I always thought they stood outside the door of Irish pubs at closing time, tripping those who had enjoyed too much Guiness. I haven’t seen them but have fallen over several times.

  2. Eileen Dight

    Thank you Ken. I haven’t seen any either but I’ll be fairy careful.

    1. Ken Peacock

      It is important we have something to believe in. At the moment the fairies seem a good idea.

  3. Don’t mess with fairies, indeed. Loved the story.

  4. Trevor Stone Irvin

    Great piece on mankind and the insane belief systems it continues to entertain. But I’d have to say believing in fairies or trolls makes as much sense as believing in mystical, all powerful deities and the magical make-believe places you go to when you die.

  5. Enjoyed this. In fourth grade a visiting story teller came by every week and read to us. Many of her tales were about Irish little people and leprechauns. Just because I’ve never seen them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

    1. …and besides, their existence or not shouldn’t be decided by ordinary people. They’ll have to make that decision themselves–as they’ve been doing for hundreds of years.

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