Shh: We don’t talk about fairies

A fairy tree in southern Ireland has wishes attached to it. Photo courtesy of Harper Leigh

By Harper Leigh | Guest Contributor

Signs of them dot the Irish countryside, but while sight may speak loudly, a hush falls over many crowds when discussing the F word: fairies.

Roads are rerouted for them, literature is littered with them and a whole world is enamored by them, yet in Ireland, they are not spoken of. Ireland’s belief in fairies is easy to see, but getting people to talk appears to be as elusive as finding Lady and Joy on a hot Texas day.

At University College Dublin, fairies and folklore can be spotted in the library collection that houses thousands of interviews, folk music and written works. Commissioned in the 1930s, the collection was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for its “outstanding universal value to culture.”

Alba Vanderheim, who has been working at the National Folklore Collection for about two years, said she thinks the impact of folklore and the tales of fairies on Irish culture is astounding. She said the superstition shows through from abduction legends to what to do and what not to do.

“Fairy cows and even the more general otherworldly figures — there’s just such a huge collection of material that exists,” Vanderheim said.

The collection reveals just how nuanced understanding fairies is. When many people think of fairies, they think of Disney images and happy endings. However, for many in Ireland, fairies and the belief in the supernatural are not always positive.

“It’s not necessarily all bad, but it’s very ambiguous — if they are to be feared or are they good and useful,” Vanderheim said. “It depends. There is definitely the idea, just to be on the safe side, that it is probably not best to call on them openly.”

Vanderheim is not the only one to hold this opinion. At the Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub, a night of fairies and folklore hosted by Johny Daly showcases the heritage of Ireland.

“In Disney, the fairy world is much more romanticized when times are good, and we have the scientific knowledge to explain everything,” Daly said. “Back then, it was a darker world. Things tended to go wrong rather than right for people, so the fairy world was seen as a world that did more harm than good.”

This idea of the fairy world doing more harm than good translates to today; according to Daly, talking about them can bring bad luck.

“There was a belief if you talked about them too much, you might attract their attention and have bad luck,” Daly said.

The ability of fairies to impact life is still evidenced today, as people hang wishes from Hawthorne fairy trees that dot the landscape in Ireland. Blowing in the wind, these wishes are left in hope that the fairies will bless them.

Photo courtesy of Harper Leigh Roberts
Photo courtesy of Harper Leigh

In Kerry County, two fairy trees sit amid an ancient stone circle. Wishes for love, healing and hope cover the magical branches.

Daly said this tension between the seen and unseen is prevalent today.

“In the modern world, we believe in the seen rather than the unseen,” Daly said. “But people instinctively are drawn to the ideas of a mystical, unseen and parallel world existing next to our own. It allows more room for the imagination and fantastical, which is often lacking in our modern lives.”

Drawing us to consider the imaginative and fantastical, fairies remind us of the innate pull we have as humans to look beyond this world. While many may not go on record to discuss their views, when it comes to fairies in Ireland, actions speak louder than words. Perhaps there is something worth exploring beyond our scientific equations and telescopes. Perhaps you can only see the unseen through the lens of belief.