…a saint was born in a Fairy Fort while his mother was to burn at the stake, a prideful outlaw became a hero by telling off the British, and children that were “gone with the fairies” were buried in unmarked graves at crossroads under the cover of the night.
Last weekend’s field trip was all about legends of saints and fairies. We visited a number of places all of which were off the beaten path including a ring fort with a fairy field, a stone circle, an abbey-turned-graveyard and an unmarked children’s graveyard.
The entire week we had been learning about fairy folklore in Irish tradition, and fairies are not what you might expect them to be. Fairies are meant to be evil in Ireland, only coming to the human realm to steal people, especially children. There are many theories behind why they would steal children, but all come back to the fact that the fairies want red blood because their blood is white. They want the red blood, either by drinking it (vampires) or by mating with humans, to “redden” their bloodline.
One theory behind this is that the fairies are really fallen angels. They are stuck on Earth, but are not human, so they see “reddening” their bloodline as their ticket back into heaven. Another theory is that the fairies used to be gods, and the Irish fought them in battle and won. The truce then stated that half of Ireland would go to the humans and half to the fairy gods. But, the fairies had been tricked by the humans. The humans took the top half of Ireland, while the fairies took the half that was underneath the earth.
Because fairies are known to steal children and take them to the fairy world, the fairies would then replace the children they steal with fairies or changelings. The whole idea of changelings really caught me off guard when we were on our field trip. Changelings were meant to be fairy children that had replaced the human children.
But the reasons for a changeling were quite disturbing, as well as the ways in which one could check to see if someone was a changeling. Basically, if a child was born out of wedlock, with a deformity, was sick, or was different in any way, they were declared a changeling, and therefore, a fairy. So, to get rid of the fairy and to get the human child back, parents would leave their babies in manure heaps outside overnight, hold them over fire or place them on a hot shovel, leave a hot iron over their cribs, and so much more because fairies are afraid of iron, fire, and anything dirty.
The changeling idea doesn’t stop with children though. Any adult who was different or on the outskirts of society, whether they were deformed, sick, homeless, or had diseases like Alzheimer’s, were also considered to be “gone with the fairies,” or as changelings.
In some even more tragic cases, wives were being accused of being a fairy, and once they were accused, there was no turning back. This was the case of Bridget Cleary. Her husband was unhappy that they had been married for around 6 years and had no children, so once Bridget came down with bronchitis and wasn’t exactly herself, he accused her of being a fairy. He then, along with most of Bridget’s own family, took to the procedures of getting rid of a changeling to bring back their dear Bridget.
Some of these rituals included throwing urine over her because fairies don’t like anything dirty, feeding her a “fairy cure” to see if she could keep it down (she couldn’t because it’s poison), placing her over the fire, and making her eat bread. When she couldn’t keep the bread down, her husband was convinced that she was a fairy because fairies can’t eat any food from our world.
After seeing this, he threw his wife into the fireplace and watched her burn to death. This was only about 100 years ago, which is pretty scary if you ask me. Everyone knows that this was a tragedy, a man either using fairylore to kill his wife or actually believing in what seemed to be harmless stories by that point in time. That’s the scary part about folklore sometimes – what happens when adults start to believe in the legends and use the stories as excuses for murder. There are many accounts like Bridget Cleary’s, but none that made it past the early 1800s.
One of the sights we visited on our field trip was to a children’s burial ground, where all of the children and people who were considered fairies were buried. If you don’t know it’s a graveyard, it would be hard to point it out as it looks just like a patch of grass at the crossroads. I listened to my professor as I stood on the bones of unwanted children and people, realizing the full impact these stories had on people in the past. How could someone kill their child just because it wouldn’t eat or it had a deformity?
We also visited the largest ring fort, or fairy fort, in all of Ireland. A ring fort is basically a circular patch of land surrounded by two rings of ditches. In folklore, these land patches were considered portals to the fairy world and where all of the children were taken. Historically, people lived in these forts and had the ditch system to keep their cattle from being stolen or running off. Kings were also inaugurated inside these ring forts.
The legend goes that St. Finbarre was also born in the middle of the ring fort that we visited. His mother, a slave, was supposed to sleep with the King, but when the King arrived, she was nine months pregnant with the blacksmith’s child. When he found out, he ordered them to be burned at the stake inside the ring fort, the usual place for burnings. According to legend, St. Finbarre, from inside his mother’s womb, made it rain so they would not burn, and was born right there in the middle of the fort, talking and with a ring of light around his head. In the words of my professor, “This kid was meant to do something. He was special. I mean, he spoke from his mother’s womb — of course they made him a saint!”
On the fairy side of things, the legend of the fairy fort began long ago, but was reinforced when a young girl was seen playing by the ring fort. She went missing that same day and no one ever saw her again, so people said that the fairies had taken her. Many years later, her body was discovered underneath the fairy fort, buried from a cave-in. But that just goes to show that fairies were the perfect solution to a lot of life’s problems back then. By saying, “It was the fairies,” people were given some closure to the unexplained.
On our travels we also visited the Kilcrea Abbey that has been turned into a graveyard over the years. It was only an abbey for a few years before it was turned to ruins in battle. After that, it became a graveyard for one family, the McCarthy’s. This lasted a little while until the Irish potato famine, when there just weren’t enough spaces to bury all of the bodies, so they were literally dumped into this graveyard, left to rot.
My professor informed us that he used to play in this graveyard when he was a kid, finding enough bones to put whole skeletons together because it had become a boneyard more than anything else. It wasn’t until the 1970s that people started to clean it up a bit, and we still found a few loose bones as we walked through the graveyard.
It was also very strange seeing gravestones inside old fireplaces and under the ruins of old windows. It was like having a graveyard in your house. As I walked from room to room, I started to picture the hustle and bustle that would have been going on when it was still an abbey, now with the spirits of the dead taking over the common room, the study, the great hall. It was all very surreal.
In this graveyard, a very special figure is buried, Arthur O’Leary. He is known as the man who told off the British in the 1700s. He rode his horse into town with a sword slung across his waist. A member of the gentry then came up to him in town and told O’Leary to give him his horse. O’Leary basically told him to “piss off,” something no one did at the time, and he was made an outlaw. A few days later, O’Leary rode back into town on his horse just to show off his Irish roots a little more, but this ride cost him his life. He was shot and killed, but remains a legend to this day.
After visiting a few graveyards, we made our way to Clonakilty for lunch. It was such a cute little town full color and excitement. There was even a little train that rode through the streets while we ate lunch.
After the break we headed to the Drombeg Stone Circle. It had the most gorgeous view of the ocean and the breathtaking Irish hills. While we were there we learned more about the stone circle itself, about how over 2000 years ago, people used these circles to sacrifice Kings or Chiefs when the land wasn’t doing well or when they disagreed with his leadership. Our professor even told us how he was part of the archaeological team that found a human skeleton in a capsule buried under the circle.
Near the stone circle, there were also remnants of a house and of a cooking station. The cooking station was a horseshoe shaped place with a rectangular opening in the ground. Our professor told us how people used these rectangles to boil water by placing large stones in a fire that would heat up for the entire day and then placing the stones one by one in the water until it was boiling. Then, they would place meat and vegetables into the rectangular boiling “pot.”
The boiling pot’s function didn’t end there though. It was also used as a way for soldiers to bathe. They would strip down by the pot, revealing their battle scars and fresh wounds and then they would use the animal fat that had come off of the boiling meat as soap to wash up. I could just imagine warriors standing around this rectangular boiling pot, recounting battle stories and laughing at their own luck to have survived. It was a very cool place to visit.
After a day of graveyards, warriors, and fairies, we ended our field trip at a beautiful harbor in Glandore. It was absolutely breathtaking and it reminded me so much of my time in Maine as well as The Little Mermaid. It was just so beautiful. And of course, it wouldn’t be a folklore trip without a few rusty, sunken ships nearby.
Overall, it was a day of reflection and of storytelling, visiting sights not for tourists, but for locals, not for the light-hearted, but for the strong-stomached. I saw where history met folklore and the effects stories can have on people, way back when and today.
Children’s Burial Ground
Entrance to Fairy/Ring Fort
The Middle of the Ring Fort where St. Finbarre was Born
Clovers in the Fairy Fort
Loose Human Bone (Lower Right Corner)
Arthur O’Leary’s Tomb
The Cooking Area
Fun at the Circle
My Folklore Class