Did you know that the word for Fairy in Irish (Gaeilge) has a rich and complex history? Explore the origins of the Irish for Fairy, and its significance in our culture, with Lora O’Brien.
In Irish folklore, Fairies are a respected if still somewhat mysterious part of the culture. But what is the Irish word for Fairy, and what does it mean? By studying the native language, you can delve into the history and significance of this word, and explore the fascinating role Fairies still play in Irish culture.
The Irish for Fairy is Sidhe
Although seemingly a simple answer, once you scratch the surface you’ll find that the word Sidhe – pronounced Shee – has a complex history and is deeply rooted in Irish mythology.
It comes from the Old Irish word síd, or síth, and some of the other archaic forms we have recorded are síodh, sídh, sídhe, síodha, and sídbrugach. These are generally streamlined with the use of Sidhe to represent any of the older forms of the word.
Originally the word Sidhe meant ‘a fairy hill or mound’, and represented the places in Ireland where the Otherworld, their world, connects to our world, which are often physical hills or mounds on the landscape.
Later, in a more general sense, the word Sidhe came to mean ‘wondrous, enchanting, charming, delightful’, which all sound like positive things, but please be aware that they should also be taken in their literal sense. For example, in our folklore accounts it did not usually turn out well for those who became enchanted or charmed by the Irish Fae.
Eventually the supernatural beings or Fairies, who lived in (or travelled through) the hollow hills, became know as the Aes Sidhe, which means the ‘people or folk of the mounds’.
Aes Sidhe, the Fairy in Irish Mythology
And so the Sidhe became the Irish for Fairy. According to Irish mythology, it was the Tuatha Dé Danann who first went into the hills and mounds (and thus settled in the Otherworld), after the coming of the Gael to Ireland.
(Note: One of the earliest remaining stories regarding the dividing up of the mounds is called De Gabáil in t-Shída, ‘The taking of the síd-mound’, or ‘the Seizure of the Fairy Hill’, from the Book of Leinster. You can find a version Online Here, but I recommend picking up either John Carey’s translation in The Celtic Heroic Age Here, or Morgan Daimler’s translation in Through the Mist Here.)
The Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have arrived in Ireland in prehistoric times (recorded in the Mythological Cycle tales), long before the arrival of the Gael – the Sons of Mil. They brought with them a sophisticated civilisation and a rich culture, when they landed their sky ships on Sliabh an Iarann.
According to legend, the Tuatha Dé Danann, whose name means the people of Danú or the tribe of the Gods (Tuatha Dé), were skilled in magic and possessed great knowledge of the natural world. They were said to have been expert craftspeople, creating intricate jewelry and weaponry from gold, silver, and other metals. They were also known for their healing, possessing great knowledge of medicine and herbalism.
Some of the Tuatha Dé were indeed Gods, but there were also ‘non-Gods’ among their tribe:
From them are the Tuatha Dé and Andé, whose origin the learned do not know, but that it seems likely to them that they came from heaven, on account of their intelligence and for the excellence of their knowledge.Source: The Story of Tuan mac Carill.
The Sidhe mounds are believed to be populated by both the known Gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and others of their tribes, giving us the Fairy in Irish folklore who may have descended from these Andé, or ‘non-Gods’ within their tribe.
The Othercrowd, the Fairy in Irish Folklore
As we have seen, the word Sidhe, as the Irish for Fairy, eventually came to be associated with the supernatural beings that were said to inhabit the Otherworld mounds. It’s from this word that the modern Irish word for Fairy, Sióg is derived. Today, the word Sí (diminutised as Sióg) is still used in Gaeilge, the Irish language, and our culture to refer to Fairies and other supernatural beings.
Given that the word sí in Irish is also our female pronoun, and that the modern Western view of Fairies as small, cute, winged things has become frustratingly common even here in Ireland – which fits better with the term sióg, to be honest – I tend to use the older Irish for Fairy, Sidhe, when referring to the mythological or folkloric Otherworld entities.
In Irish folklore, the Sidhe are often associated with magic, music, mischief… and even somewhat nasty tricks too, if they are crossed or disrespected. Or, just to mess with you. For example:
In the long ago, when people were going to England they used to walk as far as Drogheda. At one o’clock in the morning, a man named James Brennan of Mullinabreena set off on his journey to Drogheda. He walked at a fairly brisk pace and as he was nearing Gurteen at a place called “Tonnagh Bridge”, he saw a big house all lighted up, and as he was passing it, two boys walked out, and invited him into the dance. He did so and as he entered, his eyes were dazzled by the bright light. He talked away to the people although he knew none of them and after a while he was brought into a beautiful room, in which there was a table, covered with all sorts of eatables, there he was given plenty to eat and drink. After that was over he went back to where the dance was in full swing. He had thoroughly enjoyed it, but he noticed one peculiarity about it, for every time he asked them the time they answered half-past one, although he knew it was near daylight. Soon he thought of continuing his journey, and no sooner had the thought entered his head, than the dance broke up, and the house disappeared, and he found himself standing inside the ditch at “Tonnagh Bridge” in clear daylight. He then returned home a very dejected man, as it was too late to continue his journey. He had realised by that time, that the house was nothing more than a fairy trick to prevent him from continuing on his way.The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0117, Page 386: Doocastle, Co. Mayo
My guy there got away lightly, in truth.
The Sidhe have the power to bestow blessings or curses on humans, and are often depicted as mischievous tricksters who enjoyed playing pranks on mortals. They’re also known for their love of music and dance, and hold elaborate feasts and celebrations in their underground homes, as we’ve seen in the example above (although that one was the liminal location of a bridge, rather than a mound).
In some stories, the Sidhe are even said to have the power to control the weather, causing storms or bringing sunshine depending on their mood, or to bless/ruin a big event as it takes them to do so.
Despite their nature, the Fairy in Irish folklore is also seen as a powerful and respected being, and for those who are well versed in the traditional Fairy Faith in Ireland, can even be sought out for their wisdom and guidance.
What is an Irish Fairy Called Now?
Today, the word Sidhe is still used in modern Irish to refer to Fairies, particularly with regard to the older beliefs, but it has also taken on a broader meaning to encompass all types of supernatural beings. The Irish Fae have even become a little mixed up with ghosts and death traditions, as can be seen with the Banshee, a particular type of Fairy in Irish folklore.
We also refer to them as Na Daoine Maithe (the Good People), the Good Neighbours, or the Othercrowd, as well as many other honorifics for Fairy in Irish or English. There are also many variations on the word Sí, such as: Aosán ‘Fairies’; Bansióg ‘female Fairy’; Síbhean ‘Fairy woman’; Síofróg ‘Elf-woman, Fairy’; Síogaí ‘Elf, Fairy’; or Tuathghinte ‘Fairies, Elves’.
If you’d like to learn more about the Fairy Faith in Ireland, you can pick up a copy of my book below, or Click Here to Take a Class on Fairies at the Irish Pagan School!