The Sidhe in Ireland
Here in the Emerald Isle we have Irish myths aplenty about the Fairy Folk, with records starting in the 17th Century and continuing right through to Fairy stories and Irish folklore that is still being spoken of and recorded in the present day. We call them the Sidhe.
If you’ve come here for fan fic of the Fairy Folk, click bait ‘Celtic’ mythology, or any sort of video game reference, you’re out of luck. This article is about the Sidhe, who are the Irish Fairy folk specifically, and this is a genuine belief and tradition that still holds sway in Ireland. This is the real deal, written by an Irish historian and folklorist, who also happens to be a practicing Irish Pagan.
What are Irish Sidhe?
Irish folklore is rich with stories of fairies, elves, and other magical beings. These tales are often passed down through generations and are believed to contain important lessons for us humans.
Many believe that these legends are rooted in real events, and there was (and still is) a very real belief in these inhabitants of the Fairy Mounds, and the powers they wield. The Sidhe, or Fairy People, are said to travel the mountains and forests of Ireland, usually invisible to humans, and to be found also in the bogs, caves, lakes and islands of the Irish landscape. Especially belonging to them though are the old forts and mounds, the ancient monuments built by our ancestors, which contain entrances to where the Sidhe really live – the land of Fairy, or the Fairy realm, which we call the Otherworld (An Saol Eile).
They generally appear as human like, though there are exceptions among the different types of Irish Fairy, and though there are some who are traditionally small in stature (such as the leprechaun), they will most often appear as regular human sized too.
Irish mythology and folklore tradition varies through the ages on whether they are the Tuatha Dé Danann, a race of Gods and Goddesses banished to the hollow hills, or fallen angels, not quite bad enough to be cast to hell during the fall, stuck in limbo here on earth until the day when they are forgiven and can reclaim their place in heaven.
In modern terms, Irish folk who believe in the Sidhe tend to view them as inhabitants of the Otherworld, encompassing a variety of races or tribes or types, who have access to this world and can manifest here or affect humans at will… though humans are usually not aware of their presence or interference, often until it is too late.
Etymology of the Sidhe
Many Celtic myths abound about the Fairy folk, but here we are focusing specifically on Ireland, and the Irish language.
While we now see the word Sidhe (pronounced Shee) as meaning an Irish Fairy being, the word in older Irish generally referred to a place associated with the Otherworld, the actual mounds themselves that were said to be connecting places between the worlds.
In Old Irish we see references to síd, síth, síodh, sídh, sídhe, síodha, or sídbrugach as ‘a fairy hill or mound’, and later in a more general sense, to mean something wondrous, enchanting, charming, or delightful. Subsequently, we see the term being associated with supernatural beings themselves, or fairies specifically.
In the modern Irish language (Gaeilge) the term is Sí, still seen to represent either the place or the being. The Irish-English dictionary (see Teanglann.ie) gives us the following meanings for Sí:
- Fairy mound.
- Fairy; bewitching, enchanting; deceptive, delusive.
And provides the following terms for context:
- Aos sí; inhabitants of fairy mounds, fairies.
- Bean sí; fairy woman, banshee.
- An slua sí; the fairy host.
- Long sí; phantom ship.
- Ceol sí; enchanting music.
- Solas sí; misguiding light.
- Sí gaoithe; whirlwind, fairy wind.
In modern times, the term has come to mean the supernatural beings known as pookas, banshees, leprechauns, mermaids, selkies or seal folk, and other creatures associated with Irish mythology, with the diminutive Sióg often being used to signify the silly sort of flower fairy notion which began in Victorian times in England and has been perpetuated by the spreading influence of British and U.S. media.
What is the Difference Between Fairy and Fae?
There are a lot of spellings for the word Fairy, and many cultures (most, even?) have some sort of version of these beings within their own traditions.
If you take a broad spectrum globally and chronologically, any and all spellings or letter combinations would be valid, as they have pretty much all been used somewhere. In modern practice though, most of us do be giving side eye to the American lads who throw in as many extra vowels as they can get away with, thinking it lends an air of gravitas or antiquity… spoiler alert, it does not. You look ridiculous.
In Ireland though, we don’t really use the terms Fae (from the Old French) or Faerie (from the Old Latin), and stick to plain old Fairy if we’re using that term at all. However, our native tradition holds that it can be bad luck, or even disrespectful and dangerous, to refer to them as such.
A few of us have made a specific agreement with Themselves, so we can use it and not be misunderstood or overlooked when we are working to get authentic information out into the world, to combat the tide of sheer bullshit that abounds when we usually read on this topic.
Other Names for the Sidhe in Ireland
As mentioned above, we don’t usually name them directly. This is for fear of catching their attention, or disrespecting them, and so we employ many honorifics and descriptive terms to avoid doing either of those things wherever possible.
In Ireland, alternative names for the Sidhe include:
- Aes Sídhe, Aos Sí, or Daoine Sidhe (People or Folk of the Mounds)
- Na Daoine Uaisle (the Noble People)
- Na Uaisle (indicating Noble or Highborn status)
- Na Daoine Maithe (the Good People)
- An Slua Sí, Slúagh Sídhe (the Fairy Host or Crowd)
- The Fair Folk
- The Other Crowd
- The People of the Hills
- The Gentry
Different Types of Irish Fairy
There are many different types or tribes of Fairies inhabiting the Fairy forts, and the Irish Otherworld accessed through them, who can cross freely into our world. Some can occasionally be friendly and helpful, while others are downright dangerous and malicious. It is often impossible for humans to predict which mood one of the Other Crowd will be in when we meet them.
In Irish folklore, we don’t have any neat delineation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ types of the Sidhe, or any tales of a Seelie and Unseelie court (that’s Scottish). We do have named Kings and Queens, but our Otherworld Courts align with the provinces, for the most part, and contain all sorts within their ranks.
The most division that could be made, perhaps, would be in those that are usually met alone, and those that would often appear in groups or troupes. Even those lines, however, may blur.
The Other Crowd are not the ‘evil spirits’ that some sources make them out to be, but they are equally not the friendly inhabitants of woodland villages filled with tiny Fairy doors, happily tinkling around the Emerald Isle granting magical wishes to children, that many today seem to be comfortable with.
Some of the types of Irish Fairy that you may hear, or read about, or even meet if you are lucky/unlucky while following a Fairy path, are as follows.
Banshee, Bean Sidhe
The Bean Sidhe (Fairy woman) is prevalent in Irish mythology. Some of more fanciful ‘Celtic Mythology’ will tell you they are the spirits of people who have died and whose souls have not yet crossed over into the Otherworld, or that they were once human beings but they became immortal by eating a magical herb, or that they were women who’d died by suicide.
Our Fairy stories say they are connected to certain old Irish families in particular, and the oral tradition shows the Bean Sidhe is a much misunderstood type of Irish Fairy, who is something of an ancestral spirit or guardian in role and function. Hence the confusion with ghosts, perhaps.
She is said to announce the death of a family member with a terrible wailing or keening cry, and it is difficult to think of any famous stories which show her appearing to the one who is going to die themselves – it is always in relation to the death of someone else that you’d hear her warning.
Cat Sí (Fairy Cat) and Cú Sí (Fairy Hound)
These creatures are given as being much larger than regular cats and dogs, with a Fairy cat appearing more to the size of a large dog breed, and a Fairy hound being more along the size of a small bull.
Both have extremely long and sometimes curly or shaggy tails, and most often would appear as a very dark green to black colour. There are also examples of white animals recorded in the oral tradition however, and it is common to see animals associated with the Aes Sidhe appearing as white animals with red ears, which is common across all of Celtic mythology and not particular to Irish folk and fairy tales.
This type of Fairy is said to replace either a baby, or an attractive young man or woman, who would be carried off to the Otherworld. While the stories tell commonly of a wizened misshapen old creature being left in place of the human who has been carried off to some Fairy mansion or court in the Otherworld, the replacement could also be in the form of a stout log of wood.
In either case, an enchantment is laid and the Changeling replacement is masked in the glamour of the stolen form, tricking the mother or family they have left behind. Sometimes, the Fairy creature will give themselves away by saying or doing something a baby or child could not (singing, dancing, showing wisdom beyond their years). Or, a visitor to the home – often a Wise Woman, or a Fairy Doctor – may be able to tell that something is very wrong, and the Changeling can be tested to discern if it is really one of the Daoine Sidhe.
There are many tragic tales from the 19th Century, and even into the 20th Century, where a family has gotten this wrong, and exposed a child to the elements or to fire in an attempt to find a Changeling, thus causing harm or even death to a human who had simply fallen ill or somehow changed demeanor enough to raise suspicion.
Leprechaun and Clurichaun
A number of other types of Fairies are described in Irish folklore, but these two would be among the most often mentioned in modern times. The Leprechaun is known for his shoemaking and mending prowess, the classic pot of gold or magically refilling purse, and his ability to make things disappear, while the Clurichaun is known for his magic skills and his ability to turn himself invisible. Both are considered mischievous beings, and both are generally solitary beings.
While much changed in more modern folklore, there are actually much older references to the Leprechauns in tales from the Irish Mythological Cycle, with a King and Queen of diminutive stature named Iubdan and Bébo, respectively.
Merrow, the Irish Mermaid
Merrow (from Irish murúch) is a mermaid or merman in Irish folklore who require a ‘little magical cap’, the cochaillín draíochta, so they may travel between deep water and dry land. They could fall in love with humans, and even marry, though a husband would have to be careful to hide the cap in order not to lose his sea-wife, for if the Sidhe lover found it she would leave.
They can appear while in the water as the stereotypical mermaid, human from waist up, and fish-like waist down, with greenish-tinted scales and green hair. On land and without the magical cap, there would be a slight webbing between the fingers and toes, which would be passed down in the children of any such union.
The Púca, or Pooka
The Púca (still the word used in modern Irish for spirit or ghost), whose name can be anglicised as pooka or phouka is considered to be a solitary Sidhe who could be the bringer of either good or bad fortune, and help or further hindrance to travellers and rural communities.
They are likely to be a distinct group or tribe of Fairies though, and Púcaí (the plural) can have dark green/black or white fur or hair, similar to a Fairy cat or hound. In Irish Fairy and folk tales, the creatures appear as shapeshifters, which could take the form of horses, goats, cats, dogs, roosters, or hares. They may also appear in human form, sometimes including various animal features, such a tail or long ears.
As with many of the Aes Sidhe, the Púca has counterparts in other countries across Celtic mythology.
Are the Tuatha Dé Danann Fairies?
The Sidhe are said to be immortal, and they are often described as being hauntingly beautiful. They are also said be able to change their appearance into different forms. There are various stories told about them, and if we go back as far as the Irish Mythological Cycle we can find their original connection with the Tuatha Dé Danann, which may be the origin of their immortality, striking appearance, shape-shifting, and other magical powers.
There are definite connections between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Otherworld Mounds in Irish Mythology, and this has led to a lot of confusion about whether they are Fairies, or not. CODECS defines them as:
A group of supernatural or magical figures in Irish history, broadly equivalent to the Aes Sidhe. In the pseudo-historical tradition represented by Lebor Gabála Érenn and other texts, they are presented and arguably, to some extent euhemerised as the pre-Christian people that conquered Ireland from the Fir Bolg and were later overcome by the sons of Míl (the Gaels).
There are many stories about this tribe of Gods, and their comings and goings on and off the island of Ireland – as given in Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of the Taking of Ireland, known as the Book of Invasions) – as well as their battles with other Irish tribes, namely the Firbolg and the Fomorians.
The story from the mythological cycle that most clearly connects the Tuatha Dé Danann to the beings we know as the Sidhe, is called De Gabail in tSida, translated as ‘The Taking of the Sí’, in which the Sons of Mil (Milesians, or the Gaels) make an alliance with the Dagda, who is King of the Tuatha Dé Danann and demands offerings of grain and dairy in return for not ruining the harvests of humanity, basically.
While the connection between these ancient tales and the present day folklore is undeniable, it would be a mistake to say that Na Daoine Sidhe are made up only of ancient Gods and Goddesses of Ireland. For one thing, they were a whole tribe, and perhaps not all of them were afforded deity status or had the full range of supernatural powers – there may have been a large group of ‘ordinary’ folk amongst more well known of the People of Danú.
And for another, there are many lands in the Otherworld, and who is to say that they are not populated with all manner of different beings, just as our world is.
Where do the Sidhe Live?
In the story mentioned above, the Dagda also divides the various Sidhe mounds of Ireland up amongst the Tuatha Dé Danann, and these become their homes and palaces filled with wondrous delights, as given in this translation by Morgan Daimler:
Wonderful moreover his land there. There were three trees with produce there on them always, and a pig always in life on its feet, and a pig roasted. And a vessel with distinctive drink. And all these things never fail, always.
The Otherworld which these mounds and Fairy forts connect to is a wonder in itself, described in many tales from the Irish Mythological Cycle, but most completely in those of the Eachtraí (adventures) and the later Immrama (sea voyages).
When humans are enticed into the Otherworld in these stories, it often involves a beautiful Fairy lover type figure, as seen in perhaps the most famous Eachtra Oisín in Tir na nÓg, when this Fenian warrior (son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill) meets Niamh Chinn Óir (Niamh of the Golden Head, who is one of the daughters of Manannán mac Lir), and they depart together for Tír na nÓg, the land of the ever young.
He remains king there for what seems to be a few years, but when he returns he finds is actually more than 300 years, and he gets stuck here when he falls from his horse and touches the earth of this world, aging rapidly. It is said that he then met Saint Patrick and told him all sorts of stories comparing his Paganism to Patrick’s Christianity, but like most of the St. Patrick lore this is likely to be later propaganda.
When it comes to the physical locations favoured and inhabited by the Sidhe in this world, the Irish Folklore Commission has recorded multiple accounts in which Fairies severely punish those who invade or disrespect their territory. Fairy mounds are areas that they protect from intruders, and they often found near water, especially lakes, rivers and ponds.
A Fairy mound is a large hill of earth that appears to be a natural formation, but is often the remains of ancient archaeological monuments, with tombs or old forts buried within them.
Irish tradition teaches us to be very careful around the Fairy forts, as they can be exceptionally dangerous, especially at liminal times such as midnight, sunset and sunrise, or the changing of the seasons such as Bealtaine or Samhain, and Midsummer.
You could easily be stolen away, or seriously injured, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, as with everything about the Irish Sidhe, please beware!
Where To Now?
If you think that the Irish Sidhe are interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: