Call them elves, faeries, goblins, faery, dwarves, sprites, pixies, gnomes, fay, or fae… almost every culture has them, and in Ireland we call them the Fairies, or the Sidhe.
If you look to the modern Irish language, you’ll see Sí , and in older versions of the language it’s Sidhe, or Síd, but this name actually comes from the mounds or hills through which they enter and exit the Otherworld, or rather – in which they live.
Note: this applies to specific Fairy Mounds, not to every hill or mound in Ireland!
For example, one of the more famous Otherworld gateways is a cave within the Rathcroghan complex (the entrance is pictured above), in County Roscommon.
It goes by many names, this place, but originally it was the Sid ar Cruachan, the Fairy mound of Cruachan. (It’s not technically a mound now, but it probably was in the past.)
Therefore, the entities which pass between the worlds through this gateway have become known as the Sidhe, among other things.
Yes, but what IS a Sidhe?
Not all things that reside in the Otherworld are Fairies as we would view them, though technically they could all be called Sidhe if they pass through these gateways. There will however be deities who may be averse to this view, as well as dead humans who you would likely offend.
The Otherworld is a large and varied place, a literal whole other world, full of inhabitants as different to each other as an ant is different to a human grandmother, and they are both different again to a blue whale or a corporate CEO.
Each have their own place, role, and function within the world.
It should be noted too, that though their version of reality in the Otherworld can significantly vary from ours in this world, it is no less real. They are no less real.
Yes, Fairies are real, and called the Sidhe in Ireland.
Also, the Otherworld and everything in it are real. And entry points to it are called the Sidhe.
When dealing with the beings or entities known as the Sidhe, there are no exact right or wrong answers as to what they are, precisely. Folklore doesn’t usually work like that. Unfortunately.
I do like Katherine Briggs’ definition:
The Sidhe meaning in English
Looking at the Old Irish version, síd or síth means ‘a fairy hill or mound’, while we see áes síde as the correct term in use for ‘supernatural beings, fairies’. So the Sidhe in English can refer to either or both of those things.
The modern Irish dictionary gives a similar definition:
1. Fairy mound.
Aos sí, inhabitants of fairy mounds, fairies. Bean sí, fairy woman, banshee. An slua sí, the fairy host.
2. Fairy; bewitching, enchanting; deceptive, delusive.
Long sí, phantom ship. Ceol sí, enchanting music. Solas sí, misguiding light.
All versions and spellings are pronounced SHEE, which is why it gets confusing – sí is also the female pronoun in Irish. This is why many modern Irish people continue with the use of the older spelling Sidhe, even when we speak modern Irish only (Gaeilge).
So, if someone asks you how to pronounce Sidhe in Irish, you can tell them – shee!
The Sidhe in Celtic Mythology
This is an article about the Sidhe in Ireland, and although there are similarities and even crossovers between various of the ‘Celtic’ countries, this is NOT about the Fairies in Scotland, or Wales, or the Isle of Man, or Cornwall, or Brittany.
Many authors from outside these cultures will look at them all together, and there can be benefits to that sort of general study, when done right and with respectful awareness and academic knowledge.
However, it is often done very wrong, glibly lumping us all together with no understanding or acknowledgment of the very different source cultures within the mishmash they are creating.
Nonetheless, when you are on the inside of one of these cultures looking out, the perspective is quite different.
For example, we do not have the Seelie or Unseelie Courts in Ireland. That is a specific tradition from the lowlands of Scotland, and it’s important that you understand that in Ireland, we do not have the idea of a ‘Light Court’ (Seelie) or a ‘Dark Court’ (Unseelie) anywhere in our folklore (unless it has been imported).
- Our Free Checklist of Trustworthy Sources has a whole section on the Sidhe! Get it HERE.
- Parts of this article were adapted from Lora O’Brien’s book (by the author) – The Fairy Faith in Ireland: History, Tradition, and Modern Pagan Practice (Celtic Pagan Practice) – Eel & Otter Press, 2021. Get it HERE.
- Take a Class about the Sidhe – Click Here for More Details.