Irish Fairy Folk

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader.

You’ve probably heard of leprechauns and banshees, but how about the other “little people” of the Emerald Isle?


(Image credit: DeviantART member Skye-Fyre)

In the 1950 film Harvey, the main character, Elwood P. Dowd (played by Jimmy Stewart), consults with a six-foot-tall rabbit that only he can see. He calls the rabbit a pooka, defined in the film as “a fairy spirit in animal form, always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, this one and that one; a benign but mischievous creature, very fond of rum pots, crackpots…” That sounds benign, but in Ireland, a pooka is the most feared of all magical creatures. Pookas appear at night and wreak havoc on farmers. In County Down, legend has it that the pooka transforms itself into a deformed goblin who demands a share of the year’s harvest, which is why many farmers leave a “pooka’s share” of crops still in the field.

But the form a pooka most often assumes is that of a huge black horse with fierce yellow eyes. It roams the countryside, tearing down fences, freeing livestock, and destroying crops. The only man ever to tame the pooka was Brian Boru, the eleventh-century high king of Ireland. According to legend, Boru made the magic horse promise to stop tormenting the farmers and ruining their crops, and never again to attack an Irishman going home…. unless he’s drunk— and then he can give the man a good pounding.


Fairies who give birth to sick or ugly babies may try to swap them with healthy babies from the human world. The bad-tempered child left in its place is called a changeling. Changelings bring bad luck and misery to a human home, crying day and night. The babies most in danger of being switched are those not baptized or those who are oohed and ahhed over because of their beauty.

A changeling looks exactly like the human baby, but somehow seems to be different. They have dark, penetrating eyes that show a wisdom beyond their age. They can develop crippling diseases and live only a few years. Most changelings are boys, which is why, even as recently as 60 years ago, some Irish families would disguise their boys in dresses till they were seven years old, too old to be taken by fairies.


(Image credit: Andreas F. Borchert)

In Tir fo Thuinn, the land beneath the waves, the fairy people are called merrows. They mostly take the form of beautiful women who can live on land or in the sea. Unlike mermaids, who are half-human, half-fish, the merrows of Irish folklore have legs and arms. But their fingers are webbed and their feet are flat. In the northern waters off Ireland, they swim wrapped in sealskin capes and are often mistaken for seals. A merrow also wears a cohuleen druith, a magical red cap that helps her swim. She must abandon the cap and cape to come ashore. There are many stories of coastal fisherman taking merrows as lovers and even marrying them. The O’Sullivans and O’Flahertys of Kerry and the MacNamaras of Clare claim to be descendants of these unions.


(Image credit: DeviantART member PlummyPress/Jesse Hughes)

If you pass two large stones leaning together in the countryside, you could be passing a grogoch’s house. But fear not— the half-man, half-fairy grogoch is a pleasant creature. He’s small, covered in red hair or fur, and very dirty. (A mother might tell her unkempt child, “You look like an old grogroch.”) Another name for this creature is pecht, which comes from Pict, the name of the Celtic people who once lived in Scotland. Like the Picts, grogochs left Scotland and settled on Ireland’s northern coast and on the Isle of Man.

A grogroch is friendly but shy, and he loves hard work. (He is credited with moving large marble stones and clipping the grass in a meadow.) The one thing a grogroch doesn’t love: laziness. Workers who lie down in fields to rest may find themselves poked and prodded by an invisible hand until they get back on the job.


(Image credit: Tuohirulla)

Swamp gas is often the explanation for phosphorescent balls of light that appear over bogs at twilight. In Ireland these glimmering spirits are known as water sheerie and are believed to be the souls of unborn children trying to return to the mortal world. A traveler making his way through the bog might see these bobbing lights and try to follow them, thinking they are people with lanterns, but the lights are illusive and never let people get near them. If you do get close, beware. Sheerie, sometimes called “corpse candles,” may lead you into a bog hole… and a watery grave.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader. The latest annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series features fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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