This appeared in The North Clare Local in April.
“Are you a witch, or are you a fairy?
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”
(Irish children’s rhyme)
When you scratch the surface, most human beings share the same common, primal fears. Chief among them is the loss of a loved one, especially a child.
The idea of the changeling- that fairies could steal a child away, possibly forever, and leave a horribly altered substitute in its place- is one of the most sinister traditions in Irish folklore.
Why would a fairy steal a human child? Many believed that fairy babies were ugly and troublesome, whereas human infants were docile and beautiful. Fairies were always attracted to beauty and music; it wasn’t just babies that were at risk, but good-looking young men and women. In Ireland it common to exchange an elderly, dying fairy with a baby. Others believed that a fairy infant needed mortal food to thrive.
Perhaps the most sinister purpose for stealing away a human child comes from the Scottish tradition. The Scots believed that the fairies had done a deal with the devil, and every seven years they owed him a tithe. The devil demanded a blood sacrifice, but the fairies’ high self-regard would prevent them killing one of their number. The fairies abducted a child in order to pay their blood dues.
Cross-breeding was another motive for kidnap. In order to prevent their bloodlines becoming choked, the fairies took humans to inject fresh blood into their clans.
Whatever the reason, how would a parent know they had a changeling on their hands? Their formerly bonny baby would suddenly sicken, and fail to thrive. Conversely, their appetite may become prodigious and they may literally eat their new family out of house and home. However, no matter how much they consumed, they remained sickly and wan.
The new replacement could be deformed, with strange features. They may be aloof, cry constantly, and generally misbehave. They may be unable to talk.
If all this wasn’t unnerving enough, another belief states that the fairies sometimes do not leave a replacement at all. Instead, they may enchant a block of wood or a lump of wax to look like the missing child. In this case, the enchantment will soon wear off and the ‘child’ will die, revealing its real appearance. Throwing the log on the fire was thought to restore the child.
To prevent a child being snatched, iron (a great enemy of fairies) was left near the crib, usually in the form of fire tongs or scissors. In Ireland, people were warned not to ‘overlook’ the baby, i.e. look upon them or the parents with envy. All traditions, including Scandinavian and German, agreed that baptising the baby as quickly as possible would prevent fairy abduction.
Even if you had done everything right, you might still be unlucky. Take the story of the Welsh widow woman who the fairies tricked into thinking that her cattle were in distress. While she tended to her stock, the fairies snatched her lovely young son and left a changeling in his place.
With the help of a local wise-man, she gets the child back. But how do you get a child back from fairyland?
Even if you succeed, you may find the child irrevocably changed. The Irish noted that the child may always long for fairyland. On the other side of the world, the Japanese believed the child must be returned before they ate fairy food, or else the exchange was irreversible.
In the legend of the widow of Lianfabon, the wise-man instructs her to perform several unusual tasks, including brewing beer in an eggshell and cooking a fully-feathered chicken. Performing actions like that would cause the changeling to forget himself and pass a remark about never having seen anything like it despite ‘being as old as the hills’. Having been rumbled, the changeling would disappear and the human child would return. But other actions were more sinister, including burning and drowning. There are cases on the books involving parents killing a suspected ‘changeling’ child. One case occurred in Kerry where in 1884, Anne Roche drowned 3-year-old Michael Leahy, who could not stand nor speak.
The Bridget Cleary case in 1895, referenced in the nursery rhyme above, is the most famous example. Tortured and killed by her husband Michael and six other people, Bridget was suspected of being a changeling. Angela Bourke’s book on the subject, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, is worth seeking out.
To any modern reader the symptoms of a changeling child can be conflated with autism, Downs Syndrome, and a host of other developmental and congenital disorders. It is heart-breaking to think how these children were treated before the advent of modern science and understanding. Truly, changeling belief is the most sinister in all Irish folklore.