Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
(Excerpt from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B Yeats)
Written about by renowned poets such as Yeats and William Allingham and used as a defence for murder in the 1800’s, mothers for generations in Ireland have been protecting their small ones from abduction, not from humans but from the fairies who replaced them with Changelings, known as Beácán (bay-cawn). According to legend, abductions took place to increase the strength of faery stock as their own often died during birth and red blood was required in order for the faeries to get into heaven.
The faeries would swap a sickly faery known as the Changeling for the child, whom they would resemble. The Changeling would be recognisable due to an ugly appearance, ill health, bad temper and an old world look of knowledge in their eyes.
There were many protections and deterrents against such abduction. Fireside tongs were laid across the cradle as fairies were thought to be afraid of iron. Red garments were laid in the cradle as these reminded faeries of their fate and Day of Judgement and so were avoided. Crucifixes were hung over cribs like mobiles. Babies were sprinkled with Holy Water to gain God’s protection. They were splashed with urine, as faeries did not like unclean babies. Boys would be dressed as girls and vice versa in order to confuse the faery folk.
In order for a parent to see if their child had been swapped for a faery, they would leave a set of pipes at their side as no faery can resist playing them and thus their true identity would be revealed.
If all the deterrents failed and families were left with a Changeling, there were two options. The first was to threaten its well-being, such as leaving it unattended outside the door. The reasoning was that the faeries remained protective of their own and to avoid any chance of harm they simply returned the child to its parents and took their own back. The second was to keep the faery, which would wither and die within a couple of years if action wasn’t taken.
It was believed that if you felt there was no likelihood of the return of your child and you could not bear to raise the Changeling, you could be rid of it by way of burning. Methods included leaving it in the open fire, feeding it foxglove tea so as to burn internally, or scooping the faery up on a red hot shovel and leaving it on a manure heap.
The danger is of course, that lore and legend can be deemed as fact or they can be used to try and excuse one’s own heinous crime. Indeed one of Ireland’s most written about and strangest murders was that of Bridget Cleary, a young woman who was accused of being a Changeling and was tortured to death by her own family in the late nineteenth century. Bridget was ultimately burned over the fire as her husband wanted to be rid of the Changeling he alleged her to be. Of course she may not have been a Changeling at all but a victim of a piséog – however that’s a story for next time……