Home - Visitor Posts - Irish Faerie Folk Series - Irish Faerie Folk of Yore and Yesterday: The Changeling

Irish Faerie Folk of Yore and Yesterday: The Changeling

Lily Fairy 1888: Artist – Luis Ricardo Falero (1851–1896)

Admit it. We’ve all had the misfortune of meeting a child who just didn’t seem quite right. Willful and mischievous? Ill-behaved and undisciplined? A “bad seed” perhaps? Of course, we smile politely and pretend we don’t notice…but we keep an eye on them while we’re there, nevertheless. It could all be simply the fact that the child is very, very spoiled…

Or…could the little brat actually be a Changeling?

Up till now in this series, we’ve floated along toward Halloween on a wind of other-worldly, fairytale, nightmarish creatures. Vampires and headless horsemen and soul-stealing ravens. Terrifying as they may be, we’d certainly be able to identify them on sight. But what about something a little closer to home? Something a little harder to see coming…until it’s too late? In fact, you could have one in your midst right now… and you wouldn’t even know.

Changelings are said to be Faerie creatures left in the place of healthy human babies. For as many countless tales as there are about all myth and manner of Faerie, you wouldn’t think that procreation would be difficult for the “Fair Folk.” They seem to be under every rock and around every corner. Apparently, though, Faerie births can be quite seldom, and often precarious. The result of an “unsuccessful” Fae birth is a misshapen, stunted creature, destined to be completely shunned by the Faerie realm…thus necessitating the ol’ “bait and switch” pulled-over on us oblivious humans.

In some cases, there is not even a sickly Fae child to exchange as a Changeling. Left instead in the place of a bouncing baby boy or girl is a bundle of sticks, or a log, or other inanimate object, bewitched to look like the missing infant. In a few days or weeks, the “baby” will appear to become ill and die, leaving the human parents broken-hearted (and none-the-wiser as to the pilfering by the Faeries). 

Ah, but human babies were not the only target of the Fae. They were even known to take full-grown adults, leaving exact-duplicate Changelings in their place.

Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania c 1849: Artist – Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901)

While a baby could be coveted for its innocence and beauty, why would the Fae want a full-grown human? Some folklorists maintain that it is for inter-species breeding; the occasional introduction of attractive “new blood” is thought to strengthen the Fae race as a whole. Other theories take the phrase “new blood” quite literally: the Fae would feed off the stolen human thinking that the blood and flesh of the beautiful would be sweeter.  And still others believe that the handsome adults who were taken became slaves to the Fae inside their “Faerie mounds” (mounds of earth called “Sithens” where the magical creatures could live, eternally, unseen by human eyes). It would appear that vitality and beauty, no matter what the age of the victim, are the common denominators for the entrance of Changelings, and are enough to draw the avarice of the Faeries.

There aren’t very many sure-fire ways to ward off the “sticky fingers” of the Fae. Apparently, iron is one of the things Fae fear the most, so (bad parenting aside) placing scissors, knives, or iron tongs on or near the cradle of the baby (or bed of the adult) will usually be enough to dissuade them. A blessed holy crucifix works nicely as well, as does an article of the father’s clothing laid over a child as it sleeps.

In Ireland, it’s best to be wary of anyone eyeing a baby with envy (known as “over looking the baby”).  By drawing such attention to the infant, it endangers the baby, as the Faeries would become curious as to what all the fuss was about.  It is also wise to avoid admiring or envying beautiful and robust women or men, as it draws the attention and greediness of the Faeries, hence making the lovely adult a target for swiping as well.

Let’s just assume that you’ve taken all of the aforementioned precautions, yet those trixie Pixies have still managed to abscond with your loved one, leaving you with a crying, cranky, pointy-toothed fiend. How would you know if you were the unfortunate recipient of a bouncing baby (or adult) Fae doppelganger?

Spirit of the Night 1879: Artist – John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893)

The surest way to tell if you have a Changeling on your hands is by observing the temperament of the human in question. Changelings are constantly unhappy, unfriendly, and mean. They may be very cold and aloof, and may even recoil from human touch. Changeling babies’ appetites are never satiated. Their greedy little mouths will eat and eat, but it will never be enough; no matter how much they consume, they will remain weak and wizened. With adult Changelings, there may be a very faint darkening of the irises, but other than that, the severe change in disposition is the only earmark you might have to alert you to the theft of your loved one.

Worst of all, a family cursed with a Changeling will know nothing but suffering and hardship. No luck will brighten their doorway. The greedy Fae among them will devour everything in the household… including any happiness they might hope to have. 

So, let’s say your child or loved one is definitely showing the above-mentioned signs of being an honest-to-goodness (or badness?) Changeling. Now what?? How would you go about having your love returned to you? Apparently, the answer is to either trick… or abuse… the Changeling to the point of divulging their true identity, and so forcing the Fae to bring back the original human.

But how do you trick one of the most cunning and devious creatures ever known? Strangely enough (as if anything in this article isn’t strange), Changeling Faeries get a big kick out of halved eggshells. Either placing them about, or using them to hold water, is said to illicit an uncontrollable laughing fit, whereupon the Changeling will vanish, leaving the original human in its place. Bagpipes placed by the suspected child’s bed or crib is also a common trick. Faeries love music so much, that a Changeling, no matter how young, will be compelled to grasp the instrument and play as a virtuoso. Lastly, fire and outright battery can be used to force the Fae to return the human. Some methods advocate placing the child or adult in a hot oven, others say to hold scalding hot pokers near to the mouth while demanding the Changeling state its name three times. Still other folklore insists that only by dunking (near drowning) the Changeling in a bath of foxglove or urine is the only way to cast out the wayward Faerie.

Take the Fair Face of Woman: Artist – Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903)

While tales of Changelings run rampant in Ireland, stories of the Fae swaps abound in almost all countries. Noted Swedish author and Nobel Prize winner, Selma Lagerlöf, wrote of many Faerie accounts in her 1915 book, Trolls and Humans (a non-fiction collection of local folklore). In one such tale, a Swedish mother was advised to brutalize a Changeling so that the Fae would return her son, but she refused. To her eyes, this was still a child, and she was unable to bring herself to mistreat it, regardless of its true nature. Her husband became enraged when she would not do what had been advised to get back their son, yet she still refused. Disgusted, her husband abandoned her. As he made his way through the forest toward another town, he unbelievably came face-to-face with their own true son, wandering free. After a tearful embrace, the boy told his father that because his mother had not abused the Changeling, and had sacrificed the thing dearest to her (the love of her husband), the Fae knew that they had no power over her, and so released him and stole back their own.

There are also many tales stemming from Scotland regarding the placement of Changelings among the local human populations. One story speaks of a father to a healthy and happy thirteen year old boy. One day, the boy mysteriously fell ill…and his condition and temperament continued to worsen tenfold each day. Though his appetite increased at the same rate, he was in fact rapidly losing weight. In misery, the father confided in a very wise and respected old man in the town. The old man told him that most likely the boy had been taken by the “Daoine Sith,and they had left a “Sibhreach” in his place. Distraught, the father wondered if he’d ever see his son again. The old man instructed him to take several broken eggshells and fill them with water, then place them carefully around the hearth in the boy’s room. He did so, and within no time, the boy was jumping from his bed in a fit of laughter shouting, “I’ve been alive 800 years and have never seen the likes of this!” Hearing that, the father pushed the Changeling into the fire, and it shot up the chimney. The real boy was spit out from the Faerie mound nearby at that very moment, and the father and son were soon after reunited (taken from: J. F. Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, 1901).

But, perhaps most famous Changeling tale of all is the tragic case of Bridget Cleary, also known as “the last witch burned in Ireland.” Prior to 1895, most reported cases of Changeling swaps in Ireland were seen among groups of infants and small children. Bridget, however, was a young housewife, born in 1870, in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary, Ireland…found dead, body burned, in a shallow grave, at the age of 26. Murdered, it was said, because she was feared to be a Changeling.  

Though she married Michael Cleary when she was only 17, Bridget was a smart young lady, and both she and Michael were able to read and write. She was also a moderately successful business woman, making a living as a poultry-keeper and a skilled milliner (hat maker). Michael too, was a few steps above the run-of-the-mill laborer of the time. He was a cooper, ranking him among more talented artisans.

At that moment she was changed by magic to a wonderful little elf: Artist – John Bauer

However, the Clearys were often the focus of gossip. As sometimes happens in small towns, perhaps it stemmed from jealousy. It certainly didn’t help that Bridget kept to herself a great deal; she was thought to be “snobbish.” But what added the most fuel to the fire was the fact that, after seven years of marriage, the Clearys were still without children. In that day and time, this brought much shame on the childless couple, and especially the man, who then had his virility questioned.

In March of 1895, Bridget took mysteriously ill. Michael, together with his father in-law and Bridget’s aunt and cousin, tried to nurse Bridget back to health, but her condition only got worse. After a local doctor said there was nothing he could do, and priest was called, Michael had all but given up hope.

Remember, it was still a fairly superstitious time, and in a written statement to the court, Michael had believed that his Bridget had been swapped for a Changeling, and that was the reason for her illness. So, as a last resort, he sent for a man named Denis Ganey…who was known as a “Faerie” doctor. 

Ganey’s treatments, though seeming barbaric and absurd now, were considered “standard practice” for “Faerie abductions.” They included, but were not limited to: forcing the Changeling to drink the first milk given by a cow after calving (once consumed, supposedly very attractive to Faeries, and would cause the abductors to bring back the real human in question), scalding the Changeling with a hot poker, dousing the Changeling with urine, and holding the Changeling over a fire (all three were said to force the Changeling to admit that they were indeed a Faerie, which would break the “spell” and immediately cause the return of the original person from the Faerie realm).

Late one evening, around midnight, after one of these lengthy “treatment” sessions, Michael claimed that he took his wife, threw her to the floor in front of the fire in the hearth of the kitchen, wielded a piece of burning wood near to her mouth, and demanded that she say her name three times.  When she failed to do so, Michael doused Bridget with lamp oil and set fire to her.

Several days later, the townspeople began to talk that Bridget had gone missing. After a tremendous search, her body was found, less than a mile away from her house, wrapped in a sheet and buried in a shallow grave, covered by a small amount of dirt and sticks. She was laid to rest in a Catholic burial on March 27th, 1895 in the parish of Cloneen, Co. Tipperary.

Bridget Cleary (no known photo credit)

Nine people in total were charged in her disappearance and murder, but the charges were ultimately brought against Michael. The case went to trial on April 1st, 1895, with Michael claiming the “Faerie abduction” as his defense. On April 6th, he was found guilty of manslaughter and served 15 years in Maryborough Prison. After serving his time, he left Ireland and finally settled in Montreal, Canada. But his legend, and the tragic fate of his wife Bridget, is still remembered in the children’s Irish nursery rhyme, “Are you a witch, or are you a Faerie/Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”

But what to make of all this? You could perhaps theorize that some of the Changeling myth stemmed from mysterious illnesses or deaths. People with little knowledge of medicine and deep-seeded superstition no doubt desperately needed something to explain the tragic occurrences that were going on around them. An overly fussy baby, a baby born with deformities, adults stricken with mental and physical disorders, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the list goes on and on. How would a pre-1900 brain make sense of such things?

What would explain such horrors… except the even more horrific idea of a magical immortal being stealing your child or loved one without your knowledge and replacing them with some odd, horrible substitute? Humans were widely accepted to be powerless against the much more underhanded and powerful Fae, so the Changeling explanation would be viable for people of bygone ages.

Oh, no doubt, we’ve grown more worldly, advanced, and experienced as time has gone on. We’ve left the need for myth and legend in the dark ages. But just because there is no longer a need for it, that doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist. As Samhain approaches, and the veil between worlds is thinned, an open and fertile mind can’t help but wonder if such things as Changelings are possible. Of all the Faerie Folk we’ve discussed so far, they are the most plausible and most inconspicuous of the intruders into our “safe little reality” on record. 

So…are any of you now thinking to those bratty children and unfriendly people you know? Are you wondering about them? As you drift off to sleep tonight, try not to think of those bad little children reaching out for you. Don’t let your mind wander to the Hollywood nightmares of Damien and Regan and Gage. Don’t think about that cranky and bitter coworker in your office. What about that neighborhood recluse? Definitely don’t think about your odd Uncle Albert or that distant cousin “we don’t speak about” (and we certainly don’t invite for the holidays). I’m sure they’re all just fine…if not just “eccentric”…and absolutely 100% human. Almost certainly.

Happy Halloween! Oíche Shamhna Shona! (Blessed Samahain!)

“The Stolen Child”

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats
Full of berries
And the reddest stolen cherries.

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.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters of the wild
With a faery hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.

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.

William Butler Yeats photographed in 1911 by George Charles Beresford

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.

For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.    

       ~ W.B. Yeats


Read all posts in this series

Guest post contributed by:
Kim McNamara-Wilson

Kim McNamara-Wilson