Fairy women in Ireland find birth a difficult experience. Many
fairy children die before birth and those that do survive are
stunted or deformed creatures. An old Irish belief in the
changeling is that the less than perfect
sheoque fairy baby is given
by the fairies to replace the perfect human baby they take
The adult fairies, who are aesthetic beings, are repelled by
these infants and have no wish to keep them. They will try to
swap them with healthy children who they steal from the mortal
world. The wizened, ill tempered creature left in place of the
human child is generally known as a changeling and possesses
the power to work evil in a household. Any child who is not
baptized or who is overly admired is especially at risk of
Prevention being better than cure, a number of protections may
be placed around an infant's cradle to ward off faeries who
want to steal them and replace them with a changeling.
A holy crucifix or iron tongs placed across the cradle will
usually be effective, because faeries fear these. An article
of the father's clothing laid across the child as it sleeps
will have the same effect.
Each fairy changeling has a distinctive personality; but
ugliness and an ill temper are generic traits. Fairies, in
their immortal perfection, are repulsed by these creatures
with their restless, coal-burnt eyes, puckered features and
textured skin; that is why they eject them from their lands.
The fairy changeling's whines, yowls, screeches and cries are
so irritating to humans that we immediately want to remove
them from ours!
Their characteristics include puckered and wizened features
coupled with yellow, parchment-like skin. This fairy will also
exhibit very dark eyes, which betray a wisdom far older than
its apparent years. Changelings display other characteristics,
usually physical deformities, among which a crooked back or
lame hand are common. About two weeks after their arrival in
the human household, changelings will also exhibit a full set
of teeth, legs as thin as chicken bones, and hands which are
curved and crooked as birds' talons and covered with a light,
It is their temperament, however, which most marks the
changeling. Babies are generally joyful and pleasant, but the fairy
substitute is never happy, except when some calamity befalls the
household. For the most part, it howls and screeches throughout the
waking hours and the sound and frequency of its yells often
transcend the bounds of mortal endurance.
Placing a set of bagpipes by the cradle is a sure test to
discover whether the child is fairy. No changeling can resist
them. Soon fairy music spills out of the house and into the
village, paralyzing with joy all those who hear the sounds.
Boiling egg shells is another way of detecting. A mother
boils egg shells in front of the suspected child. In an old
man's voice, the changeling will cackle with laughter at the
notion of making dinner from egg shells.
No matter how much food they devour, they still want more,
yet remain runty as ever. After a farmer labors to feed the
fairy changeling's appetite, little remains for the rest of
the family. Changelings have prodigious appetites and will eat
all that is set before them. The changeling
does not take the breast like a human infant, but eats food
from the larder. When the creature is finished each meal, it
will demand more. Changelings have been known to eat the
cupboard bare and still not be satisfied. Yet, no matter how
much it devours, the changeling remains as scrawny as ever.
A family whose son or daughter is abducted may receive as a
substitute a sickly fairy child or a log of wood bewitched to
look like their own, which soon appears to sicken and die.
Changelings do not live long in the mortal world. They usually
shrivel up and die within the first two or three years of
their human existence. The family buries and mourns it, never
realizing that their own child plucks flowers in fairyland.
Yet despite their grief and ignorance, they are more fortunate
to suffer such a loss than to have a fairy changeling pounding
their floors and raiding their cupboards. If the changelings' grave is ever disturbed all that will be found is a
blackened twig or a piece of bog oak where the body of the
infant should be. Some live longer but rarely into their
A changeling can be one of three types: actual fairy children;
senile fairies who are disguised as children or, inanimate objects,
such as pieces of wood which take on the appearance of a child
through fairy magic. This latter type is known as a stock.
There can also be adult changelings. These fairy doubles
will exactly resemble the person taken but will have a sour
disposition. The double will be cold and aloof and take no
interest in friends or family. It will also be argumentative
and scolding. As with an infant, a marked personality change
is a strong indication of an adult changeling.
No luck will come to a family in which there is a
changeling because the creature drains away all the good
fortune which would normally attend the household. Thus, those
who are cursed with it tend to be very poor and struggle
desperately to maintain the ravenous monster in their midst.
Changelings may be driven from a house. When this is
achieved, the human child or adult will invariably be returned
To dispose of changelings masking as mortals, there are
three time-tested methods recommended: (1) heat a red-hot
shovel, shovel the fairy up and cast him onto a dung heap or
into a chimney fire and (2) force lusmore (foxglove) tea down
his throat and wait until it burns out his intestines. Heat and fire are anathema to
the changeling and it will fly away. (3) The least
severe method of expulsion is to trick the fairy into
revealing its true age.
Amazingly, no matter how brutal the punishment of the fairy
the original child always returns unscathed.
Oh, fair and
sweet was my baby,
Blue eyes, and hair of gold;
But this is ugly and wrinkled,
Cross, and cunning, and old.