Taken by the Fairies, 1840-1924

From the Freeman’s Journal, 2 February 1924:

“At a Special Court in Tullamore, before Mr Flanagan PC, Esther Smith, no fixed address, was remanded in custody on a charge of obtaining £3 and goods by false pretences and threats from Mary Murray, farmer’s wife, Moneyquid, Killeigh.

Mary Murray stated that Smith said one end of witness’s house was built on a ‘pass’ and that the other end of the house was the lucky end.  Accused said she was sent there by the ‘good people,’ with whom she was stopping three nights a week, to warn her against deaths that were about to take place in her house.   Accused asked witness, who was terrified, to cross her hand with silver and that she would banish the evil spirits from the house. She got the key of the kitchen door and blew her breath throw it and then came with thekey and a handkerchief and put two knots in the handkerchief and placed it in witness’s hand.  She blew her breath on the handkerchief and the knots opened.

Accused then asked for a ‘baker’ or oven in which to bury the money that the ‘good people’ were to give witness.  She demanded more money from witness, who gave her 3s or 4s.  Accused then said witness had paper money in the house and to bring it out. Witness then gave accused all the money she had, about £3, including £1 note.  She ordered witness to open the room door and she went into the room and, pointing to a certain portion of the floor, said that was the spot where witness would find the money from the ‘good people.’  She ordered witness into the diary and asked for a basin of cream, which she gave her, as well as duck eggs and hen eggs, flour, onions, a skirt, flour bags, bacon and sheets. When going away she told witness never to sweep the floor out but always to sweep it in and to leave a gallon of water on the table every Wednesday evening, and she was to call back in three months to see if the water was drunk out of the gallon (laughter).

Sergt. Roberts, Civic Guard, Killeigh, gave evidence of the arrest of the accused on the day the report reached him.  Accused handed him money amounting to £2 19s 5d, and he took possession of property which Mrs Murray identified as hers.”

‘Fairy swindles,’ as they were known, were common in 19th century Ireland.   In 1844 Mary Neill appeared at the Limerick Quarter Sessions charged with obtaining a gown by false pretences, having claimed to be her victim’s father-in-law, dead for many years but now Queen of the Fairies, promising her a ‘fine red-headed boy’ and a bag of gold at the bottom of the bed, neither of which ever eventuated.

Four years later, a similar swindle was employed in Longford by a man who came to the home of a woman near Ballinalee, claiming to be her late husband, now with the fairies, demanding all his clothes, and asking her for money go to to a blessed place to have masses said for him, so that he could come home with his own features. The same year, a report appeared in the Freeman’s Journal regarding a soldier, Matthew Lally, who occasionally disappeared from barracks to visit an elderly couple, claiming to be their long-dead son who had been taken by ‘the Good People,’ or fairies and sent back to earth for a season to go into the army and learn the new light infantry exercise – the fairies too, it seems, liking to keep their military expertise up to date!

The Good People occasionally turned up in the Dublin Police Courts too.  In 1849, Margaret Byrne was indicted for having stolen a pair of boots at Sandycove, while calling herself the Queen of the Fairies and on the road to Paradise. The fairy swindle could involve threats, impersonation, promises of money or babies or claims to restore or speak with lost or deceased family members.   Two cases were tried in Cork, in December 1855, involving false claims to restore a husband and son, respectively, to life with the aid of the fairies. Another ‘fairy money’ case came up in 1861, when Anne McAvine was charged with falsely pretending that she would obtain £11,000 for a woman, giving her a bottle of oil to rub on her eyes so that she would see a fairy gentleman who would bring her to a house where she would get the money.   Like gentlemen too good to be true often do, the fairy never turned up.  Anne was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment. She was lucky.  Other fairy swindlers were transported.

Even the most experienced could fall prey to the fairy swindle.   In 1864, Joseph Reeves, a policeman of 22 years’ standing, gave Mary Doheny of Carrick-on-Suir bread, tea, butter, eggs and tobacco for the comfort of the fairies, to facilitate confidential intercourse with them.  Mr Reeves, in fairness, does appear to have received something in return – letters of reply from the Good People on tinted notepaper and, if his evidence is to be believed, sight of his deceased father-in-law, his three deceased sisters-in-law and his own deceased child romping with them in the moat of Ballydine. After that, the fairy swindlers seem to have gone to ground, or perhaps Van Diemen’s Land, although there is one 1880 case involving a ‘rakishly dressed’ young woman called Anne Smith, otherwise Reilly, who likewise claimed the benefit of their confidential intercourse.

Sadly, that was not the end of the fairies in the Irish criminal courts, as they continued to feature in a number of homicide trials, most notoriously the death of Bridget Cleary in Tipperary in 1895. Mrs Cleary was not, however, the only person to die due to others’ belief that they were possessed by the fairies – a further case occurred in Roscommon in 1896, when James Cunningham, a prosperous shoemaker and artificial manure dealer who had been acting strangely and making surreptitious visits to the local fairy fort, was killed by other family members in the belief that he had been ‘taken.’ Though technically held to have been acting in self-defence due to the victim having used violence first, there remains a strange supernatural element to the case as the Cunninghams claimed that, not only had James being acting strangely, but their house was being persecuted by evil spirits, devils and fairies making strange noises.

Disabled children were particularly vulnerable to the ministrations of ‘fairy healers.’  In 1851, Bridget Peters was found guilty of causing the death of Mary Anne Kelly, a partially paralysed child about six years of age, who had been exposed on a dunghill and given foxglove in the belief that she was a changeling, and that this treatment would bring back the real Mary.   Another child died in a similar way in Kilkenny in 1856.  And, as late as 1890, a Donegal father killed his sick son in the belief that he, too, had been taken by the fairies.

One of the saddest fairy stories appeared in the Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail of 18 April 1840, regarding the death of Johnny Mahony, a child of six and seven, living on the Riall estate, Heywood, Tipperary, who had been confined to bed for two years with an affliction of the spine.  The report states that ‘being a very intellectual child, and accustomed to make the most shrewd remarks about everything he saw and heard passing around him,’ Johnny’s parents and neighbours were led to the conclusion that he was not the son of his father, but that he was a fairy. As Johnny grew sicker, an intervention took place, ending in his being threatened with a red hot shovel, and a ducking under a pump, if he did not disclose where the real John Mahony was.  According to the report, ‘the feeble child, after being held near the hot shovel, and also having been taken part of the way to the pump, told them that he was a fairy, and that he would send back the real John Mahony the next evening, if they gave him that night’s lodging.’  Poor Johnny was dead the next morning – a death ultimately held by an inquest jury, paradoxically, to have been caused ‘by the visitation of God.’

Life, for children who were different, and unfortunate enough to be possessed of fairy-believing parents, seems to have been a lose-lose situation, with both quickness and slowness to learn leading to abuse designed to expunge the ‘changeling’ within.

Whether they existed or not, those fairies certainly caused an unnecessary amount of harm and trouble!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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