Changelings Fairies: Dark Side of Irish Fairy Lore

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Don’t let the fairies swap your baby for Changelings! ANN MASSEY gives us some tips on protecting our infants from being nabbed by fairies!

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 1800s, 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).

What is a Changeling?

According to legend, abductions took place to increase the strength of fairy stock as their own often died during birth and red blood was required in order for the fairies to get into heaven.

The fairies would swap a sickly fairy 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.

Changeling fairies - what are changelings
A changeling

How to protect against Changelings

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 fairies 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 fairies did not like unclean babies.
  • Boys would be dressed as girls and vice versa in order to confuse the fairy folk.

In order for a parent to see if their child had been swapped for a fairy, they would leave a set of pipes at their side as no fairy 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.

What to do with Changelings

The first was to threaten its well-being, such as leaving it unattended outside the door.

The reasoning was that the fairies 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 fairy, 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 fairy 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.

Bridget Cleary and Ireland’s last witch burning

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 piseóg – however that’s a story for another time…


  1. I think it is pretty obnoxious to require “liking” an article to unlock it. The point is to “like” something AFTER you’ve read it.


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