Fairy Changelings: Babies Taken by Fairies & The Story of Bridget Cleary
In today’s culture, fairies are depicted as cute, sparkly beings with wings. The online new age community purports fairies are “beings of divine light” and healers. Fairies give us delight and remind us of our childhoods. But this image of the fairy isn’t historically accurate. In fact, our ancestors feared most of the fairy people. The fairy changeling was perhaps the most feared type of fairy, which we will talk about in this article.
Our Ancestors’ Beliefs in Fairies
Our Irish ancestors believed very strongly in the fairies. They had different names for them, but often you’ll read or hear the term “the good folk”. This isn’t because the fairies were always good to people, it’s because they wanted to appease the fairies by calling them such. If you called them the “bad folk”, then they would be more prone to be bad towards you, right? Don’t believe me that fairies were feared? This is why there are stories of leaving offerings to the fairies on doorsteps, hanging horseshoes over barn and house doors to keep the fairies out, and never traveling at twilight hours.
Dangerous Fairy Raids
With that being said, there are dozens and dozens of stories of people who run into fairies during one of their “raids” or rides through the countryside. Sometimes the experience is positive, while other times the individual is kidnapped by the fairies and taken with them on a ride OR into fairyland. Once a person returns from fairyland, they are forever changed…usually years have gone by and they find themselves in an old frail body and all of their loved ones gone (time in fairyland is different than time here.)
When Led to One’s Death…
The Will O’ the Wisp was a fuzzy, blue or white light that led twilight or late-night travelers astray. Sometimes it even led them over a cliff and to their deaths. I could go on and on with stories of how the “good folk” weren’t always so good to human folk. And from these beliefs emerged the fairy changeling.
What is a Fairy Changeling?
What is a fairy changeling and why were they so feared? A fairy changeling was a fairy child left in the place of a kidnapped human child. Remember, science and modern medicine weren’t advanced then. So our European ancestors believed when things went wrong, when crops failed, when cows didn’t give milk, it was because of the fairies. When a baby was born with defects, or if it grew sick, they believed it was actually a fairy changeling (baby) and that the real human baby had been taken away by the fairies.
Why Were Humans Replaced with Fairy Changelings?
But why would fairies steal human children and leave their own? Some said fairies envied human children because of their beauty. While others said fairies stole human children to raise as their own and then use in their evil doings later on. Still others believed the fairies replaced human children with fairy changelings so that their babies would be fed and cared for by rich human beings. Then they would return to take the fairy changeling once it had grown big and strong.
Fairy Changeling Risks and Protection
People who were most at risk for being kidnapped by the fay and replaced by fairy changelings included newly-wed brides and newborns (along with their mothers). The thought was that brand new babies who weren’t purified or baptized were at high risk of being fairy-napped. As were their mothers or anyone else who wasn’t baptized by the Church. New brides were at risk because they were in a “pure” state, before consummating their marriage with their husbands.
Safeguarding Babies and Mothers from the Fairies
According to W.Y. Evans-Wentz (pg. 87), “many precautions were taken to safeguard them until purification and baptism took place, when the fairy power became ineffective.” These precautions included placing iron around the bed, burning leather in the room, and feeding the mother and baby a special cow’s milk. This milk was infused with a plant called pearl-wort, which was a plant thought to ward off the fay.
Smudging to Ward Fairies AND Secret Names
And according to Edain McCoy (pg. 78), fairy changelings were avoided by using smoke in an area to ward off the fairies (smudging!) As smoke was known to be a common fairy deterrent. In addition, families would keep their children’s true names secret and call them a nickname or by their middle name instead. This is why there were so many Marys and Johns, etc. running around in those days! If the fairies didn’t know your real name, they had no power of you. Names had power.
Horrifying Ways to Get Rid of Changelings
If you suspected your child or loved one was taken and a fairy changeling left in its place, there were ways to tell. Many stories tell of parents putting the fairy changeling into the fireplace, then to watch the fairy changeling shoot up the chimney and leave for good. The next day, or by that night, the human child was brought home. But these are TALES, remember. Unfortunately, people believed this was a real thing even a century ago! That sounds like a long time ago, but truly a hundred years is a small span of time. Your great grandparents might have been alive then!
The Sad Story of Bridget Cleary, the “Fairy Changeling”
In Ireland in 1895, a woman named Bridget Cleary came down with bronchitis. She had been ill for days and even visited by the local doctor who confirmed the bronchitis. Bridget’s husband decided the medicine he was supposed to give his wife wouldn’t work. That, in fact, his wife was a fairy changeling in disguise. That his real wife had been “taken by the fairies” and replaced with this coughing, weakened fairy changeling. In order to get his wife back, he carried out some of the worst superstitions about fairy changelings.
Michael Cleary’s Trial: The Fairy Changeling Murder Case
Michael Cleary was charged with murder just days after Bridget’s burnt body was found buried in a ditch. Bridget had urine thrown on her and was burnt in the fireplace by Michael Cleary and other members of her family. Why was she tortured in such a hideous manner? They ALL believed she was indeed a fairy changeling, and to get their beloved Bridget back, they had to perform these tasks to expel the fairy imposter. Bridget never came back, because she was a sick woman who needed medicine and her family’s love. This story always makes me so sad! It was even featured in an episode of “Lore” on Amazon Prime just last year. A popular Irish nursey rhyme goes, “Are you a witch? Are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”
- The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries written by W.Y. Evans Wentz
- A Witch’s Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy