“For all the hillside was haunted
By the faery folk come again
And down in the heart-light enchanted
Were opal-coloured men”
republished from http://celticsociety.freeservers.com/sidhe.html
The Sidhe (shee) are considered to be a distinct race, quite separate from human beings yet who have had much contact with mortals over the centuries, and there are many documented testimonies to this. Belief in this race of beings who have powers beyond those of men to move quickly through the air and change their shape at will once played a huge part in the lives of people living in rural Ireland and Scotland.
It is difficult to pin-point an exact historical era as the time when fairy lore began. Many writers maintain that the people of Ireland and their Gods before the coming of the Gaels are the ‘ancestors’ of the sidhe.
Clearly the belief in the sidhe is part of the pre-Christian religion which survived for thousands of years and which has never been completely wiped out from the minds of the people.
When the first Gaels, the sons of Mil, arrived in Ireland, they found that the Tuatha De Danaan, the people of the goddess Dana, already had control of the land. The sons of Mil fought them in battle and defeated them, driving them ‘underground’ where it is said they remain to this day in the hollow hills or sidhe mounds. In the early Irish manuscripts (which were recorded from an earlier oral tradition) we find references to the Tuatha De Danaan.In ‘The Book of the Dun Cow’ and the ‘Book of Leinster’ this race of beings is described as “gods and not gods”, pointing to the fact that they are ‘something in between’. Also in the Book of the Dun Cow it says of wise men that: “it seems likely to them that they [the Tuatha De Danaan] came from heaven, on account of their intelligence and excellence of their knowledge”.
The hold that the Tuatha De Danaan had on the Irish mind was so strong that the new religion of Christianity could not shake it. In ‘The Colloquy of the Ancients’ a dialogue which supposedly took place between St. Patrick and the ghost of Caeilte of the Fianna, Patrick is amazed to see a fairy woman coming out of the cave of Cruachan, wearing a green mantle with a crown of gold on her head.
Whereas the fairy woman is young and beautiful, Caeilte himself is old and withered. When Patrick enquires of this, Caeilte tells him that: “She is of the Tuatha De Danaans who are unfading… and I am of the sons of Mil, who are perishable and fade away”.
The sidhe of the subterranean mounds are also seen by the Irish as the descendants of the old agricultural gods of the Earth, (one of the most important being Crom Cruaich, the Crooked One of the Hill). These gods controlled the ripening of the crops and the milk yields of the cattle, therefore offerings had to be given to them regularly. In the Book of Leinster we discover that after their conquest the Tuatha De Danaan took revenge on the sons of Mil by destroying their wheat and the goodness of the milk (the sidhe are notorious for this even today). The sons of Mil were thus forced to make a treaty with them, and ever since that time the people of Ireland have honoured this treaty by leaving offerings of milk and butter to the Good People.
A notable feature of the sidhe is that they have distinct tribes, ruled over by fairy kings and queens in each territory. It would seem that the social order of the sidhe corresponds to the old aristocracy of ancient Irish families,which is in itself a reflection of the ancient Celtic caste system.
It is interesting to note that many of the Irish refer to the sidhe as simply “the gentry”, on account of their tall, noble appearance and silvery sweet speech. They have their own palaces where they feast and play music, but also have regular battles with neighbouring tribes. The great fairyhosts seem to be distinctly Milesian, but there are still folk memories of perhaps older pre-Gaelic races and their gods, in the form of the ‘geancanach’, a spirit of Ulster, or the ‘cluricaun’,of Munster. We must not forget also the ‘leprechaun’, a diminutive creature who is said to know the whereabouts of a pot of gold hidden in local fairy raths.
The leprechaun could possibly be a folk memory of a dwarfish race of Fir Bolg people who lived in these raths before the coming of the Gaels.
A distinction is often made between the sidhe who are seen walking on the ground after sunset, and the ‘Sluagh Sidhe’, the fairy host who travel through the air at night,and are known to ‘take’ mortals with them on their journeys. There are also guardian sidhe of most of the lakes of Ireland and Scotland.
These distinct categories of sidhe beings ties in with the testimonies of seers who divide the sidhe into wood spirits, water spirits, air spirits and so on, the elemental spirits of each place.
Lough Gur in County Limerick is a very magical place where we meet many of the sidhe kings and queens of Ireland. The lake lies within a circle of low lying hills, but once every seven years it appears as dry land, where an entrance to the Land of Youth may be found. The lake’s guardian is known as Toice Bhrean (the lazy one) because she neglected to watch over the well, from which the lake sprang forth.It is believed that once every seven years a mortal meets their death by drowning in the lake, ‘taken’ by the Beann Fhionn, the White Lady.
L. MacDonald DALRIADA MAGAZINE 1993