Tales from the Other Side: Fairy Forts

Updated: 5 days ago

Welcome to ‘Tales from the Other Side’ where we look at folklore, mythology and magic.

When we think of fairies we generally conjure up images of friendly and playful little beings with wings but in Irish folklore they are something very different. The tales often describe a much darker and sometimes malevolent creature that is to be treated with respect and caution. They are, on occasion, known to help people but they have a fondness for trickery and it is generally agreed that it is wise to avoid insulting or upsetting them. Indeed, some will not even refer to them as fairies so you may hear them called the sighe, the other crowd or the good people. Ireland is full of fairy tales that describe what they look like, how they live, their traditions and their interactions with humans. It is a vast subject with many fascinating details that combines superstition, history and culture. Today we are going to look at fairy forts.

What are fairy forts?

Sometimes called ring forts or raths, a fort is an enclosed, earthen dwelling place that dates back to the middle ages (although some are believed to go back even further than this). Their appearance can vary depending on where they are located and how well preserved they are. Some look like mounds or small hills, others have well-defined walls still in place and some are simply a vague outline showing where the dwelling would have been. It is thought there are around 40,000 (if not more) across Ireland. According to tradition, this is where fairies gather to play their music, which is more beautiful than any human could produce and these fairy forts are the entrances to the wild ‘other world’. Not a great deal is known about them as few people dare to disturb them.

Why are people afraid to disturb them?

This is due to the superstitions surrounding them. Fairy forts were, and still are, to be left well alone. Nobody should dare to cross the fort, collect wood from it, remove stones or disturb it in any way. Fairies are fiercely protective of their dwelling places and to cause any harm to these magical sites is to invoke the much-feared fairy wrath. Great misfortune will come to anyone who disturbs a fairy fort. Stories describe missing livestock, destruction to property and even death. Sean Quinn, a businessman who was once the wealthiest man in Ireland, came across an ancient stone wedge tomb whilst expanding his quarry and he received permission to move it. Each stone was taken from the site and set up on the grounds of his hotel nearby. Locals believe that the subsequent bankruptcy of Sean Quinn is undoubtedly due to angering the fairies by interfering with the tomb. Every village and town in Ireland is sure to have a story about someone who has damaged a fairy fort and has suffered the consequences as a result.

How did the fairies come to live there?

There are many different theories as to how the fairies ended up inhabiting the forts but there are two main ones that seem to be particularly prevalent. The first is that they are fallen angels who were neither bad enough for hell or good enough for heaven and so they remained on earth just out of sight using the fairy forts as portals between their world and the human world.

Another theory is that the fairies are the descendant of the Tuatha dé Danann. The Danann were the race who inhabited Ireland and were said to have supernatural powers. The Milesians, a Celtic race who are the ancestors of the modern Irish, sailed from Iberia to invade Ireland and take it as their own. Upon defeating the Tuatha dé Danann, the Milesians drove them into the old mounds across the country and they went underground where they are said to have created their own world below ours.

Where can I see a fairy fort?

There are thousands across Ireland although you are more likely to find them in rural areas. Any local should be able to point you in the direction of fairy forts in the area. It is worth bearing in mind that the superstitions surrounding them are still very much alive today, even amongst those who claim not to believe in fairies. They may also be on private land so if you do want to see one up close (not too close though!) make sure to check and ask permission. There are some very well-known forts with public access such as the Hill of Tara in Meath or Rathnadrinna in Tipperary.

Due to the increasing popular interest in fairies there are also many fairy gardens and trails all across Ireland. A great example is Brigit’s Garden in County Galway which is set in preserved woodlands with fairy forts in their Celtic gardens, a variety of events through the year and accommodation. This is becoming a popular way of preserving not only these important sites but also giving people the opportunity to learn about this important part of Irish culture and keep it alive.

More on Sean Quinns downfall

Where to find ring forts

Brigit's Garden

Browse the Tales from the Other Side archive here


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