“Come away, O human child!” – Changeling Tales

“Come away, O human child!” – Changeling Tales

“Away with us he’s going, / The solemn-eyed: / He’ll hear no more the lowing / Of the calves on the warm hillside…”

From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series, changelings are everywhere.  Even Supernatural has an episode revolving around these fae, and there are countless other examples out there if you take the time to look.  These stories span both centuries and cultures, but all boil down to the same central theme – a human, usually a child, is abducted by an otherworldly being and replaced with a surrogate.


Image Credit:  Theodore Kittelsen.

Changelings are most easily spotted by their mannerisms.  Temperamental and fussy, they have a ravenous hunger and will eat anything in sight, even the family’s luck and good fortune.  But despite constant gorging, the child never gains weight and remains sickly.  Many are said to look inhuman, with bony arms and legs, and eyes that hint the “child” is much older than it appears.

Iron placed around a baby’s crib was one way to prevent the switch from occurring, taking advantage of fae’s well known aversion to the metal.  Laying a piece of the father’s clothing across a sleeping child also offered protection.  Baptism sometimes served as the ultimate ward against the fae, stripping them of any power they may have held over an individual.


Image Credit:  PJ Lynch.

Various methods claimed to return the abducted; boiling water in eggshells to force the changeling to expose itself is perhaps the most harmless of these.  The worst involved torture – physical beatings, poisoning with foxglove, leaving them outside overnight, and throwing them in a lit fire or hot oven were all considered appropriate ways to deal with changelings.

Tragically, it’s believed that children born with developmental disorders were often labeled as changelings.  Folk belief and superstition were often the only tools available to explain why some children are born with handicaps, and unfortunately, commonly led to infanticide.


Image Credit: John Bauer.

It would be far more comforting to believe these tales are found only in the distant past and fictitious works, but unfortunately that’s not the case.  In 1895, Irishman Michael Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter after brutally torturing and eventually murdering his wife, Bridget Cleary.  He claimed that it was not his wife he burned alive, but a faerie changeling, left in her place.

Bridget was 26 years old when she fell ill with mild bronchitis.  Described as both beautiful and thrifty, her one “flaw” was that she hadn’t given Michael any children.  But she was a loyal wife – no one believed her to have cheated – and, presumably, a caring daughter, as her father lived with the couple.  Multiple warning signs were visible in the days leading up to Bridget’s death, but no actions were taken to prevent the inevitable.


Bridget Cleary and her husband, Michael.  Image Credit: Irish Central.

She endured torture for at least three days, ranging from being placed over a hot fire grate to beatings, having urine thrown on her and being force fed slices of dry bread without drink, all with witnesses present.  Even as neighbors reportedly pleaded with Michael to stop, he insisted the woman before them was not his wife, but a faerie.  Three days after a doctor gave him herbs to treat bronchitis, something Michael “had no faith in,” Bridget was burned alive and buried over a mile from their home in Tipperary.  Her body wasn’t discovered for six days, and the original charge of murder brought against Michael was reduced to manslaughter.

Bridget Cleary’s case shows us the dangerous superstitious beliefs fairy tales and folklore can give rise to.  Today, we widely accept that what happened to her and countless others accused of being changelings or in league with the devil are acts of barbarism, though these crimes were once viewed as appropriate responses to unexplainable circumstances.  It makes one wonder though – what practices common today will gain similar reactions from future generations?

Additional links & Resources:

A Collection of Changeling Legends from the British Isles

An Essay on Changelings

Excerpt on Bridget Cleary from Five Years in Ireland

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, page 47

Ireland Legends & Folklore, pages 106-9


Two Stacks (an overdue update)

Two Stacks (an overdue update)

Well, the blog went on another long hiatus without warning.

I’m hoping to change that, though, and prevent another from happening anytime soon.  A lot has changed since my last post, from graduating college to medical school applications and beyond, so to explain what this means for the blog, let me tell you about the two stacks currently sitting on my desk.


The large stack on the right shouldn’t be too surprising.  It’s my Ireland schemes folder, buried under the different books I use to write my blog posts.  Some I’ve referenced before, but others are new to the stack – books on the fae and other figures from Celtic lore.

And the smaller stack?  That’s the current draft of Echoes from the Past, my second novel.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a writer.  I self published my first novel, Whispers on the Wind, back in August 2013.   The storyline stems from my love of all things Irish and fae lore, so it makes perfect sense in mind to bring the two things I love to write – my novels and posts about Ireland – together in one place.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing about places to see in Ireland, or that I’m giving up on traveling overseas this summer.  Actually, that dream’s coming true!  After scheming and saving for almost three years, a 9 day, 8 night self guided tour of Ireland fell into my lap unexpectedly a month ago.  The tickets are booked, meaning my mother and I will be leaving for Dublin the last week of May!


Now the hunt for all the camera gear I’ll need begins.

So what does this mean for the blog?  Just a slight change, really.  I want to keep writing about castles and monasteries, but I also want to bring in legends and folklore, too.  Those topics will make up the bulk of this blog, but I’ll also occasionally share how I’m fairing with my noveling endeavors.

I’ve added a page dedicated to my book and short stories and encourage you to check it out.  Also new are links to my facebook page and twitter account.  Feel free to like and follow me there to see what I’m up to between blog updates.

Look for new posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout April and May!  I have quite a few already queued, with the first set to post April 5th.  Then, May 31st thru June 8th, tune in for updates as my mother and I make our way around the Emerald Isle.  There will be lots of pictures, I can guarantee it. ^^

Thanks for sticking with me through these changes,

Rachel C. Lightfoot