Fairy trees aren’t fiction… they’re real.
Many people contact me about faerie roots and their family names. Often, they’re looking for something that says, “… and John Smith’s mother was a faerie.” (With “John Smith” being replaced by the name of someone in the family tree.)
Few records are that straightforward.
Wonderful books like The Door Home and the Borrowers series help us remember that the faeries (or at least the “little people”) aren’t very far away. I grew up with those traditions, myself, and I think they’re important… but you’re not likely to find clear confirmation that you have faerie roots.
Looking for faeries in your family tree, you may have to “read between the lines.” Many — perhaps most — cultures avoided mentioning the faeries. In Ireland, they were referred to as “the little people” (though, in many cases, faeries are/were larger than typical humans), “the good folk,” and so on.
If there was a way to avoid a faerie reference altogether, people did.
- Some feared the wrath of angry faeries.Until Shakespeare’s time, most people thought faeries were malicious.
- Other people were simply wary of faeries, or thought it was bad luck to mention faeries at all.
So, if your family tree includes an ancient name in a country with lore that seems to lead back to faeries or gods, that may be as good as it gets.
(Due to faeries’ powers, some cultures felt that faeries were gods or godlike. For example: In Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann — said like “TOO-uhh day DAH-nunn” — were described “gods and not-gods.” To me, that suggests unusual — perhaps “god-like” — powers, but apparently mortal characteristics, as well. In many stories, the Tuatha Dé Danann are clearly connected to the faeries. )
Tracing your faerie roots is far easier in some countries than in others.
For example, if any of your ancestors came from Iceland — where more than 50% of the population still believe in elves and other faeries — everyone there is related within seven or eight generations. So, if your roots trace back to Iceland, you can be fairly assured that you have a faerie connection there.
That’s just one example. In fact, every culture with faerie lore has family names that trace back to ancient times. That subject is huge, and I’m not an authority. My expertise is limited to Irish surnames, since most of my own roots are Irish, and I’ve studied faeries in the British Isles, in general.
Tracing Your Own Faerie Heritage
Some people just want to know their geographic connection to faeries… where their ancestors came from, indicating which faeries they’re probably descended from. Ask your family. They probably have stories about your ancestral roots.
That may be all you need.
Others want more evidence, including their ancient roots and faerie connections. I’m not sure that’s necessary, but here’s how to get started:
Ask your family about the oldest family names they recall among their ancestors. Those names usually — but not always — suggest geographic roots.
If you can, check census and vital records (birth, marriage, death) as well as church records for the surnames of your ancestors. The list will fan out, quickly.
Your grandparents represent four surnames:
- Your mother’s father
- Your mother’s mother
- Your father’s father
- Your father’s mother
Your great-grandparents represent eight surnames:
- Your mother’s paternal grandfather
- Your mother’s paternal grandmother
- Your mother’s maternal grandfather
- Your mother’s maternal grandfather
- Your father’s paternal grandfather
- Your father’s paternal grandmother
- Your father’s maternal grandfather
- Your father’s maternal grandmother
In most families, that’s as far back as people remember. Even your parents may not be sure about the maiden names of their grandmothers, unless they have records — like a family Bible or old photos — to check.
You can research your own family tree. Ancestry.com (and their free RootsWeb) and FamilySearch.com may have helpful resources. Or, you can enter your ancestor’s full name plus “genealogy” or “family tree” into Google or any search engine, and see if a relative has already done the research.
Odds are good that your family names contain some faerie ancestry. Finding out the geographic roots of your faerie ancestry can give you a greater sense of connection. (Faeries are usually associated with the land. They may have traveled with “their” families to other countries, but — to understand the habits and personalities of those faeries — their original geographic roots are important.)
For many people, it’s enough to know the countries their ancestors came from, and — therefore — the kinds of faeries they’re connected to. Most families have a general sense of where their roots are, and that may be all you need.
But, some lucky people already feel a deep connection with a particular kind of faerie.
If you feel that way, there’s no reason to trace your ancestry to confirm the connection. It’s already there. Enjoy it!
Remember, scientists say we’re all related within 30 generations, anyway. So, if you feel a connection to one kind of faeries, you’d probably find it in your family tree… if you went back far enough.
The sense of connection is more important than the paperwork. It’s fun to document a real connection to a particular kind of faerie, but it’s not essential.
You can trace your family to find your geographic roots, but you’re unlikely to find anything that clearly states your ancestors were faeries.
Ancient Irish Families
If your ancestry — like more than 36 million Americans — includes Irish immigrants, RootsWeb has a list of the very oldest Irish surnames, but it’s not a complete list. Often, you’re looking for surnames that — now or in the past — started with O’ or Mac.
Expanding that further, RootsWeb’s Surnames and Irish Counties list says, “Although not always the case, names beginning with O’, Mac, Mc, De, Le, and others, may usually indicate a name of historical significance.”
However, some of those surnames — especially those starting with De or Le — are likely to lead back to Norman families, and their faerie history may be a little different than those tracing back to the Irish era of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
My own ancient Irish roots include:
- Ó Baoghill (O’Boyle or Boyle)
- Ó Braoin or Mac Braoin (Breen… mine emigrated through Nova Scotia, Canada)
- Ó Croinin (Cronin)
- Ó Donnghaile (Donnelly)
- Mac Gearailt (FitzGerald, not on the RootsWeb list, but several traditional stories — including the one at Lough Gur — give a clear faerie connection)
- Mag Uidhir (Maguire, MacGuire, etc.)
- Ó Neill (O’Neill, O’Neil, etc.)
- Ó Tuama (Toomey, Tormey, Twomey, etc.)
… and many other early Irish surnames.
Some Irish Resources
Lists of ancient Irish family surnames
- Old Irish-Gaelic Surnames and Ancient Irish Names & History (both at RootsWeb)
- Behind the Names’ list of Irish surnames
- Irish Central’s Top 300 Irish family surnames, explained
- 100 Irish Surnames, Explained Note: Don’t take the coat of arms seriously, except as historical interest. As Wikipedia explains, “The design is a symbol unique to an individual person or family (except in the UK), corporation, or state.” In other words, an ancestor’s coat of arms isn’t your coat of arms. They usually changed with each household. You can, however, register your own coat of arms. (In Ireland, you’d apply through the Office of the Chief Herald.)
To better understand the meaning of Irish surnames, see Do Chara’s Irish Surnames of Gaelic Origin. You’ll find another view of this subject at the Irish Times’ Irish Ancestors/Origins of surname. And, if you want to understand how Irish surnames changed, Wikipedia’s article about Irish names may be helpful… or even more confusing.
William Allingham (1828 – 1889) wrote a brief poem about faeries. To most people, it’s just a cute and catchy poem for children. However, for those who’ve studied faeries, he’s left many clues about them.
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owls’ feather!
Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs,
All night awake.
Because this poem is so famous, it’s often quoted. For example, the opening lines were quoted near the beginning of the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. They also appeared in Mike Mignola’s comic book short story Hellboy: The Corpse, and in the 1973 horror film Don’t Look in the Basement.
In addition, the working title of Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men was “For Fear Of Little Men”.
William Allingham and Ballyshannon
William Allingham was born around 1828 in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, Ireland. If you’ve seen the wild countryside around County Donegal, the poem has even greater significance. The landscape is ideal for encountering faeries.
Interestingly, archaeological digs around Ballyshannon have found pieces of quartz placed in the hands of those who died. The mystical significance of quartz makes this very curious.
Ballyshannon’s faerie history
Ballyshannon, created a Borough in 1613, is Ireland’s oldest town. In the Irish language, the town’s name is Béal Átha Seanaidh.
The highest point in the town of Ballyshannon is called Mullgoose, the site of the Mullaghnashee. That may come from “mullach,” meaning on top of, and “sidhe” or “sidh” (pronounced “shee”) meaning faeries.
At one point, St. Anne’s church was built on that site, and both the church and graveyard next to it were referred to as Sidh Aedh Ruaidh, or the Fairy Mound of Red Hugh.
“Red Hugh” — King Aedh Ruadh — ruled Ireland in the third century B.C.
A later “Red Hugh” was Aodh Rua Ó Domhnaill, anglicized as Hugh Roe Ó Donnell (abt. 1572 – 10 September 1602), often called Red Hugh II.
He was the King of Tír Chonaill (or Tyrconnell) in Donegal, and he led a rebellion against English government in Ireland. His story was made into a movie in 1966, The Fighting Prince of Donegal (Disney).
Many people believe that the hill at Mullgoose is a faerie mound, and an access point to the middle world of the faeries.
Toadstools photo by melanie kuipers of Germany
Connemara road photo by johnotte of the Netherlands
Shakespeare’s plays changed almost everything that we think about faeries.
Before Shakespeare wrote about them, most people were terrified of faeries. One of the most frightening was a faerie called Robin Goodfellow. He was blamed for bad luck, poor harvests, and even death.
Then, Shakespeare suggested that faeries might not be evil… just mischievous.
During Shakespeare’s era, that was a radical idea.
In the 16th century, our modern-day ideas of faeries were born in Shakespeare’s plays.
His most famous faerie play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That story included human-sized faeries such as Titania and Oberon, and lesser spirits–including tiny ones–who served them.
One of the leading characters is Puck, who—as Robin Goodfellow—had an evil reputation before this play.
However, in Act 2, Scene One, a character called “Fairy” asks Puck if he is
“…that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow. Are you not he
That frights the maidens in the villagery…”
Fairy then lists a series of other insults and injuries for which Robin Goodfellow was best known such as spoiling milk, and causing travelers to become lost. Puck replies,
“Thou speakest aright,
I am that merry wanderer of the night…”
And so Shakespeare introduces the idea that faeries are not necessarily malicious, just pranksters. By using Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck), Shakespeare has chosen one of England’s most notorious faeries to make his point.
Shakespeare’s audience was stunned by this idea, but–in time–it began to gain popularity.
In Act 4, Scene One of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, he reinforces this idea when shipwrecked Stephano says,
“Monster, your fairy,
Which you say is a harmless fairy,
Has done little better than play the Jack with us.”
Throughout this play, the audience sees the contrast between the clumsy underworld spirit, Caliban, and the ethereal, whimsical spirit of the air, Ariel.
An even earlier tradition
Whether Shakespeare planned it or not, he educated an entire generation on the qualities and characteristics of faeries. Those images remain with us today.
But he was not the first to try to correct society’s misconceptions about the fae world.
In 1584, about ten years before A Midsummer Night’s Dream, English religious historian Reginald Scot wrote a book called Discoverie of Witchcraft. In that book, Scot chided people for their senseless fear of faeries, “that we are afraid of our owne shadowes.”
King James tried to have Scot’s books burned, but the common sense in this text has been quoted repeatedly over the centuries.
Despite the efforts of Scot, Shakespeare, and others, it was nearly impossible to immediately overcome people’s fears. Perhaps they enjoyed ‘a good scare’ or they liked to blame faeries for their own mistakes.
But, Shakespeare’s ideas slowly took root. As hundreds of thousands of people saw his plays, they began to accept the idea that some faeries might be happy and mischievous.
Shakespeare was probably the single greatest contributor to our modern conceptions of faeries. And while Shakespeare’s faeries are not always good, they are certainly no worse—and generally far better—than the mortals in his plays.
And so, to Ireland…
In studying the roots of Shakespeare’s faerie beliefs, folk historian Alfred Nutt said, “we must quit Britain and the woodland glades of Shakespeare’s Arden and turn for a while to Ireland.”
Why Ireland? Very simply, it is one of our best resources when we study the fae world.
And so, at this website, you’ll find plenty of information about Irish mythological history… and the lore of the fae.
Those who have touched the fae world have sometimes written poetry about it. Here is a section of “The Lady of the Lake”, part of the Selected poems of Sir Walter Scott.
Alice Brand and her lover, Richard, are living as outlaws in the woods. Richard thinks he had accidentally killed Alice’s brother, Ethert Brand.
In this poem, the couple meets a hideous elfen creature, who claims that Richard deliberately killed Ethert.
Alice, certain of her lover’s innocence, confronts the elf and, defending Richard, she makes a sign of the cross three times. This releases the elf from a spell, and he reveals himself as Ethert Brand.
The three then return home, happily.
Merry it is in the good greenwood,
When the mavis and merle are singing,
When the deer sweeps by, and the hounds are in cry,
And the hunter’s horn is ringing.
“O Alice Brand, my native land
Is lost for love of you;
And we must hold by wood aud wold,
As outlaws wont to do.
“O Alice, ’twas all for thy locks so bright
And ’twas all for thine eyes so blue,
That on the night of our luckless flight
Thy brother bold I slew.
“Now must I teach to hew the beech
The hand that held the glaive,
For leaves to spread our lowly bed,
And stakes to fence our cave.
“And for vest of pall, thy fingers small,
That wont on harp to stray,
A cloak must shear from the slaughter’d deer,
To keep the cold away.
“Richard! if my brother died,
‘Twas but a fatal chance;
For darkling was the battle tried,
And fortune sped the lance.
“If pall and vair no more I wear,
Nor thou the crimson sheen,
As warm, we’ll say, is the russet grey,
As gay the forest-green.
“And, Richard, if our lot be hard,
And lost thy native land,
Still Alice has her own Richard,
And he his Alice Brand. ”
‘Tis merry, ’tis merry, in good greenwood,
So blithe Lady Alice is singing;
On the beech’s pride, and oak’s brown side
Lord Richard’s axe is ringing.
Up spoke the moody Elfin King,
Who won’d within the hill
Like wind in the porch of a ruin’d church
His voice was ghostly shrill.
“Why sounds yon stroke on beech and oak,
Our moonlight circle’s screen?
Or who comes here to chase the deer,
Beloved of our Elfin Queen?
Or who may dare on wold to wear
The fairies’ fatal green?
“Up, Urgan, up! to yon mortal hie,
For thou wert christen’d man;
For cross or sign thou wilt not fly,
For mutter’d word or ban.
“Lay on him the curse of the wither’d heart,
The curse of the sleepless eye;
Till he wish and pray that his life would part,
Nor yet find leave to die.”
‘Tis merry, ’tis merry, in good greenwood,
Though the birds have still’d their singing;
The evening blaze doth Alice raise,
And Richard is fagots bringing.
Up Urgan starts, that hideous dwarf,
Before Lord Richard stands
And, as he cross’d and bless’d himself,
“I fear not sign,” quoth the grisly elf,
“That is made with bloody hands.”
But out then spoke she, Alice Brand,
That woman, void of fear,—
“And if there’s blood upon his hand,
‘Tis but the blood of deer.”
“Now loud thou liest, thou bold of mood!
It cleaves unto his hand
The stain of thine own kindly blood,
The blood of Ethert Brand.”
Then forward stepp’d she, Alice Brand,
And made the holy sign,—
“And if there’s blood on Richard’s hand
A spotless hand is mine.”
“And I conjure thee, Demon elf
By Him whom Demons fear,
To show us whence thou art thyself,
And what thine errand here?”
“‘Tis merry, ’tis merry, in Fairy-land,
When fairy birds are singing,
When the court doth ride by their monarch’s side
With bit and bridle ringing:
“And gaily shines the Fairy-land—
But all is glistening show,
Like the idle gleam that December’s beam
Can dart on ice and snow.
“And fading, like that varied gleam,
Is our inconstant shape,
Who now like knight and lady seem,
And now like dwarf and ape.
“It was between the night and day,
When the Fairy King has power
That I sunk down in a sinful fray,
And, ‘twixt life and death,was snatch’d away
To the joyless Elfin bower.
“But wist I of a woman bold
Who thrice my brow durst sign,
I might regain my mortal mold,
As fair a form as thine.”
She cross’d him once, she cross’d him twice,
That lady was so brave
The fouler grew his goblin hue,
The darker grew the cave.
She cross’d him thrice, that lady bold
He rose beneath her hand
The fairest knight on Scottish mold,
Her brother, Ethert Brand!
Merry it is in good greenwood
When the mavis and merle are singing,
But merrier were they in Dunfermline grey,
When all the bells were ringing.
Forest photo – John Nyberg, Copenhagen, Denmark