Archive for August 16, 2020

To Fool the Faeries

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , on August 16, 2020 by telescoper

I follow a fascinating little Facebook group which features old pictures of Maynooth. The above picture is not from there – it’s a private group – but I found it on the net after seeing one of the posts there on the same subject.

The point is that the little kids wearing skirts and dresses in that old photograph are all boys.

Apparently it was a tradition in some parts of rural Ireland until relatively recently (at least until the 1930s) to dress young boys (up to the age of about 12) as girls. The reason for this is both strange and sad.

In poorer communities infant mortality was high. The tragic and otherwise inexplicable deaths of young children were attributed to the malicious actions of the faeries – aos sí – supernatural beings believed in Gaelic tradition to be descendants of the people who built the burial mounds, tumuli and other prehistoric structures found all around Ireland. According to the tradition, the faeries prefer to make off with the souls of male rather than female children. Dressing boys as girls was an arrempt to protect them by fooling the faeries.

The sad fact behind this is that boys are significantly more likely to die young than girls, even in affluent societies where infant mortality is generally low, though it is probably more noticeable where infant mortality is high. The belief in faeries preferring to take boys reflects a kind of folk knowledge of this statistical fact. The reasons why boys are more likely than girls to die in infancy are complex and, as far as I know, not fully understood.

I find these traditional beliefs fascinating because they are not simply quaint superstitions – they are attempts to understand real phenomena.

The world of Gaelic mythology itself is, at least partly, built on folk memory of very ancient history. There were, after all, people in Ireland who built places like Newgrange, long before the arrival of Celtic people from somewhere in Iberia, and nobody really knows what happened to them. In mythology they turned into the little people and went underground, but are still here. Which, in a sense, they are…