When I first heard about Ireland’s fairy forts, I immediately had images of fairies and pixies dressed up in armor defending a fort from potential leprechaun attacks (or nosey tourists).  Far fetched, yes, but I usually have no problem tapping my wild imagination when it comes to anything associated with Ireland because I grew up with the legends and lore of this country.  So, if leprechauns can be found at the end of a rainbow protecting their pot of gold, why can’t fairies be living around mounds of dirt in the woods protecting them from looky-loos? During my latest trip to Ireland, I decided to take a closer look at the fairy forts to see what all the fuss was about.

From fact …

Most of the 60,000 fairy forts of Ireland don’t appear to be much when you first see them (if you even can), as they are not very large and are often covered in overgrown brush throughout the countryside. What you might see is simply a mound of dirt with a few stones around it.  However, there’s a lot more to these earthen mounds than meets the eye, as they are deeply rooted not only in the history of the Emerald Isle, but in its legends and folklore, too.

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The Grianán Ailigh in Ulster is a good example of a very large stone fairy fort. (credit: Wiki Photo)

A fairy fort is an ancient dwelling.  Built in the Middle Ages (and before they were known as homes to the fairies), they were often simply referred to as ring forts.   These simple living areas were designed to make it difficult to gain entry, not necessarily by invaders, but moreso by predators, as they were designed to protect agriculture and livestock.  They were circular settlements that were enclosed by one or more earthen banks. The earthen banks were usually constructed by using upcast dirt from a ditch.  In the center, you would find a courtyard for livestock and crops.  Some were built with stone (more common in western Ireland where stone was readily available) and were quite large, while others were much smaller, now resembling simple round mounds of earth.

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(credit: CC License, Samuel Gardiner)

… To folklore

Now onto the more whimsical part of the history of the ring forts, and how Irish folklore turned them into something more mystical and supernatural.  Over time, the ring forts were destroyed either by people or elements, and the remaining circular mounds of dirt and / or stones took on a new meaning.  Many explained them away as fairy rings while some called them fairy forts.  Regardless, they became known as magical places that were protected by spells of the Druids. No one would dare disturb these forts for fear of being cursed as a result of the protection spell placed over the dwelling.  Still to this day, many people believe that if you disturb a fairy fort, you will suffer some sort of accident, bad luck, or even death.

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The summit on the Hill of Tara. (credit: CC License, Patrick Brown)

Tales of woe … you’ve been warned!

There are many examples of misfortune that fell upon folks who disturbed these ancient fairy forts, including stories of septic hands and missing cows, to some more modern examples of personal doom and financial ruin.

For example, some say that the individuals who signed off on the partial destruction of fairy forts in the Tara Skyrne Valley to make way for the M3 motorway suffered severe hardships and freak accidents as a result of their decision.  Doom and gloom struck these men as soon as construction of the motorway began in 2007.   In 2011, some say the fairies got their revenge on one of Ireland’s richest men, Sean Quinn.  In 1992, he relocated a 4,000 year old megalithic burial tomb that was in the way of a business venture.  Twenty years later, in 2011, Sean Quinn lost everything and declared bankruptcy.

Although there are a few folks in Ireland who disregard the fairy forts and chalk these suspicious events up to coincidence (Hi Uncle Gabe!), there are many more who are very superstitious (Hello Mom!). When it comes to the fairy forts, they simply stay away.  What better place for a fairy to take cover than in a fort where no human will dare go?

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The leprechauns like to hide their pots of gold in the fairy forts. (credit: Marjorie Claire)

And what about those pesky leprechauns?

Some legends don’t limit the fairy forts to just the home of the good fairies of Ireland.  Some say that the leprechauns hide their gold in the fairy forts knowing that it is probably safer there than at the end of the rainbow (since everyone knows about THAT hiding spot by now).  Would you risk disturbing a fairy fort to find some gold?  From what my mom told me, I would think the wrath of a leprechaun might be worse than the revenge of a fairy.

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(credit: CC License, EllajPhillips)

No Irish tale is complete without the mention of a ghost

The modern day tales of the fairy forts go beyond fairies and leprechauns.  Many people believe that the fairy forts are entrances to another world and with this comes many stories of supernatural events happening around the fairy forts to support that theory.  My own mother and aunt have experienced a supernatural event at a fairy fort by their home, and it has become one of our favorite ghost stories from Ireland.

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My mother grew up on a farm in Ireland with a fairy fort across the field from her home.  When she was 9 years old, she was out playing in the field with her sister, Joan, when they noticed a woman wearing a long white dress with long flowing blonde hair standing near the fairy fort (my aunt’s recollection is that the woman’s hair was red).  They stopped in their tracks staring at her.  The mysterious woman looked towards the two young girls, and then immediately moved to the center of the fort and disappeared as if she had been startled by them, retreating to safety.

My mom and her sister never saw the ghostly woman again, but they did frequently hear music and singing coming from the empty field where the fairy fort stood.  Whether actual or the result of an active imagination growing up in a land full of such lore, it made for a great ghost story that my mom loved to share with us … especially around Halloween. Fortunately, I love a good ghost story (must be the Irish in me).

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Would you dare visit a fairy fort in Ireland?

That fairy fort still exists today, as they are now protected under Irish Law for heritage preservation purposes.  On my recent trip to my family’s homestead, I sought out this mythical mound hoping for a glimpse of the beautiful woman with the long blonde (or red) hair, or maybe I would hear the music and singing that my mother once heard on dark quiet nights by the bog.  Unfortunately, I was not able to see the fairy fort from a distance, as it was overgrown with brush.  Although I was tempted to move in for a closer look and try to take a photograph of this infamous (at least in our family) fairy fort, I decided against it.  I wasn’t willing to test my Irish luck.

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Although there are a lot of fairy forts in Ireland, they aren’t so easy to spot while driving around the countryside unless you are planning to visit one of the larger sites that are tourist attractions like Tara. Instead, you might consider seeking out a fairy instead of a fort.  For example, at the Galway Farmers Market you can find fairy seeds that you can plant to attract fairies to your own garden back home.

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