Putting Their Faith in the Fairies: BBC Northern Ireland’s Fascination with the ‘Wee Folk’

An Irish fairy tree

Only a few months ago we heard the Independent TD Danny Healy-Rae claiming that the dip in the motorway located in Kerry existed due to the presence of fairy forts disturbing the area.[1] Fairies were frequently blamed in Irish culture for events out of the ordinary or scenarios that were difficult to explain. An interest, curiosity, and belief in the fairies also holds an association with Irish cultural identity. Fairy belief is certainly associated with place and the natural environment. Jane Talbot cites her fascination of tree lore as the inspiration for her book ‘The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories’, basing this on the local fairy thorn tree on the farm where she lives with her husband in Ballymoney.[2] The MAC theatre in Belfast even decided to showcase a play based on Talbot’s book of stories on fairy lore. You may find it curious then that 2017 has actually much in common with the year of 1952. Of course, we have the Irish Folklore Commission collecting oral testimony and the British Broadcasting Corporation dedicated time to the collection of fairy lore in Northern Ireland, leading to a five-part series titled Fairy Faith in 1952.

Rex Cathcart, writing in his book The Most Contrary Region the first monograph to record the history of the station in Northern Ireland, briefly discussed how Fairy Faith was supposed to record the heroic tales of Ulster, but when producers went to gather material, the testimony had inconsistencies – with one storyteller managing to include a Cadillac in a story about Cú Chulainn.

Fairy Faith salvaged the oral testimony of fairy belief surviving in Northern Ireland in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The programme’s producer, Sam Hanna Bell, and folklorist, Michael J Murphy, recorded local people recalling their stories of fairy belief.[3] Murphy was the ethnographer who searched for first person testimonials across Northern Ireland and then Bell recorded these afterwards without interfering with scripting and re-recording the participants’ stories. They drew inspiration from the rural areas tracing folk stories and folklife.

Unfortunately, today what survives are select participant recordings, rather than the entire broadcast programme in sound. According to The Radio Times there were five programmes in the 1952 series, both received broadcasts on the Northern Ireland regional channel called the Home Service and the nationally airing UK BBC channel titled the Third Programme.[4]

Programme Title Northern Ireland Home Service (NIHS) National Service on the Third Programme
1. The Origin of the Fairy Race 11th March 1952


22nd July 1952


2. Fairy Bushes and Skeags -the Crock of Gold and Fairy Treasure 18th March 1952


5th August 1952


3. Good Fairies and Malignant Fairies 25th March 1952


19th August 1952



4. Changelings, Abductions and Fairy Music 1st April 1952


2nd September 1952


5. The Fairies and the Dead; The Departure of the Fairy Host 8th April 1952


17th September 1952


Publicised in the Radio Times, the following quote by Douglas Hyde accompanied the scheduled listing:

Different parts of the Irish soil cherish different bodies of supernatural beings. The North of Ireland believes in beings unknown in the South, and North-East Leinster has spirits unknown to the West.[5]

The statement contradicts national homogeneity in favour of a re-enforced cultural difference between Ireland – north and south. Why the BBC attempted this is worth further exploration, remembering that this quote was used for publicising the programme nationally in the Radio Times. Essentially the BBC have cropped the essence of Hyde’s statement and on examination of Fairy Faith there are plenty of common themes of Irish cultural identity, and indeed, pan European themes, to be found in the recordings. Ultimately, the content of the folk stories existed with a slight regional variation but thematically the fairy lore recorded was similar.

From the remaining records surviving, the participants were mainly drawn from counties Tyrone, Antrim, and Down with the exception of county Donegal and Fermanagh.[6] The BBC frequently interchanged terms for naming ‘Northern Ireland’ as a geographic place. Sometimes they used ‘Ulster’, as in the historical province of Ulster (nine counties), sometimes they used ‘Northern Ireland and at other times they named it ‘Province’. What we can gather from their use of terminology is that the interchanging of ‘Northern Ireland’ and ‘Ulster’ became commonplace, leading to a complex projection of identity over the airwaves.

BBC NI ultimately sustained the connection with the United Kingdom and they did this by making comparisons to folklore in Northern Ireland in comparison to other areas in the UK such as Scotland. Fairy Faith’s script emphasises the similarities shared between Scotland and Ulster in relation to ‘the leprechauns – the locherymen’ that pervaded Ulster folklore: ‘And in the drift of fairy lore that ran from Scotland across the Hebrides to the Irish Coast came the Gruagach [sic] with its tangled head of hair. It was known in the Glens of Antrim’.[7] However, the reference to leprechauns was not confined to the six counties. A similar tale of the ‘Gruagach’ was also collected in county Donegal from folklorist Sean O’Haughey signifying that Murphy and Bell travelled there. Importantly, the Narrator prefaces the story with a description of the ‘Gruagach’ as ‘known only to the Protestant country-folk in the townland of Malinmore, a townland [sic] peopled by the descendants of Scottish planters’.[8] This line separates folk stories across a religious divide between Protestant and Catholic.[9]

It is Diarmuid Ó Giolláin who observes that tales about the Gruagach ‘may have been introduced with the Plantation of Ulster’. In his final conclusions on the connections between the fairies and representations of ‘leipreachán [sic]’ (of which the gruagach is a subsection) he states the similarity between the leipreachán that ‘belongs to an Irish dwarf race […] do not differ greatly from the Ulster people’.[10] This was an example of how BBC decided to separate cultural identity of the folklore collected into a regional bounded place. However, the distinction they make is between the province of Ulster (nine counties) as opposed to Northern Ireland. Instead of uniting six counties of Northern Ireland with the twenty-six counties of the Republic BBC chose to reinforce the transference of folk narrative from Scotland. This could be viewed as emphasising the very foundation of those with Scottish or English heritage in Ulster, beginning with the plantation of Ulster in 1609.

From reading various articles in Béaloideas, these confirm fairy belief held many common themes and stories about changelings, midwives to the fairies, and abductions. These stories were shared across a variety of locations: ‘The tradition is found throughout the whole of northern Europe – the Nordic countries including Iceland and the Faroes, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Germany, the Baltic states and also in Brittany, Normandy and Picardy in northern France’.[11] Séamas Mac Philib has identified a range of stories involving changelings that were found across ‘the whole of Northern Europe’.[12] This research counters the insistence that regional folk stories were individual to the locale and thus formed a distinct cultural identity. Here are just a sample of some of the similar thematic stories that Fairy Faith features.

Numerous stories of changelings appear in episode three of Fairy Faith. An account told by Michael Morris, combines a woman dying, returning as a spirit ghost with a changeling story:

They tell me about a woman who lived in County Antrim and she died in child-birth, and the people was [sic] all very sorry […] the coffin went to the ground and the woman stepped out of the coffin and walked homeward. And when she got home the child was continuously crying, so she went to some neighbour to consult her about the child, and she told her to put it in a basket and put it over the fire to see what would happen, so she got a basket and put the child over the fire and the child went up in smoke and was never heard of after, and the woman lived for ten years herself.[13]

Mac Philib evidences the historical origins behind changeling stories, citing the Census of Ireland 1951:

children’s deaths from wasting and tubercular disease had given rise to the popular ideas respecting the “changeling” […] superstitious notions entertained by the peasantry respecting their supposed “fairy-stricken” children; – so that year by year, up to the present day, we read accounts of deaths produced by cruel endeavours to cure children and young persons of such maladies.[14]

Another example of the common theme found in folklore collected is the midwife to the fairies as explored by Críostóir MacCárthaigh. ‘The central theme of the legend is that a mortal, usually a woman (a midwife), is fetched to the otherworld to deliver a child’.[15] There are two specific variations, one nocturnal and another daytime, recalling sighting of fairies.[16] Appearing in Fairy Faith, Episode Two, this story is told by Mick Smith:

Well this is an old story about a midwife, and one night there comes a man to the door and asked her to go and see a woman who was in trouble, and she said she had no way of going, but he said there was a horse saddled and bridled if she wished to come along, so said she would […] So she got on the horse, on the pillion, and rode off with this gentleman for a long ways […] She was taken inside and taken to the bedside where the woman was in trouble […] she spied a girl that she thought she had seen before…this young lady says “if you eat or drink anything in this place you will not get back, but if you don’t eat or drink you will get back” […] she refused [to eat or drink] [s]o there was nothing for them then only leave her back home […] and he handed her a gold sovereign and he said that was for her trip.[17]

MacCárthaigh comments on the ‘international motif […] Tabu: eating in fairyland [sic][…] involves the midwife being advised by a sympathetic fairy not to partake of food or drink while in the otherworld to guarantee her safe return; or it may be that the midwife is aware of this taboo from the outset’.[18] As we can see from the example taken from Fairy Faith this occurred in the tale told by Smith. Moreover, the similar situation of receiving payment for the services to the fairies is also shared across these stories. On their return, the fairy gift can be spoiled if the midwife looks at it. In Scandinavian folklore the gift converts to a valuable item on return but in Scottish and Irish legends the opposite is true, mostly coins turn into dry leaves. In Fairy Faith the midwife reaches into her pocket ‘a small piece of horse manure tied in a rag’ had replaced the gold coins offered by the fairies.[19] Thus, we can see variants of the stories re-told by people in Ulster commonly found across Europe, having many similar themes but with inherent variations. Ultimately though Irish and Scottish folklore shared a commonality, as articles in Béaloideas have explored in depth.

Therefore, contrary to the quote in the Radio Times, there is little difference in the folk tales recorded across Ireland and these even have pan-European themes. In contrast with the marketing material in the Radio Times, Fairy Faith does not explicitly refer to a difference in folk stories across Ireland. Instead parallels are suggested with a UK and European context. Indeed, there are several points in the programme where reference is made to other fairy stories sourced elsewhere. In Episode Three the narrator names Wales and Brittany as places that have common themes.[20] Again, locations are repeated when comparing Ulster folklore: ‘Several of these stories are also to be found in Scotland and the Isle of Man, Wales and Brittany, except in Brittany the prescribed day in the rhyme is Saturday instead of Sunday’.[21] References to UK-wide folklore appear but an explicit connection is never made to the fairy stories collected in Ulster relating to the Republic of Ireland.

Recommended Books from #FolkloreThursday


[1] Ann Lucey, ‘Danny Healy-Rae claims fairy forts caused dip in Kerry road’ in The Irish Times online, 8 August 2017, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/danny-healy-rae-claims-fairy-forts-caused-dip-in-kerry-road-1.3179717 [accessed 14 November 2017].

[2] Jane Talbot, The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories, (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2015).

[3] A term used by Ieuan Franklin to describe the process Sam Hanna Bell and Michael J. Murphy used, See Ieuan Franklin, ‘Folkways and Airwaves’, note 82, p. 136.

[4] BBC. ‘Fairy Faith’ in The Radio Times online, 1952 (Belfast: BBC NI Sound Archives in Cultra), [Accessed 3 April 2014]; Linen Hall Library. Sam Hanna Bell collection, scrapbook 1949-1952, Box 6: Sam Hanna Bell 2009, Belfast. [Accessed 7 May 2014]; McMahon, p. 51 and Martin Armstrong, ‘The Spoken Word’ in The Listener, 31st July 1952, (London: BBC, 1952), p. 197.

[5] Douglas Hyde: ‘Gaelic scholar, founder of the Gaelic League, and first president of Ireland’ cited in Patrick Maume, ‘Hyde, Douglas (de hÍde, Dubhghlas)’, Dictionary of Irish Biography,

  1. by James McGuire, James Quinn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


BBC, Radio Times, 18 July 1952, p. 21.

[6] It was Cahir Healy who told the story about the disappearance of the Mac Menamins, see BBC NI RA, ‘Compilation of Archive Material’, Museum References: 2003; 2873; 2045; 3136; 3137.

[7] WAC, Fairy Faith, Episode 5, p. 2.

[8] WAC, Fairy Faith, Episode 5, p. 3.

[9] It should be noted that county Donegal had a population of Protestants residing in the county, even after partition.

[10] Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, ‘The Leipreachán and the Fairies, Dwarfs and Household Familiar: A Comparative Study’, Béaloideas, Iml. 52, 75-150, (p. 149) < http://www.jstor.org/stable/20522237> [accessed 25 May 2017]

[11] Séamus Mac Philib, ‘The Changeling (ML 5058) Irish Versions of a Migratory Legend in Their International Context’, Béaloideas, Iml. 59 (1991) 121-131, (p. 121) <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20522381> [accessed 17 May 2017].

[12] Mac Philib, p. 121.

[13] WAC, Fairy Faith, Episode 4, Script on microfilm, pp. 6-7.

[14] Mac Philib, pp. 121-2.

[15] Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, ‘Midwife to the Fairies (ML 5070): The Irish Variants in Their Scottish and Scandinavian Perspective’, Béaloideas, Iml. 59 (1991), 133-143, (p. 133). <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20522382> [accessed 17 May 2017].

[16] Mac Cárthaigh, p. 134.

[17] WAC, Fairy Faith, Episode 2, Script on microfilm, pp. 17-18.

[18] Mac Cárthaigh, p. 140.

[19] WAC, Fairy Faith, Episode 2, p. 18.

[20] WAC, Fairy Faith, Episode 3, p. 26.

[21] WAC, Fairy Faith, Episode 3, p. 18.

Portia Ellis-Woods is a PhD candidate in the School of Arts, English and Languages at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her AHRC funded PhD collaborated with BBC NI to analyse the Radio Sound Archive held in Cultra, Northern Ireland. Predominately her thesis concentrates on the historical development of radio drama and features programming of early BBC NI output from 1924 until 1956. Through critical examination of BBC NI’s early radio output the PhD locates an earlier response to how they dealt with the complexities of broadcasting in a location where national and cultural identity are contentious. Follow Portia on Twitter.

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