Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
from The Fairy Folk By William Allingham
I don't say the f-word. All right, I do – but only in combinations, like fairy tale or fairy godmother. I never use it to refer to the Gentry, the Little People, the Good Folk, the Grey Neighbours, the Others. You know – Them.
They're not the twee little flower-spirits the Victorians imagined, mainly concerned with granting wishes to silly humans. The Folk I know are at best indifferent to us, at worst malevolent, and always dangerous.
Lady Gregory, a friend of the poet Yeats, travelled extensively in Ireland, asking the country people about the Good Folk. What she heard was that when we deal with them, we usually come off second-best. There's a reason for so many euphemistic names for them; it's dangerous to draw their attention.
Lady Gregory heard of changeling children, stolen brides and kidnapped mothers, folk who were "elf-shot" or "away", or suffered from "the stroke" (a blow given by one of the Good Folk), boys who stepped into a circle for a dance or two and returned to find their families and friends long dead.
While some stories begin "There was a man who..." many of them happened to the teller. One woman told of losing two of her children to Them. She saw her daughter after the daughter's death.
"Where are you now, Catherine?" she asked.
"I'm in the forth [an underground dwelling of the Good Folk] beyond," the daughter replied.
These Good Folk are the Seelie Court – the "good guys". They may be tall and beautiful, or smaller than we, ill-dressed beneath the glamour. They're not grotesque, nor particularly malevolent. They simply regard us as we regard animals, as lesser beings whose wants don't matter.
The Unseelie Court are actively malevolent. Nuckelavee, who looks rather like a long-armed centaur, only skinless and showing muscle and veins, hunts humans. Jenny Greenteeth drowns and eats children. Baobhan Sidhe is a bloodsucking female spirit. Redcaps, boggles and goblins, all ill-disposed to people, are also all – well, Them. By saying you-know-what, you're as likely to attract the horrific Nuckelavee as the beautiful Melusine.
You may well ask if I, in the twenty-first century, really believe in the Good Folk.
Let me tell a story from my own family. When my grandparents bought Ballylough, the family farm in Ireland, the woman of the house told my grandmother where to empty her laundry water. In those days before indoor plumbing, the housewife used to pour it in one corner of the farmyard. One day she heard a knock on her door, and found there a little woman in a white blouse, black skirt and red cap.
"Could you please pour your water in the other corner," she asked the astonished housewife, "for where you pour it now, it trickles down my chimney."
The housewife wisely did as she was asked. No point making one of Them angry, even one who looks so much like a little housewife herself. You never know who else is listening.
Briggs, Katharine. A Dictionary of Fairies. Penguin Books, 1977.
Lady Gregory. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. Colin Smythe Gerrards Cross, 1970. Copyright 1920.