The Fairy Child of James Tormey
(The following was obtained by Marybeth Tormey Stevens. It is a tale of how fairies attempted to abduct the newborn child of James Tormey and substitute in its place a fairy changeling. The author of the story is unknown. It is dated October 9, 1938 -- though it is likely referring to an even that supposedly happened much earlier in the past -- and is from pages 243 and 244 of the book titled, "Schools Folklore Collection", which is written entirely by hand. The book was found in the County Westmeath Library, Mullingar, Ireland. It is reproduced here in its original form, without editing.)
About 80 years ago there lived in Drumcree a miller called James Tormey. Jack Bennet was his helper who attended the Kiln drying every night during the winter season. One night there was a child born in Tormey's House. Jack was attending the Kiln about 12 o'clock that night about one hundred yards away from Tormey's. He heard talk. He looked through the window and to his surprise he saw two old hags talking outside the window where the mother and child were. One of them lifted up the window and in she went. Jack Bennet ran out and rushed to capture the old hag under the window. She fled and Jack after her. Jack soon returned and waited under the window. Very soon the child was handed out to him. He took it and off home he went with it. Next morning Jack was up to Tormey's very early. They were terribly annoyed as the child was continuously screaming roaring & yelling. Jack looked at the child. He called the man of the house and told him get a bundle of straw. Out in the street he went with the child. He lit the straw and up it blazed. Into it he through the child. To the surprise of everyone when the child felt the heat, it immediately changed and became an ugly bony man which in a moment disappeared from view.
Irish Fairy and Changeling Folklore
by Michael Tormey, September, 1998
To make sense of certain elements of this story, it helps to understand some history of Irish fairy and changeling folklore.
In modern literature and drama, fairies are most often portrayed as helpful, pixy-like characters -- often coming to the aid of children or others in need (i.e. The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, etc.). In true folkloric tradition, however, many fairies played a more serious and often sinister role.
Per traditional belief (which was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages and even up to more modern times), fairies were very similar to humans in form, though they were usually smaller (ranging in size from 3 inches to just under average human height). Many, but not all, were beautiful or handsome creatures. They typically lived longer than humans, but they had no souls and, thus, simply perished at death.
Fairies were believed to have supernatural powers and were said to have often magically meddled in human affairs -- sometimes in positive ways, and sometimes not so positive (as was the case in the above story).
Tradition has it that fairies would often carry off human children, leaving changeling substitutes in
their place. (It is said that they would occasionally carry off adult humans as well). Legend puts forth various reasons as to why humans (children in particular) were abducted by the fairies.
Those who believe in the darker side of fairies believe that the abducted humans are given to or sacrificed to the devil or used to strengthen fairy stock.
Others believe that the captive humans were merely fancied by the fairies and taken for their company (being treated quite well, but never being allowed to return to their human domain). In many such cases, a log of wood would be left in the place of the abducted human -- with a bewitching spell upon it that left all around it believing it was indeed the original person, laying still, sick and dying.
Perhaps the most prevalent belief as to why human children were abducted is that they were taken to replace the occasionally deformed or mentally unstable offspring of fairies themselves. The fairies would leave their own child in place of the human child, magically bewitching him or her so that others would see the image of the original child (hence the word "changeling"). What the fairies could not hide, however, was the naturally nasty disposition of the sick or unstable fairy child they were trying to get rid of. Thus, as in the story of James Tormey's child above, the changeling child would be forever unappeasable -- crying, screaming, complaining.
European belief had it that the return of original human children could be won by making the changeling laugh (a nearly impossible task) or by torturing it. (As one would imagine, the latter was unfortunately responsible for numerous cases of actual child abuse.)
In Ireland, it was believed that one could use fire to be rid of a changeling, as can be seen in the following quote from W.B. Yeats' Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland:
Many things can be done to find out if a child's a changeling, but there is one infallible thing -- lay it on the fire with this formula, "Burn, burn, burn -- if of the devil, burn; but if of God and the saints, be safe from harm". Then if it be a changeling it will rush up the chimney with a cry...
(Yeats attributes the above chant to Lady Wilde, the mother of Oscar Wilde and a well-known Irish literary figure herself, known by the pen name of "Speranzana.)
As with most tales, we will probably never know why the above "Fairy Child" story was written. Perhaps one of the reasons it stands out to historians, more than for its literary interest, is that it refers to James Tormey, a miller in Drumcree. At this time, it is not know exactly who this James Tormey was, but it is known that there were seven Tormey brothers who owned mills throughout central Ireland.
Anyone with clues or further information, as to the identity of James Tormey or the history of this particular piece of folklore, is asked to please contact Michael Tormey.)