Irish Fairies and Irish Food: The Mary Doheny Trial

As Wednesday Weirdness rolls round again, I am very pleased to welcome Dr. Simon Young to The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful with Irish fairies, food, and the sensational trial of Mary Doheny.


In 1864 one Mary Doheny – ‘the wife of a blind man… with a reputation for preternatural powers’ (Anon 1067) – was brought to trial at Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, Ireland on a charge of swindling. The Crown alleged that, over the course of four months, Doheny had taken food from several townspeople on false pretences. This may at first seem a sordid and unremarkable episode; and so, indeed, in some senses it was. But this forgotten case – it has been completely overlooked by scholars – reveals some unusual Irish beliefs concerning food and fairies. Many studies in the last generation have looked at the folklore offood (see for overview Camp): this nineteenth-century Irish trial allows us to delve into food infolklore, a rather different but no less interesting and instructive proposition.

There are many hundreds of words given over to the Doheny trial in the Irish, and to a lesser extent, the British press of the day. However, for present purposes an account of the Doheny trial in the British periodical The Spectatorwill serve our needs, as it condenses without simplifying. The reader should be warned, some of these details are surprising, a consequence of the British legal system and Irish folk convictions colliding (Hickey 106-130). 

The charge against [Mary Doheny] was of cheating certain persons… out of subsidies not in money but in food, on the false pretence that they were for the support of deceased relatives of the contributors recently restored to life – or sufficiently so to need food. The scene in the Court-house of Carrick-on-Suir was a very curious one. People of all ranks thronged from all sides to hear the examination, and even the most educated persons present were, it is said, in parts of the evidence visibly awestruck and confounded by the simple faith and earnest testimony of more than one witness… (Anon 1067). 

The anonymous Spectatorwriter explains how it was believed that several ‘dead’ family members were coming back to life. By bringing food to the dead Mary Doheny claimed she could sustain these individuals and then return them to the world of the living. This was made all the more remarkable by the fact that a number of witnesses claimed to have seen their dead relatives while in Mrs Doheny’s presence! For example, Doheny showed Joseph Reeves, his dead father-in-law, William Mullins: a fact that, notwithstanding ridicule and laughter, Reeves – a policeman – swore to in court. 

We remained looking at [my dead father-in-law, William Mullins] for a time; he was standing in the field with a stick in his hand; his side-face was turned toward me… I don’t think that William Mullins is dead now; but he was dead. I have been sending him food for the last four months since he came to life. I sent bread, butter, and tea once in each of the twenty-four hours, sometimes by the defendant and sometimes by my wife’s niece. Defendant, asked in my presence for the food, and as it was after I had seen William Mullins alive, I consented (Anon 1067).

Reeves sent bread, butter and tea. Another witness brought tea, milk, butter, and bread to her dead uncle, Tom Sheehan. However, the diet of the dead or semi-dead was not always the same. The departed Father Mullins ‘smokes, and can manage new potatoes and eggs’. A dead child, on the other hand, was not strong enough for ‘potatoes and eggs’ and after an abortive attempt to send this kind of food ‘[the mother] changed the diet the next night’. Then the dead also proved choosy. ‘Some tea was sent back as not good enough… two months ago, and fresh tea of a better quality was substituted’ (Anon 1068). The food here amounts to a fair list of nineteenth-century Irish staples: available to, depending on the date, the rural poor and the lower middle classes (Diner 84-112). 
Now what, on earth, is going on in this account? The newspapers that wrote about Doheny described her as a ‘witch’, but it would be closer to the truth to call her a ‘fairy woman’ or a ‘fairy doctor’: the nineteenth-century media, particularly in Britain, constantly misunderstood Irish fairy superstitions, confusing the same with witchcraft (Bourke 128-129). And it is important, for present purposes, to note that, in nineteenth-century Ireland, certain men and women lay claim to being the intimates of the fairies, deriving their power from close relations with the world of fairy (Bourke, 24-38); some even claimed to be fairies come to live among humanity (Young). Fairy doctors, of whom the most famous was Biddy Early (Lenihan), worked cures, intervened to solicit protection from fairies and, as here, communicated with the dead. 

This ability to communicate with the dead was not as alien to the fairy faith as one might at first think. There was still, in nineteenth-century Ireland, a belief that the dead (or at least some of the dead) were ‘taken’ by the fairies and that they went to dwell in the happy fairy realms under fairy raths or forts. So powerful was this belief that certain scholars have even used it as proof that the fairies were originally themselves the spirits of the dead (Spence). This is questionable and need, in any case, not detain us here. But it is important to understand that Doheny’s authority was based on her ability to reach these dead relatives trapped among ‘the good folk’ and to return them to life.

But why food? Here we must deal with this question at the vulgar level of practicalities and at the more elevated level of folklore. First, the practicalities. Fairy men and women may or may not have had ‘powers’. Bt they had a well-deserved reputation for charlatanism. I have documented many cases of this kind of dishonesty in nineteenth-century Ireland; and there are even three dramatic cases – one of which ended in court – where individuals arrived at Irish homes claiming to be recently dead family members, returned from among the fairies (Young 2012). These fairy swindlers depended on sleight of hand, ham-acting and pyrotechnics and they were quite able to have someone stand in for a dead relative to convince a grieving family of their authority. Consider this account from the writings of Lady Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s mother). 

A young man died suddenly on May Eve [a fairy feast] while he was lying asleep under a hay-rick, and the parents and friends knew immediately that he had been carried off to the fairy palace in the great moat of Granard. So a renowned fairy man was sent for, who promised to have him back in nine days. Meanwhile [the fairy man]desired that food and drink of the best should be left daily for the young man at a certain place on the moat. This was done, and the food always disappeared, by which they knew the young man was living, and came out of the moat nightly for the provisions left for him by his people. Now on the ninth day a great crowd assembled to see the young man brought back from Fairyland. And in time stood the fairy doctor performing his incantations by means of fire and a powder which he threw into the flames that caused a dense grey smoke to arise. Then, taking off his hat, and holding a key in his hand, he called out three times in a loud voice, ‘Come forth, come forth, come forth!’ On which a shrouded figure slowly rose up in the midst of the smoke, and a voice was heard answering, ‘Leave me in peace; I am happy with my fairy bride, and my parents need not weep for me, for I shall bring them good luck, and guard them from evil evermore.’ Then the figure vanished and the smoke cleared, and the parents were content, for they believed the vision, and having loaded the fairy-man with presents, they sent him away home (Wilde 200 and, for comments, Briggs 150-151).

The reader will notice the repetition of food here. In instances like this and the Doheny case food was presumably a necessity for the swindlers – who had to eat – and so food proved convenient. It did not arouse the suspicion of relatives and community in the way that requests for money might have; though money was also frequently demanded. And there was the hope that at the end, as here, the fairy doctor would be rewarded.

However, there are also folklore reasons for asking for food. In myths from around the world, there is the idea, familiar to most of us in the tale of Persephone, that visitors to the underworld should not consume the food of the ‘spirits’ (to be as generic as possible). In 1891, in one of the pioneer works on British folklore, Hartland tied this belief, in a short and still important chapter, to fairy belief and the legend of the fairy midwife (37-58). Those, he argued, who go to the fairy world risk being eternally trapped there should they be so foolish as to eat the fairies’ food. And even a glancing familiarity with British or Irish or for that matter German or Mediterranean fairy lore confirms his thesis (Silver 1999, 171 and Silver 2005, 105). Jeremy Harte, indeed, sums it up in his wonderful survey of the fairy world writing: ‘[t]he simplest rule, and the one which appears in almost all narratives of a journey to the Otherworld, is easily remembered, don’t eat’ (Harte 81).

Take this episode from one of the most famous English fairy stories, written down some ten years after the Doheny trial. Mr Noy has stumbled, quite unwittingly, into Fairyland and is observing an extraordinary fairy revel.

[Mr Noy] noticed that the damsel [among the fairies] who played the music was more like ordinary folks for stature, and he took her to be the master’s daughter, as, when one dance was ended, she gave the crowd to a little old fellow that stood near her, entered the house, fetched there from a black-jack, went round the tables and filled the cups and tankards that those seated, and others, handed to be replenished… [Then she] went towards the orchard signaling to Mr. Noy to follow her, which he did. When out of the candle-glare and in a clear spot where moonlight shone, she waited for him. He approached and was surprised to see that the damsel was no other than a farmer’s daughter of Selena [the local village], one Grace Hutchens, who had been his sweetheart for a long while, until she died, three or four years agone; at least he had mourned her as dead, and she had been buried in Buryan Churchyard as such. When Mr. Noy came within a yard or so, turning towards him, she said, ‘thank the stars, my dear William, that I was on the look-out to stop ye, or you would this minute be changed into the small people’s state like I am, woe is me.’ He was about to kiss her, ‘Oh, beware!’ she exclaimed, ‘embrace me not, nor touch flower nor fruit; for eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing’ (Bottrell II, 94-102 at 97-98 )

Doheny and the nameless fairy doctor in Wilde’s account are acting not just according to their own interests, but according to the demands of folklore. By giving staples to the prisoners of the fairies, they are preventing them from ingesting fairy food, food that would trap them in the fairy world for ever. The Spectatordescribes Doheny’s logic in the following terms.

The witnesses called against Mrs Doheny certainly testified to the continuous stream of subsidies with which they had supplied her for their rather uncomfortably situated relatives, who appear to have half got back from the grave, but still to be, if we may so term it, spiritual invalids living on earth, but in mysterious seclusion amongst ‘the good people’, and preparing on a mild diet of tea and other food generally known to the medical profession as ‘slops’ for their more active return to life; but while they gave this evidence, they not only imputed no falsehood to Mrs Doheny, but were even eager in their simple faith that the subsidies had actually been needed and consumed by their half-reanimated kinsmen, whom they had, they said, seen with their own eyes (Anon 1067).

There are cases from elsewhere in Europe where, in folklore, the dead avoid eating fairy food and depend on rations from outside. But the only examples I have found from the nineteenth century where individuals actually act on these beliefs are from Ireland. How can we explain this fact? Is it just the perseverance of pre-Christian or, better, non-Christian beliefs or are we dealing with something more? Perhaps the answer lies in that grievous nineteenth-century Irish experience: starvation. The potato famines, which blighted the Irish nineteenth century, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and leading hundreds of thousands to emigrate, mattered in another way (Diner 113-116). They created – as in other periods of famine (Pleij, 100-117; Dickie 100-117) – a strong sense of solidarity between the starving or semi-starved, where food and access to food were mythologised. It was the recent memory of hunger, as much as traditional belief, that, we suspect, made relatives, a decade or so after an Gorta Mór, so attentive to the needs of their famished dead.

Dr Simon Young is a history lecturer at the International Studies Institute in Florence. He has written, in the last years, on witch and fairy belief in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland in several reviews including Folklore, Studia Hibernica and Nomina. To read more, visit


Anon, ‘The Tipperary Witch’ The Spectator(1864), 1067-1068
Bottrell, William Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall(Penzance, Beare and Son, 1870-1880), 3 vols.
Bourke, Angela The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (London, Pimlico 2006)
Briggs, Katharine The Fairies in Tradition and Literature(Routledge, London 2011)
Camp, Charles ‘Foodways’ Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music and Art 2 vol (ed) Thomas Green (Santa Barbara, Bio-Clio 1997) II 366-371
Dicke, John Delizia: The epic history of Italians and their food (London, Sceptre 2007)
Diner, Hasia Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration(Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 2002)
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Pleij, Herman Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life(New York, Columbia University Press 2001)
Silver, Carole G. ‘Tabu: Eating and Drinking, Motifs C200-C299’, Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature: A Handbook (ed) Jane Garry and Hasan El Shamy (New York, M.E. Sharpe 2005), 103-107.
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Wilde, Lady Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland(Boston, Ticknor and Co 1887)
Young, Simon ‘Fairy Imposters in Longford during the Great Famine’ Studia Hibernica38, 181-198

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