The Aos Sí (commonly pronounced 'ay-oss shee') are one of the most prominent aspects of folklore in Ireland. The Irish 'Aos' means people, and 'Sí' means mounds, forming 'people of the mounds' in English.
The Aos Sí are a magical people often referred to as 'fairy folk', though they are unlike modern fairy representations. The Aos Sí are very much like human beings, but capable of using magical powers. According to legend they now reside in what equates to a parallel universe, but once ruled over the island of Ireland.
The Aos Sí are believed to be based upon the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of goddess Danú), an ancient people who invaded Ireland long ago, and whose presence in Ireland was recorded in ancient historical texts, such as the Book of Invasions.
The Tuatha Dé Danann lost control of Ireland to the Milesians (probable ancestors of modern Irish population), and seeing that any hope of reconquest was gone, fled the land. Though they are unlikely to have just disappeared from Ireland, and more likely bred into the Milesian population and out of existence, they became part of ancient Irish lore, reborn as the legendary Aos Sí.
The 'mounds' of the Aos Sí are the ancient forts and various other constructions that still survive all across Ireland. According to Irish lore, these mounds are the entrances to the other world where the Aos Sí now live. This association harks back to an old belief that the ancient buildings were the work of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Even now it is likely that the blood of the Tuatha Dé Danann survives in the people of Ireland and with it, magical properties.
Associates of the Aoi Sí
The Púca (pronounced 'pooka') is mischievous spirit that finds amusement in tricking unwary people. The most well-known of these tricks involves the púca appearing as a large, talking stallion. When it has found a suitable victim for its prank, it encourages him/her to climb on to its back. Once the person is aboard, the púca races away at high speed, with the rider now unable to remove himself/herself from the seat. Once the person is sufficiently terrified, the púca tends to throw the rider off, usually far away from where they found them, leaving the terrified and confused victim to find their own way home.
Though many people have reported being victimised by the Púca, none of their stories can be confirmed. The victim usually appears to have been through a heavy drinking session, a result of the terror of the ride, and the long walk home, so it is understandable when people assume they imagined it.
The leprechaun is another of the mischievous sort. His appearance is always that of an elderly man, though one of very small size. He is usually clad in scarlet and green, and engaged in shoe repair.
According to myth, if one should catch a leprechaun, the leprechaun will grant you his purse filled with gold. So far, no one has managed this feat, and leprechauns are known to have amassed even greater wealth in the meantime.
The clurichaun is close relative of the leprechaun, and in some cases, the very same. They only come out at night, and are usually of the same appearance as leprechauns, though drunk in behaviour.
Clurichauns have been known in Ireland as protectors of alcohol stocks, often appearing in wine cellars, but it is unsure whether they are protecting the produce for the benefit of the owner, or because they treat it as a food source. Either way, it can be considered a beneficial relationship that all vintners should encourage as a protection against alcohol thieves.
Cat Sídhe appears as a black cat, sometimes with an indicative white spot on its chest, though this is not always seen. This cat can talk, which should help in its identification.
The exact purpose of this spirit is unknown, though some stories suggest that it is an herald of the Aos Sí, appearing to humans when the Aos Sí wish to pass on some message or other.
In one known case, cath sith appeared to the owner of a house that had been built upon an ancient Aos Sí meeting place. Cat Sídhe informed the owner that while they may keep the house, they would be wise to retire to bed early on the third Wednesday of each month, as this is when the meetings would take place.
The banshee is a female messenger of impending death. She announces the coming event to the family of the soon to be deceased. Her names comes from Irish 'bean' which means 'woman', and 'sí' which means mounds, together 'woman of the mounds', in other words, a female member of the Aos Sí. Her appearance is often that of a frightening old woman, but this is not always the case, and her appearance and beauty may vary greatly from one incident to another.
It is unclear why she is associated with death, but the most obvious reason would be that, in legends of Ireland, she appeared to great heroes before their deaths in battle. This was often included in stories because said heroes were often related to the Aos Sí, and the 'banshee' was actually the Irish goddess of battle, the Morrigan.
Later, it was assumed that she would appear to anyone, though this is unlikely, and probably why so few people have witnessed her.
A beautiful woman or man of the Aos Sí who becomes the lover of a human. They are associated with artists, and considered to be the often mysterious inspiration for great work in Irish art.
It would appear that few of the Aos Sí now choose this path in life.
Many areas of Wicklow that are associated with the Aos Sí can be known by the presence of 'fairy trees'. These trees are usually known to us as the hawthorn, and are to be seen standing alone in fields, amongst other places. To cut down one of these trees is to invite misfortune, for the Aos Sí will not let the destruction of their sacred places go unpunished.
Another term used for these trees is 'lonely tree' or 'lone bush', a name given because they are often left undisturbed even when the wilderness around them has been cleared.