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A Field Guide to Fairies: The Alp-Luachra

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2020

Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2020

Fairies Come in Many Forms

When we think of fairies, many think of the sweet and innocent flower fairies of Victorian times—benevolent creatures or nature guardians. This is a fairly modern view. Among tales of the Other Crowd, you will find a great diversity in how these creatures are depicted, including their forms, appearances, and relationships with humans. Many types of fairies are outright dangerous and will think nothing of feeding from a human to sustain itself. The Alp Luachra is one such creature.

Robert Kirk collected fairy folklore between 1691 and 1692. In his work called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies, he described a creature called the Joint-eater, which would sit invisibly beside his victim and share his food with him:

“They avouch that a Heluo, or Great-eater, hat a voracious Elve to be his attender, called a Joint-eater or Just-halver, feeding on the Pith or Quintesence of what the Man eats: and that therfoir he continues Lean like a Hawke or Heron, notwithstanding his devouring Appetite.”

Found across Ireland, the Alp Luachra is certainly not a benevolent member of the fairy host. Meaning “ferocious little creature”, this small animal is a fairy parasite, causing illness and withering in humans. Regional dialects give him different names; Art-luachra, Airc-luachra, Arc-luachra, “Dark-looker”, or even Ail-cuac. Should a man be stricken with a thinning sickness, it is usually the Alp Luachra to blame, starving the man of his nourishment, no matter what he eats.

The Alp Luachra would live harmlessly in its stream or pool, until a man would be foolish enough to fall asleep next to the water. Then it would strike, hurrying out of its watery realm to wriggle inside its victim's mouth and down their throat to make a home in their belly. It would then feast upon whatever the person had eaten, growing fat and then hatching a brood of its babies inside the stomach, causing a bloated abdomen, an unquenchable thirst, and starvation in its victim. Unless expelled, the victim would surely die, the Alp Luachra’s babies then escaping and returning to the water, ready to start the cycle again.

The Dreaded Newt

Found in lowland ponds and ditches, you might spot one. Bearing the common name of “Mankeeper” or “Manleaper”, it is a species of newt that we now call Lissotriton Vulgaris or Smooth Newt. Olive black and speckled, the males have an orange belly and red-tipped tail, whilst the females are more dowdy in their colouring.

This amphibian will dwell in damp dark hideaways over winter, crawling over land in springtime to migrate to ponds and pools. It is easy to see how this animal would gain mythical status having spent a part of the year unseen during a time when hunger affected many.

The Smooth Newt (Lissotriton Vulgaris)

The Smooth Newt (Lissotriton Vulgaris)

A Cure for Burns

Besides starving a man, Alp Luachra has the power to heal, with a custom in Waterford describing how turning the animal on its back and licking it, will cure burns and bruises. More superstition about this creature tells that to cure a wound caused by the Alp Luachra, you must kill the beast and burn it, then sprinkle the ashes upon the wound. The ashes were also believed keep the devil away.

The Alp Luachra, Recorded by Douglas Hyde

The most famous account of an Alp Luachra infestation was recorded in 1910, in Beside the Fire, a collection of Irish folktales edited by Douglas Hyde. It tells of a farmer in Connacht, who was struck by no less than thirteen of these parasitic creatures.

The subject of this tale was a well-to-do farmer who lived quite comfortably with his family, living with good health and wanting for nothing, until during a harvest, he took a rest one day as his men were making hay in the meadow. It was a hot day and he had grown weary. So taking a drink of buttermilk, he lay back on some hay and soon fell asleep.

Waking up some hours later, he found that all of the hay had been gathered up and all the men had left the field. He stood up to make his way back to his house, and found that he had a stitch-like pain in his side.

Returning to the farm house, he was met by his wife, who took a look at him and remarked that he looked a little peaky, but he brushed off her concerns by telling her that he would be fine in the morning, and so took himself to bed.

Original Artwork © Leona Volpe 2020

Original Artwork © Leona Volpe 2020

He awoke the next day, much later than usual. A farmer is usually up with the lark, but the sun was high in the sky when he climbed out of bed.

Still feeling unwell, he took a seat next to the fire and described to his wife how his insides felt bad. It was as if there was something running about in his belly. His wife comforted him, suggesting that he had just caught a chill from laying out in the grass. If he was no better by evening, she would send for the doctor.

By evening, the farmer was in even more pain. The doctor was sent for, who took a listen at his belly but could find nothing. The farmer described how it felt that there was a little bird leaping about in his stomach, which led the doctor to wonder if the man had lost his senses. Having a quiet word with the wife, the doctor suggested that the farmer had nothing wrong with him besides needing a good night's sleep.

The next morning, the farmer was worse than ever. The doctor was called back, and again could find nothing. Leaving medicine for the farmer, he told them that there was nothing more that he could do. He would not be returning, as he didn't want to keep taking their money. The case was simply baffling to him.

Seeing her husband suffer so, the wife was furious. She consulted many different doctors of the next few weeks, each coming to the house, and each being no help at all. By this time, the farmer was weak and thin, a sack of skin and bones. He was simply wasting away.

Struck by a mysterious thinning sickness, no doctor could help. Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2020.

Struck by a mysterious thinning sickness, no doctor could help. Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2020.

Half a year he suffered so, and by this point he was so bad he could barely walk. His appetite had left him, and he could barely sip a drop of milk or swallow a piece of soft bread.

His wife cared for him, but there was little that could be done. She had placed a chair near the door of the house so that he could take in some sun one day, when the farmer was met by a poor beggar man, asking for alms. He had been to the farm many times before, finding that the farmer was a generous man of good nature, and was shocked to see him in so bad a state. It sorrowed the beggar to see him look so close to death.

The beggar asked what was ailing him, and the farmer explained how he was not able to eat, and how it felt like there was something running about inside of him, and that the doctors could find no cause for his illness and no cure.

The visitor pressed for more information, asking how it had started. Listening to him describe how it began after he awoke from a snooze one day, he pressed further.

“What sort of field was it you fell asleep in?”

“A meadow that was in it that time,” said the sick man, “but it was just after being cut.”

“Was it wet,” asked the visitor.

“It was not,” replied the farmer.

“Was there a little stream or a brook of water running through it?” asked the beggar.

“There was,” says he.

“Can I see the field?”

“You can, indeed, and I’ll show it to you.”

The farmer rose from his chair on wobbly legs, and led the beggar to the field where he had laid down to sleep that fateful day. The visitor began to examine the area, then crawled across some rough ground, examining the grasses and weeds growing there. Plucking up a small green herb in his hand, it seemed that he had reached a conclusion.

“Do you see this?” he said, holding it up to show the farmer. “Any place in Ireland that this herb grows, there be’s an alt-pluachra near it, and you have swallowed an alt-pluachra.”

The farmer was very surprised by this, more-so that the doctors had not diagnosed this as a cause. Yet the alt-pluachra was not something that the men of modern medicine would be looking for.

The beggar explained how it made perfect sense. The farmer had described feeling something leaping about in his belly the first day after feeling unwell, but once settled inside him, the little creature would have settled down to then feed on every mouthful of food that the farmer had eaten. This would explain the thinning sickness. And the place in his side that had grown swollen, well that was the place where the nasty beastie had made it's home inside of him.

The farmer at first was not quite convinced. But so insistent was the beggar, that by the time he was back at the house with his wife and daughter, the farmer thought he might least give a chance with this theory, for he had tried everything else with no success. If he left it, he would surely die. What did he have to lose?

The beggar told the farmer how there was no-one in Ireland that could help him, save a fellow that lived on the shore of Lough Gara. Mac Dermott, the Prince of Coolavin, was the best doctor in Connacht or any of the five provinces.

Original Artwork © Leona Volpe 2020

Original Artwork © Leona Volpe 2020

The wife worried that he might not survive the journey all the way to Sligo. The farmer worried that it was all nonsense. A little monster living in his belly? They argued for much of the night whilst the beggar slept in their barn, but it was finally agreed that the farmer would travel to Lough Gara, and they would send their daughter with him to tend to him along the way.

In the morning, the horse was harnessed to the cart, and provisions were loaded on board for the journey. The farmer was laid in the cart and wrapped in a blanket, whilst the beggar kept an eye on him in case he grew more poorly along the way.

After three days, they finally reached their destination, the vast expanse of water shimmering in the sunlight. On the edge of the forest stood the dwelling of the Prince of Coolavin. It was a fine house with thatched roof, on the shore of the Lough.

On their arrival, they knocked the door which was answered by a servant. Asking them to wait, he went off to find the master of the house and returned a moment later with the Prince.

The farmer, by now stood up on his stick thin legs, gave a weak bow and explained his story.

The Prince thought on his description, then instructed him to come inside and join him in his parlour. He said to the farmer that the beggar was quite right, it sounded like he had indeed swallowed an alt-pluachra.

Offering the farmer a seat, the Prince cut off a large slice of salted beef and slid it in front of his patient, instructing him to eat. The farmer objected, explaining how he could barely swallow a thing, but the Prince firmly instructed that he do as he was told.

The poor farmer ate as much as he could, but when he left the knife and fork out of his hand, the Prince made him take them up again, and made him eat and eat until he felt stuffed up to his gullet.

When the Prince saw that the man really could not eat anything more, he led him with his daughter and the beggar to a little stream on the edge of a meadow next to his house. The farmer was told to lie down on his stomach and keep his face over the running water, then open his mouth as wide as he possibly could. He must lie very still and be silent. And most of all be patient.

Promising to follow these instructions, the farmer stretched out on the grass, and gaped his mouth wide open above the stream. The Prince led the daughter and beggar back a short distance away where they would watch what would happen.

"Don't put a stir out of you, whatever thing at all happens to you!" he called, then waited.

The House at Lough Gara. Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2020.

The House at Lough Gara. Original Artwork © Pollyanna Jones 2020.

The farmer lay still for about a quarter of an hour when he felt something moving inside him, squirming. It wriggled and twisted, and then he felt something coming up his throat before going back down again. The sensation made him feel quite unpleasant but he did as he was told.

This happened another three of four times, until he felt something on the tip of his tongue. Then with a “plop!” something jumped out from his mouth into the water.

The Prince called out, “Don’t stir yet.” For his infliction had been going on for so long, he could not be sure that there was just one alt-pluachra in there.

The poor farmer took a sigh, and opened his mouth very wide again. It was not long before the horrible wriggling sensation came about again up and down his throat, then “splash” another creature jumped out of him and into the stream.

Watching carefully, the Prince whispered to the daughter and beggar, "The salt that was in that beef is working on them. They have a mighty thirst, and now they’ll come out to seek water.”

Before he had even finished his explanation, a third creature fell into the water. Then another and another until the Prince counted twelve of the nasty little things that had jumped from the farmer into the stream.

“Ah, there’s a dozen of them now,” remarked the prince “That would be the clutch. But the old mother hasn’t come out yet.”

The farmer, who thought himself rid of these creatures was trying to get up. Seeing this, the Prince shouted at him to get back down again as there was one left; the mother.

For the final time, the farmer lay down on his belly, his eyes watering, his gullet feeling swirly. Opening his mouth wide over the stream, he waited. For a long while nothing happened, and the Prince was getting uneasy for fear the old alt-pluachra might not stir at all.

The poor farmer was so tired and so weak that he wished to get up, and in spite of all that he had been told, began to try to stand up. The Prince and the beggar dashed forwards, pushing him down to the ground, and pinned him firmly in place. “Don’t you move now!”

For a quarter of an hour they lay, not speaking a word nor making a sound, until at last, the farmer felt something stirring again inside him. This was seven times worse than before, and it was a miracle that he could keep himself from screeching as it felt like his side was being torn out.

Then it began coming up, and it reached the mouth, and went back again. At last it came up so far that the poor man put the two fingers to his mouth and thought to catch hold of it. But frightened by the fingers, the old alt-pluachra startled and slithered back down into his stomach.

“Oh, you behoonach*!” cried the prince, “what made you do that? Didn’t I tell you not to let a stir out of you? Remain quiet if she comes up again.”

They had to wait for half an hour now, because the old mother of the alt-pluachras was scared, and she was too afraid to come out. But at last she came up, perhaps because there was too much thirst on her to resist the smell of the water that was tempting her, or perhaps she wanted to find her children.

Finally she came up into his mouth, and rested on the farmer's tongue for a good minute. He wanted to spit her out, or wretch or gag, but knew that he must keep perfectly still. Finally, with one great plop, the mother jumped out and disappeared into the stream.

The Prince and the beggar dragged the farmer immediately back from the water’s edge before the little creatures decided that they wanted to find their way back into their host.

The farmer was shaking a great deal, so in shock was he. He was not able to speak a word for three hours, but when he did it was with a smile. The first thing that he said was, “I’m a new man.”

The Prince let them all stay in his house for a fortnight so that he could keep an eye on him and despite his status, was a most gracious host. When the farmer had more meat on his bones and was well enough to go, the Prince let them return home, and refused to take a single penny from them in payment.

They all returned to the farm safely, and our skin-and-bones farmer became healthy and fat. He was so thankful to the poor beggar that he kept him in his own house until his death. The farmer never lay down on green grass again; and another thing, if there was any sickness or ill-health on him, it wasn’t the doctors he would call, it was the beggar with his simple cures.

© 2021 Pollyanna Jones