Electricity and the Extinction of Fairies?

By Ceri Houlbrook, University of Hertfordshire

There can be little doubt that the advent of electricity brought many benefits. With the introduction of the lightbulb, the telegraph, the electric cooker, people’s domestic lives became easier, more sanitary, and arguably less isolated. Electricity sparked an age of unprecedented technological and social advancements, and humanity thrives.

But electricity hasn’t brought benefits for everyone. We know from evolutionary biology that changes in the environment can cause one species to flourish whilst endangering another, and this blog post focuses on one specific species that hasn’t fared so well since the advent of electricity: fairies.

A fairy-ring: woodcut from a 17th-century chapbook

In 1872, folklorist Charles Hardwick prefaced his book Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore with the following statement:

In the age of the steam engine, and the electric battery, and the many other practical adaptations of the triumphs of physical science, is apparently not the one in which such “waifs and strays” from the mythical lore of the dim and distant Past are very likely to be much sought after or honoured (1872: vii)

According to Hardwick, the new world of the steam engine and the electric battery did not provide the right environmental conditions for the survival of our mythical ‘waifs and strays’: the creatures of folklore. Fairies are one species that have been particularly heralded endangered – and the advent of electricity is often deemed a prime culprit.

In 1938, a Mrs Pethybridge of Postbridge, Devon, wrote a letter to the Western Morning News. In this letter, she described how many people of her village had seen pixies in the past, but she hadn’t encountered the Devonshire fairies herself because of the electricity in her house: ‘my home is far too modern…I cannot expect to even glimpse them’.

Plucked from the Fairy Circle: T. H. Thomas Illustration from Wirt Sikes’s British Goblins (1880)

This was apparently a common assertion. Dennis Gaffin, who interviewed locals in Ireland for his book Running with the Fairies, observes that: ‘I have heard over and over again that fairies disappeared with the advent of electricity. It is probably a metaphor, but it may actually have some reality to it too.’ (2012: 70)

Cornish fairies: Joseph Blight Illustration from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1872)

The reasons why fairies are believed to have been repelled by electricity are vague and rarely given. But we do know that the rise of electricity changed the landscapes of Britain and Ireland. Progress travelled to the corners of these countries by way of power stations, overhead cables, and telegraph poles. Constructing the national grid was disruptive – disruptive enough to force fairies from their homes.

In a video produced for the ESB called Death of the Banshee: The story of rural electrification, Chris Shouldice, an ESB Rural Area Engineer, tells the story of a colleague who was managing the construction of an electricity line in Tipperary:

He was running a rather important backbone along this line of country and right in the middle of it, where a pole had to be, there was a fairy ring. Yes, it was actually a ring rather than a rath. No one in his gang would dig the pole hole, no matter who, whatever inducement he give them, except one guy who, oddly enough, was a Protestant and had absolutely no interest in this kind of stuff at all. And for about three times the wages agreed to dig the hole, and did. Now of course once the hole was dug, the rest of the gang said ‘Fair enough’, they’d put the pole in there because they hadn’t been the ones to break the ground. But that guy a day or two later was driving the van – because he was a church hand – along that road, and just at that very spot the van, for no reason out of a clear blue sky, just flipped over, turned over, and the man was quite seriously injured. So it caused us all to maybe draw back on our scepticism a wee bit and say maybe we are dealing with some things here that we better be careful about.

Evicted from their homes to make way for progress, it’s no surprise that fairies are said to dislike electricity. And it seems they’re not taking it lying down. Other ESB workers purportedly suffered accidents after disturbing fairy rings and forts to lay cables or erect poles, and as recently as 2007, fairies were blamed for fallen electricity poles near Sooey, Co. Sligo.

But the fairies seem to be fighting a losing battle. As electricity spread across Britain and Ireland – lands now criss-crossed with electric cables and telephone wires – the fairies are believed to have retreated. Their homes dug up to make way for ESB poles. The human communities they may once have dipped tentative toes into now too modern, too electrified, to tempt them. And – most significantly – humans too busy watching TV or tapping away at their computers to tell stories about them.

Fairy Cleanline: ‘Jackson Way’, The Electrical Age 5 (13), January 1952

Perhaps Hardwick was right: the age of electricity is not one in which our creatures of folklore are ‘much sought after or honoured’. But we need only look at how much magic features in popular interpretations of electricity (which will be the topic of a future blog post) to see that they haven’t died out in our imaginations. Maybe the fairies aren’t extinct after all. Maybe they’ve just adapted to survive.

Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Ceri and the Electric Generations team here.

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4 thoughts on “Electricity and the Extinction of Fairies?

  1. Ian

    It would be interesting to tease out the details of what people exactly mean when saying the faeries had disappeared since the arrival of electricity. Do they mean that faeries were previously seen in daylight outdoors, and have disappeared since the arrival of the pylons? Anyone who has walked under a power line will know that they do generate a local electromagnetic field. Is this supposed to have driven away the faeries?
    Or do they mean that the use of electric lighting in the home has driven the faeries away? This could be because the lighting was more powerful than candles, reducing the area of shadow in a home. It may be that faeries were glimpsed indoors in those lliminal areas of shadow and half-shadow, the spaces between the seen and the unseen. The removal of those spaces by modern lighting reduced the space in which faeries can be seen. It seems that such creatures may be seen by reducing the reach of the ordinary senses, and allowing more space for the imagination and for the unconscious to do its work. That idea seems to support the common practice of magical work which requires semi-darkness and candle light. In part the lighting creates a special atmosphere but it also creates a field of liminal awareness around the practitioner, in which otherworldly beings may be encountered.

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    • Ceri

      Thank you very much for your comment Ian. Your theories are really interesting! I agree, it would be so interesting to delve deeper and see exactly what people meant by it. Although I imagine, as with so many beliefs and customs, that a lot of people won’t have been able to pin down the exact reason. Maybe it was all of your theories combined!

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  2. Jane K

    Interesting post. I can see the logic of electricity maybe effecting the Fae, it’s a powerful force that can also effect humans if not used in a safe form. Besides electrocution there are reports of people who connect illness to living too near to pylons and substations. Many people claim to be sensitive to electromagnetic fluctuations around the. On that basis along It could be a reasonable to make a connection and assume that maybe the Fae were even more sensitive than us and as such the advance of electricity had either driven them elsewhere away from humans or as in your post it’s even caused their extinction.

    The above all assumes that the fairies have disappeared though. Just because people don’t record seeing them now doesn’t mean they are no longer around. The advance of electricity brought something else that is now at epic proportions in our towns and cities, light pollution. Maybe it’s not that electricity got rid of them but that we simply don’t see them anymore because we are blinded by the light we have at disposal 24 hours a day. Many people now can no longer see the stars and peer out from our planet into the night skies above by eye now but we know the starts and planets are still out there.

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