Fear Dorcha: Shadow Creature from the Land of the Celts

Fear Dorcha
illustration by John Dickson Batten from Joseph Jacobs’ Celtic Fairy Tales. 1892.

The Fear Dorcha is a mysterious, malignant, fairy being, found in Celtic myth and legend. Despite modern associations with the word, the term “fairy” was once used to refer to spirits such as the Fear Dorcha. Unlike modern fairies, however, these spirits – or ghosts – were not usually inclined towards acts of kindness, generosity, or mercy. In fact, Ireland’s Fear Dorcha is a classic example of the type of dark fairy found throughout the lands of the Celts:

Far dorocha, fear dorocha [Ir. Fear dorcha, dark man]. A malevolent fairy, the chief agent of mortal abduction. Usually portrayed as the butler-like servant of the fairy queen, he carries out her commands without emotion or waste of energy. With equal aplomb he may serve the queen her tea or retrieve on his black charger a desired mortal. Silently obedient to his queen, he is able to make all surrender their wills to his command. Although many have journeyed with the far doracha [sic] to the fairyland, few have returned with him. – James Mackillop (the Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

Replace the word “fairy” with ghost and the term “fairyland” with Land of the Dead and you’ll start to get the picture! The Fear Dorcha was a terrifying shadow spirit of nightmares and darkness. He was feared because he served the Queen of the Dead herself.

The Far Dorcha, or dark-man, is not to be confused with the Far Darrig (the red man), Far Gorta (the man of hunger) or Far Liath (the grey man).

According to Mackillop, the red man is basically a “gruesome” practical joker who likes to scare the living hell out of his prey. The man of hunger, on the other hand, pretends to be a beggar. He rewards those who have given him charity, but with what we can only imagine. Finally, the grey man takes the form of a fog or mist. He does this to cause ships to smash onto rocky shores, or for people to stumble and fall to an untimely death. His motives for these heinous acts are entirely unclear.

Fear Doirche, or dark-man, is also the name sometimes given to ‘the Black Druid of the Shee.’ In James Stephens 1920 book, Irish Fairy Tales we find one such example:

“I beg your protection, royal captain.”

“I give that to all,” he answered. “Against whom do you desire protection?”

“I am in terror of the Fear Doirche.”

“The Dark Man of the Shi?”

“He is my enemy,” she said.

“He is mine now,” said Fionn. “Tell me your story.”

The Fear Dorcha, or Black Druid, is also known as ‘the Black Sorcerer’ in some versions of the tale. It’s this Black Druid who finally steals Fionn’s wife. Much to Fionn’s dismay and never-ending searching, she was never seen or heard from again. We can only assume that she was forced to be Fear Dorcha’s bride – and would still be to this day – in the Land of the Dead.

Interestingly, there actually was a man whose name was Fear Dorcha MacFhirbhisigh (1600?). Very little seems to be known about him. The MacFhirbhisigh family celebrated pagan roots, however, and employed themselves as bards, judges and historians. It’s likely that the MacFhirbhisigh family recognized and honored existing druidic traditions. While Fear Dorcha may be a generic term, MacFhirbhisigh’s name may also be more than a coincidence and is worth noting. As is well known, many legendary stories have roots in actual historical places, people, or events.

The Fear Dorcha from Celtic folklore was a predator of the weak and an enemy of the strong. He existed only to serve the whims of the Queen of the Dead, or himself. Ultimately, this would make him a powerful figure in that otherworldly realm, and in ours, as well.

Not much else is known about the Fear Dorcha. Some modern sources give him attributes never mentioned in the old tales. It would be fair to agree, however, that Samhain would have been Fear Dorcha’s greatest day of strength. It would have been a day of great power for all of them, though. For it was on this night – Samhain – that the veil between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead were at their very thinnest.

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