Saturday, December 14, 2013

Far Liath (The Grey Man)

Faery lore has flourished in Ireland for many centuries, if not longer. However, contrary to what most people think, faeries are not the loveable, winged pixies that popular culture has led people to picture when they hear the word “fairy”. At one time, these creatures were so feared that to even utter the word “fairy” was to invite their wrath down upon people, so terms like “the Little People” or “the Good Folk” were used instead. There is a good reason for this, too: faeries are willful and vindictive spirits, easily angered and quick to take offense. Although not all faeries are dangerous (in fact, many are merry and good-hearted creatures who mean no harm), some are downright deadly. Among the most sinister of the Irish faeries is the mysterious Far Liath, the Grey Man, who controls the mists and the fog that covers the coastal areas of Ireland.

The true origins of the Grey Man remain unknown, but he goes by a number of different names: sometimes, he is known as Fear Liath. In North Antrim, the Far Liath is called brolaghan (meaning “a formless or shapeless thing”), which is actually another species of unrelated faery altogether. In the western parts of Ireland, specifically in Kerry, Galway, and Sligo, he is known as Old Boneless (the reason for this is unknown). In other places, he goes by the name of an fir lea. It is speculated by some that the Grey Man is the modern-day form of an ancient Celtic storm or weather deity that was worshipped by coastal villages at around 1500 B.C., who also went by the name of An Fir Lea. But regardless of what he is called, it does not change the fact that the Far Liath is a dangerous entity that hates humans and takes great delight in causing death and misery among them.

Nobody is entirely sure what the Grey Man looks like, as there are several conflicting descriptions. Generally speaking, this faery appears to humans as a thick, clinging fog that envelops everything on land and everything on the sea, leaving a damp chill in its wake. In Wexford and Waterford, the Far Liath appears as little more than a ragged, hazy shadow that moves against the sun and leaves a trail of mist wherever he goes. In Clare and Kerry, he is described as being of manlike proportions and as wearing a gray cloak of fog that continually swirls about his person. In Down and Antrim, the Grey Man appears as a giant wearing a misty robe like a monk, with a hood over his head, and is seen above faraway mountains or far offshore at sea. In other parts of Ireland, he takes the form of a gigantic humanoid walking towards the shore from the ocean. These varied descriptions seem to be indicative of one thing: that the Grey Man is composed entirely of the mists that seem to follow him wherever he might go. There seems to be little or no physical substance to him.

Although he primarily inhabits coastal areas, the Grey Man can be seen on hilltops, mountains, and in boggy hollows. Being composed of mists and fog, the Far Liath feeds on the smoke from household chimneys in order to sustain himself. It is for this reason that he can be found close to large cities and towns, and the Grey Man is one of the few faeries who will do so. He causes just as much trouble and misery here as he does elsewhere. His passing is unmistakable, for his cloak smells of mold, wood smoke, and peat. And when the Far Liath walks by, he leaves a cold, clammy chill in his wake.

As mentioned previously, the Grey Man hates humans, and it pleases him greatly to cause death and disaster among mortal men whenever the opportunity presents itself. The Far Liath may use his power over fog and the mists of the sea (known as "the Grey Man's Breath") to conceal rocks and boulders along the coastlines, causing ships to collide with them and sink. These same mists may be used to confuse and disorient travelers further inland, by obscuring a lonely road and causing him to become lost. He may even lead people astray and cause them to walk off a cliff! In this era, he might even cause car wrecks by clouding the road with a thick fog. In the North Antrim town of Ballycastle, being led off of the cliffs by the Far Liath is particularly feared. Among these cliffs is a gap, lying across which is a large, flat stone. This landmark is known as the Grey Man’s Path, and locals will go out of their way to avoid it, especially if the weather has taken a turn for the worse lately. If the Grey Man himself has been seen in the area, then people avoid the spot entirely. Only the very foolhardy or the suicidal make any attempt to cross the Grey Man’s Path, for the Far Liath will jump down and spread his misty gray cloak over the helpless victim. The thick fog obscures everything, and if the traveler takes one wrong step, he will lose his footing and fall to his death on the rocks below.

Merely going indoors is no guarantee of safety from the Far Liath’s misty fingers. In certain parts of Ireland, especially in Cork and Limerick, it is believed that the Grey Man is able to cause sickness and disease, among which are sore throats, influenza, and the common cold. According to local legend, it is said that he carries these ailments within the folds of his cloak. The very touch of the Far Liath can cause milk that hasn’t been covered to turn sour, while potatoes will blacken and rot. Clothes left on a line to dry overnight will be permanently damaged by his passing, becoming cold, dank, and continually damp forever afterwards. Peat (used as fuel for fires) will become inexplicably wet in the turf stacks, rendering it unable to be lit with an open flame. Furthermore, it is said that seeing the Grey Man during his travels from place to place will bring misfortune to the one who saw him.

Fortunately, the Grey Man is a solitary faery that only appears during certain times of the year, namely between the end of autumn and the beginning of winter. And despite his command over the fogs and the mists, the Grey Man is not without his respective weaknesses. This faery is incapable of speaking, and thus will ignore verbal pleas from lost travelers and sailors. But using the phrase “God bless you!” is said to have the power to drive away the Far Liath, but only for a short time. Praying to God for deliverance from the Grey Man’s misty hands will also work. Sooner or later, however, the Grey Man will return with a vengeance.

There are certain precautionary measures that may be taken to keep the Far Liath at bay. A silver coin that has sat through an entire church service could be built into the prow of a boat, thus keeping him away from both the boat itself and the sailors onboard. A handful of soil which has been blessed by a priest will accomplish the same end. A crucifix or a holy medal might keep the Grey Man at bay, especially if they have been consecrated by a bishop. Like the silver coin, setting a medal into a boat’s prow will keep the Far Liath away, while setting a crucifix in one’s turf pile will have a similar effect. Sprinkling holy water over one’s potato stores and other foods and drink will spare them from the Grey Man’s touch. And like many supernatural entities, he hates salt. Up until recently, these precautions were still in use in some rural areas. They might still be being used to this very day! However, the Far Liath may still return one day, and rest assured that he will be very angry.

Given that the Grey Man is composed of little more than a thick fog, it may not actually be possible to destroy him. However, it may be possible to inflict limited harm upon the Far Liath by means of an iron blade. Most faeries (with a few exceptions) abhor iron, especially if it is pure and has been hammered out without using the heat of a forged. This metal is terrifying to faeries, and even showing them a piece of iron will cause them to vanish immediately. The Grey Man may or may not share this same vulnerability, but it seems likely. Still, it is always wisest to be cautious.

In this day and age, there are very few people who still believe in faeries. Sightings of the Little People are few and far between. People who claim to see faeries and other such creatures are most often dismissed as being crazy, on drugs, under the influence of alcohol, or as being hoaxers. Popular culture has changed the way that people view these creatures, and sometimes with dangerous consequences. But regardless, faeries are still around, and as for the Far Liath, people will swear that they have seen his misty form pass by on a particularly rainy or cold day in their lifetime. So, keep in mind that the next time there is a fog warning, it just might be the Grey Man!


Curran, Bob. A Field Guide to Irish Fairies. San Francisco, California: Appletree Press. Copyright ©1997 by Appletree Press.

Curran, Dr. Bob. Dark Fairies. Pompton Plain, New Jersey: The Career Press, Inc. Copyright ©2010 by Dr. Bob Curran.

Franklin, Anna. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies. London, UK: Anova Books Company Ltd. Copyright © Collins & Brown and Anna Franklin 2002.


  1. Remembers of the stories about the Pooka my grandmother told me.

  2. I'll get around to typing up an entry on the Pooka one of these days.