Folklore of Little Christmas

ImageProxy
The Photographic Collection, A015.03.00319
Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD.

Little Christmas is the twelfth night. There are generally 12 candles lit in every house. The candles are made out of rushes. The people get the rushes out of the bog and they peel them for the night, then at night they mix cowdung and ashes and they put the candles in it. Then they say the rosary. They leave the cake up on the rafters till the next year.

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4798699/4791228/4924556

 

Little Christmas is on the 6th of January. It is sometimes called the 12th day by some people. On that day the holly which was up on the walls since Christmas is taken down and burnt on that day.

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428075/4375745/4454300

 

Little Christmas Day.

On Little Christmas Night twelve rush candles are made and are placed in a cow manure and each one in the family names a candle for himself. Then the family say the Rosary while the candles are burning and the person who owns the candle that goes out first dies first and the person who owns the candle that burns longest lives the longest.

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4605949/4605144/4673090

 

The Big Wind, 1839

The Big Wind fell on Little Christmas night. A man by the name of Paddy Cronin who lived in Beal was in the house with his mother. The storm lifted the roof off the house. He took out his mother and tied her on to an ash tree, lest she would get hurt. While he was going back for some blankets to put around her from the cold, the tree was uprooted and there was not a trace of the tree or the woman to be found.

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4666575/4663329/4687769

 

Little Christmas is the twelfth night. There are generally 12 candles lit in every house. The candles are made out of rushes. The people get the rushes out of the bog and they peel them for the night, then at night they mix cowdung and ashes and they put the candles in it. Then they say the rosary. They leave the cake up on the rafters till the next year.

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4798699/4791228/4924556

 

 

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Irish New Year Traditions

ImageProxy
The Photographic Collection, A015.07.00008
Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD.

On New Year’s Day the old people gave an extra sheaf of corn to the horses and cows, to make them work better, and give more milk for the coming year. The old people never threw anything out on New Year’s Day, but they kept all the leavings of tea in a bucket at the foot of the dresser. They did this so as to have a plentiness for the coming year. The water for the day after New Year’s day was brought in before mid-night on New Year’s Day. If anybody went to the well after that time he was drowned. If a person met a red-haired woman on New Year’s Day, he would have bad luck during the year. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1034, Page 116

 

The first day in the new year is called New Year’s Day. It is a holiday of obligation, because it is the feast-day of the Circumcision of Our Lord.
Some people make new resolutions but they are generally broken before the year is out. It is said that whatever one does on New Year’s Day he will do it through the whole year.
It is the custom when people meet to each other a happy and prosperous New Year. On New Year’s Eve the Church bells, and the fog-horns of the boats and ships ring the old year out and the new year in at twelve o’clock.
There are some superstitions connected with New Year’s Day. Some people never throw out the ashes or the dish water because they say it will bring bad luck to the house.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0664, Page 251.

 

New Year Customs.

It would be very unlucky for a woman (especially a red-haired woman) to come in first on New Year’s Day. Bad luck for the year was certain. One of the boys of the house usually went out after twelve and returned again and wished everyone a Happy New Year saying
“Blow out the old,
Blow in the new,
Blow out the false
And blow in the true”
The ashes and sweepings were not thrown out on New Year’s Day or any water. People didn’t like to buy anything on that day – to put out any money at all on New Year’s day, they believed if they did, they would be spending during the year. If the wnd blew from the west on New Year’s Eve it was a good sign of the following year. If there is a flood in the (New Year’s Day), it was a sign of rising prices. It isn’t right to throw out water on New Year’s Night on Christmas Night or to go to the well after twelve o’clock on either night.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0117, Page 156.

 

In this locality there are many old customs connected with New Year’s Day and Little Christmas Day.

On New Year’s Day if a dark haired man enters your house first he brings good luck and you are supposed to give him a glass of wine or a leg of a turkey for bringing the good luck but if a girl enters your house first she brings bad luck.

If any person spends money on New Year’s Day they will be spending money the whole year round. On New Year’s Day if you meet a red haired woman you will have bad luck during the year and if you meet a red haired man you will have great luck. Before New Year’s Day each house should be cleaned and if this is not done the house will be dirty the whole year round. On New Year’s Day everyone is usually in time for Mass because if they are late they will whole year round.

On New Year’s Eve all church bells are rung to beat out the old year. On New Year’s Eve a procession is held in the town and pitch forks are carried with scooped turnips on the top of them in which a lighted candle is placed.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0207, Page 067.

 

References:

NFSC, Vol.0664:251.School: Kilcurry, Dundalk. Teacher: P. Ó Conaill. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5008834/4959599/5074099

NFSC, Vol.0117:156, School: Páirc Íseal, Location: Lowpark, Co. Mayo. Teacher: Sorcha Ní Dhumhnaigh.

NFSC:Vol.1034:116. COLLECTOR: Teresa Cassidy. Address: Drumbar, Co. Donegal. INFORMANT: Hugh Cassidy. Address: Drumbar, Co. Donegal. School: Clochar Nuala, Dún na nGall. Location: Donegal, Co. Donegal. Teacher: An tSr. Eanda le Muire. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428277/4390984/4462555

NFSC:Vol.0207:067, School: Drumshanbo (C), Location: Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim. Teacher: Margaret Flynn.

The Banshee

Kala
The Bunworth Banshee, Thomas Crofton Croaker, 1825.

When it comes to Irish folk tradition I think it fair to say that one of the most iconic creatures that springs to mind is the Banshee (Bean Sídhe or Bean Sí). The core elements and descriptions have remained pretty much unchanged throughout time and you would be hard pressed to find any child or adult the length and breadth of Ireland that hasn’t heard of her, and ask any old timer and you are almost guaranteed to be regaled with a story of a personal encounter, or at the very least knowledge of someone they know having had an encounter with this denizen of the otherworld. The term Banshee, a term that is in use throughout Ireland in both urban and rural areas, and has been in common usage since around the 17th century (but accounts of the supernatural death messenger go much further back). The popularity of this name may owe something to literary sources. The name Bean sídhe comes from the old Irish ben side meaning “otherworldly woman” or “woman of the mounds” ( the word Sídhe can mean either “mound” or “otherworld”). Many people interpret it as meaning “fairy woman” but I would be inclined to agree with Patricia Lysaght  in regard to this particular translation being problematic (although technically correct etymologically)  due to there being many traits of the bean sídhe being completely different to the people we term “Fairies”. The Fairies, or daoine sídhe, are usually depicted as social creatures who live in communities and are often married with children. These communities can interact with humans in either a friendly or unfriendly manner and have even been known to have human lovers. The death messenger on the other hand is a solitary creature who is never seen as living in a community of “banshees”. She is never said to be married nor is there any accounts of her doing a “kind turn” for humans, despite not being particularly malevolent. There are many erroneous memes floating around with false etymologies of this name, for instance the that claims the word banshee comes from “bán Sí” meaning “white fairy” which is wrong on every level.

There are however other names or terms used for the Banshee such as “bean chaointe” (keening woman), “Badhb” (Bibe), “Babha” (bow) or any combination such as Bo chaointe. The name Badbh comes from a war goddess attested in early Irish literature as an announcer of death who took the form of a scald crow. While there is no tradition in living memory of the banshee appearing as a scald crow (lysaght,1996:106), the tradition remained that the scald crow is seen an omen of death. Another interesting connection between divine female figure and the Banshee may be seen if we look to areas (south east) where the banshee is known as the “Badhb”.

It is said that the Banshee takes the shape of a young girl with golden hair and dressed in a shimmering white garment. The banshee is still heard in this part of Clare. They say that it is the same Banshee that comes to the O’Briens always since the days of Brian Boru.  Informant: Mr John Connery,60, Glennagross, Co. Clare, Collector: Bean Uí Mhórdha, Meelick, Co. Clare. NFSC,Vol.0597:339

Here we may very much be looking echoes of a goddess and this can be seen in descriptions of her physical appearance. While in most areas she is seen as on old haggard woman with white or grey hair, the Badhb area often reports her as being tall, youthful and beautiful with blonde hair and white clothes. This is a stark contrast to the old disheveled and diminished look reported elsewhere. This more “popular” disheveled look interestingly starts to come to the fore around the 17th century.

“The Banshee is supposed to be a little old woman who is crying”.                    INFORMANT: Elizabeth Field, Coultry, Co. Dublin. NFSC: Vol.0792:285

Does this point to the goddess figure diminishing in status around the time of 16th/17th century with the dispossession of the Gaelic chieftains with a vestige of this Celtic matriarchal deity surviving in the Badhb area?  I would also argue that a reflex of a goddess may be seen in the fact that strong attention is paid to the male line of important ancient Gaelic families. This, to me, brings to mind a possible link to the sovereignty goddess although I will admit the argument doesn’t carry much weight.

Traditionally the Bean Sídhe  was believed to follow the ancient Gaelic families of Ireland, those being names with “O” or “Mac”. There don’t seem to be any accounts of any being attached to families who came to Ireland after the 17th century but there are accounts of some Norman or Norse descendants and also with some families “who came with Cromwell” having their own Banshee. Of the latter we have an account collected by Eddie Lenihan: “ This story of the banshee only being for the O’s and Mac’s is not right. Not right. Because the Frosts had a banshee, and other families I know came in with Cromwell. Do you know the Frosts came into Ireland in front of the Cromwellian army playing music? “ (Lenihan, :204)

APPEARANCE

As mentioned above The banshee is generally heard and not seen although there are also many, often contradictory, accounts recorded of her appearance. The more common depiction of the often small aged woman with unbound, free flowing white or grey hair and black clothes are very reminiscent of what could be argued to be her human counterpart, the bean chaointe or keening woman. These women who dressed in black were generally of advanced years with all illustrations of them showing them with their hair unbound. If fact it is believed in some areas that the banshee was formerly a keening woman who had sinned or not performed her job well enough. As the banshee is often said to be combing her hair, this has been interpreted by some as announcing the work of the bean Bhán or washer woman in charge of the preparation of the body prior to being laid out. It has been interpreted by others as being reminiscent of the tearing of hair, an act universally associated with grief and mourning and also a key part of the demonstrative behaviour of the keening women.

Aural manifestations

As I mentioned previously, the banshee is quite often heard and not seen and her quintessential Cry or gol is one of the most characteristic traits associated with this otherworldly death messanger. This cry is often the only thing that is reported, such as in cork and Kerry where you do not get accounts of what she looks like. The cry is often compared to being the call of a wild animal but this is often dismissed due to the omni-directional nature of the scream, its ability to travel at great speed, its duration, and its repetition and loudness (Lysaght, 1996). The gol  is similar to that of the mortal keening women in that it has no discernible words or distinguishable melody (The keeners lament consists of two parts the caoineadh which contains a verse and refrain and the gol). A number of different descriptions of the banshees Gol can be found and can be categorized in two groups in relation to the nature of the description:

Group (A): Cry, gol, wail, olagón, ochaón, lóg, lógaireacht, caoineadh, keen, moan.      Sorrow and grief are the key elements of this group and are associated with the mourning and wailing sounds of the human keening women and as such may point to the banshee being the “supernatural counterpart” of human  professional mourners (lysaght,1996:69)

Group (B): roar, scream, shriek, screech, scréach, béic, call glaoch, liú.                                    Fear is the presiding element here and these are mostly found in the badbh area (as described earlier). Here we see more of a connection to the supernatural and non- human sphere, although we do find some of these descriptors being applied to keening especially in the case of those hostile to the practice.

It should also be mentioned that while the banshee is not overtly malevolent, there is a tradition of stories where she can be a force to be reckoned with. This of course only applies to people who steal or find her comb. To the person unlucky enough to find/ steal this will be followed or chased to their house where the banshee proceeds to bash at the door or walls of the house until it is returned. This is almost always invariably returned through a window while being held with and iron thongs (Iron being an age old deterrent against evil, which I covered  in a previous post here). The tongs are often damaged, and it is understood that the arm would have been injured or torn off had they used their hand to turn the object. In one of these accounts the collector was brought to the ruin of a local house and showed the crack going up the gable end of the house which was explained as having being put there from the banshee trying to get her comb back from the occupant of the house at the time.

“A man took the comb of the Banshee and she began crying around this house all night. The next day the man went to priest and told him what he had done and he priest told the man to give the comb back to the Banshee when she’d come the next night and to give it to her with a thongs through the window. He did and she took half of the tongs with her as well. It was well for him that he did so, if not she would have broken his hand off”.                                                                                                                           INFORMANT:John Ryan, 48, Bannow Moor, Co. Wexford. COLLECTOR: Tomás Breatnach, Carrick, Co. Wexford , NFSC:VOL.0876:041.

The Irish Wake and its Gender Roles

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When looking at the lifecycle in terms of folklore it cannot escape ones notice that many aspects of the life cycle have clearly defined gender roles. For the purpose of brevity in this essay I will focus on the death aspect of the lifecycle. I will focus on the rituals around death, namely the wake and how specific roles are gender specific, i.e. keening women (and the supernatural equivalent, the Bean Sí) and preparation of the body etc. Since the female roles are most prevalent according to death rituals I will briefly touch on the role of the Borekeen, the male master of ceremonies in relation to the games played at wakes, as well as some other male roles, to provide some balance. I will also be looking at a couple of paintings that depict wakes and also a photograph because I believe that these items show an interesting gender separation that illustrate the other points I have mentioned above.

When looking at folklore it is clearly evident that the important female roles, i.e. the Bean Feasa, Bean Bhán, Bean Chaointe and Bean Ghluine, are concerned with crisis points in the life cycle and are all insulated against the supernatural. In the case of the bean chaointe and the bean bhán, they are insulated against the malevolent power of death. We know that not all women were insulated in this fashion by the example of the the taboo for pregnant women to be present at a wake (Ó Crualaoich,1998:179)

Bean Chaointe/ keening women

The keen or lament was a central component in the rituals concerning death and from almost all the accounts passed down we can see that it was primarily a female role. The accounts of women performing laments far outweigh the number concerning men, in fact there are very few at all concerning men. In Irish Wake Amusements we get one of these rare accounts where a man composed a lament for his son (Ó Suilleabháin,1969:133). Angela Burke describes the lament or coaineadh as “a highly articulate tradition of women’s poetry” (Bourke,1988:287), a fact that is backed up by Patricia Lysaght when she says that  lamentation was a “central element of the culture of women” (Lysaght,1997:65). Lysaght goes on to say that this part of the ritual was so important that messengers would be sent great distances to find keening women, not only for people of the community but also if a stranger happened to die in the community (Lysaght,1997:67).  In effect the keener was a psychopomp  and the keen itself originally served a ritual function to help the soul travel from the world of the living into the spirit world (Ó Madagáin,2006:81). As mentioned above most accounts point to it being almost solely the domain of women. The practice eventually began to receive opposition from the clergy and accounts from synods around the 17th century onwards always mention women as keeners with the exception of the diocese of Leighlin that mentions the hiring “of men and women” (O Suilleabháin,1969:139). The synod of Armagh (1670) mentions that no member of the clergy would attend a wake at which “female keeners cried or screamed” (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We also see similar at the Synod of Tuam (1660) and the Synod of Dublin (1670) where they mention how people were “hiring female keeners at wakes” and how they had to “bring an end to the wailing and screaming of female keeners” respectively (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We cannot really tell with these older accounts if this was the norm, or if it was just the patriarchal nature of the church trying to stamp out the female aspect of the native tradition. We also see the male aspect trying to force itself into the funeral process in stories of clashes between the bean chaointe and the priests near the graveyard, which often erupted in violence, such as the priest attacking the keeners with a horsewhip (Ó Crualaoich,1998:154). Of course, this is not just male vs female but could also be looked at as ancestral vs popular religion. Although, that being said, many of the more modern accounts tell us exactly the same thing, that keeners were women.   Kevin Danaher tells that the keen was performed by the “old women of the place who were skilled in the art” (Danaher,1962:175).

Bean Sídhe

We can safely say from looking at the evidence that the transition of the soul/ spirit is in the hands of a human female agent but interestingly a female otherworld equivalent, the ‘banshee’, can be found in accounts throughout the country also. As the “bean sídhe” can be said to “sing” death into the community, the “bean chaointe” is seen to “sing” it out’ (Ó Crualaoich). There are a number of striking resemblances between the two that that back this theory up. We are told that the “gol” or cry was the most important constituent of the keen (Ó Madagáin,2006:84) and this bears striking resemblance to descriptions of the singular cry of the banshee.  When looking at details of the banshee’s cry we see reports such as “mournful cry”, a “wailing, piercing cry” and “pitiful” (Lysaght,1967:104).  The descriptions of this unnatural scream mirror those given of keening women and how they “shake the roof with their female crying and lamentation” (O suilleabháin,1969:134) and their “all unnatural screams” (O suilleabháin,1969:138). It is not just aural descriptions, but also physical that link these two together. Although the colour of her hair, and in some cases her age, changes, the bean sí is most often described as having long, often white, untied hair (lysaght,1967:348). This is strikingly similar to the keening women (who mostly consisted of older women and would most likely have had grey or white hair) and who wore their hair “dishevelled and unbound” (Norris: 1987:348) in a similar fashion. In many narratives of the bean sí she is not only described as crying but is also often told to be “tearing her hair” (Lysaght: 1967:104). This again is mirrored in the behaviour of her human counterpart where we are told that keeners “Beat their breasts, tear their hair and cry” (Ó Crualaoich,1998:150). The parallels between these two intrinsically connected females did not escape the keeners themselves. One informant claimed she was afraid that after death she might become a bean sí herself and described the bean sí as being “one of the oul criers” (Lysaght,1967:104). This lies in the belief that if a keener does not perform her job correctly that she is doomed to become a bean sí after death and is one of the origin myths for the bean sí.

Bean bhán

Keening was not the only aspect of death that primarily lay in the hands of women. There was a taboo against the family members to touch the body after death (Ó Crualaoich,1990:152) and this job was once again in the hands of women who were insulated against the malevolent power of death. It was carried out by the women termed bean bháin, literally meaning white women (due to the white sheets used). Sean Ó Suilleabháin tells us that the laying out of the corpse was done by a few neighbouring women who have had previous experience in doing so (O Suilleabháin,1969:13) but he gives no indication that this was even a semi-professional role like the keeners. In another source we are told that it was the oldest woman in the townland who was in charge of washing and preparing the corpse (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). We can see these women are insulated from the supernatural forces from the fact that both the water and sheets that come in contact with the body can be used in cures. The bean bháin is able to cut triangle out of the grave cloth and dispense them as cures (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). Women are also seen to be the ones who watch over the corpse for the duration of the wake, as the body is not to be left unattended at any point. One or two women usually stay at the side of the corpse (O Suilleabháin,1969:13). The only element of the preparation of the body that may be carried out by a man is in relation to shaving the corpse. If the person had a custom of shaving then it was carried out by another neighbour (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). Although this passage does not tell us specifically that it was a man who carried out the shaving, the wording of the passage seems to infer that it was a male neighbour. This however is not the only male role that is involved in this critical point in the life cycle.

 

Male roles

Although the more spiritual and important matters are the domain of the female at this stage in the life cycle, this under no circumstance means that the male is cast aside and ignored or considered inconsequential. There are also clearly defined gender roles that are reserved for men. At least two men were sent out for the essential supplies needed for the wake (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). These supplies consisted of the food and drink to offer to people who come to pay their last respects. It was also down to these men to get the candles (usually 12) that were lit around the body. Other supplies included the tobacco, snuff and clay pipes that were a staple at wakes. The men sent to get these supplies would also buy either a coffin or the supplies to make the coffin.

The borekeen and wake games

It was only usual in most cases for wake games to be found at wakes of someone who had passed of natural cause or in old age. Young or tragic deaths were more sombre affairs and would not have seen this behaviour to the extent the others would have. As mentioned at the beginning these games and revelry were presided over by a male master of ceremonies, the borekeen. When death caused disruption in the community, the female was the agent ushering the soul into the otherworld, i.e. presiding over death and the male was the agent presiding over life, whose job it is to “reassert the continuing of vitality and the potential for renewal in the community” (Lysaght, 1997:65). As a result they were cosmologically opposed, (Ó Crualaoich,1990:147) in essence a balance or compliment to each other. As well as having a male figure presiding over the games, many of these games and pass times were male-centred. That is not to say that they were all just involving men, as there were many matchmaking type games played that involved both sexes, but most of the recorded games seem to involve just male participants. These were often in the form of feats of strength to show physical prowess and gain acclaim (O Suilleabháin,1969:38). Story telling was also a favourite at wakes, even the more solemn ones, and we are told how these stories were more often than not told by an elderly man (O Suilleabháin,1969:14), most likely a member of the community with some renown in telling stories. Similar to keening this sort of behaviour at wakes came up against opposition by the clergy who at the synod of Cashel and Emly (1720) thought “the purpose [of the wake] is being defeated when immodest games are carried on which suppress the memory of death in the minds of those present” (O Suilleabháin,1969:149). It is interesting that the reason they condemn these activities is in fact the core reason of their purpose: a coping mechanism to deal with impact of death among them. The merrymaking scene found at these wakes made it “as though such a thing as grief were not in the world “(Norris,1987:347). This function as a coping mechanism can also be said about keening. An account by Tom Ó Flatharthan tells us how whenever his mother became distressed, following the tragic death of her child, that she would keen him to release the emotional distress (Ó Madagáin, 2006:81).

 

Pictorial evidence

There are a number of paintings whose subject matter is based around a wake that I thought were worthy of inclusion as many of the things seen within the painting are backed up by the accounts. They provide an interesting view on the gendered aspects of the wake and should not be overlooked. I have included three examples in the appendix: The Wake by N.Grogan (hereafter fig.1), The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton (hereafter Fig.2) and a photograph from the National Museum Archive of a funeral (hereafter Fig.3) and also (Fig.4) which is a drawing of what looks like keening women. I feel these best illustrate the evidence given so far. An element each share is the fact the coffin or corpse is surrounded by women. This is backed up in a number of the accounts (Oscar:1987:347, Ó Crualaoich,1990:150)  and seems to have been an important aspect even up to modern times.

 

Fig.1: The Wake by N. Grogan

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When looking at this painting we see many of the elements featured in the accounts that when viewed in term of gender, are quite interesting. Near the hearth we see women crowded together practicing what looks like divination. Although not exclusively practiced by women it was certainly very common for women to do so. The game being played first and centre has a mix of boys and girls as it is not one of the feats of strength type games favoured by men and boys. To the left we see a group playing pranks (pipe exploding) and directly below them seems to be a bit of matchmaking taking place (which ties into the continuity of life in the face of death mentioned above). Moving towards the back we see what looks like a group of men involved in storytelling and drinking. Behind that we see the corpse with all the handy work of the ban bhán: the candles, sheets hung up and the corpse wrapped in a shroud. Next to the body we see it is mostly surrounded by mostly women.

 

 Fig.2: The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton

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Here we see a more solemn wake, absent games, because of a tragic death. We do however see the keening women in action. The exaggerated movements of the woman standing and the more reserved stance of the gentleman standing brings to mind an account where we are told “the womenfolk are more demonstrative than the men and much less reserved than the men” (O Suilleabháin,1969:38).

Fig.3: Photo

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I included this simply because it shows a number of old women, most likely keeners, surrounding the coffins. Oscar tells us how “four or five aged females” surrounded the coffin (Oscar:1987:347) and another piece tells us how “The coffin was surrounded by a prodigious number of females who wept and chanted” (Ó Crualaoich,1990:150), both accounts describing an almost identical scenario to the photo.

Fig.4

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This illustration fits in similar to Fig.2 above with the exaggerated movements and demonstrative behaviour of the women while lamenting and the men are more reserved.

The evidence provided above from both the written evidence passed down to us and also from the illustrations that the death aspect of the life cycle has clearly defined gender roles. Although there are elements of fluidity at rare occasions we see that the certain roles related to the rituals concerning death certainly favour certain genders. In the male capacity we see the borkeen and the men who fetch the supplies for the wake and in the female capacity we see the bean chaointe (and her supernatural counterpart, the bean sí) and the bean bhán all working together to help the spirit of the deceased pass into the next world and also to promote the continuity of life in the community.

Bibliography

 Bourke.A (1988), The Irish Lament and the Grieving Process, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.11, No.4.

Danaher.K (1962), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier Press.

Lysaght.P (1976), Banshee Traditions in Béaloideas 1974-76, Iml.42/43, An Cumann le Béaloideas Eireann.

Lysaght.P (1988), Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland, Folklore 108.

Newell.V (1987), Reviewed Works: The Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.22, No.4.

Norris.L (1987), The Swanee Review: keening, Vol.95,No.4, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1990), Contest in the Cosmology and the Ritual of the Irish Merry Wake, Cosmo: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Vol.6, Edinburgh University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1998), The Merry Wake in: Irish Popular culture 1650-1850, Ed. Donnolly.J & Miller.K, Irish Academic Press.

Ó Madagáin.B (2006), Keening and Other Old Irish Musics,  Clo Iar-Chonnachta.

Ó Súilleabháin.S (1967), Irish Wake Amusements, Mercier Press.

Oscar (1835), The Dublin Penny Journal: The Wake, Vol.3,  No.148.

The Fairy Bush

Hawthorn tree. Wikimedia Commons/Robin Somes

For today’s sojourn in the world of Irish folklore I would like to cover what are generally termed “fairy bushes”. These can also be known by a number of different names and you may also encounter them named as noble bush, gentle bush or gentry bush. The favoured name was often lone or lonely bush due to fact of their solitary growth and are often found left unmolested in the middle of cultivated farmland and treated with reverence and respect, regardless of how much of an inconvenience it is to the farmer.

They are also referred to by the Irish name for a thorn, Sceach or anglicised versions such as skeag,skeog, skea, skeagh or skagh. It was only well into the 20th century when some people no longer started to fear calling them by the name “Fairy Bush”, similar to the fear of calling the fairies themselves by name (they were always referred to as names such as “The other crowd”, “Na daoine usaile“, “Na daoine maithe”  or simply the Sídhe, among many others). Most often they are hawthorn but can sometimes be blackthorn, rowan, hollies or gnarled oaks can be associated with the supernatural.

Whitethorn (hawthorn) was considered a sacred tree. When it grows alone near the banks of stream, or on forts, it is considered  to be the haunt and peculiar abode of the fairies, and as such is not to be disturbed without risk, sooner or later, of personal danger to the person so offending,William Gregory Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland (1902).

They are often thought to be somewhat different in appearance to their more ordinary counterparts. The variation depends on where you are in the country: they may have more thorns than normal or no thorns at all, they may never blossom, may continue to grow after being uprooted or may be discernible due to their unusual formation (more gnarled or with elongated trunks, exposed roots etc).

Similar to the monuments known as ringforts ( alternatively named rath or lios,) these bushes are said to be the otherworldly abode of the other crowd. It is not uncommon to to find them growing on these ringforts. There are a number of references in early Irish sources to Bile rátha (Sacred tree of the fort) and these were possibly a common feature of these forts/ enclosed dwelling places. The bushes were also considered to be an assembly point or points were opposing factions of the sídhe would meet to fight. There have even been accounts of a strange green or white substance being found around these particular bushes, believed to be blood from these quarrelling fairies. One of the most famous of these being the latoon bush in County Clare. This made the news in 1999 when it was set to be destroyed when a new motorway was being built through the area. The bush is said to be a marker in a fairy path and was the rendezvous point for Kerry fairies on their way to do battle with the Connacht fairies. The respected folklorist, storyteller and fairy expert Eddie Lenihan made the news by sending dire warnings that misfortune would follow not only the people who would cut it down but that it would also pose a danger to any motorists driving over the spot. In the end effort was made to build around the sacred tree, thus preserving one more vital piece of our sacred landscape.

The fairies have a strong bond with their trees and there have been instances where they have been heard mourning, crying and wailing when their trees have been cut down. They have also been witnessed pulling cut branches out of carts or fires. Trees marked for destruction have been known to disappear over night. Strange animal sightings near the bushes are not uncommon either. Twigs or fallen branches are often left untouched where they have fallen out of fear and respect. Misfortune often befell anyone who attempted to cut down the trees and number of accounts of this nature are to be found on the National Folklore Schools Collection. Some excerpts from these can be read below:

“It is said that a man named John Judge cut a fairy bush in Coolnaha and that all the hair fell off his head.It is said that if anyone cut a fairy bush, they would loose the hand which they would cut it with” (NFSC, Vol.0112:356).

“A man named Thomas Moorhead of Killakena went to cut a lone-bush or a fairy-bush, and with the first blow which he gave it with the axe, his nose began to bleed, and he got a pain in his head, and was confined to bed for three weeks afterwards”. (NFSC,Vol.0956:207).

“There is a fairy bush out on our hill and it is said that if you would dare break a leaf of it that something bad would happen you.

“In olden times it is said that (in olden times) a lot of fairies lived in under this bush and since that it got the name ,The Fairy Bush” (NFSC,Vol.1038:37).

People who transgress this taboo of interfering with these bushes may be met with a number of repercussions. The retaliation from the other crowd can range from thorns being left in your bed, waking up paralysed ,cuts becoming septic and requiring amputation, blinding being driven mad (many stories end with the transgressors ending up in a mental asylum) or even death.  People are very careful when cutting down bushes to make sure they are not inhabited. A stone is often placed under or near the bush and if it is gone come morning, the bush is left alone as it thought to be inhabited by the good folk or is believed to be on a fairy path.. Music, strange noises or lights coming from them are often recorded from them also. For anyone who wishes to delve deeper into the lore of fairy trees, the good news is there is no shortage of material for you to read up on. There are many folktales focusing on the subject and I would also recommend reading The Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli and probably the best book out there on fairy encounters, Meeting the other crowd by Eddie lenihan or you can check out the National Folklore Schools Collection entries on the subject here.

 

Bibliography

The Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli.

Meeting the other crowd by Eddie lenihan.

NFSC, Vol.0112:356

NFSC,Vol.0956:207

NFSC,Vol.1038:37

William Gregory Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland (1902)

Saint Declan’s Pattern Day

 

wellrounds2The 24th of July sees the feast day of Saint Declan of Ardmore, Co.Waterford. Declan was a pre-patrician saint, preaching the new religion and converting the pagan populace of Ardmore long before Saint Patrick ever set foot in Ireland. He was said to have set up his church around the spot where the 12th century “cathedral” and round tower now stand. Declan was a prince of the Deise tribe and had returned from Rome to convert people to the new religion. His supposed burial site, known as the oratory, stands nearby. A short walk from this site lies his holy well and the ruins of another church. It is here in a slightly more secluded spot, perched on a cliff, that Declan was said to have come to avoid the large crowds that were coming to his original church (this is a common motif when reading about saints. They often seek further seclusion or become hermits). His feast day was a very popular pilgrimage for centuries with thousands of people descending on the quaint seaside village to do the “rounds” of the pattern.  The earliest accounts date to the 1600’s Like many patterns, the religious aspect was not the only thing to be found here. The beach was lined with tents with musicians and people selling drink. Heavy alcohol consumption was the norm after completing the rounds, a thing that left many of the 18th and 19th century observers (most of whom were protestant) aghast with what they were witnessing. Faction fighting was also a common feature at these pattern days, which had an equal effect on these observers. This sort of faction fighting was most common in areas such as mountain passes or areas where two townlands met. Here the factions from each district would ritualistically fight in an attempt to gain the luck of the saint for the year and carry it home with them. Despite being ritualistic in nature, injury often occurred. Below I will show the sites involved in the pattern and supplement it with some of the 19th century accounts. The pattern was revived in the last couple of decades and still draws thousands each year. Many of these patterns had died out due to church interference because the clergy were against the heavy drinking, debauchery, faction fighting and the holy well veneration (that was essentially a vestige of pagan practice).

 

The Oratory

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Photo copyright Shane Broderick

This building is traditionally believed to have been the burial spot of the saint. If you peer in the window you can see a large hollow in the ground(see photo below). Out of this the clay was taken and used for all manner of cures. Due to its contact with the spot where the said was buried it was believed to have gained miraculous powers and was often ingested to provide a cure. It formed and important part of the”rounds” and was commented on in the old accounts. An old woman distributed or sold the clay to the pilgrims when they entered the oratory. The following account dates from 1841:

“22nd July, Arrived this evening at Ardmore, preparations already making for the due celebration of the Patron’s day; visited the dormitory of St. Declan; an old meagre figure had possession of the grave, in which she ate, drank, and slept, that none other might claim a right to it; one half of her only appeared above ground; the last supply of earth for the approaching demand, had just been put in; she recommended us strongly to take a portion in the name of God and the blessed Saint (on pronouncing the latter name she with due reverence dropped a low curtsey) as a preventive against fire, drowning, etc. etc, if eaten with due faith.

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Photo copyright Shane Broderick

Of the clays efficacy against fire we read more later. The writer tells us :

9 o’clock – fire nearly subdued for want of fuel; here comes the old jezebel from the grave, covered with earth, half naked, and yellow as the clay of which she bears a portion, and is strewing in places the fire cannot reach, to show its virtue in destroying that devouring element.

 

The Round Tower and Cathedral

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Photo copyright Shane Broderick

Although neither of these dates to the time of the saint they both feature strongly as part of the rounds/pattern. The round tower remains one of the finest and most complete examples of these characteristic towers that dot the Irish landscape. These conical towers, called Cloig Theach (bell towers) in the native tongue, are often mistakenly assumed to be of a defensive nature due to their doors being placed meters off the floor. This in fact is a structural feature as most of these towers were build without any real foundations to speak of. It is a testament to the builders of these awe inspiring monuments that many of these still stand when the buildings around them  has long since crumbled. They often stand as status symbols in the most important ecclesiastical sites around the country. They served not only as landmarks but experimental archaeology has shown that ringing a hand bell from the top floor can be heard for miles around. In relation to the pattern observances of the feast day we are told the following:

“A few yards brought us to the far-famed round tower, the most perfect in Ireland; here again the devout pilgrims repeated prayers and told their beads, and knelt with the utmost humility, kissed the tower, broke off pieces which they carried away; then the whole crowd filed off to the chapel, which was open to receive them, and mass was celebrated in all due form; here the devotions of the day ended”.

The church, called the Cathedral despite its minuscule size, dates to around the 12th century and incorporates an array of design features such as the Romanesque arcading seen in the picture above featuring biblical scenes such as Adam and Eve and the judging of Solomon. Further Romaneque features can be found inside along with a pointed chancel arch. If you look close enough, crosses can be seen carved into the walls near the doorway that you enter through. Two Ogham stones can also be found within the church.

 

The Holy Well

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Photo copyright Shane Broderick

The holy well comprises one of the main elements of the Pattern, as it quite often does at these kind of observances. I will cover the phenomenon of holy wells in a future article as these are a fascinating belief system that stems from an age old water cult with fascinating ties to pagan practice and belief. These fall well outside the standard doctrine and although associated with christian saints, were never officially sanctioned by the church.During the 19th Century attempts were made by the diocesan clergy to suppress pilgrimages/patterns with little effect. Pilgrimages did in fact decline but this was mostly due to the Famine and social change.

For those unfamiliar with holy wells, either drinking or topically applying the water can elicit cures. Quite often this cure can be for a specific body part such as for curing eye problems etc. There are some pretty graphic accounts of people dipping limbs affected by all manner of ailment into the water and then others drinking from it ( A fact I can even attest to seeing in the past 20 years).  This particular well is especially effective in the treatment of eye problems but can be used for a multitude of symptoms. Similar to the account above of the old woman above distributing clay, It was not uncommon for women to distribute/ sell the water at these wells, as in the photo below of Declan’s well from the early 20th century (circa 1910).Saint_Declans_Well__Ardmore

Lord Walter Fitzgerald writing in the Journal of the Royal society of Antiquaries in 1856 had the following to say:

“The most celebrated well in this province for ‘rounds’ and miraculous cures. Its powers of healing are still frequently put to the test with all sorts of sprains and mutilations of the human body, especially on the patron day, which is held on the 24th July. There are also said to be three holy wells on the strand at Ardmore, which were formed by a miracle of St Declan, but these cannot be seen except at extreme low tides, and at low water mark; they are noted for curing inward complaints in those who are fortunate to glimpse of them at the propitious moment. At each of the wells mentioned here, except those on the strand, the visitor will find numerous coloured objects tied to the trees and briars in the neighbourhood.”

Further accounts can be found in Mr & Mrs halls writings from 1841 (as used previously above):

“On the brink stand the remnants of a chapel, said to be the first built in Ireland. On entering the gateway, on your right hand, is the well St. Declan blessed: a narrow doorway leads to it, a formidable figure had possession of it, and dealt out in pint mugs to those who paid; some drank it, some poured it on their limbs, their head, their backs, in the most devout manner, some claimed a second portion to bottle and carry home to sick relatives, or to preserve their house from fire; they then knelt down to the well, and said their prayers”

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Photo copyright Shane Broderick

Above Is the stone visible in the old photo used at the beginning of the article. It lies at the gable end of the church ruin and as part of the rounds the crosses are carved into the stone as prayers are said (it is not unusual at other pilgrimages for the dust created from carving those crosses to be collected, added to water and consumed in the believe that it could also provide cures. Below are the ruins of the church near this stone and the well. Perched on the precipice of the cliff it offers stunning views of the bay below (The name Ardmore comes from the Irish Aird Mhór meaning “Great height”).

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Photo copyright Shane Broderick

 

Saint Declans Stone

The last item I would like to mention is the boulder known locally as “Saint Declan’s Stone”. This stone forms an important part of the rounds and is believed to be efficacious in treating back pain and rheumatism by stooping down and crawling beneath it through the narrow aperture seen above. It was also circled a number of times on the knees while praying. The story of the stone is as follows: When the saint was returning from wales, he realised he had left his bell behind on a rock on the foreshore. He prayed to God and the stone started to float after him with the bell on top of it. Recognising the miracle he allowed the boulder to lead the way and decided that wherever it was to land he would set up his church. This of course landed on the beach of Ardmore where it still remains today, only accessible at low tide. The boulder is appears to be a glacial erratic as it is the only stone of its kind on the beach. This stone also features in the accounts from the 18th century:

“there the first scene began, and I counted 154 persons kneeling round the stone, fresh comers every moment succeeding those who had told their beads and said their prayers. I watched their motions as they approached the stone; they took off their hats, then lowly bowed their heads, and dropped their knees on the pointed rocks; here they repeated several prayers, telling over their beads; then solemnly drew near and reverentially kissed the informed (???) mass several times, then bumped their backs against it three times, drew back in awe, dropped again on their knees, repeating more prayers and silently retired, children in arms were pressed down till their little mouths touched the holy stone”.

That brings to a close this brief foray into the sites attributed to Saint Declan and his pattern day. Thank you for taking the time to read it and I hope you enjoyed it. If you enjoyed my photographs feel free to follow my Photography page on facebook (click here) and also my Folklore page (here). For the 19th century accounts above I used:

Mr. & Mrs. S.H. Hall. 1841. Ireland: Its Scenery, Character & C. London: How & Parsons (pp. 284-85)

The Evil Eye

In this article I will be focusing on a subject that is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record, the Evil Eye. This is not unique to Ireland and is found in many different cultures with accounts dating far back into antiquity. I’m sure many will be familiar with the Evil Eye pendants (called Nazar) or keyrings from Turkey and Egypt, that are still a popular souvenir choice for holiday makers. In the Irish context it is quite often mentioned in an ambiguous manner (such as an account or story simply mentioning that the person “had the Evil Eye”) with no explanation as to what it actually is. I have compiled the following accounts as they illustrate the nature of the Evil Eye and also give us good examples of how it can be counteracted. Lady  Jane Francesca Wilde gives us a number of  excellent examples in her book Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. These examples are mirrored in the later National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) accounts that encompass the rest of the examples provided herein.

The Evil Eye was essentially a curse or malediction that could be placed on a person or animal by a person possessing the power to do so. This was done when the said person “glared” or stared intently at the intended victim. This is often referred to as being ‘overlooked’.

“There are several modes in which the Evil Eye can act, some much more deadly than others. If certain persons are met the first thing in the morning, you will be unlucky for the whole of that day in all you do. If the evil-eyed comes in to rest, and looks fixedly on anything, on cattle or on a child, there is doom in the glance; a fatality which cannot be evaded except by a powerful counter-charm. But if the evil-eyed mutters a verse over a sleeping child, that child will assuredly die, for the incantation is of the devil, and no charm has power to resist it or turn away the evil. Sometimes the process of bewitching is effected by looking fixedly at the object, through nine fingers; especially is the magic fatal if the victim is seated by the fire in the evening when the moon is full. Therefore, to avoid being suspected of having the Evil Eye, it is necessary at once, when looking at a child, to say “God bless it.” And when passing a farmyard where the cows are collected for milking, to say, “The blessing of God be on you and on all your labours.” If this form is omitted, the worst results may be apprehended, and the people would be filled with terror and alarm, unless a counter-charm were not instantly employed” Lady wilde.

Lady Wilde, often known by her pen name Speranza, also tells us “There is nothing more dreaded by the people, nor considered more deadly in its effects, than the Evil Eye.It may strike at any moment unless the greatest precautions are taken, and even then there is no true help possible unless the fairy doctor is at once summoned to pronounce the mystic charm that can alone destroy the evil and fatal influence”.

The only way to counteract this power was through the use of a powerful counter charm. If the evil eye had been used against an animal, effectively rendering it useless, then a person has to hum the alphabet under the nose of the animal who has it. If the name of the person who cast the evil eye is known for sure, then humming the letters of their name will suffice in breaking the curse (NFSC,Vol.0221:628). Another description of this ritual goes into far greater detail and has much more Christian elements included in it. We are told that as well as writing the letters of the alphabet in their order on a sheet of paper, the sign of the Cross was made on this paper with the pen three times, the paper was then sprinkled with holy water and burned under the animal’s nose. Some of the ashes of the paper were put in the mouth of the affected animal and the cure was then complete (NFSC,Vol.0941:324). Special precautions to protect the animal from this malicious force are taken at the liminal, auspicious times of year such as May eve, due to the fact that supernatural forces were considered to be at their zenith. Red tags or strings were tied to the cow’s tails as a prevention against the Evil Eye but this can also be performed at the birth of the animal also (NFSC.Vol.0978:071). Another way of counteracting it was that the person to whom the animal belongs must cut a piece off the coat of the person who overlooked it and burn the cloth under the animals head (NFSC.Vol.0978:071). It could also be reversed by the person who cast it. One account tells how:

“ About forty years ago some people were admiring a heifer calf in a farmyard among whom was a woman reputed to have the “evil eye”. When the people had gone the calf fell to the ground in a fit, whereupon someone said that the woman with the “evil eye” should be asked to return [and} say “God bless her” over the calf. This was done immediately the calf stood up was as well as ever” (NFSC.Vol.0952:203).

The person possessing the power is said to have gotten it through being born with it or it is said that people become possessed of the evil eye as babies if they are weaned of their mother’s milk and then given it again. This can be reversed by passing the baby under a green sod three times (NFSC,Vol.0221:628). Lady Wilde tells us how suspected persons were held in great suspicion, and they were recognised at once by certain signs. Men and women with dark lowering eyebrows are especially feared, and that “the handsome children are kept out of their path lest they might be overlooked by them” .Red hair was supposed to have the most malign influence, and it has even passed into a proverb: “Let not the eye of a red-haired woman rest on you.” Many of the people are unaware that their glance or frown has this evil power until some calamity results, and then they “strive not to look at any one full in the face, but to avert their eyes when speaking, lest misfortune might fall upon the person addressed”.

In the course of my research for this article I came across an interesting account of a man who possessed the evil eye. Following a number of accidents and misfortunes, seemingly of a fatal nature, the source of the accidents was traced back to the man, who had been present at all incidents (It should be noted that many people who possess the power are not inherently evil or intend to use their power maliciously). In an effort to avoid any further mishaps the community forced the man to wear an eye patch. What is interesting is the fact that we are given an example of his power being used for good. One day as the man was near the ruin of an old castle he encountered a crying boy. The boy was distressed because his pet pigeon was at the top of the ruin and could not be coaxed down. He took off the patch and stared intently at the pigeon. It fell to the ground and lay motionless, as if stunned; but there was no harm done to it and then the boy took it up and went his way.. Due to the limited scope of my research on the subject I am unable to confirm whether it is an isolated case where the power was used for good (I will include a link here for the Duchas.ie schools collection where you can read through the others if you wish).

Ancient accounts

We find two ancient accounts of the evil eye here in Ireland. The first is found in the mythological cycle of tales and relates to Balor of the evil eye, who was said to have a fortress on Tory Island. Balor was a king of the Formorians, the ancient inhabitants of Ireland (before the coming of the Tuatha Dé Danann). He is often described as a giant with a huge eye in the middle of his forehead this eye brought death and destruction on anyone he cast his gaze upon. He had gained this power from peering into a cauldron that contained a powerful spell that was being created by some druids. The vapours from the cauldron got into his eye when he looked inside which gave him the power of his deathly gaze. The most memorable instance of Balor using his eye is the story of his death at the battle of Maigh Tuireadh. In this famous battle between the Formorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann, Balor fell in battle at the hands of his own grandson, the pan-celtic god Lugh, when he trust his spear (or sling depending on the telling) through the eye of the giant. His eye was blown out the back of his head, turning his deadly gaze on his own men, destroying the forces of the Formorians. A piece of Dindseanchas (meaning lore of places) tells us that the place where his head fell and burned a hole in the ground, later filled with water and became known as “Lough na Suil” or “The Lake of the Eye”. Interestingly, this lake disappears every few years when it drains into a sink hole. Local mythology says that this happens to ensure that the atrocities of the battle may never be forgotten.

The only other ancient mention of the evil eye is that of a saint. Lady Gregory tells us “After Balor, the only other ancient instance of the fatal effects of the malefic Eye is narrated of St. Silan, who had a poisonous hair in his eyebrow that killed whoever looked first on him in the morning. All persons, therefore, who from long sickness, or sorrow, or the weariness that comes with years, were tired of life, used to try and come in the saint’s way, that so their sufferings might he ended by a quick and easy death. But another saint, the holy Molaise, hearing that St. Silan was coming to visit his church, resolved that no more deaths should happen by means of the poisoned hair. So he arose early in the morning, before any one was up, and went forth alone to meet St. Silan, and when he saw him coming along the path, he went boldly up and plucked out the fatal hair from his eyebrow, but in doing so he himself was struck by the venom, and immediately after fell down dead”.

 

 

Animal Folklore of Ireland Pt.1: Dog

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Dogs have always been seen as not only loyal companions but also as protectors of both our homes and livestock and were historically used in times of war and also in helping with hunting. The majestic wolfhound, the oldest Irish breed was once a status symbol owned only by Kings and as their names suggests, used for hunting the wolves that once roamed our country. So, it is no surprise that with our close relationship with the hound, that it finds a prominent place in our Folklore, myths and legends. Both in Ireland and UK we share the belief that dogs are capable of seeing supernatural beings and I have many memories of being told that a dog was seeing a spirit when it was staring off into space intently, but was always assured it meant no harm if the dog was not scared. The belief that the dog could protect against the influences of the otherworld is by no means a new belief and in the Brehon laws we see that anyone who killed a dog belonging to a woman who was in labour, had to pay for a priest to stand over the woman and read the scriptures, day and night, until the labour was over to keep her safe from otherworldly influences (MacCoitir,2010:188).

Supernatural Dogs

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Not only do we find that they could see spirits, or fairies, but it was also a belief that they themselves could become ghosts. We see an example of this in the National Folklore Schools collection (hereafter NFSC) in a story collected by Michéal Ó Gealbháin called “A Dog’s Ghost”. The story tells of how the informant once had a dog he was very attached to, as was the dog to him. One day as he was returning from a trip to Castlebar he seen the dog running up the road to meet him. As he drew closer the dog seemed to disappear into the bushes and would not come when he called him. Assuming the dog had just followed a rabbit he continued on home. Upon reaching the house he remarked to his wife how the dog would not come home when he called and that he would have to go and find him. His wife put down her knitting and placing a hand on either shoulder, said to him “You must be brave” and after a no doubt dramatic pause, said “The dog is dead”. He knew by the sorrowful look in her eyes that she was not joking and after following his wife to stables found the dog lying dead on the floor. The dog had passed away shortly after he had left for Castlebar earlier that morning. (NFSC, Vol:0095:167). This story brings to mind similar accounts found throughout Irish Folklore of the ‘fetch’ of a person appearing to loved ones around the time of their death.

In some areas of the country we find that a baying hound, called a gaidhrín caointeach replaced the infamous Bean Sídhe (banshee) as the herald of death for certain families such as the O’keeffe’s in West Cork. We also find a tradition/ variation in Ireland akin to the hounds of hell archetype where it is believed that these death hounds awaited the soul after death in so any morsels of bread would be thrown out in an effort to entice the dogs away as the person lay dying (MacCoitir,2010:95).

In terms of supernatural dogs, we also find a proliferation of accounts of monstrous black dogs, often encountered by people who wonder about too late at night (In fact a cursory glance at the duchas.ie page turns up well over 100 dog related entries, the vast majority of which are black dog stories). They are often spotted near Ringforts (often called rath or Lios), the medieval enclosure dwellings that dot the landscape. These monuments, as many will know, are considered the abode of the ‘Good people’, the fairies, and are still treated by many with respect and superstition or even fear.  Eddie lenihan, the well respected Seanchaí and expert in fairy lore, tells us how these black dogs are the “frequenters and protectors” of fairy sites such as their dwellings and pathways. He tells us how the same dog, although not always a danger to people if left alone, can be seen over several generations in the same location and is often immobile and massive in size but just watches menacingly (lenihan,2003:89). Sometimes this ghostly black dog is connected with hidden treasure as we see in the following tale found in the NFSC: One evening as a boy was returning home from a fair, he met with a big black dog with “blazing eyes”. The dog leaped over a big gate into a bunch of nettles and disappeared. The boy recounted the story to his father and they both returned to the site with a shovel and after digging on the spot where the dog had vanished, found a box full of money (NFSC,Vol.0647:345). The black dog archetype is a migratory myth found in many lands outside of Ireland and is very popular in the British Isles but in the course my research for this article I came across an interesting find. In a story named “The Fairy Dog” in the NFSC we see an interesting account of a red dog (NFSC,Vol.0007:81). The colour red seems to me tosignify it as an otherworldly animal as we often find otherworldly cows and deer, usually white in color  with red ears, so I believe in the case the colour red may be used to point out its otherworldly origins. At the very least it is interesting in the fact it varies from the usual black dog with burning red eyes. For any interested in the UK variation of the black dog mythos, I would suggest checking out the work of Mark Norman here: http://www.troybooks.co.uk/black-dog-folklore.html

Transformation

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When looking at Irish myth and folklore we find many instances of people transforming into animals.  We see from some of our earliest literature that there was a druidic belief, something akin to reincarnation or rebirth where they thought that their ancestors “flew through the ages in the shape of birds”. This belief carried forward into the Christian era and we also see a multitude of instances of people who shapeshift in the form of one animal or another. We see long lived characters such as Tuán MacCaraill and Fintan son of Bochaire who survived thousands of years through shapeshifting into different animals and we also see similar events in the Lives of saints such as Saint Patrick and of course who could forget the children of Lir. So, it is no surprise considering the closeness and importance of humble dog, or Madra in Irish, that it would feature in similar shapeshifting stories. Two of these stories, found in the NFSC are due to enchantment by witches. In the “White Dog of the Valley” (NFSC,Vol.0442:071) we see a man who changes into a dog to steal the kings cattle and in “The Green Dog of the Woods” (NFSC,Vol.0222:023) we see a similar story when a man is under a spell that causes him to take on the form of a dog every evening.

Influence of Dogs on Names and Their Links With Heroes

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Photo copyright Tony Mulrany @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/16913367@N02/4504310387

We also see, because of the importance of dogs to the Irish, that they had an influence on Irish names. We see names such as Conn (such as Conn Céadcathach / Conn of the Hundred Battles) ,Conchobar (Conor) and Conall that derive from the word Cú/con meaning “hound, wolf” and of course one could not forget to mention the premier hero of the Irish mythological tradition, Cúchulainn. Originally named Setanta, he earned his name from killing the infamous, ferocious hound of the smith Culainn when arriving late to a dinner he was invited to by the king Conchubar,at the home of the smith. From that day forward he was known as Cúchulainn (the hound of Culainn) as he acted as protector in place of the hound till another could be trained to take his place. Because of his links with Dogs he also had a Geas (A taboo or obligation, often magically imposed) that forbid him from eating the flesh of a dog. Traditionally, the doom of heroes comes about due to their violation of their geas, either by accident, or by having multiple geasa and then being placed in a position where they have no option but to violate one geas in order to maintain another. For instance, The champion Cúchulainn came across three old crones roasting a hound on rowan spits.   They asked him to partake in their humble meal, but there was a geas on Cúchulainn forbidding him to eat the flesh of the hound (his totem animal) and also against eating meat cooked over an open fire.  Cúchulainn at first refused to eat the meat, but the crones persisted saying ‘you are too proud to eat an honest meal from a few old women but will feast on rich foods in the halls of chieftains and kings.’   Then Cúchulainn took the meat in his left hand – going against the double taboo and as soon as he ate the food he was paralyzed in the left side of his body, which hastened his inevitable demise in the forthcoming battle

We also see dogs feature in the Finnaíocht tradition of Irish mythology, that is the stories concerning Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn MacCool) and his roving warband, the Fianna.  These legends tell us of Finn’s favourite dog Bran, a dog thought to possess great knowledge and sense who often helped Finn or saved him from danger. The Birth of both Bran and Sceoling (another hound of the Fianna) falls under the category of transformation above. Both were born to a queen who had been transformed into the form of a dog by a sorceress and who gave birth to them while in this form. In The Lay’s of Finn we find a poem that tells the story of Bran, with Fionn praising him (MacCoitir,2010:99).

This is but a short summary of how dogs factor in on Irish Folklore. I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the subject and I hope to bring many more segments to my animal folklore series in the future. If you would like to read some of the Schools collection for yourself follow this link to read the entries on dogs: http://www.duchas.ie/en/src?q=dog&t=CbesStory and don’t forget to follow my page on facebook : https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/

 

Bibliography

NFSC.Vol:0095:167, collector: Michéal Ó Gealbháin, Informant: Mr.Morony, Clogher, Co. Mayo.

NFSC,Vol.0647:345, Collector: Tomás Ó Dúnaighe, Informant: Tom Dwyer, Ballynamult, Co. Waterford.

NFSC,Vol.0007:81, Collector: Joseph King, Informant: Thomas King (50), Farmer, Roundstone, Co. Galway.

NFSC,Vol.0222:023, Collector: Joseph Quinn, Cloone, Co. Leitrim.

NFSC,Vol.0442:071, Collector: Nellie Doyle, Informant: Nóra Ní Shuilleabháin.

Lenihan, E, 2004. Meeting the Other Crowd. TarcherPerigee

MacCoitir.N,2010, Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends and Folklore, Collins press.

The multifaceted nature of pattern day celebration: the Sacred and the profane

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Spilsbury Taylor, Pattern at Glendalough (c 1816)

Saint’s feast days are still celebrated around the country in the form of pattern days. These revived religious festivals still draw high numbers of people such as the patterns at Gougane Barra, Ardmore, Ballyvourney and of course, one of the most well-known, Croagh Patrick. When we look at them now we see strictly serious, sombre, sacred affairs but if we cast our minds back to the 18th and 19th centuries we see a different story arising from the historical accounts. Here we see a very odd mixture of the sacred and the profane side by side. We see heavy drinking, dancing, music, trading and even faction fighting. To the uninitiated observers, to whom we owe most of the accounts, this behaviour was appalling, barbaric and savage and this is reflected in the language they use throughout their documentation of the events. Being reserved Protestant gentlemen, the multifaceted aspect made a lasting impression. In this essay, I will be looking at this eclectic mix of the sacred and the profane and how it was perceived by these outsiders. While even today viewing these narratives through a modern lens, many of the events carried out may seem alien. We should at least appreciate the fact that this was occurring at a liminal time. As a result of this liminality, a kind of anti-structure can be found. Turner explains this in terms of the people involved being “neither here nor there, betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom and convention” (Turner,1995:95). Bakhtin coined the term “the two lives of man” to describe the difference between this liminal time and carnival-esque atmosphere where “a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (Bakhtin, 1984: 10) , and everyday life.

As I mentioned above, we see the massive impression that the events the authors witnessed made on them through their choice of language throughout the accounts. Many share the impression that the rituals were uncivilised and backwards. William Makepeace Thackeray referred to them as “dismal and half savage” (Thackeray,1842:208), a thought backed up by Mr & Mrs Hall when they said that “The most ignorant and savage tribes of Africa have few ceremonies more utterly revolting” (Hall,1841:282) than the Irish peasantry. We see numerous attempts to make the belief system of the Irish seem backward which by proxy essentially attempts to elevate not only the morality but also the civility of the observer. Máire MacNeill refers to them as the accounts of “hostile and supercilious observers” who were shocked at the mixture of the “piety and boisterousness” of the peasantry (MacNeill, 1982:83). Philip Dixon Hardy mentions that the “superstitious and degrading practices” of the common people are “A disgrace to the time and country we live in” (Hardy, 1840: iii).

 

Gougane Barra

Photo courtesy of NicholasH on wikimedia commons

Gougane Barra is the supposed site of the hermitage of St. Finbarr and was the site of pilgrimage for centuries. The pattern there was recently revived, albeit without many of the more profane activities for which we have accounts. Thomas Crofton Croker gives us a fine example of the mix of sacred and profane goings on at this pattern in his book Researches In The South Of Ireland. He is clearly shocked by how “drunken men and the most depraved women” are side by side with the pious pilgrims and how an “uproar of prayers and oaths, of sanctity and blasphemy” (Croker,1981:280) could be heard simultaneously. In most of the other accounts, the observers tend to draw a line between the sacred aspect taking place during the day and gradually giving way to revelry as the night progresses. In Croker’s account, he places them side by side and shows no end to the religious aspect, which continues through the night alongside the secular activities. Here he tells us that both the holy well and chapel are still crowded at midnight while the dancing, drinking and fighting were happening (Croker,1981:281). He likens the tents set up to a gypsy camp, an interesting choice of language no doubt to point out its wild, secular nature. He also tells us how “intoxication  becomes almost universal” at these tents and goes to great effort to point out the hedonistic nature of these encampments where people are singing “rebellious songs” and have pipers in every tent. We can see clearly that he doesn’t agree with dancing being compatible with a religious event and claims it is an “amusement of which the lower orders of Irish are immoderately attached” (Croker,1981:280). The most profane aspect he mentions in his writing is the lighting of bonfires on the hillside in the evening which he says has nothing to do with the pattern or the saint but instead harkens back to a bygone era with origins in pagan sun worship (Croker,1981:281). In terms of how shocking many of the supposedly sacred practices were to the uninitiated observers, one can only imagine how striking it was to witness the hillside littered with fires reflecting on the lake below.

While on the subject of sacredness we will turn our minds to the sacred aspects of the pattern as recorded by Crofton Croker. Here he gives us detailed accounts of the religious side of pattern similar to the much more sombre side that we see today at these pilgrimages, albeit with much more rigorous observances. The extreme nature of the rounds are a common feature throughout multiple accounts with many obscure practices being recorded. In relation to Gougane Barra the most obscure ritual the author provides to us is the placing of a rusty iron object by the devotees on the head of the person next to them three times while reciting a prayer. Beyond providing a sketch of the item and telling us that it was of “considerable importance” and that it was passed around with “much ceremony”, we are told no more about this object (croker,1981:278).  We do however get the impression that this was a very sacred object and a crucial ritual in relation to the pattern. When speaking of the sacred aspect of pilgrimages, or indeed of pattern days, one cannot fail to mention the importance of the holy well. In terms of pattern rounds it is oft a central, if not the most important aspect of the observance. Of the sacred waters at the well in this instance, we are given a very graphic account of how people with “the most disgusting sores and shocking infirmaties” (Croker,1981:279) washed themselves and thrust their arms or legs into the water to obtain a cure. He also tells us of how people eagerly drank this “polluted water” in hopes of receiving a blessing. Rigorous prayer is another common feature of pattern accounts. In regard to praying Croker tells us that an “immense concourse” of people were involved in a number of different acts of devotion. Many prayed on their knees with their arms uplifted with “considerable gesticulation” (Croker,1981:278). Just as in modern patterns, a certain number of prayers had to be said at each ‘station’ as part of the ritual. Here Croker tells us how people kept track of these prayers. Some “counted their beads with much apparent fervour” or used small pebbles as a substitute. He also notes how men notched their cudgel or a piece of stick (Croker,1981:278). Here with the mention of the cudgel we most likely see an intersection of the sacred and the profane. Men first mark the number of prayers on the cudgel that they possibly use as part of the faction fighting that was often found at pattern days. I will speak more on faction fighting later but first I will move on to another popular pattern, Croagh Patrick, and to the accounts of it given by different observers.

Croagh Patrick

Photo courtesy of Mark Waters

When one thinks of pilgrimage in Ireland, Croagh Patrick is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Multitudes of people still flock here on ‘Reek Sunday’, that is the last Sunday in July, to climb the mountain as a form of penance. The climb and pattern now take centre stage but in the past we see a much more varied event featuring both the sacred and the profane. Christian pilgrims have come here for centuries, the earliest recorded pilgrimage being recorded in 1113 ( Corlett,1997:9) but veneration of the mountain seems to even predate Christianity and is mentioned by Máire MacNeill as being a possible site in the celebration of the festival of Lughnasa (MacNeill,1982:83), a factor which may have influenced the more profane aspects of the pilgrimage here. Her evidence for this lies in the fact of the date of the pilgrimage and also the fact that it is only one of many mountains climbed on the last Sunday in July. In the case of Croagh Patrick I will be looking at the accounts of two writers and their opinions on the pattern observances.

In relation to the account by W.M Thackeray, he is even appalled by the sacred aspect. He likens the priest who reside over the proceedings to “worshippers of Moloch or Baal” due to them allowing people to perform what he terms “disgusting penances” (Thackeray,2005:207). He gives details of what the stations involve (i.e. the number of prayers to be said at each station, usually a prescribed number of Aves, Paters and Credos along with a ritual such as kissing a cross etc.) and tells of how the people were “suffering severe pain, wounded and bleeding in the knees and feet”. He can’t fathom how a God would want people to do this to themselves or how his representatives, i.e. the priests, would allow this to happen or encourage it (Thackeray,2005:208). As one could imagine with how shocked and disgusted he was with the religious aspect, he was just as descriptive and appalled by the more secular activities, what he describes as the “pleasures of the poor people”. Unlike Crocker he does not mention that the religious and profane are happening side by side. He also tells us of all the tents set up on the foot of the mountain and the revelry attached to them. Here he tells us how when the praying is done up the mountain then the “dancing and love making” commenced at the foot of the mountain. A scene he describes as “dismal and half savage” as he had ever seen (Thackeray,2005:208). The carnivalesque atmosphere he describes at the foot of the mountain is more akin to a fair than a religious affair with people shouting and screaming to sell their wares and crowded, smoky tents filled with people. A stark contrast to the goings on up the mountain where people were “dragging their bleeding knees from altar to altar, flinging stones and muttering endless litanies” (Thackeray,2005:209).

We also get an account of the Croagh Patrick Pattern from Philip Dixon Hardy in his book “Holy Wells of Ireland”. Like Thackeray, he takes a very hard-line approach in his opposition to the behaviour of people at the gatherings. He refers to them as being the sources of “much of the irreligion, immorality and vice” that proliferate the country (Hardy,1840:iii) and to him are the antithesis to proper Christian teachings and morals, especially considering that they are presided over by priests. He gives us a similar account to Thackeray in relation to the praying on bare knees but gives us a few more unusual rituals involved in the pattern. Interesting that these rituals fall well outside the Christian parameters. He tells us of how people throw bait into the well in an attempt to see fish in the well, for luck (Hardy,1840:59). This of course brings to mind the native, non-Christian tradition of the Tobar Segais (well of knowledge) and the Eo fios (fish/salmon of knowledge), so to see the level of syncretism of native and Christian tradition must have made quite the impression on the observer. He also records that people leave offerings of cloth, among other things, tied to a tree (clootie tree/ rag bush) as well as the practice of leaving offerings of butter to the saint in the bog (Hardy,1840:60). Similar again to Thackeray he makes special note of the pipers, fiddlers and excessive drinking when referring to the profane facet of the pattern. We are told of “how all manner of debaucheries are counted and young people are corrupted” (Hardy,1840:60). He also includes an account from the work of Rev. James Page, entitled “Ireland: Its Evils Traced Back to Their Source”. Here we are told how people “jumped around like mad folks to the sound of the instruments” and people were “rolling around drunk and cursing as if there was no God” (Hardy,1840:62). This observer also mentions witnessing a practice that one would not think to find at a religious event, divination. He tells us of how women are in the corner reading tea leaves “deciding on the destiny of their daughters at home”. In fact, he is so shocked by it that he believes it to be “fostered by the father of lies himself” (Hardy,1840:62).

Faction fighting

Faction fighting was a common occurrence at pattern days, especially in contested areas, i.e. bordering parishes. Máire MacNeill argues that this was not just a fight for the sake of fighting but instead served a ritualistic/symbolic function. She postulates that the combat could be a re-enactment of the fairy battles of the otherworld on the mortal plane (MacNeill,1982:408) or especially in the case of pattern days, gaining the favour of the local saint, the ‘Deus Loci’ so to speak. This was in aid of bringing the ‘luck’ back to the winners’ parish. These events did not escape the notice of the outside observers and provide us with a good example of the profane manifesting among the sacred activities. It was noted that “bloody knees from devotion and bloody heads from fighting were not uncommon (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Hardy tells us how “parties come to fight and quarrel” (Hardy,1840:57) at Croagh Patrick while Croker, when referring to the pattern at Ardmore, tells us how “a scene of rioting and quarrelling” periodically ensued (Croker,in Hall & Hall,1841:284). He seems to believe that fighting is endemic to the Irish peasantry as he says “without which Paddy cannot live long in good humour” (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Of course if we look at it from the view of MacNeill’s argument of it being symbolic fighting it makes a lot more sense than it would have to eyes of the uninitiated observers to whom we owe these accounts.

some Irish fighting sticks /shillelagh

The above accounts are by no means an exhaustive collection of that which has been written by what we have termed “uninitiated observers” but for the sake of brevity I chose to focus mostly on the accounts from Gougane Barra and Croagh Patrick as both contained good examples of the eclectic mix of sacred and profane activities found at the pattern days of yore. Looking at these events through a modern lens, despite how strange some still appear, we can at least appreciate through the work of people such as Turner, Van Gennep , Bakhtin and MacNeill that the pattern was a liminal time (If fact the term liminal was coined by Van Gennep in his work “rites of passage”. This was later expanded on by Turner). This time out of time allowed people to act outside of the norm. This allowed people to give up their worldly cares during this time of ambiguity, a time where anti-structure reigned and all were equal. Looking at it in this way helps us understand it in a better light, unlike how shocking it appeared to the ‘outsiders’ who recorded these events. It is also interesting to see the syncretic nature of the Irish belief system, the melding of non-Christian tradition with Christian beliefs and how it survived for so long. Despite the colourful descriptions and use of derogatory language in an attempt to make the Irish look like savages, we can at least appreciate the very vivid accounts passed down to us of the pattern days of the past.

 

Bibliography

Bakhtin, M (1968), Rabelais and His World, M.I.T press, Cambridge, pp.101845885384

Corlett, C (1997), Prehistoric Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, Archaeology Ireland, Vol.11, No.2, Wordwell Ltd, pp.9

Croker, T.C (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281

Hall, S.C (1841), Ireland: Its Scenery,Character etc, How and parsons, London, pp.282-284

Hardy, P.D (1840), The Holy Wells of Ireland, Hardy and Walker, Dublin, pp.59-63

MacNeill, M (1982), The Festival of Lughnasa, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin, PP.88-408

Thackeray, W,M (2005), Sketchbook of Ireland in 1842, Nonsuch Publishing, pp.207-209

Turner, V (1995), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Foundations of Human Behavior). Reprint Edition. Aldine Transaction, pp.95

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Folklore of May-Day/ Bealtaine

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The 1st of May brings us to the start of summer and one of the most important cross-quarter days (being between the solstices and equinoxes) in the Irish calendar. May-day, like many festivals of its kind has no shortage of traditions attached to it. Also, similar to Samhain, it is considered an extremely liminal time where influences from the otherworld can be a genuine threat. The May festival, or Bealtaine in Irish, is also a time when the fairies, or Sídhe, are thought to be especially active. It is traditionally considered a fire festival so bonfires are an integral part of it (the name Bealtaine is believed to mean “bright Fire” and like many other festivals it has its origins in pagan times) .  Many of the traditions associated with the festival are concerned with protection against the otherworldly forces. As this was a time when cattle would be put out to pasture, many of the superstitions (for lack of a better word) of May-day are related to butter production and protection of the animals. In the course of this article I will be looking at some of them and will be drawing examples mostly from the National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter listed as NFSC).

 

Butter Stealing, Witches and Hags as Hares

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woman churning butter (1897)

As I mentioned above, a particular fear on May-day was that witches were roaming about to steal the milk and butter from households. As milk and butter were not only an important part of the house-hold economy, but also the diet, the fear of it being stolen supernaturally was a huge threat to the livelihood of the house for the coming year. There are charms for both protecting against butter stealing and also forms of sympathetic magic to steal the butter. This magic allowed the person who cast it to gain all the efforts of the other persons churning, while the person actually churning would get nothing but froth.

 

Ruby Stronge gives a story of this witchcraft in the NFSC. She tells us how: “Long ago, on May morning, lots of old women went out in the morning before the sun arose and swept the dew of the grass by pulling a long rope after them and calling, “Come all to me, Come all to me.” This was a kind of witch craft [sic], taking away butter of other people’s milk. One May morning, a man was going along the road with his horse and cart to the bog. He happened to see this old woman pulling at the rope and saying, “Come all to me.” He jumped out of the cart and ran over and cut a piece of the rope and brought it home and threw it in a barrel. A short time afterwards, he went to the barrel to look for the rope and to his great surprise, the barrel was full of butter”.

The rope that is mentioned collecting the dew is the form of sympathetic magic I spoke of earlier. As the dew is collected by the rope, it represents the butter that is being stolen from whoever the spell is cast against. It was most likely the land of the person it was being stolen from that the witch was on in the first place.

Hag as a Hare

72688d6b3243ac4c951bab1bbdb60ff0.jpgWhen it comes to witches stealing butter, one of the most prevalent forms that the story or account takes is in the form of the shapeshifting hag who transforms into a hare. They are quite often impervious to normal weapons as Mrs. Elis tells us in the NFSC: “when she was in that shape she could only be shot with a silver sixpence” (NFSC, Vol. 0949: 092). This element of the story pops up numerous times in the folklore tradition. Another story, told by a collector’s grandfather tells of a man seeing a hare every morning in the field by the cow. When the cow stopped giving milk he got suspicious. He decided to kill the hare and gathered a group of men and hounds. They tried to shoot the hare, but to no avail. The shotgun pellets would not harm it. When attempting again the next day the man had quicksilver in his gun and manged to break the hare’s leg. When they followed it back to a house they found an old woman there with a wounded leg. They refused to kill her because she was an old woman. A month later when she died the cow started giving milk again (NFSC, Vol. 0950: 366).

There was a genuine threat felt by the people in terms of hags in the form of hares. The larger National Folklore Collection is littered with accounts of people who remember patrolling the fields with their fathers with shotguns loaded with silver sixpences on May eve to shoot any trespasser, especially if a hare was seen, showing that this was far beyond just being part of the story telling tradition. It is quite often in the tales with the “hag as hare” motif that when the injured hare is followed back to a house which it enters, an old woman is found injured inside in the same manner as the hare was. This injury isn’t always as a result of silver as we see in the next example:

“There was once a woman who lived in the district and she was supposed to have the ‘evil eye’. One day she was supposed to turn into a hare. When she was going in through her window a dog caught her leg and hurt it. The next day she was {found} in bed with a sore leg” (NFSC, Vol. 0946: 094).

Flowers

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Hawthorn bloom

The collection of flowers was another important custom. The most common custom was the collecting of flowers and making them into posies. Usually they were gathered before dusk on May Eve but sometimes the tradition held that they should be collected before dawn on May Day (Danaher, 1972: 88). It was also a custom to tie flowers to the bridles of horses, the tails or horns of cows and also to milk churns/dashes. The flowers picked were usually yellow in colour as this was the colour of most of the available flowers in bloom at this time (such as primroses, furze etc.). Decorating in this fashion served both a protective and festive function. In the Schools Collection we find the following story in relation to the May flowers:

 

“There is a lot of customs connected with May-Day. The first and most important of those old Irish customs, was the scattering of May flowers on the threshold [of the house]. Long, long ago before the light of Christianity brightened this once pagan land, our forefathers believed that in each woodland flower there lived a tiny fairy who could throw a spell of enchantment on any person who held it. The May flowers were supposed to be the tiny golden mansions of good luck. The reason then for scattering the flowers on each doorstep is that the inhabitants of the fairy mansions may shower an abundance of good luck on the entire household. Another reason was to save them from witchcraft of the “cailleachs” or the old hags, who were supposed to go from house to house on May morning stealing butter and milk from the churns. Any person who did not have the fairies of good luck guarding their thresholds when the cailleachs came along, all their efforts at churning would be useless for the following year. They were supposed to battle with the fairies of good luck on the doorstep but the fairies always won the combat” (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 236).

In the province of Munster it was more common to bring a “May bough” instead of flowers into the house. These were small branches of newly leafed trees (Danaher, 1972: 89). These served the same purpose as the flowers, to guard against ill-luck and evil influence, especially in the case where a branch of mountain ash was used. They would be placed on windows, doors, roofs etc., all places that would be at risk of these malevolent forces entering the house. According to local customs that varied per region as certain growths (such as Blackthorn, Whitethorn, Elder, Broom etc.) may or may not be considered auspicious to bring inside of the house.

As to the witches mentioned in the butter stealing segment, one informant in the NFSC tells us how: “On May Eve, people put May flowers on the doors and windows and the out-houses to keep away the witches”. (NFSC, Vol. 1033:174)

 

May-bush

DSC_1038.jpgAnother form of protection commonly used against the malevolent forces, be they of the sídhe or otherwise, at this liminal time is the May bush. Like most other traditions this can vary in popularity per region. The practice was to get a branch of a flowering bush and decorate it with ribbons, cloth, eggs shells etc. In terms of decoration with eggshells, the egg shells collected from Easter Monday were especially prized for decoration (Bealoideas 9, 1939:929). An example can be seen in the photo of my own May-bush above. Again the species of bush used varied. For my example I used Hawthorn, the bush traditionally associated with the sídhe, often known as fairy bushes.

As the May bush was also concerned with luck in some areas people tried to steal other May-bushes in the belief that they could steal away the luck. (Danaher, 1972: 92). Thankfully with a resurgence of interest in the field of folklore and also with a rise in the number of people wanting to connect with the traditions of their ancestors, this is one of the many customs that has seen a revival.  There are now a number of towns and schools that decorate May-bushes each year. If you would like to watch a video of May-bushes being decorated check out the video by Michael Fortune here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-Sm9ZryHNI .

There are other accounts of people putting unadorned bushes outside their house from the middle of the 16th century (to bring an abundance of milk for the year), but from the 17th century we see accounts of the decorated variety. The description from Sir Henry Piers (1682) bears a striking resemblance to the more modern accounts of the May-bush. The account goes as follows:

“On May Eve every family sets up before their house a green bush, strowed over with yellow flowers, which the meadows yield plentifully. The May bush was a branch or clump of some suitable tree or shrub, among which Whitethorn was the most popular, which was cut down and brought home…It was decorated with flowers, ribbons, paper streamers and other bright scraps of material. In some places garlands of egg-shells were hung on it; often these were the coloured or decorated shells of Easter eggs that were saved by the children. Sometimes rushlights or candles were attached to the bush at May Eve” (Piers.H,1682).

In William Wilde’s account in Irish Popular Superstitions, he tells us how “it was erected several days before the festival and was illuminated every night” but also claims that it was erected in “some green or common, or at cross-roads, or in the market place in the town” (Wilde, 1852: 60). He makes no mention here of them being erected in each household but it is interesting to note that they were placed at cross-roads, places that are oft associated with the supernatural. As well as the connection of converging roads with the supernatural we will also see how converging streams played a part in May-Day rituals.

Other Traditions and Customs

Water: Although Bealtaine is traditionally thought of as a fire festival, water also played a prominent role. Mrs. Rutledge tells us how:” All young maidens go to a spot where 3 streams converge and wash their faces in the water to bring them good luck for the year and to keep them from being sunburned during the summer. Also, the person who carries the first can of water from the well will also have good luck for the year” (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 237). Washing the face in the dew at dawn was a common belief and the dew itself was considered magical due to its nature of just appearing on the grass and as we have seen, it could be used for bad as well as good (such as in the witch stealing butter that was mentioned earlier). It is thought to be more effective at dawn as it is a boundary/ liminal time (Not quite day or night).

Weather:  Since May-Day is traditionally considered to be the first day of summer, signs of the weather, the appearance of the sky and of the May moon, strength and direction of the wind and the amount of rain were all carefully noted on this day as indications of the coming weather. For example: a cold east wind or a touch of frost was an ominous sign of hard things to come (Danaher,1972:88).

Work: One should not sail, dig, whitewash or bathe on May Day. This is either explained as either a reluctance to engage in any activity which might seem to have a magical purpose or to avoid anything that could be dangerous at a time where bad luck or evil influence might prevail (Danaher,1972:88).

Other superstitions: People never gave butter or milk away on May-Day because they feared bad luck. The man of the house would go get a branch of mountain ash and place it in the manure heap. This was to guard the cows and keep them from harm. Salt was never leant or given away (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 237). Long ago it was customary not to put out the ashes from the hearth, or sweep the floor on May-Day (NFSCVol.0235:235).

I hope you enjoyed this quick selection of the many traditions concerned with this major festival and turning point in the Irish calendar. I hope you found this look at our old traditions as fascinating as I did while researching it. Why not decorate your own May-bush, make your own May-flower posie or garland, or leave an offering out for the Sidhe? Make it a yearly tradition and get your friends, family, or even better your children involved. Because it is with the next generation that the fate of these traditions lie.

 

Bibilography:

 

Bealoideas ix, 1939.

Danaher.K (1972), The Year in Ireland, Mercier press.

NFSC,Vol.0147:558, Collector: Bridgie McHale, Knockmore.

NFSC,Vol.0927:114.

NFSC.Vol.0235:235, Collector: Nan Rutledge, Boyle, Co.Roscommon, Informant: Mrs.McLoughlin.

NFSC.Vol.0235:237, Collector:, Nan Rutledge, Informant: Mrs.Rutledge.

NFSC.Vol.0946:094, Collector: Mary McGinnity, Derrynawilt, Roslea.

NFSC.Vol.0949:092, Collector:Paddy Ellis, Drumlillagh, Co.Monaghan, Informant: Mrs.elis.

NFSC.Vol.1033:174, Collector: Ruby strong, Dronmore,Co.Donegal.

Wilde.W (1852), Irish Popular Superstitions.