Shrove Tuesday

Pancake tossing, Mr and Mrs Hall, Ireland.

Shrove Tuesday, colloquially known as ‘Pancake Tuesday’, occurs on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent. ‘Pancake Tuesday’ remains very popular across Ireland to this day and is eagerly anticipated by almost all children. Most people around the country would have fond memories of rushing home from school to gorge on as many pancakes as they could manage. Many a boast and many a tall tale were made in school the following day as to how many pancakes were consumed the previous evening. This overindulgence lies at the heart of the tradition, which I will detail below.

“It is called Shrove Tuesday because on that day everyone is supposed to go to confession to be shriven or forgiven their sins in preparation for the Holy season of Lent. In Ireland Shrove Tuesday is a great day for marriages as they are forbidden in Lent”. (NFSC, Vol.0903:469).

In an account from County Cork, we are told how “On Shrove Tuesday night a crowd of boys dress up in old clothes. They go around to the houses where an old maid or an old bachelor lives. They make an old woman for the bachelor by getting a turnip for the head and a bag of straw for the body. They dress it in old clothes and they put it up on the pier. For the old maid they make an old man. This is called the Stócach. Sometimes they make an old man or an old woman on the wall with paint. This is often very annoying because it is very hard to remove the stains. (NFSC, Volume 0395:030). The targeting of unmarried people mentioned here is not an isolated affair at this time of the year more can be read here.

In this day and age, during Lent, you might find a select few who will attempt, and often fail to give up one luxury. In days gone by, it was a much stricter and more austere observance. Not only was meat banned, but also any form of dairy products (which accounted for a large proportion of the Irish diet). Ecclesiastical laws forbidding the consumption of the aforementioned items were promulgated through the Statutes of Armagh (1614, Synod of Drogheda) and the statutes of Clonmacnoise (1649), but it is believed that this was common practice for centuries prior to this time. Shrove Tuesday was a time to gorge out on the surplus of soon-to-be forbidden foods found in the house. The folklorist Kevin Danaher refers to it as ‘household festival’, where friends and family gathered together around the hearth to make and eat the pancakes. Interestingly, some families would have saved the holly from Christmas and this would be burned on the Shrove Tuesday cooking fire.

An account on Duchas (NFSC Vol.0392:006) mentions that games and dancing were part of the night’s revelry as well. The same account mentions an interesting element: “Long ago a certain man named Jackie the Lantern used to go around on Shrove Tuesday night. He used to have a lantern with him. Every person that he would catch, he would lead them astray. When the people would see the light, they would get dazzled from it”. A number of stories of ‘Jackie the Lantern’ can be found on

The flipping of the first pancake (a skill worthy of boasting) was carried out by the eldest unmarried daughter of the household. The result of which was used as a form of divination, to see if she would be married within the next year (as Shrove Tuesday was believed to be the final day one could get married, it would be at least the following year before she would have the chance to marry). If she was successful in the endeavour of flipping the pancake, she would be married by next year, but if she failed, she was doomed to be single for the foreseeable future (which could be a considerable cause of stress due to the status that was attributed to marriage in Ireland). This practice goes back at least a few centuries and was recorded by Mr and Mrs Hall as they toured Ireland in the 19th century.

Meat was also consumed in great quantities on the day. Records show animals being slaughtered for the occasion by wealthy land owners and the meat given to their poorer neighbours or tenants due to the old belief that nobody should be without meat on the day. An account from circa 1690 from a book salesman visiting Ireland from London tells of how the poorer people ate large amounts of meat on the day. This was a non-native account so it takes the usual dismissive attitude towards the Irish peasantry. He tells how these ‘papist peasants’ consume so much meat that it would sustain them until Easter, when again, they rise early in the morning to heavily consume “flesh”. The writer makes sure to stress the fact that these people are not of the upper classes.  A later tradition connected to the meat, is where a piece of meat was hammered into the rafters or up inside the chimney in the hope that it would not only bring luck, but also in the hope they would not want for food in the coming year (a possible form of sympathetic magic/transference?). The piece of meat remained for the duration of Lent and was removed for Easter Sunday. It would appear that the absence of meat in the house during Lent was symbolically replaced by the morsel in the chimney/rafters to insure there would not be an absence of meat for the duration of the year to come. Continuing with the animal slaughter theme, a far more barbaric tradition and thankfully long since discontinued was once practiced on Shrove Tuesday. “Cock throwing” was where people gathered to throw stones at terrified cockerels who were tied to posts. Whoever threw the killing blow could keep the bird, and it was not unknown to witness people carrying a number of the birds home. This appears to be an imported pastime, as it is found throughout England up until the 18th century. The same visiting book salesman who recorded the 1690 account above, recorded another ritual. In Naas, County Kildare, he tells us how groups of townsfolk would gather on horseback and travel to a nearby field. They would seek out a hare and encircle it. They would try to prevent it from leaving what the author calls “the magic circle” and shout and scare the unfortunate animal until it dropped dead from fright. This was done until they had killed three hares and then they would go home.

In terms of slaughtered animals there was once a tradition where the head of the animal was presented to a blacksmith. Whether this is somehow connected to the blacksmith’s high status in society or if it was an offering given to stay on the good side of the blacksmith due to the belief that they could curse people, is unclear. One final animal related traditions relates to lizards. Licking a lizard was said to imbue the person with the ability to cure burns and scalds. Doing this on Shrove Tuesday was said to make the cure more powerful and effective.



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The Year in Ireland, Kevin Danaher.


Marriage and Matchmaking in the Irish Tradition (Valentines Special)

00000000000000000000000000000000001.jpgAlthough we have no real tradition of folklore relating to St Valentines Day (with the exception of the two pieces related to cards I was able to find below from the National Folklore School’s Collection), we do however have a number of traditions relating to matchmaking and marriage. Read on to find out about Shrovetide weddings, the Skellig Lists, Chalk Sunday and other traditions related to marriage and matchmaking.

St. Valentine’s Day falls on the 14th February. On that day it was a custom to send comic cards to one another. This custom has died out.

On Valentine’s Day (14th Feb) people used to send Valentine cards, which were about the size of a post card. There were coloured bows of ribbons attached to the corners and little rhymes written under them such as:-

If of me you often think
Send me back my bow of pink
If to me you would be true
Send me back my bow of blue
If you are another girl’s fellow
Send me back my bow of yellow.
If to me you would be wed
Send me back my bow of red
If with me you wouldn’t be seen
Send me back my bow of green

The sender used to write her name in the middle of the card.


Shrovetide weddings

Shrovetide was customarily the time for traditional marriages in Ireland, with Shrove Tuesday being the optimum day of choice for such an occasion.  Typically marriages were prohibited during the penitential season of Lent so people tried to marry just before its beginning. From Little Christmas (6th Jan) onwards, matchmakers would have been busy arranging marriages and the entire community would be awaiting the celebrations of the upcoming weddings of the successful matches.


Wedding customs

  • Violins would be played while entering the church
  • Tray of copper and silver coins were handed to the groom when exiting the church to be thrown into the air and scattered into the crowd. This inevitably drew the attention of children but also drew attention of beggars and vagrants who would gather at these events, with accounts of brawls sometimes breaking out between them for possession of the coins.
  • The house of the bride’s parents was the scene of the after party, a far cry from the luxurious and expensive hotels now favoured. Music, feasting and dancing continued long into the night (and no doubt other matches were formed during the party.) On the way to the house it was not unusual for groups of boys to halt the wedding party by stretching a rope across the road. The groom would have to pay a small fee to pass.
  • The bride’s mother would often break a cake over the bride’s head for luck.



Chalk Sunday

The first Sunday of Lent was known (in Munster and Leinster at least) as ‘Chalk Sunday’. Here, anyone unlucky enough not to have made a match or to  have married during Shrovetide, were targeted on their way to or from church, by youngsters brandishing chalk who would proceed to mark the bachelor’s with lines and squiggles on their clothing. This for the most part would be met with good humour, at least from the younger bachelor’s who had some hope of marrying the following year. From the older generation, it might be met with verbal abuse or a chase with a walking stick. It persisted in some areas until the 1930’s or 40’s. It should be noted that being married offered an element of status within the community. An unmarried male of 50 was considered a ‘boy’ whereas a married 25 year old male was considered a man. Conversely, the same applied to women. In some areas “Salt Monday” took the place of this, where a sprinkling of salt was sprinkled on both bachelors and spinsters to preserve them till the next Shrovetide.


Skellig lists

This was a Munster tradition owing to the belief that Easter occurred a week later on Skellig Michael and thus meaning  Lent had not occurred yet on the Island, allowing people an extra week to get married. This led to people being publicly  targeted in a similar fashion as the Chalking with jibes such as “don’t miss the boat [to the Skelligs]”. Local poets were encouraged to write poems and lists of the unmarried people (dubbed the Skellig lists). This went to the extreme as the lists were printed out and handed around the parish (minus the printers name for fear of retribution) and large posters being printed and placed around the town advertising the “great excursion” and all those that would be taking part.



In the day’s long before online dating sites or “swiping right”, many matches were carried out by a third party arbiter, sometimes in a semi-professional or professional manner. This third party representative was sometimes an acquaintance of the people involved and would try to negotiate a pairing and the accompanying dowry (not unlike the bride price or coibhche in the Brehon Laws). The Lisdoonvarna  Matchmaking Festival that features a third generation Matchmaker, is an annual festival that harks back to those bygone days, attracting many singles each year. A few accounts of this practice of matchmaking, as found on, are below. You can follow the links to see the original manuscripts.

From a few days after Christmas until Ash Wednesday in every year is called Seraft, and long ago country people made matches for their sons and daughters during that time, and any girl that was on the marriage list and did not succeed in getting a husband was supposed to be very sulky and have a puss on, the last Monday of the matchmaking period. This was called puss Monday. When a young man wanted to get married he looked around his own village and the village next to it to find a suitable girl. Then he asked somebody who was acquainted with the girl to go and see her parents and see if they would give their consent, and if they agreed they would arrange to meet together the next day in a public house in town, and the young man would stand drink for everyone. Then they started the matchmaking and her father asked the man what lands he owned or how much fortune was he looking for, then if they could come to a settlement the girl’s father would have to give the boy the fortune.


Ancient Marriage Customs
Shrove Tuesday is the last day on which anybody can get married before Lent. Most marriages take plave between Advent and Lent. IN country places most marriages take place as the result of matchmaking. What is known as matchmaking is, when a man wishes to get married he looks for a girl of marriageable age, who has a good fortune. When he decided upon the girl he wished to ask in marriage but he gets a friend to go to the girl’s house to make terms with the father. The friend finds out what fortune the father is willing to give her. The friend goes back to the man and tells him the fortune. If the man thinks the fortune is big enough he goes to the girl’s house and often brings a bottle of whiskey with him. If the terms are settled satisfactorily the bottle of whiskey is produced to settle the business. The date of the marriage is then fixed.


Looking at the solemn nature surrounding death and the funeral process in the modern day, one would not expect them to be a place where matchmaking would occur. The Irish wake however, was a surprisingly social event. I wrote an article on the gender roles associated with the wake (and some of the traditions associated with it) that can be read here. But in short, it was a time where the whole community gathered, and outside of the formalities associated with the process, it was a time where the young people gathered to compete in feats of strength, drinking and taking part in (sometimes borderline bawdy) games and fake weddings among other activities. This sometimes resulted in romantic matches and subsequent marriages. If you want to learn more about the games and activities, Irish Wake Amusements is a fantastic book.


Marriage divination

A common form of divination in Ireland was related to marriage. This was mostly carried out by women wanting to see who their future husband would be, but there are  accounts of men also carrying out these forms of divination. The optimum time for this practice was Halloween when the veil between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest. People took advantage of the temporal liminality to divine the future. A list of these traditions can be found in my Halloween article here. Looking closer to Valentine’s days, at Shrovetide, the following tradition was recorded: Pancake tossing on Shrove Tuesday. Tossing of the first pancake is done by the eldest unmarried daughter of the host house. An unsuccessful flip of the pancake means she will not be married in the coming year.  If successful, she cuts as many slices as there are people present and gives a piece to each person. A wedding ring might have been placed in the batter (similar to in barm brack at Halloween) and whoever finds it will have great luck receiving a prosperous and loving marriage.


The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher


Folklore of Saint Stephen’s Day



One of the most striking traditions associated with the 26th December is “The hunting of the wren”. In the past teams of young men would go out and hunt down the small birds to kill them and place them in the “wren bush” that they would carry around. They would then travel around performing music and collecting money. The origins of this peculiar tradition are lost in the mists of time. Of course with many folk traditions whose origins are obscure, it has been theorised that the custom has a pre-christian origin

Today, the tradition continues in many places but with the omission of the bird killing (fake birds are now used). The  Wren boys would disguise themselves, sometimes dressing in girls clothes, use veils or curtains on their face, or use the traditional straw men garb. Below are a few accounts of the tradition:

“people who don’t eat meat on the day will not be sick during the year”

(NFSC, Volume 0787, Page 56)

Wren Boys:

Young boys go around with the wren.They hold the wren in a box and sing a song. The song is:”The wren, the wren the king of all birds.St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, Give us something and honour the wren. On St. Stephen’s Day people go visiting (NFSC, vol.0104: 391).

>In The journals of the Kildare archaeological society,v, 452 it mentions that if any of the wren boys were refused money when they visited houses, they would bury a wren (from their “wren bush”) opposite the hall door into which no good luck could enter for twelve months (Danaher,1972:247). Just to address the burying of the wren, there was a strong tradition in Ireland of sympathetic magic such as that displayed above. Often referred to as a “piseog”. Often meat, eggs or straw dolls were buried in a field of the person you wanted to “curse” or affect the luck of the person you aimed the piseog at. Sometimes items were also placed in walls or foundations of houses to bring luck (I might put an article together about this at some point).

>On St.Stephens day the boys of the district go with the wren. They disguise themselves. Some of them dress like girls. They wear masks and old clothes. They go from house to house singing,dancing, and playing music. They recite the following wren song; “The wren, the wren, the King of all birds, on St.Stephans day she was caught in the furs. Although she is small her family is great. Stand up young laddie and give us a treat. Up with the kettle and down with the pan. Give us some money and let us be gone. Look in the purse,There may be a copper the wren. They gather a great amount of money and get plenty to eat and drink as they go around at night, they meet together and have a “spree.” (NFSC,Vol.0823:101)

“If there was no wren –  people would think it was not Xmas at all”. (NFSC,Vol.0769:170)

>My father told me that when he was a little boy the people were more superstitious than they are now. If persons refused to give money to the wren boys, twenty or thirty years ago, all they had to do was to say that they would bury a feather of the wren convenient to their house and they would immediately give money rather than run the risk of having bad luck for a number of years.
Long ago the wren boys went on foot from house to house and as they could not cover a great deal of ground the takings were generally small.
Sometime they trampled through rain and snow from morning till night and had only one shilling or one and sixpence for their trouble.
Nowadays the wren boys travel on bicycles. (NFSC: Vol.0760:531).

“We followed him up,
We followed him down,
Till one of the wren boys,
Knocked him down.”

“Our clothes we tore,
And our boots we wore,
Following the wren,
For three days or more.”
“The wren-boys,
The wren-boys,
Here we are again,
We won’t be here,
Till next year,
And here we are again.”
(NFSC: Vol.0700:349)

>On St. Stephen’s Day the “wren-boys” go around in procession from house to house. Grown up men come to the village also from the adjoining towns, and they are so well disguised that they are rarely recognized. They usually have a few melodeons in the party, and dance while a few go around to the houses for money. The whole party often enter the house, and dance among themselves or with the women-folk of the house – if they enter into the spirit of the festival. There is not any particular old song sung at this time – just any song they can all sing together. It is usual to spend the money gathered on drink and eatables to provide refreshment at a night’s dance which they hold in some neighbour’s house. The “wren-boys” are often called the “mummers”.
The custom of children dressing and going around gathering money is dying out of late. (NFSC:0056:0153).

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Image: The Photographic Collection, H055.18.00013
Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD.

Fairies and Fairy lore: The reality of the Irish fairy


00000000000000.jpgFairies remain a popular interest to many people although not many know the true nature of these beings in an Irish context. Due to the destructive influence of popular culture, many people wrongfully assume that they are small, winged, harmless creatures. This is not the case and in truth, it is much more complicated than that. I have had many people refuse outright to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when I inform them of this, so I hope this article makes some of this clearer.

They may sometimes appear smaller than us, but certainly not minuscule like the tinkerbell-esque creatures people expect. They look just like us and certainly don’t have wings, but due to existing on another plane to us, are able to conceal themselves. They live lives like us for the most part. Below I will detail how they live in their society, their origin stories and other information. Fairy lore, a pervasive belief around Ireland offers us a fascinating glimpse at the Irish perception of the otherworld- an alternative realm parallel to our own but just beyond earthly existence and our own temporal sphere. Eddie Lenihan, arguably one of foremost experts on the fairies, would argue that there is considerable and respectable proof of their existence owing to the vast corpus of material available through the ages and in all this material they  have been described in great detail ( and not once have they been depicted with wings!).

Naming conventions

To start I will look at the naming conventions. The word fairy is the most Widely known and easily identifiable  ,although it is not a suitable, nor respectful term to use as such (as it falsely equates them with English fairies who are closer to imps or the tinkerbell type). Nor is any form of FAE or FAERIE (from old French and latin respectively). Known in Irish by many names and circumlocutions, they are not usually named directly for fear of insulting or invoking them. Typically know as Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe (the people of the mounds), they could also be referred to as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine úaisle (the noble people), the fair folk, the other crowd, the people of the hills and so on.  For the remainder of the article I will simply refer to them as sídhe or the other crowd.


Society, likes and dislikes

So how does their society work? They have amusements similar to ours: they like to dance, play music and play games. They have been known to play Gaelic football (never soccer), hurling, bowls and chess. In terms of the games they will sometimes illicit the help of some hapless human (who dare not refuse them) to referee or take part in the match. The need for human help is a common motif and they will often be spirited away to take part in the games or in some cases where human women must act as midwife to deliver babies for the sídhe.

They have specific dwellings and a number of features of the landscape are often identified as being the abode of the other crowd, such as ringforts (lios or rath in Irish, these are circular enclosured earthen dwellings mostly dating to the middle ages), tumuli, dolmens or lone trees known as fairy trees (traditionally hawthorn). These enclosures and suspected abodes are usually treated with extreme caution even to this day (and good luck trying to find someone willing to cut down a fairy tree). They will furiously protect their dwellings and woe betide to anyone stupid enough to mess with them. Death and destruction is all that typically awaits those who transgress. That being said, they can make good or bad neighbours depending on how they are treated. They can be belligerent, but are placatable.  Their true dwellings, those that exist in the otherworld are typically conceal from our view, similar to the magical barrier, the fé fiada, that was said to conceal the mounds and hostels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

They have their own specific pathways and roads and they would travel from place to place. When building houses it was not unusual to mark out the shape of the house with willow rods or small stone cairns. This would be left overnight to see if the house was “in the way” of any of these fairy paths. The willow rods had been removed from the ground, or the cairn of stones was disturbed, it was believed that the house was in the way of a fairy path and the process would be repeated until the rods or stones are left untouched. Many tales tell of houses that were in the way with loud noises being heard in the house at night, crashing, doors slamming, houses collapsing and general bad luck within the household.

Like ourselves, they have likes and dislikes. They like things like gold, milk (the first milk, known as colostrum or beestings, is often given as an offering to the sídhe), tobacco and poitín (often given as an offering to them). Most things associated with them are of a particular time: they will ride horses, but not cars or any auto-mobiles, they fight with sticks or hurleys but never guns or knives. Most of their activities are associated with Gaelic culture or associated with the natural landscape. When it comes to their hates, there are a number of items. They hate iron: it is one of the main repellents used when trying to discourage the other crowd. You see this a lot when trying to protect babies from being stolen and replaced by fairy changelings. It also pops up a lot in terms of protection while churning. Iron is an age old deterrent against evil or supernatural forces and many cultures around the globe believed this and as a result blacksmiths and iron workers are usually revered or thought to possess special powers as a result of them working with the iron (there is an article focusing on blacksmiths and the supernatural here ). They also hate salt and you will often encounter it being used as protection when churning butter. Salt will be sprinkled on the lid of the churn, underneath or into the butter itself to protect the process from being interfered with by the sídhe. Salt rubbed on  the head when venturing outside at Halloween was used to protect anyone outside after dark. They also have a dislike of anything dirty (such as messy houses), they have an aversion to Christianity (both of their origin stories play into this and it is a common theme of many folktales where the sídhe will try to get a human to question a priest as to why they can’t get into heaven). I will cover the origin stories below. They also hate running water  and are unable to cross it. This is also a common feature of folktales where someone fleeing the wrath of the sídhe, will only escape through crossing a stream (or in a few cases leaving Ireland completely by ship!).

The other crowd are also more active at certain times of the yearly cycle (such as may day or Samhain) and also at certain points of the life cycle (such as at birth) so salt and iron were used, among other things, at these times to remain safe from any malevolent actions the sídhe might want to take against you. As I mentioned above, may people find it hard to believe that they are not harmless. I have spent hours trying to convince some people that it is not in their best interest to seek out the sídhe. Even slight transgressions have ended in death, maiming or with transgressor ending up being driven completely  mad or catatonic. I should add a caveat here. They are not overtly evil. They just have their own (often mysterious) agenda.  It just so happens that accounts and tales of people falling foul of them far outweigh the opposite. That however does not mean they can’t or don’t help people. As I mentioned above, they sometimes need human intervention (be that in a sporting event or delivering a baby) and for their help, the person will often be rewarded. They have bestowed powers of healing (such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle or a number of healing books said to have been given to certain people over time). They have also been known to have bestowed fairy music on musicians who have played for them at a party. In times of famine, they have sometimes given otherworldly cows (designated by their white body and red ears) with endless milk to certain communities (who often inevitably mess up by exploiting this gift).


Origin story

As I mentioned above there are two main origin stories for what we now call the fairies. There is what could be termed the native origin story, and the Christian one.

Native: From ancient times it was believed that a supernatural race has been believed to have lived in the hills, tombs, beneath the sea or lakes or on far away islands. In the literature, these are traditionally know as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the old gods of Ireland (such as Lugh, the Dagda, Brighid etc). These were seen as living in the otherworld, parallel to our own, but concealed from view. So, when it comes to what I termed the “native” origin story, it is believed that the “fairies” are in fact the Tuatha Dé Dannan, albeit diminished in spiritual significance, power and physical stature following their defeat and banishment underground.

Christian: As most will know, the entirety of our myths and legends were first recorded by Christian clerics in monastic scriptorium. Unlike the usual modus operandi elsewhere in Europe to demonize the pagan past, Ireland instead opted for euhemerisation. Most stories were given a Christian slant, but this was to work the stories into a Christian framework and make them acceptable. Unfortunately this meant that some gods were turned to humans (such as queen Medbh, Finn Mac Cumhaill, Brighid etc) and some stories were corrupted but for the most part, they were recorded by Irish monks who had an interest in the pagan past and were, in  a sense, sympathetic to it. This leads us to the origin of the fairies as being half-fallen angels, cast out of heaven for not picking a side during the rebellion. They remain, half-way between heaven and hell, in the sky, on the land and beneath the earth, cursed to never see heaven (or till judgement day in some cases). This christian explanation for the sídhe became popular in the middle ages, no doubt a means for resolving the tension between the native and Christian cosmologies. As such it is not unusual to have  devout Christian who fervently believes in the other crowd. This clearly preserved the native tradition and it’s syncretism also gave the fairy faith a prominent place in Christian eschatology and cosmology.

Herbs and Healing in the Irish Tradition: Cures for TB and Warts

Copyright Shane Broderick

When we think of healing today, the knee jerk response is to think of doctors, hospitals and prescribed medications, made up of all manner of chemicals that come with a long list of adverse side effects.  That modern medicine we are all familiar with is a relatively new discipline and up until very recently in Ireland the average person would have sought medical help from the local wise woman (bean feasa), herbalist or someone who simply ‘had the cure’.

In the schools collection we are told the following by one informant “Long ago in Ireland the people used herbs to cure people and animals. They tell us there is a herb for every disease if only we knew it or could find it out” (NFSC, VOL.0141:410) .  Sometimes these cures relied on a knowledge of herbs and other times its providence lay in the supernatural realm or simply through means we would consider as ‘magic’. Ireland has a vast corpus of medical manuscripts that survive from the middle ages showing its rich history of learning and medicine, but we are lacking in accounts of the everyday person who practiced healing. There are however, many comparable accounts found in the UK from the middle ages onwards.

We see comparable elements, for example, in the use of magical charms as a form of healing, a practice we know was popular in Ireland up until relatively recently and many of which are found in the schools collection. One such account from William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft” in 1608 tells us that “charming is in as great request as physic, and charmers more sought unto than physicians in time of need” (Thomas, 2003:209). Thomas (ibid:210) also mentions that with the “inadequacies of orthodox medical services left a large proportion of people dependent upon traditional folk medicine”. This also could be applied to Ireland. There has of course, since the establishment of orthodox medicine at least, been a propensity towards thinking that these practitioners of native healing were in some way less reliable than ‘educated’ doctors. Lady Gregory tells us of a saying in Irish, “An old woman without learning,it is she who will be doing charms” (Gregory, 1976:148). This association with formal learning betrays the centuries of knowledge amassed by these practitioners of native healing, a tradition passed orally through the ages. For the purpose of the essay I will be searching through the National Folklore Schools Collection to see what treatments that are available for Tuberculosis, often called consumption in Ireland and I will also be looking at the treatments and ‘cures’ for warts.

To begin I will focus on Tuberculosis (TB), known colloquially in Ireland as ‘Consumption’ or ‘wasting sickness. In Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century TB was amongst the worst of the ‘killer diseases in Ireland. Rates of infection had risen in Ireland even after rates had decreased in England and wales after the significance of contagion was recognised in the 1800’s and with many considering it to be a particularly Irish problem in the early twentieth century (Jones, 1999:8).

When looking at cures in the schools collection (hereafter NFSC) we see a range of treatments, as is usually the case, ranging from medicinal to magical. In terms of plant based cures for TB, the Mullein plant, scientific name Verbascum, pops up on numerous occasions. The extracts of this plant have been used as part of traditional medicine for hundreds of years around the globe (Akdem & Tatli, 2006:85). The efficacy of this in treating TB is no doubt due to its use as an expectorant and its mucolytic qualities. It is often used to treat respiratory ailments and has antimicrobial and immunomodulatory qualities (ibid,8). In terms of the NFSC we find a number of ways that it was used. We are told that It cures consumption (NFSC, VOL.0922:139) and that it can be found in good soil. In terms of preparing it we are told to boil it and drink the water (NFSC, VOL.0773:125-6).

Another plant based cure that is mentioned is the “marrow plant”. The informant mentions that it is a flower that grows in your garden that blooms in the month of October (NFSC, VOL.0665:108-9). I am unsure of the plant in question and there is no instruction on the preparation of the cure. Other forms of plant based medicine mentioned in the schools collection include cures involving the use of garlic. The following account mentions that garlic was supposed to cure “almost any disease”. The account goes into much greater detail than many others and displays some real knowledge in terms of healing. It claims that a few “grains” garlic per day while fasting is of great benefit to those suffering from consumption or other lung diseases. It recommends using “new milk”, colloquially referred to as “beestings” or colostrum, to boil garlic in. It also mentions that this cure is particularly efficacious when used by babies or delicate people (NFSC, VOL.0141:410). Bovine Colostrum is widely believed to be particularly beneficial to humans and it has been said that “colostrum from pasture-fed cows contains immunoglobulins specific to many human pathogens” (Buchan, Borissenko, Brooks & McConnell, 2001:255). The use of garlic in this case is most likely due to its anti-microbial, antibiotic, expectorant and immune boosting properties (Kellet, 2003:71).

Milk does feature in many of the cures, with varying ingredients being boiled in it. Many of the cures however are not simply cure-alls and must be taken at a certain time in the progression of the disease to be effective. We are told that boiling a dandelion leaf in milk was a cure but if it was not drunk before a certain point that it was not effective as a cure (NFSC, VOL.0109:405). Unfortunately we are not told what stage this is to be drank at, but we could surmise that it is in the early stages of the disease. Both dandelion and garlic boiled in milk is mentioned elsewhere as a preventative if drank regularly (NFSC, VOL.0787:280). In terms of the specific time the cure has to be taken, the following account (NFSC, VOL.037:0057) mentions that it is a “perfect cure” if taken in the early stages of consumption. The recipe involves boiling “Sugar, Candy, liquorice, whiskey, Sweet-stick, brown sugar, a small quantity of flax seed and meacan na gcaorach” until it forms a syrup. I am unfamiliar with the plant ‘meacan na gcaorach’ [sheep’s root?] but it is mentioned as being a “garden vegetable with yellow flowers and large green leaves” (possibly sheep sorrel?) .

The following cure does not have any basis in actual healing but instead relies on a form of transference or sympathetic magic, often referred to as piséogs. This particular type of magic can be found in many cultures but is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record. A prime example of this is ‘gathering the dew’ on may eve.  This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3). Other forms of this magic include gaining power over another by possessing a piece of hair or clothing as well as it being found in cures that involve “like curing like”, such as “the hair of the dog that bit you” (Hanna, 1909:96) or “whistling for the wind” (a factor that popped up numerous times in my own field work when interviewing fishermen). Another more common example in Irish sources is the practice of tying rags to a “clootie tree” at a holy well. As the rag rots so does the disease.

The curing of consumption in this account is of a similar nature to this. It involves putting an egg into an ants nest and as the egg is eaten by the ants, the sickness will disappear also (NFSC, Vol.0800:155). Another account similar to this mentions how old people used to say that if you carry a potato around in your pocket that it would cure consumption (NFSC,Vol.0386:158). The potato here supposedly drawing out the disease in an act of transference. The final cure I would like to look at in relation to consumption leaves unsure as to whether it falls into the category of medicinal or magical or both. The cure in this instance involves acquiring seven rusty nails and putting them into a pint of porter for seven days (NFSC, VOL.0525:002). The use of rusty nails in porter (with its inherent iron content) seems to point to a recipe that involves a high Iron content but the fact it has to be specifically seven nails for seven days seems to point to a magical element. The number seven features prominently in Irish sources (in both ancient literature as well as more modern folklore such as seventh son of seventh son) as well as in biblical numerology. Also of course the fact that in many places around the globe, Iron is considered to be “imbued with an air of magic” (Jennings, 2014:2), and appearing in many tales as a deterrent to fairies and other supernatural creatures. The fact that the account mentions that as the drink depletes that the consumption will go with it seems to also allude to the fact that there is some form of transference involved here also. I should also mention that one account I encountered put emphasis on the fact the cure in question relied on it being prepared by “an old family” in the district that were noted for “curing where others failed”. They would make cures from “simple herbs” that could cure “dangerous” diseases such as consumption (NFSC, VOL.0824:128). Certain families having specific cures is quite common in Irish sources such as the Keoghs having the cure for shingles (NFSC, VOL.0823:480).



The second series of cures I would like to cover are for Warts. These feature a crossover of ingredients as well as also having a mix of medicinal cures as well as relying on supernatural or magical means as a means of getting rid of them. Wells and ballaun stones (the water that gathers in the hollow such as the “hole of water” mentioned in NFSC, VOL.1076:20) are often used for the supernatural cures. It is important to note though that since many of these healing powers are seen as rooted in Christian traditions that the healing is seen as a miracle as opposed to some form or act of magic (zuchelli,2016:149).

A number of different methods of cure were collected by Andrew Taylor (NFSC, VOL.1116:234). He tells us that any wells dedicated to St Patrick will cure the warts. Here we see the magic/religion overlap. He also tells us how rubbing clay on them and throwing it after  a funeral will get rid of the warts  .The others mentioned by him on the other hand rely on an entirely magical means of curative power, such as rowing a boat with the outgoing tide. Another example, again of transference like those found in the cures for consumption, is sticking a pin in your warts and then sticking the pin into a grave. Among some local cures collected in Dublin (NFSC, VOL.0787:334) we find both plant based and magical remedies side by side. The “stuff like milk” from the stem is said to cure the warts but the account also mentions a means for ridding one’s self of the warts through sympathetic magic. This involves counting the number of warts and putting the corresponding number of stones in a bag and throwing it in a field. Whoever is unlucky enough to pick up the bag gets the warts and they will go from your hands.

Frances Gallagher (NFSC, VOL.1076:20) tells us that there are a “whole lot of cures” for warts. Most of the cures collected by her fall under the heading of the sympathetic magic that has been seen in a number of examples above.  She also mentions the stone trick, but it is to be left in the middle of the road instead of in a field. She also recommends that the package they are in should be made attractive so as to attract someone to pick it up. She suggests however that ten stones be collected, one throw away and the remaining nine put in the package. Another cure mentioned by her suggests that the warts be rubbed on the gizzard of a hen and then bury it. As this rots the warts disappear.

An interesting mix of both the sympathetic magic and religion can be found in Leitrim (NFSC, VOL.0229:303) tells us that rubbing the warts with straw, say some prayers and then bury it. As the straw decays so will the warts. As with the cure for TB being held by a family or person, we get this also in the cure for warts. In an account by Mrs Mulryan (NFSC, VOL.0770:451), she tells us that in her locality there was someone by the name of John Rogers who had a charm that he would not tell to anyone. He only required to know the number of warts. Whether he was using the same sort of sympathetic magic as above, we could only speculate, but there are mentions elsewhere (NFSC, VOL.0326:316) that tell us that people had charms for giving warts to another.

These examples above are by no means an exhaustive list of the therapeutic modalities available for either the consumption/TB or for the removal or treatment of warts. It barely scratches the surfaces of the cures given in the schools collection. They do however show that certain elements pop up again and again in the accounts with varying degrees of complexity  to the instructions. The examples given also provide a good mix of both practical plant based lore and a more magical approach to the problem.


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Hanna, W (1909), Sympathetic Magic, Folklore, Vol.20, No.1, Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Jennings, P (2014), Blacksmith Gods: Myths, Magic & Folklore, Moon Books,  Winchester, UK. Zuchelli, C (2016), Sacred stones of Ireland, Collins press, Cork.

Jones. G (1999), Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940, Cork University Press, Cork.

McConnell, M. A.; Buchan, G.; Borissenko, M. V.; Brooks, H. J. L. (2001). “A comparison of IgG and IgG1 activity in an early milk concentrate from non-immunised cows and a milk from hyperimmunised animals”. Food Research International. 34 (2–3): 255–261.

NFSC, VOL.0037:0057, Collector: Eibhlín Ni Ailledéa, múinteoir, Dunmore, Co. Galway, Informant: Edward Burke (74),farmer, Carrownaseer South, Co. Galway.

NFSC, VOL.0141:410, Collector: Annie Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, Informant: Patrick Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, School: Gort an Tuair, Gortatoor, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Áine Nic Oirealla.

NFSC, VOL.0525:002, Collector: John Creed, Domhnach Mór, luimrick, Informant: Patrick O’Connell, Teacher: Aingeal Nic Aodha Bhuidhe.

NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.

NFSC, VOL.0665:108-9, Collector: Colm Mach Uidhir, Killeen, Co.Louth, School: Louth (B.), Location: Louth, Co. Louth, Teacher: P. Randles.

NFSC, VOL.0770:451, Informant: Mrs.Mulryan, Lisnagrish, Co.Longford, School: Clochar na Trócaire, Meathais Truim, Edgeworthstown, Co. Longfors, Teacher: An tSiúr Bernard.

NFSC, VOL.0773:125-6, Informant: Mr Perkins, cellbridge, School: Kildraught (2), Location: Celbridge, Co. Kildare, Teacher: E. Ní Armhultaigh.

NFSC, VOL.0787:280, Collector: Sean Gormley, Garristown, Co. Dublin, Informant: unnamed grandparent (75), Garristown, Co. Dublin.

NFSC, VOL.0787:334, Collector Janie Delany, Bettyville, Co. Dublin, Informant: Peter Gilsenan, Broomfield, Co. Dublin, Teacher: P.J Connolly.

NFSC, VOL.0800:155, School: Clonbullogue, Location: Clonbulloge, Co. Offaly, Teacher: A. Fitzgerald.

NFSC, VOL.0823:480, School: Mountmellick 9B.), Mountmellick, Co. Laois, Teacher: Dll. Binéad.

NFSC, VOL.0824:128, Collector: Joseph Deffeu, múinteoir, Castlecuffe, Mountmellick, Co. laois.

NFSC, VOL.109:57, collector: Katie Caulfield, Tulrohaun, Co. Mayo, Informant Mrs Delany, School: Tulach Ruacháin, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Mary Agnes Smyth.

NFSC, VOL.1116:234, Collector: Andrew Taylor, Drung, Co. Donegal, Informant:  Mrs Taylor (56), Drung, Co. Donegal.

NFSC, VOL>0922:139, Collector: John Dolan, School: Ballyrahan, Location: Ballyraheen, Co. Wiclow, Teacher: Máiréad Ní Mheachair.

NFSC:1076:20, Collector: Andrew Wilkinson, Creeslough, Co. Donegal, Informant: Frances Gallagher, Masiness, Co.Donegal, School: Creeslough, Co. Donegal, Teacher: U. Ní Pháirceme.

Tatli. I, Akdemir. Z (2006), Traditional Uses and Biological Activities of Verbascum Species, FABAD Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences; Ankara Vol. 31, Iss. 2.

Thomas. K (2003), Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, Penguin, UK

From Ancient Samhain to Modern Halloween

DSC_0154.jpgIn this article I hope to trace the ancient Gaelic roots of Halloween, from its earliest mentions in the ancient Irish manuscripts to the holiday we know today and also focusing on the Irish traditions of the festival and the importance of feasting, guising, fires and divination.

Halloween, the festival we all know and love, originated from the ancient celtic festival of Samhain (although I should add that all the manuscripts mentioned below aren’t written until roughly the 11th Century, so it is essentially Christian monks back projecting traditions into the past. It is still interesting to note the pervasiveness of some of these beliefs being carried forward in time to our own age). This liminal time of supernatual intensity, where the veil between worlds was at its thinnest,  was one of the four quarter days of the Irish calendar (Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain).

It should come as no surprise that with Samhain being a ceann féile lit. “head feast” (Owens,1990:340), that it features quite prominently in tales and traditions of Ireland. First I will look at these tales relating to Samhain

The Boyhood deeds of Finn       (pge.199 CHA)

Almost everyone is familiar with the hero Finn Mac Cumhaill and his Fianna*, the roving warband. The Finn cycle or Fiannaíocht was one of the favoured styles of storytelling and a very large corpus of material relating to the fianna survives today.

*The fianna (sin.féinnid) were a real historical phenomenon where boys from the age of 14-21 would join this warband to learn military training, hunting etc from the time them left fosterage to the time they could own land.

In the Boyhood Deeds, Finn travels to the Paps of Anu ( Dá Chích Anann) on Samhain and.sits between two sídhe (otherworldly mounds). Usually, these tumuli would just appear as mounds, but we are told that the Fé Fíada was down. The Fé Fíada, was the magical barrier that prevented people from seeing the sídhe and multiple sources tell us that on Samhain this does not work and that “all sídhe are open on Samhain”. While sitting between the two Sídhe, Finn hears two men shouting across at each other, and see them inside the mounds. Here we see that there is a temporal anomaly between this world and the otherworld (a common motif in tales that we will see elsewhere) when the man shouts to the other Is your Subhais good?”. Subhais was a type of gruel associated more with the festival of Bealtaine, the opposite end of the year. It is also mentioned that one of the men is holding a bunch of wild garlic, again illustrating that the otherworld is at the opposite time of year.

Samhain again features in the Boyhood Deeds in the section relating to Aillén Mac Midgna. This tale however takes place in the royal stronghold of Tara. Áillén emerges from the otherworld every 23 years and burns down Tara. Nobody is ever able to stop him as he uses a magical harp to send everybody to sleep. Young Finn decides he is going to put a stop to this carry on, so sets out to get a poisoned spear from  Fiachaill Mac Conchinn (Tooth son of Doghead) and by placing the tip of the poisoned spear to his forehead, is able to stay awake when the other worldly music is played and is able to defeat Aillén. This tale can also be found in Acallamh na Seanorach* (Tales of the Elders of Ireland) to explain how Finn got his famous spear.

*Acallamh na Seanorach is essentially the chronological end to the finian cycle. Coilte and Oscar, the last remaining members of the fianna, who have somehow survived for centuries, meet Saint Patrick and recount many tales of old Ireland to the saint, many of which are etiological in nature.


Wooing of Etáin           (CHA:146-7)

In the Wooing of Etáin we see an interesting element relating to Samhain that is mirrored elsewhere. We see what appears to be a prohibition on fighting or going to war. In this tale Oengus is trying to secure his own Brugh/Sídhe and he is advised to go to Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) at Samhain because “ No man fears his neighbour on Samhain”. We will encounter this again below.

The Birth of Áed Sláine   (CHA:272)

Here again we an indication of the festival as an important Óenach. We are told specifically that is one of the two renowned Óenach’s, Lughnasadh and Samhain. We also see another mention of the Feis and that  “The men of Ireland came from all quarters for the Feis Temró at Samhain”. This tale also tells us how no laws are broken or transgressed on Samhain


Togail Bruidne Dá Derga       (CHA:177-9)

Bonfires are one of the most iconic elements of the Halloween celebrations today and it’s importance to the festival is clear to see from the earliest mentions or the modern folkloric record. In The Destruction of Da Dearga’s Hostel we are told of the origin of this practice of lighting big fires. We are told how a Torc Tened (boar of a fire) was lit to give warning. This was the first beacon of Ireland and from this the customary beacon fire of Samhain followed to commemorate the destruction of the hostel.


Aided Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill     (CHA:215)

In this tale, The Death of Diarmuid Mac Cerbhaill, the king, Diarmuid has returned from his circuit* , an annual practice that was carried out at this time of the year. Upon returning to Tara, Diarmuid hosts the Feis Temro**, showing us the importance of feasting at Samhain and due to fact that people were said to come from all corners of Ireland, shows us that this might have been an important óenach or gathering, similar to that of Lughnasadh, another important festival in the gaelic year, celebrated around the start of August (and which gives its name to the month of August in Irish).

*A circuit is where the king would go around visiting all his clients. They would have to host the king and his entire retinue for a few days, providing all the hospitality  that was necessary for someone of his status. This was a requirement of becoming a client of the king and is mentioned in the Brehon Laws (you can read my article on the laws here)

**Feis Temro (‘The Feast of Tara’), a Pagan rite observed by kings of Tara to celebrate the divine nature of the kingship of Tara and to reiterate its special status in Ireland. Evidence for the celebration of Feis Temro is meagre. The annals record that it was held on a few occasions in the 5th and 6th centuries. The final and most reliable reference to the celebration of the rite records that it was held in 560 by Diarmait mac Cerbaill.


 Eachtra Nerai       (CHA:127)

Next is what has to be my favourite Halloween themed tale, “The Adventure of Nera”. This narration opens at another royal stronghold, Cruachan (Rathcroghan) in the feasting halls of King Aillil and the infamous Queen Medbh (Maeve). We are told, in relation to Samhain, how “the darkness and horror of that night was great and demons used always appear on that night”, a recurring theme that we will see again and again, especially when looking at modern folklore.

In the middle of the feast, the king boasts that anyone brave enough to face these horrors and tie a twig around the foot of a recently deceased prisoner on the gallows outside can have any treasure he desires. A few try to no avail as they are not able to withstand the horrors outside.  Nera, not being put off by this, dons his armour and rushes outside. After attempting a few times to tie the twig, the corpse comes to life and tells him how to succeed. For this information, the corpse asks to be carried around to the nearby houses to get a drink. The corpse cannot enter the first house as a lake of fire surrounds it, owing to the fact the fire has been correctly banked down. The second can’t be entered as it is surrounded by a lake of water, owing to the fact all the waste water has been properly disposed of. It is only when they reach the third house that they are able to enter as the waste water used for washing feet has been left inside the house and enables the corpse to drink the water. He spits the remaining mouthful on the sleeping occupants of the house, killing them. This threat from wandering spirits is echoed in an account in the National Folklore Collection (hereafter NFSC) from Roscommon where we are told how “Pookas, spirits and other evil spirits roam from house to house casting evil spells on man and beast. Everyone stays in doors” (NFSC,Vol.236:113-19). In relation to the disposal of water we see differing modern accounts of what the correct procedure is such as  one account (NFSC,Vol.96:366) suggests that it is unlucky to throw out water, especially suds, while another (Danaher,1972:207) states that you should shout “Seachain!” (watch out/beware)or “chughaibh an t-uisce” (the water to you”) in an effort to warn any spirts or fairies who might be around.

So, returning to tale, as Nera returns to feast, he sees the stronghold on fire (which turns out to be only a vision of what will happen in a years time, another temporal anomaly). He is able to enter into a sídhe, again due to its enchantment being down, and spend what he believes is a year there. He is given toirthe Samraid (the fruits of summer) to prove he has been in otherworld and discovers when he returns that only minutes has elapsed and is able to convince all present of the dangers that await them next year.



Lebor Gabála Éirenn     (CHA:242)

This next example is chronologically the oldest mention of Samhain in this list although the earliest surviving copy dates to the 11th century. Found in Lebor Gabála Éirenn, whose stories recount the various invasion waves that inhabited and fought in Ireland. The tales list everyone from the time of Noah to the coming of the ancestors of the Gaels. We are told how 2/3 of the children, grain and milk given over each year to the fomorians as a form of tribute or sacrifice. This element no doubt fanning the flames of anti-halloween, hard line Christians who espouse the idea of human sacrifice being carried out at Samhain. The next on the list is a clear reworking of this tale.



Dinsheanchas translated means “the lore of places” and is as the name suggests, a compilation of poetic verses (Metrical dindsheanachas) and  narratives (prose dindsheanachas) detailing how specific places got their name. Here we are told how Maigh Slecht (the plain of prostration) was the site of the human sacrifices of first born children each year at Samhain to the god Crom Cruach in return for milk and grain. This was said to be stopped by none other than St Patrick, the over-mythologised figure and ever-present “enemy” of paganism of early medieval Ireland (an article about the false myths of Patrick can be found here). It is quite possible this tale was reworked, like other tales, in order to fit St Patrick in as the hero, and to add to the power of his myth.




The royal stronghold mentioned above, Cruachan, also features in other tales in relation to Samhain. There is a cave close to the fort, that seems to be big source of the horrors and terrors found there at Samhain. Named Uaimh na gCait or cave of the cats, most likely related to story relating to a bunch of wild cats that emerged from there and were subsequently tamed by Cú Chulainn. Other horrific and terrifying creatures who emerge from her at Samhain include the three-headed beast known as the Ellen Trechen, A flock of small red birds (a colour synonymous with the otherworld) and a herd of pigs with poisonous breath that wilts and withers anything they breathe on. The war goddess, the Morrigan, is said to emerge from the cave on a chariot pulled by a one-legged horse.


Tochmarc Emire          

In The Wooing of Emer, Emer mentions that Samhain is the first of the four quarter days and when “summer goes to rest”. This is one of the only ancient texts to mention something that even comes close to supporting the modern held idea that Samhain was in fact the Celtic new year.  The truth of this “fact”, however is not as clear cut. We have no real evidence to indicate this and most of the weight behind this argument lies in a modern misunderstanding of  the fact a scholar heard Scottish hogmanay songs being sung at Halloween in wales and put 2+2 together and got 5.



So, as we skip ahead in time, we will look now at the more modern celebrations of  what we now know asHalloween. We will see repeating motifs and traditions echoed from the ancient traditions. The belief in the horrors and terrors of the night continued, but in many cases the fairies now take the place of the demons and spirits as antagonists. It was common for folk from neighbouring houses to gather together (NFC,Vol.106), but there was a pervasive fear of going outside late at night, especially alone. One account tells us how country people do not like to go outside on Halloween night “For the fairies do have their fliting then, and do not like to be seen or watched: and all the spirits come to meet them and help them. But, the mortal people should keep at home, or they will suffer for it! For the souls of the dead have power over all things on that one night of the year, and they hold a festival with the fairies and they drink red wine from fairy cups and dance to fairy music till the sun goes down” and also not to go out after dark because “ghosts and demons are around”(IML.7:222). If you had to step outside, there were measures one could take to stay protected. One informant told the NFC that her grandmother made oaten scones with a hole in them and put them around each child’s neck. She also rubbed salt and oats on their head (NFC, Vol.1359:139). Rubbing salt and meal on the head was also carried out by Mummers before going house to house to perform and collect food and money (the precursor to trick or treating) in Derry (O’Dowd:91) A Cross called a “parshell” was made hung on doors and byres as another form of proctection. This was two pieces of wood, roughly 7 inches in length were tied together with straw.

We also see that these spirits have the ability to enter the house as we are warned that “After raking the fire at night, don’t stay in the kitchen. It belongs to the dead” (IBID). A separate source suggests that after sweeping the hearth that a bowl of colcannon should be left out for the good people, to appease them for the coming year.(NFC,Vol.99:366). People ran the risk of being ‘led astray’ of the fair folk, such as the tale of the gentleman who was returning home late one Samhain evening.. He was passing Knocksouna:  a large hill near Rath Lúirc. It gets its name from the fairies who procession around it on Halloween.. As he was passing he was forced to join the processing fairies in three rounds of the hill, before being left go  (C.f O’Dowd:91,The man in the previous tale was lucky to be left go, because we are told elsewhere  “Don’t go out because if you get caught up with them you will be gone for the year”) (IML:80:29).This was also the time of the year where all fruits and crops, such as potatoes, all need to be harvested by this date. Children are warned against picking berries and told that the púca, a shapeshifting trickster spirit, had spit or peed on them or that the devil had shook his club or blanket at them (NFC, Vol.1359:138).

Guising was also a main feature of going house to house begging. Today the costuming element is one of the most iconic traditions of Halloween, and kids and adults alike love dressing up and although many would associate the act of trick or treating as infantile and the domain of only young children, in the past there was no age restriction for going house to house in disguise while performing in return for food and money. Boy dressed as girl, young dressed as old and some dressed in straw outfits. Blackened faces and old veils hid their identity. We get a rather colourful account from Ballycotton, Co.Cork from the 19th century. Written in 1852 we are told how the messengers of the Muck olla (woolen pig) would go from house along the coast.. The group consisted of Youths blowing cow horns with a figure covered in a white sheet and the head of a white mare  called the Láir Bháin. Poems were said at each household and the farmer would give generously (milk,eggs,wool,corn) in the fear all his luck would be taken by the Muck Olla.


  • “2000 years ago when the land was still pagan, this was supposed to be  a night when the dead, especially the evil and the wicked, were called back by the god of death. Then as that belief grew older, people spoke of the fairies and mingled it with the harvest festival. When the Christian era dawned, Óiche Shamana became Halloween” IML236:113-119



One of the most iconic and pervasive traditions of Halloween involved many forms of divination. Although these are most carried out by women trying to find out who their future husband will be, there are examples of men taking part. Sometimes the divination was employed to divine the impending death of someone in the household. Divination was also one of the strongest traditions to have made it across the pond with settlers. Mirrors, twine, foodstuffs and molten lead were the most popular implements used in this nature and some will be detailed below:

  • Ball of yarn: Thrown into a lime kiln as far as it can go. When you try to wind it will not come. Call out “who holds my thread” and your future spouse is sure to call out his name. (IML.437:199-20)
  • Wheat: place 2 grains on shovel, one representing you and the other your intended crush and place over the fire. If the grains remain together as they heat up,you are meant to be with the person.(IML.437:199-20)
  • Eat something salty à take a glass of water to bed with you à future spouse gives you the water in dream (IML.227:476) c.f year in Ireland:202, A person who tries this confesses to a priest and the priest asks “weren’t you afraid the devil would choke you?
  • Look through a mirror with the reflection of the moon in it and say: “I Cross my shoes in the form of a T, Hoping this night my true love to see, Not in his Sunday clothes nor in his gay, But in the clothes he wears everyday” (IBID)
  • Peel an apple without breaking the skin and throw over shoulder. The initials seen on the floor are the initials of the future spouse (IML.7:22)
  • Eat apple while looking in mirror, see husband over shoulder. As with many of these tales, we often find cautionary tales to try and dissuade people from trying these techniques. In this instance we are told how a woman uses the mirror technique and sees the man who she saw in the mirror a few weeks later on the street. She subsequently faints from the shock and never recovers, only to die days later. (IML.815:128)
  • A good fire with lots of Griosach (hot ashes) was used to tell fortunes(Danaher:205) (F Vallency, Collectania De Rubis hibernicus,1774: “Nut shells are burnt and from the ashes, many strange things are foretold”) .We are not told specifically in these examples how this is done although from other sources we are told how shapes such as coffins in the ashes, if left spread out over night, would indicated a death in the following year or how footprints meant that someone would emigrate.
  • If the wind blows to the south a wet winter will follow (bealoideas 6)
  • Ring in Colcannon.
  • Nuts: 2 nuts are named for the intended people. They nuts are then heated on shovel over the fire and placed into bucket of water. If they follow each other around, the couple was meant to be, opposite direction not meant to be. When in fire, first to burn up was to be the first to die (IML.1359:140).
  • Look into mirror at 12am to see the devil (ibid:145)
  • Pull a briar rooted at both ends and make into the shape of a ring à put under pillow à vision of spouse will appear in a dream (IML.80:4)
  • Steal head of cabbage and tie it to someone’s door to receive a vision. (ibid)
  • Comb hair without talking à roll up with a sixpence inside à wrap with handkerchief a a vision will appear in your dreams. (ibid)
  • Write names on two pieces of paper of the people you want to decide between à place in bucket of water àput clay on the paper to sink it, first to rise is the person you should pursue for romance. (ibid)
  • First and last spoons of colcannon from your dinner should be placed inside a stockingà don’t speak to anyone after doing it and sleep on it to see future husband in a dream.
  • Put Ivy leaf in bucket of water. If hole comes someone in the house will die
  • Sweep the heart well and if there are tracks in it in the morning someone will die or leave the house. (IML.80: 237)
  • Get a bibleà get a widows key and place inside à tie with black ribbon and make wish à if book moves wish will come true.
  • A snail placed under the bed will spell out the initials of your future husband.
  • Put knots on your left garter and at each knot say:

“This knot, this knot, this knot to see,

The thing I never saw yet.

To see my love in his array

And what he walks in every day,

And what his occupation,

This night may I in my dream see.

And if my love be clad in green,

His love for me it is well seen.

And if my love be clad in grey,

His love for me is far away.

And if my love is glad in blue,

His love for me is very true”.


  • Pull 9 stalks of yarrow. Peel and throw away the ninth. Do not talk and eat colcannon before going to bed. Hold one stalk and say:

“Good night, good yarrow, good night to thee!

Tell me who my true love is to be!

If his clothes I am to wear,

If his children I’m to rear.

Blithe and merry may he be

With his face turned to me.

If his clothes I’m not to wear,

If his children not to rear,

Sour and Grumach may he be

With his back turned to me!


Cut 9 stalks with a black handled knife:

“Good morrow, good morrow, my pretty fair yarrow!

I pray before this time tomorrow

You will tell me who my true love shall be.

The clothes that he wears, the name that he bears,

And the day that he will come towed me.”



“Good morrow, good morrow, fair yarrow,

And thrice good morrow to thee!

And I hope before this time tomorrow,

You will show me my true love to be.”


In the name of the devil

A number of divinations and actions are carried out “in the name of devil”. Here we often find cautionary tales to hopefully prevent you from doing them.

  • Sow oats or hemp “In the name of the devil” (hereafter NOD) to know when to get married. (when it comes above ground it is time.) IML.96:366
  • Wash your hair NOD and it will never grow grey or lose hair. Must remain silent
  • Pull shirt 3 times against the water of a stream (convergence of 3 streams is best) in the NOD. Hang the shirt by the fire and hide and the person who is meant to marry you comes in the middle of the night and turns shirt à a folktale tells of woman who does it and the man leaves a glove behind. They get married but the whole comes to light years later when the husband finds the glove. He recounts how on that night all those years ago that a supernatural force that he could not resist forced him to go to his future wife’s house (Another tells of a ghastly injury acquired through being dragged through briars by a similar unseen force). The husband leaves and curses her in both tales. Essentially a simple ritual but dire consequences (IML.106).
  • Take three bites of an apple in the NOD while looking in mirror to see husband.
  • Crawl under a briar that’s rooted at both ends making a wish in NOD. Mostly people ask for luck in cards, to use piseogs to steal profit. A folktale tells of a guy asking for ability to play music. Upon completing the ritual he finds a fiddle with one string. He is unable to string it normally and only plays one song that’s identified by many people as being “ceol-sídhe”. A Priest tried to exorcise the fiddle so the musician went to France to play at court for 30 years. He played the same tune each night to great acclaim. The fiddle breaks when he dies and priest gives absolution for his soul


The Fern Seed (bealoideas 3)

This was also mentioned by Woodmartin in Traces of the elder faiths in Ireland but is found in more cases in the UK as opposed to Ireland, but this particular instance is from the Irish folklore journal, bealoideas:

Go alone before midnight to the spot where the ferns grow in the woods. Take nine plates of pewter stacked on top of each other with paper/white linen on the bottom layer. Hold these under the ferns just before midnight and the seed will drop but be careful because “so great was its enchanted power that it passed through all the plates except the last”. The seed was then folded up and carried in pocket to render people invisible, ultimately to covertly raid houses. Although beware because “All the powers of the world of darkness and evil were mustered to stop you” These horrors couldn’t touch you but yells, screams, thunders, whirlwinds and visions of friends trying to stop you will all try to thwart you. Yet again we see the same sort of imagery that we found in tales such as “The Adventures of Nera”. One tale tells how one person driven demented from this only. The priest is only able to half cure him and remained simple for the rest of his life.

N.America   (Halloween: 81-89)

Next briefly to detail how the festival evolved when it transferred to America through Irish settlers. Guising and pranks remained popular  (Óiche na h-aimleise/ night of the pranks had been a popular name in some areas of Ireland) were a big part of the festival by the time it transferred over and remained so in the US. The divination traditions also remained very strong also. The only tradition that failed to transfer was the “dumb supper”, leaving out an extra plate of food for the departed. Nuts and fruit, traditionally given to the disguised members of the community who went house to house, eventually made way for the candy and sweets we are now familiar with.   Homemade costumes gave way to store bought masks. Focus was now almost entirely on games and divinations  about love, not death. Pranks, many whom mirror those Ireland such as veg being pulled up or gates stolen, increase dramatically to the point that millions in damage was being reported across the entire US each year and there were talks of how much should be tolerated .Festivals/dances were introduced  to try distract people and the holiday became more consumer driven and infantile as an attempt to eradicate the anarchic element of the festival. People still retained superstitions but the festival as a whole became more secular and non ethnic but retained some of the vestigial elements of harvest , such as the continued use of fruit and nuts in the divination rituals, but it was now predominantly for kids.

Thank you for reading if you made it to the end. Hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to like the page on facebook

The Brehon Laws

Image result for bee judgements
Bechbretha or ‘bee-judgements’ was a detailed code which governed beekeeping. Dating from the 7th century, it covered a diverse range of topics including ownership of swarms, theft of bee-hives, & neighbours entitlements to honey. photo from

The Brehon Laws, or to use their proper name Fénechas, was the native indigenous law system found in early medieval Ireland. The word Brehon comes from the Irish brithem, meaning jurist. These brithem essentially filled one of the many roles previously tended by the Druids and preserved and interpreted the laws that had been handed down orally through the centuries. These laws were eventually written down first between 650-750 AD in the old Irish period (The periods of the Irish language are roughly as follows: 400-600: Archaic/Ogham Irish, 600-900:Old Irish, 900-1200:Middle Irish, 1200-1650: Early Modern Irish). The texts only survive in 14th-16th cent manuscripts which are often incomplete or corrupted and early translations and publications are problematic.


I would like to stress however that just because these laws were written down, it does not mean that these laws were applicable across the entire country. Ireland at the time was politically fragmented but culturally homogeneous, with anything up to 150 separate kingdoms or túatha at any one given time. A number of these laws do however have a shared Celtic background with some aspects having indo-european beginning’s that can be traced. The Church eventually had an influence on many of the laws and vice versa, and the native laws also affected later English common law (which would eventually replace the native system).

There are many misconceptions on the internet in relation to the Brehon laws and how advanced they were (although there were many aspects that were advanced), with people often taking items out of context, so I hope to address some of this below. The system was compensation based unlike our modern system of incarceration, but it was heavily dependent on your social status and rank. Medieval Ireland was far from the equal, utopian society that people paint it as. The society was Hierarchical and inegalitarian. The laws clearly reflect this and show that Rank was important. Ergo an offence against a person of higher rank entails greater penalty than that of the same attack on someone of lower class. Native law never felt the same as roman law with all citizens being equal, canon law however was different.

I will cover this in greater detail below. First I will explain the makeup of the manuscripts themselves, two of the main schools of law and will then detail some of the material the laws cover such as status, slavery, sexual assault, status of women, fosterage and a number of other items. While this is no way an exhaustive list, it is a bit lengthy, so grab a cup of coffee and thank you for taking the time to read it. I hope you enjoy it and come away with a deeper understanding of the laws.

Canon, Glosses and Commentaries

When looking at the manuscripts (like pictured above) you will notice writing between the lines and on the side. The main text in the center is the original law (canonical). The writing in between the lines of text are the glosses, added to update or comment on the law and then the writing in the margins are the later commentaries. These commentaries often show the difference between Irish laws and the common law that was starting to be introduced but can often be problematic due to errors in translation or misunderstanding on the part of the scribe. The typical dates of this material are roughly: Canonical: 650-750 AD, Glosses: 900 AD, Commentary: 1200 AD onwards

Cáin Laws

Another type of law found in these texts are Cáin laws. These laws were laws of ecclesiastical inspiration that were promulgated by secular kings and rulers over large areas i.e overkings (those in charge of more than one kingdom, with lower petty kings beneath them) would promulgate them. These laws were more focused on equality in some cases which breaks the whole “christianity ruined everything” fallacy that is usually attached to the Brehon Laws on the internet. The most famous of these laws were Cáin Adomnán and Cáin Phádraig, both focused on the treatment of non-combatants such as women, children and clerics during wartime.

Examples of two of the legal schools:

  • Seanchas Már (great tradition/great collection): The book is a compilation of older native law, codifying it. The native laws had become popular again in later centuries as a way of combating the common law. The book of Seanchas Már has a Pseudo-historical prologue, giving saint Patrick’s seal of approval on the laws and mentions that these laws were told to him by Dubthach maccu Lugair (the ollamhfilid/ chief poet of Ireland). This was to legitimise these laws in the eyes of the church to remove any inclination of pagan practice (essentially saying if it was good enough for Patrick, its good enough for everyone else). It 48 tracts dealing with: status, water rights, cats/dogs/bees and beer among other things.
  • Nemed: These are laws pertaining to privileged people, the Áes Dána, the people of skill/ crafts such as blacksmiths, filid*, goldsmiths etc. these texts however are more obscure in terms of language.

*The Filid (meaning Seer) were the professional class of poets (essentially a repackaged form the druids when they lost power), second only to the king in terms of status and were one of a number of things needed for a petty kingdom to be considered a tuath. The Filid consisted of seven grades and these Grades were determined, in part, by the number of stories and poems they had to know by memory. Their status was a point of contention over the years, with Saint Colum Cille returning from Scotland to speak on their behalf at the Convention of Druim Cett (575 AD). One of the reasons for the convention was an attempt to censure the filid due to their extravagant demands and lifestyle. It ultimately had no effect on them and their high status remained unchecked for centuries. Not to be confused with Bards who were a later emergence and lower class. The filid did however more or less merge with the bard class in the later middle ages as Gaelic society went into decline until their ultimate demise post battle of kinsale aand “the flight of the earls”. The Tract Uirechecht na ríar, focuses on grades of filid and how much material they are required to know.

Status inside and outside the Túath

As I mentioned above, Ireland was divided into anything up to 150 kingdoms at any one time from the 5-12th centuries. Unless your neighbouring túath had a friendship treaty (Chairdeas) with yours you had no status outside of your own túath. You were either considered a person of legal standing (Aurrad) or an outsider (Deorad). Being an outsider you were often considered an Ambue (non-person). Being an Ambue it was not considered an offence for someone to refuse to pay your body fine (erec) if they injure you. So essentially there were no rights for ordinary freeman outside his territory. Except on military service, oenach,or on pilgrimage. Nemed people or clerics were not included in this.

The laws mention a number of different types of outsider including the Cú Glas (Grey dog): This was an outsider from overseas. He had no legal standing, but if marrying into túath and recognised by woman’s kin, he gets half her honour price. He cannot make contracts without her permission and she is libel for debt/fines incurred by him. He also has no say in rearing the kids. Another was the Deorad Dé (exile of god). This was essentially referring to travelling monks or peregrini. These had Special privileges such as the fact their word cannot be overturned by king. Another, the Murchoirthe (one thrown up by the sea/castaway). May have been set adrift (a punishment where someone was placed in a boat with no oars and set adrift). If taken in is only 1/3 his masters honour price.

Lóg n-enech/ honour price/ price of the face

The honour price is the amount due for serious offences against you or your honour such as:  murder, satire, injury, refusal of hospitality (or giving the wrong food, such as giving honey in the porridge of a lower class person).

Uraicecht becc (small primer), Míadslechta (passages concerning rank) and Críth Gabhlach (the forked purchase) are a few of the texts dealing wih status. Críth Gabhlach informs us of the range of honour prices and these are dependent on you social status. This is the price a person would have to pay if they caused an offence against you:

  • 14 cumals (42 milch cows) for a provincial king.
  • Yearling heifer for a fer midboth (man of middle huts, semi independent youth)
  • Aithech fortha (substitute churl): This was a person of lower status to allow some sort of equality and to allow someone of low status and allows them to sue a king.  the aitheach was essentially a whipping boy to balance the scales a little
  • In practice though it was mostly concerned with those that were (1) Nemed and those that were (2) Those that were Sóer (free) or Dóer (Unfree)
  • Children up to age 7 are an exception. Same hp as a cleric regardless of their social status.


1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver


Legal acts were linked to your honour price so you were unable to make a contract for amount greater than your honour price. You could not go surety for greater than your Honour price. Any evidence given is weighed according to your status which means that if someone of higher status gives evidence against you, then they are automatically believed over you. This is known as overswearing.

Overswearing: “any grade which is lower than another is oversworn,any grade which is higher than another overswears” An over swearing can can refute the swearing of an inferior or can fix guilt on an inferior –Di Astud Chirt agus dlighid.

Change in status

It was possible to rise or fall in status or even become nemed. If you were demoted your family did not suffer (wife and son honour price remained the same) Breithe crolige says: “For the misdeed of the guilty should not affect the innocent”.

If someone could acquire enough wealth to support clients. Neither him/his son can become a lord but grandson can become Aire déso (lord of vassalry). This has a 3 generation rule similar to the fili/ banfilid.

Fingal/ Kinslaying

So what are the pitfalls of this compensation based system? They can be best illustrated by looking at the crime of kinslaying. This was especially frowned upon as the compensation system, which required payment from not only the transgressor, but also his kin, meant that the whole system fell apart with the act of kinslaying. Bloodfeuds in this instance would create a never ending cycle within a kin group with no possible way of paying fines, with each person subsequently committing Fingal/kinslaying. Killing  was usually atoned for by the kin of the person who had been killed. A fort in which fingal was committed could be destroyed with impunity. There are a number of Annal entries relating to fingal and a few literary examples (such as Fingal Ronán and Aided Óenfhir Aífe).


Slavery is usually thought of as something that the Vikings introduced to Ireland but in truth we had been well practised at for centuries. The most common names for slaves in Irish were mug for male and cumal for female slaves. Cumal was also widely used as a unit of value. These could either be prisoners of war or debt slaves.  The legal treatise Di Astud chirt acus dligid is against the release of slaves. Includes it among things that would make corn, milk and fruit to fail. Slaves = lords prosperity. The release of slaves was seen as an Immoral and antisocial act that is prone to supernatural retribution (similar to Gáu Flathemon/ Kings injustice which causes the same phenomenon in terms of weather and crops turning against them).

Status of women

The status of women in medieval Ireland  is one of the most misinterpreted and misquoted things on the internet in relation to Brehon laws. The internet would have you believe that Ireland was a utopia for women and that they could fight and own their own property. This is not exactly the case (I will add a caveat that they were afforded some things which were unique in the context of Europe at the time, such as attitudes towards sexual assault, divorce and in certain special circumstances the right to own property). As a whole women were defined as being “legally incompetent “ along with children and mentally ill or insane people. By and large they could not make any contracts without a legal guardian*.

*Old Irish Díre-text :“Her father has charge over her when she is a girl,her husband when she is a wife, her sons when she is a widowed woman, her kin when she is a woman of the kin (no other guardians), the church when she is a woman of the church (a nun). She is not capable of sale of purchase or contract or transaction without the authority of her superiors” (c.f indian Laws of Manu that are almost identical).

There is a huge discrepancy between literature and reality when it comes to women i.e Queen Medbh being the real ruler of Connacht and king Ailill turning a blind eye to her promiscuity. No mention in annals of female political or military leader but there are mentions of warrior women in literature but no historic examples of note (in Ireland) to back up the claim.

Banchomarbae (female heir)

This is an exception in terms of women having rights and the thing that is most misinterpreted in terms of women owning property. (There are counterparts in the Torah (tirza) and also Indian parallels). The memes and false info circulating always mention that women could own their own property. This was however VERY rare.  This was only in the case where a father died with no male heirs. Her children could not inherit the land after her death (it returned to the fathers kin) and she also only still had very limited legal capacity in terms of making contracts and still had a relatively small honour price. Women could however also be nemed (privileged) We see examples of Bansáer (wright), Banliag tuatha (woman physician/ midwife), Bandeorad (female hermit) mentioned in the laws.

Offences against a woman

An offence against a woman is usually considered a crime against her guardian (who would have a higher honour price). The church made it a bigger offence with the introduction of Cáin Adomnáin. This meant that the Murder of a woman could mean losing a hand and foot, being put to death and your kin having to 7 cumals. Cáin Adomnáin/ lex innocentium was introduced by Adomnáin, the 9th abbot of Iona. It was promulgated first at the synod of Birr in 697 and was aimed at making it a serious offence to kill non-combatants especially women, children and clerics. It was an update of the earlier Cáin Phádraig which aimed at preventing  the killing of clerics. It was endorsed by over 90 kings and bishops from Ireland and Scotland. If a woman committed murder, arson, or theft from a church, she was to be set adrift in a boat with one paddle and a container of gruel. This left the judgment up to God and avoided violating the proscription against killing a woman.

A pregnant woman could steal food without penalty if she had a craving.


A woman could Divorce (Imscarad) if husband rejected her for another woman, fails to support her, spreads a false story or satire or if he tricked her into marriage by sorcery. He is allowed to strike her to correct he, but she can leave if it leaves a blemish. If he is impotent/ too fat to have sex/gay or sterile, this is also grounds for divorce as well as he becomes a cleric.

A man can divorce woman (listed in Gúbretha Caratnaiad) if she is unfaithful, if she induces an abortion or if she is a habitual thief. If she brings shame on his honour, smothers her child or if she “is without milk through sickness”, then these are also grounds for divorce.

There are also options to separate for a time for pilgrimage or if one is barren etc.

Rape or sexual harassment

There 2 types of rape listed in early laws: (1) Forceable/violent (forcor) and (2) sleth associated With drunkenness. Sleth is considered as bad as forcor, but there are circumstances where they have no redress. Married woman alone in a tavern cannot get compensation for Sleth. 8 types of women are not able to get compensation including adulterous women and a prostitute. If a man rapes a chief wife he has to pay the Full body price (Éraic), a concubine only requires him to pay half body price.

In terms of sexual harassment Bretha Nemed toíseach says the full honour price is  to be paid for if kissed against will. A gloss on this mentions the shaming of a woman by raising her dress. Cáin Adomnáin states that  the price is 10 ounces of silver for touching a woman or putting hands inside girdle or 7 cumals for putting hand under dress to defile. In these regards, the Brehon laws were very progressive.


The words for satire translate as “to cut” or “to strike”…. Showing how powerful it was. Satire was a powerful tool if used correctly and could be used to exert pressure but illegal satire required the full honour price payment and included things such as mocking through gesture, publicising a blemishcoining a nickname that sticks. Satire was believed to be so powerful that it could literally bring boils out on a person’s face or even have the power to kill.

 “The poet said that he would satirise him for contradicting him and he would satirise his mother and father and his grandfather and he would chant upon their water so that fish would not be caught in it’s river mouths. He would chant upon their woods so that they would not give fruits unto their plains, so that they would be barren henceforth of every produce”.

Female satirists were especially feared and had freedom to move around whereever they wished. An excerpt from Longes Mac n-Uislenn (The exiles of the sons of Uisliu/ Deirdre of the sorrows) says the following: “and no person ever was allowed into that court except her foster father and her foster mother and Leborcham; for the last-mentioned one could not be prevented, for she was a female satirist”.


It was very common to foster children out at an early age. The bond between foster kids and parents can be seen through Intimate forms of language (like mammy over mother) being used for the foster parents instead of parents. E.g DATÁN for foster father is similar to daddy. Unusual in an Indo-European language. Fosterage served a number of fuctions such as creating bonds between families and providing education. Children were typically fostered down the social ladder and there were two types of fosterage: Altram serce: Fosterage for love/affection.For this, there was no fee involved and the child was usually from the mothers kin. Altram was the standard fosterage. A fee was paid dependent on status. There was a higher price for girls (commentary tells us that this was because they were harder to raise and less use in later life, the foster kids were responsible for the foster parents later in life and in their infirmity) . They also need attendants because they can’t be left on her own (c.f Fingal Ronán)

Cáin Iarraith “Law of fosterage fee” says the child must be maintained according to their rank. ( such as having salt,butter or honey in their food). The education received was both gender specific and status specific and the child could be fostered to multiple different people for learning different skills. Examples of this are as follows: Son of king/noble must be provided with a horse and clothing to the value of 7 Sét. He must be taught how to play fidchell, swimming and marksmanship. The Son of Ócaire must learn to look after animals, dry corn and chop firewood. The lowest fee wwas 3 Sét (ocaire) up to 30 Sét (Son of king), with 1 Sét more for girls of each rank

Sick Maintenance 

Bretha Crólige (concerns sick maintainace) and Bretha Dian Chécht (concerns payment for injury) are two of the main tracts dealing with what happens if someone is injured. It goes as follows: for 9 days the injured person is cared for by kin.If death occurs in this time the full fine is to be paid. After 9 days a doctor is summoned to check on the person and if they are better you must pay for lasting blemish/disability. If not…sick maintenance (othrus) takes place if the doctor believes they will recover, but are bedridden. The injured Party brought to house of a third party and cared for. This house must be suitable for their status and also have the ability to support their retinue. B.Crolige says “There are not admitted to him into the house of fools or lunatics or senseless people or halfwits or enemies. No games are played in the house. No tidings are announced. No children are chastised. Neither men nor women exchange blows…No dogs are set fighting in his presence or in his neighbourhood outside. No shout is raised. No pigs squeal. No brawls are made. No cry of victory is raised. No yell or scream….”.

A substitute has to be provided to carry out the work of the injured party (unless nemed). An additional fine is to be paid if the injured party is married and can reproduce. This is known as the Barring of procreation. Some people such as a Druid, a Díbergach (outlaw) or a Satirist were only allowed the same level of  sick maintenance as a bóire (lowest grade of freeman).

There are however some strange instances where violence is allowed. For example:

Legal injury: Cédmuintir (primary wife) is able to shed the blood of the second wife, or strike her  for 3 days after the marriage., as long as it doesn’t leave a lasting blemish.


Thank you for taking the time to read to the bottom and I hope you enjoyed this. Don’t forget to like my page on facebook to keep up to date:


Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly

Daniel Binchy’s translation of Breithe Crólige and Breithe Dían Chécht.




Reek Sunday/ Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage

12038717_893129174111209_7900366421035646691_o.jpgWhen 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. She identifies over 70 hills and mountains that were used in this manner, as well as a number of lakes and other outdoor areas where used as meeting places at or around the last Sunday in July. These outdoor gatherings were used for matchmaking as well as the usual fare of tests of strength and agility and general merry making. In the case of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, I will be looking at the accounts of two writers and their opinions on the pattern observances. It must be noted that these are historic accounts from the 1800’s and like many of these accounts they are mostly recorded by non-catholic outsiders who were hostile to the native practices they deemed as “popish” abominations.

In relation to the account by W.M Thackeray, he is even appalled by the sacred aspect. He likens the priest who resides 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”. Additionally, he 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), this 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).

The following accounts are taken from The National Folklore Schools Collection. This entire collection has been digitised and is available online at It consists of material collected by school children during the school year of 1937/8 (I have included links to the original manuscripts). They have the following to say about Croagh Patrick:

It is said that when the chapel was about to be built on Croagh Patrick the clergy who were in Wesport decided to build it in Murrisk to make the pilgrimage easier . When the men were cleaning the foundation a bell was heard ringing every evening. The sound came from the top of Croagh Patrick. So they ceased building the chapel there and built it at the top of the reek.  The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0151, Page 408.


There is a peculiar hill in County Mayo, The name of it is Croagh Patrick. In the days of old Patrick spent forty days and forty nights praying for the conversion of the Irish people. It is said that he prayed that the Irish people would never loose their faith once they got it. Every year on the last Sunday of July there is a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick. There are Masses being said on that hill from mid-night till twelve oclock the next day only at that particular. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0147, Page 537.


It was off Croagh Patrick that St Patrick was supposed to banish the serpents and to drive them out of Ireland. It is said that when St. Patrick banished the serpents from Croagh they fled into Lough Derg in Donegal and it is said the water of that lake has a brown colour ever since and that is why it is called “Loch Dearg”. Volume 0137E, Page 02_014

The traditional story of Patrick’s 40 day fast on the mountain is that  during the days spent on the holy mountain, he was harassed by demons disguised as blackbirds. The birds formed such dense clusters that turned the sky black. But according to this legend, Saint Patrick continued to pray and rang his bell (pictured here) as a proclamation of his faith. In answer to his prayers, an angel appeared and told him that all his petitions on behalf of the Irish people would be granted and they would retain their Christian faith until Judgement Day.

When St Patrick was praying and fasting on Croagh Patrick, a number of serpents came up out of a place called ‘log na Niúin’. These serpents tried to stick their poisonous tongues in this holy man. He fired his mass-bell after them and succeeded in putting them into a lake called ‘Loch na corraigh’.
It is said that a man was looking for sheep and he sat down to rest at this lake. A little woman appeared on a rock, changed into a serpent and dived into the lake. It is said that water horses are still to be found here and that some have appeared from time to time.

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

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

Thackeray, W,M (2005), Sketchbook of Ireland in 1842, Nonsuch Publishing.

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

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0151, Page 408.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0147, Page 537.

Volume 0137E, Page 02_014

. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0088, Page 263.

Butter Stealing Through Magic: Fears of an Agrarian Society

Image 1: Jean François Millet Woman churning butter. Image 2: Ralph Hedley The Butter Churn 1897, wikimedia commons

Glassie (1999:41) describes Material Culture as being “the tangible yield of human conduct”. The element of human conduct I would like to investigate below is dairy production, specifically the superstitions associated with it, as well as the methods for stealing or the prevention of stealing. Dairy was for a very long time, as far back as we can trace, a very important part of the economy, especially when looking at rural areas. Cream, milk and butter paid to Lord as part of food rents (see Fergus Kelly “Guide to Early Irish Law” chapter on clientship). Both Old and middle Irish sources mention butter and it appears to have been considered a high status luxury food that could only be given to you depending on your status. Kevin Danaher (1969:99) describes Ireland as a land “flowing with milk” and he mentions an account by an English soldier from 1690 says that the Irish were the “greatest lovers of milk” he had ever seen. He mentions how they “eat and drink it above twenty several sorts of ways”. It would come as no surprise then, with claims such as these, that there is a rich and colourful tradition of folklore attached to dairy production. Below I will look at some of these traditions in relation to dairy production, specifically the production of butter. As churning was a common household chore, as well as the butter being an important source of dairy, especially during winter months, it was of the utmost importance to do as much as possible to prevent otherworldly forces from stealing it, and also with the milk it comes from.  Sometimes, when the butter did not ‘break’, supernatural interference was suspected as the reason for the milk not being turning into butter. In reality though, there were a number of reasons why butter would not come, ie temperature control, sterilisation issues and not separating the cream. Despite this, a number of tactics were adopted to help prevent this supernatural and malicious interference. For good luck, the lid of the churn could be spread with butter (unsalted) or have salt sprinkled on the lid to keep the fairies at bay. We also come across items being placed beneath the churn, such as hot coals or the shoe of an ass or horse (Iron and fire being common items of proven efficacy against supernatural forces and are well attested in the Irish corpus of folkloric material). There were also strict prohibitions against carrying out certain actions in the household as water not being allowed to leave the house, nor ashes be taken from the fire. Any person entering the house would have to “take a brash” (have a go off churning, to make sure they did not intend to steal any of the butter) and it forbidden to loan a churn (Rynne,1998:27). A number of these elements pop up in numerous accounts, a number of which can be seen below. There was a number of ways your milk or churn could be stolen. Either the cow was deprived of milk (by the evil eye overlooked, eyebitten) or the churn was ‘Blinked’ and the milk would yield no butter. Magic, ritual or medicine could also be used to cause this. Borrowing something from the house or byre such as burning turf, fire, freely given butter, a churn could allow people to place these enchantments and steal your butter or milk. They could also do this by putting something in the person’s house, such as butter, a butter substitute or metal implement which would enable them to magically transfer the profit to themselves.


Butter Stones

In a country with a rich tradition relating to sacred stones (such as ballaun stones, ogham stones, stones circles etc), it is no surprise that an everyday function as important as butter making would make it into the lore concerning sacred stones. These fascinating monuments are the so-called “butter stones”. These peculiar items are, from all outward appearances, essentially ballaun stones. These however have butter, or more specifically, butter stealing origins attached to them.  Since the nineteenth century, it has been surmised by some scholars that these were somehow a part of old dairies or involved in some folk magic practice to help with butter making. When the original use was lost ,then maybe the tales of transformation (that I will detail in a moment) then came into being to explain their unusual name (Zuchelli,2016:88). The tales of metamorphosis attached to them are similar to many folk tales of people being transformed, often into stone, generally for the transgression of some kind of geis or taboo. This of course is not unique to Ireland and is a common etiological tale explaining some feature of the landscape as having once been a person. Some examples of these butter stones here in Ireland are ‘St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps’  in Temple Feaghna, Co.Kerry and the ‘Butter Stone’ at St Peakaun’s Shrine in the Glen of Atherlow, Tipperary.


St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps: ( it is featured in the documentary here) Accounts from nineteenth century antiquarians tell us that people would visit the site around Easter times and turn the stones in the basin as the final ‘round’ on their pattern. The stones were considered to have healing properties and are also classified as ‘homing stones (meaning they will magically find their way back if taken) but local lore attributes there origin as ‘Butter stones’ to the sixth-century. Two different stories exist and we are told that the saint, Fiachna, either discovers that a women whom he had hired to work on his farm had been surreptitiously selling his butter at the market, or that an irate farmer complained about a woman who owned no cows but used charms to steal her neighbours profit. Whichever beginning you pick, the outcome is the same. Upon investigating the house of the woman he discovers her ill-gotten gains in the form of several rolls of butter. The vehement saint (hell hath no fury like an early Christian saint) turns the butter rolls and the wooden block they were on to stone (and later the women who is said to have been transformed into the nearby pillar stone), giving us the ‘Butter Lumps’ at the site today (ibid,87).


Butter Stone at Saint Peakaun’s Shrine: In older sources relating to this stone, we are told that the basins in the stone contained three, now lost, stones. One of these stones was said to be the Butter Stone. Newer sources now claim that the stone containing the basins, is itself the Butter Stone. The three distinctive depressions, the basins, are said to be from the fingers of a woman. The saint had visited a home of the woman who was engaged in butter making. He asked for food but was told nothing was available. The irate saint cursed the woman, turning the butter she was making into the stone, which still bears the print of her fingers (ibid:89).


“Gathering the Dew”           

In a common folktale (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3), we are told of a priest who encounters ‘an old hag’, a common, well attested, antagonist in tales of this nature that will be more than familiar to anyone who has read any stories relating to ‘butter stealing’. A common technique used by these so-called ‘hags’ is using a rope to ‘gather the dew’. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target. In this particular rendition we are not informed of the exact material of the rope, such as the rope woven on Mayday eve from the mane of a stallion without a single white hair found in another tale (Jenkins,1991:310-11) .we are also told elsewhere that “A woman who had the power had a rope made of hair”(NFSC,Vol.1038:362). So, in this instance involving the priest and the hag, the hag is using rope (although not said to be specifically made from hair) and chanting the words “all to me” (meaning that all the butter of the person she is stealing from would come to her). Here we are reminded of the divide between the lay and ecclesiastical belief system that often pops up in folktales. Most lay people, especially rural inhabitants would at once spot the actions of the ‘hag’ and would have known immediately what she was doing. The priest absentmindedly and jokingly says “and half to me” in response as he overhears her while passing by, only to discover more butter that usual in his own dairy next morning when he wakes up. Upon investigation, much more is discovered in the woman’s house. Her guilt in this case lying on the fact he she only owned a male goat, “leaving little doubt of her evil doings”. The tale also mentions that the townspeople took action to prevent her from doing the same in future, but as ominous as that sounds we are not informed of what this action was. As to people ‘taking action’ against the nefarious forces looking to steal their profit, I will explain further below. I will first however go further into the use of the rope as a method of stealing.

The act of stealing through the gathering of dew using rope is attested in a number of sources and was evidently a very pervasive belief. The process was more or less enumerated above and it is almost always associated with “the dark arts” or witchcraft. In most examples we see the physical act of dragging the rope coupled with an incantation, or charm, to the tune of “come all to me”. In one account in the NFSC we are told how “ In Ireland long ago…there were many kinds of stories of witchcraft and rascality (sic) of this kind told. The people in the locality not only believe them but would swear by them” (NFSC:Vol.1042:69). In an account titled “ The black art”, collected by Henry Glassie (Glassie,1986:193-4),  we are told by his informant, Hugh Nolan, that there were people who possessed this ‘black art’, which was “in the line of witchery” and was capable of taking milk from the cows. So, here we see that it was not only your butter that was in danger from being stolen, but that it could also be stolen at the source. Here again we see the same practice being employed, but it specifically states that it must be white, and in the shape of a rope. Hugh tells us how the milk would be transferred to the cows of the person carrying out the charm, and also that he believes that the rope was only “an accompaniment” to the spell, and that they needed “the charm of words that took the milk”. The exclusion of the charm here or the implication of it being unknown is no doubt just added to make the nature of the charm seem more esoteric and known only to those practitioners of these ‘dark arts’. He tells us of a case of how in his locality there was a person with only three cows that was producing more milk than another who had ten, clear evidence that they possessed this black art. These hags often had the ability to shapeshift into hares and in this guise we oft encounter them in folktales and accounts.


Hags as hares

This is a very old and persuasive belief and is by no means contained to just Ireland and is in fact found throughout Europe. In Ireland we have accounts of this dating back to the 12th century, given to us by the Cambro-Norman historian Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of wales) in his book “Topographia Hiberniae” (The Topography of Ireland). He says how it was believed in Ireland, Wales, Scotland about witches turning into hare to suckle the milk. This is mirrored in Irish sources, including in the laws. A 1586 (Brittania) account tells of “The Gaelic Irish believed that when a house was looked at through the shoulder-blade or bone of a sheep, and a spot or shadow appears in the middle of it , the owner of the house was a ‘wicked woman and witch’ who would next summer filtch away all their butter”. To counteract they would take some fire from the suspects house and look for “A hare amonst their heads of cattle on May-Day, they kill her, for they suppose she is some old trot , that would filch away their butter”. This also mentions a form  counter-magic: taking the thatch from above the door of the person who is stealing your butter and then burning it.  We also find an account from 1691 that mentions thatch but adds that anyone looking to “fetch fire” from them on May-Day was wicked— this of course follows through to modern day with the same belief found throughout the country. It is amazing to see the continuation of tradition, still fervently believed into the last century unchanged by modernity. As I mentioned, this phenomenon is not only found in Ireland but also throughout Europe. An interesting contrast is the Nordic tradition. The difference here is that instead of shapeshifting herself, the witch makes the creature. These “Milk-hares” were made by witches from various objects and can be sourced back to 15th century in church murals, witch trials and literature. In the Irish tradition the only way (in many cases) of injuring these shapeshifters is by shooting them with silver. If one were to follow the injured creature they would invariably find themselves following a blood trail to a house where they would find  and injured or dead old woman with wounds matching where the hare had been shot (there is a modern account of this collected by Michael Fortune. I will add the video here. It can be found from 1:41 onwards)

Lady Gregory

In lady Gregory’s book Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, we get a short and concise section focusing on butter stealing. Here she tells us how to prevent “the others” (the good folk, daoine sídhe, fairies) from interfering with your work: “Sprinkle a few drops of holy water about the churn and put a coal of fire beneath it  (that you should always do), as was always done in the old time, and the others will never touch it” (Gregory:247).  In another account she is told of a woman who visited a wise woman to remedy the issue that day after day, no matter how hard she tried, she was unable to make butter. She was instructed to go to a running stream at sunrise and collect the water. After adding this to the milk while churning she ends up with rolls and rolls of butter, most likely her lost butter magically returning. Using water from a running stream often pops up in folklore and has many, often magical or healing properties, especially if it is taken from converging streams or streams that run on the boundaries of townlands. The fact it is collected at sunrise is also worth noting as this liminal time, not being either day or night, imbues the water with mystical properties (such as when morning dew is collected and believed to have healing capabilities). The final item in this section I would like to look at is the following quote:  “There was a Burke and he knew how to get it (butter) back out of some Irish book that has disappeared since he died”. Now what seems to be inconsequential at first glance, stood out glaringly to me. This “Irish book” brings to mind accounts that I have read of magical healing books often given to people by the fairies. These books are invariably written in the Irish language and filled with esoteric and otherworldly as well as terrestrial healing methods. Sometimes these are passed down the family line but they often disappear upon the death of the person they had been gifted to. Next I will move on to what is probably the most macabre element attached to butter stealing lore, the dead hand.

Dead Hand:

One of the strangest traditions you are likely to come across in relation to butter stealing is without a doubt the dead hand/ hand of glory. This was, as you can imagine from the name, a preserved hand from a corpse. The milk was churned using this preserved hand by stirring the milk with it. Some source say it has to be done 8-9 times accompanied by spells. An account from Co Longford tells us that you need to mix some of your intended victims milk with your own in order for it to work. The proto-folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker gives an account (early 1800’s) of one of these macabre hand’s being produced as false evidence in a court against an old woman (luckily for her the judge found that she was being framed).

This so called “hand of glory”, is made by drying or smoking the hand of a corpse to preserve it and if you could procure the hand of unbaptised infant, this was believed to be the most powerful version of this horrific magical device. As hideous and unspeakable this eerie talisman is (especially when viewed though the lens of modernity) it was not always used for malicious reasons. The hand is efficacious in cures when applied to the afflicted part of the body (although I’m not sure how bad one would have to feel to allow a desiccated hand to be rubbed on them). Another interesting use for it was the belief that it could also be used by someone who was committing a crime in the belief that it would render them invisible or help them evade capture. There is an interesting account where two thieves were apprehended in 1831 at loughcrew with a hand in their possession. An interesting tidbit found in the National Folklore Schools collection says the following: “If you go to the churchyard and take up a dead hand, take it home and clean it and leave it hung up behind the door it will take twice as much butter off the churning as you would get otherwise” (NFSC Vol.0267:070). Luckily there were a number of proven methods to stop people from stealing your profit. A number of these methods will be addressed next.


“Taking action”

To prevent your milk or butter from being stolen there were various safeguards you could employ to stop this from happening. People would have to be more vigilant on liminal days, such as mayday (described by Danaher as “a most important landmark in the Irish countryman’s year” (Danaher,1976:86)), when the threat of otherworldly forces was at it highest. It was a common practice of children on May eve to collect flowers to place on doorsteps, windowsills and in byres to protect the household and animals (ibid:86). These flowers can stop people with the power to ‘milk the dew’ by spreading them before the byre door on May-eve (NFSC, Vol.1038:362). These flowers were also tied, as a form of protection, to horns or tails of the cows or even to the churn dash itself (Danaher,1976:89). Hair can also be used for protection, with a hair spancel tied at the cow gap to prevent your cows being milked by fairies. Protection of the cows was also done by tying a red string to the tail after calving. This sort of protection was carried out because in many cases the cows of the people whose butter was stolen, went mad or got sick and died (Ní Bhradaigh, 1936:261).

Fire, salt and Iron are also Items that are efficacious in the prevention and nullification of these ill-boding forces, a factor that is not only confined to Ireland, but found in cultures across the globe. It would come as no surprise then that when looking at a profession that combines both fire and iron, that of a blacksmith, that they would feature in stories relating to the magical theft of butter or milk. Considering butter and butter making feature very prominently in Irish folklore it is no surprise that in my research I came across an account of a blacksmith who offered to help with “the cure” for butter stealing. The family in question were “black in the face” from trying to make butter. This cure involved the blacksmith having to make both a horse shoe and nails, both made by heating the iron in ‘different heats’ and placing them under the churn. The story then follows a  typical formula of the person who was stealing the butter is found in the form of a hare. It ends with everybody in the town getting their butter back (NFSC,IML.185:367-9). I found the inclusion of consulting the blacksmith in this story to be fairly unique as usually these types of tales involve a person just heating a piece of Iron and putting it into the milk to harm the person stealing the butter. In a society where butter stealing was a very real fear, I feel it speaks volumes about the status of the blacksmith in society due to the fact that he was consulted on in this matter in a situation like this. In another case where a blacksmith is indirectly involved in the cure, we are told how “among the locality there appears to have been a cure”. This involved a complicated ritual that got the butter back if “Worked properly”. The shoes for two male donkeys were to be “produced” (most likely from a blacksmith) and heated in a splendid fire”. This fire could have only red hot coals, no black sods of turf and there was to be no smoke in the room. As well as this the windows needed to be blinded and the door bolted. Similar to other tales where iron is used to dispel the evil force, the heated iron was to be placed inside the milk. One of the brothers had to hold the churn in its place to stop it from “jumping from place to place” in the kitchen. The ritual is “spoiled” though due to the door being opened but similar to other stories of this nature, we see that there has been a consequence of the hot Iron being placed into the milk. This action often has a direct effect on the person who is stealing the butter, and in this instance we see an old woman in the river next to house, splashing herself with water to cool down due to the heat generated from putting the red hot iron into the milk, and it affecting her in turn. She is identified as ‘being in league with the devil’ and being the one responsible for stealing the butter (NFSC:Vol.1042:69).

Diagnosis/cure:  the “witch” could be seen by wise man or victim by looking into a bowl of water.

There were 2 common rituals for the removal of the spell:

  • For the churn, it was linked to the hearth by the coulter and chains of the plough.
  • for milk supply of the beast, all openings of house blocked up. In a pot over the fire, new iron needles/pins placed into it with herbs and sometimes milk. Both these rituals were believe to bring the witch running in agony to make it stop begging that she will lift her own enchantment.

The connection to fire is also seen elsewhere with a prohibition on smoking and other lore associated with fire. I will address these next.


Smoking and fire related lore

In many areas there was a prohibition on smoking while the churning was taking place. The following examples illustrate this:

  • A man would not be let light his pipe whilst the woman of the house is churning (Volume 0095, Page 269). Mayo.
  • No one should smoke while churning (Volume 0705, Page 077). Meath.
  • If a person was making a churning and somebody was to go out smoking he was supposed to bring out the butter that would be in the churning with him. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030).
  • If a person comes in while you are churning and puts a coal in the his pipe and walks out without taking a hand at the churn, the churning will never be made until he comes back and puts back that coal under the churn. (NFSC Volume 0267, Page 070).
  • During the making of a churning, a live coal should not be taken from fire without being replaced by a [?] of turf. This is also to prevent the butter being taken. (NFSC Volume 0118, Page 48).


A few random pieces to finish

  • It is said that if a person puts a piece of a stick under the churn when churning it would keep the fairies from taking the butter. ( NFSC Volume 0705, Page 077).
  • You are not supposed to throw out water when making churning as it will bring the butter out with it. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030). *Proper disposal of water can be traced back to medieval times (cf . Eachtra Nerai, 12th century eachtra type tale and also the more modern practice of shouting “watch out” when throwing water out the door to alert and fairies in the vicinity so as not to anger them).
  • If there is thunder while the churning is made the butter will be white ( NFSC Volume 0112, Page 32).


In conclusion, we have seen just a brief selection of the lore attached to the everyday practice of dairy production. It is no surprise given the importance of both milk and butter to both the households economy and diet that there would be a wealth of superstitions relating to their production and that we would find a vast corpus of methods in preventing the stealing of these commodities, finding the culprits involved and the eventual return of the lost ‘profit’. The fact that these folk magic practices, whether they be the malicious ones for stealing or the apotropaic ones to avert the malevolent forces, remained in wide use up to the middle of the last century stands testament to  very real belief people had in these methods. Thank you for making it to the end of a relatively lengthy piece. Don’t forget to follow on facebook to keep up to date @





Bealoideas 48/49.

Britannia (1586).

Carey, J. (1999) A Single Ray of the Sun, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth.

Danaher, K. (1969), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier press, Cork.

Glassie, H. (1999) Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gregory.A, Beliefs and Visions in the West of Ireland.

Jenkins, R. (1991), Witches and Fairies: Supernatural Aggression and Deviance among the Irish Peasantry, in P. Naráez (ed), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays

Location: Gortnacart Glebe, Co. Donegal.

NFC,IML.185:367-9, Patrick Fitzsimons (55), Postman and farmer, Rosehill, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, Collector: P.J.Gaynor, 27th of January 1942.

NFSC Volume 0094, Page 474.

NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030.

NFSC Volume 0112, Page 32.

NFSC Volume 0199, Page 066.

NFSC Volume 0705, Page 077.

NFSC, Vol.0101:540, Informant: Sarah Mc Cormack, 48, Address, Rocksborough South, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Pádraig Pléimeann, School: Ceathrú Clochar, Location: Rocksborough South, Co. Mayo.

NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.

NFSC, Vol.1038:362.

NFSC, Vol.1038:362.

NFSC, Vol.1038:363, Teacher: Eamonn De Faoite, School: Urbal, Banagh, Killaghtee, Co Dún na Gall, 1938.

NFSC, Volume 0088E, Page 14_017

NFSC, Volume 0095, Page 269

NFSC, Volume 0107, Page 477.

NFSC, Volume 0108, Page 030.

NFSC, Volume 0118, Page 48.

NFSC, volume 0267, Page 070.

NFSC, Volume 0705, Page 077

NFSC, Volume 0773, Page 073.


NFSC:Vol.1042:69, Informant: Joseph Maguire, 60, Farmer, Clonconwal, Co.Donegal, Teacher: León Ó hÚallaigh, Gortnacart (roll number 15554),

Ní Bhrádaigh, C. (1936), Folklore of Co.Longford, Bealoideas, Iml. 6, Imh 2, December 1936, Cumann Le Bealoideas Éireann.

Rynne, C. (1998) At the Sign of the Cow: The Cork Butter Market, 1770-1924, Collins Press, Cork.

Topigraphica Hibernica.

Witchcraft and magic in Ireland.

Zuchelli, C. (2016) Sacred Stones of Ireland, Collins Press, Cork.

St John’s Eve/ Bonfire Night Traditions

DSC_0172.jpgThe 23rd of June brings us St Johns eve, also known as Bonfire night (or bonefire due to the practice of burning bones in fires). In past it was known as Oiche teine chnáimh or Teine Féil’ Eóin. This was once a very popular observance across the country with large fires being kindled and tended over from sunset until late into the night. Prayers were said to obtain blessing on crops. Young and old gathered around fires to dance and many games were played. Men competed in casting weights and other feats of strength, speed and agility. In limerick, youths collected a large leaf with a strong stem called the “hocusfian”. They would proceed to strike each person they met with the leaf in the belief that they would protect those who were struck would be protected from illness and malicious evil forces  for the coming year. These leaves were then burnt in the fire along with selected weeds considered troublesome in the hope that the fields would be protected from them for the coming year. Jumping the fires was also common and ashes from the fires were often spread in the fields ( The Year in Ireland, kevin Danaher).

The following examples of folklore are taken from The National Folklore Schools Collection, accessible online at Links are provided for each piece so you can view the original manuscript.


Bonfire night is a celebrated feast throughout the country. It is on the twenty third of June. The old people used to call it “Oidhche Fhéil Eoin”, but nowadays the people call it “Midsummer Night”.
The people always expect a change of weather at midsummer. If the weather is good up to midsummer they think that it will then change and that a bad harvest will follow. This year the weather is bad and the people are waiting anxiously for a change at midsummer because they think we will then have a good, dry, harvest.
The young people make preparations for bonfire night. They gather turf, sticks, shavings and fir. They light the fire a little after sundown. Generally there is a fire at every house and on a small hill a large fire is lighted.


The White Cat                                                                                                                                    The deep cave of Castle Cor situated about nine miles outside Mallow, contains many wonderful treasures, which are guarded by a white cat. This cat regains her human shape for a week every year at midsummer.


Bonfire night

This was that the fairies and witches were out on that night and they were riding on Broomsticks through the air, the fires are put up to keep them away.

It is said that the fairies on midsummer night come and they play sweet music and entice the people to come with them and take them to their caves and the people do not come back again.

After some years, some of the people comes back again and they never grow bigger and they always stay at the same seize as they went to the fairies caves.

The Fairies Ring

24-6-38 One midsummer night about thirty years ago a man called Paddy O’Hara was coming down the flags on Dalkey Hill. He heard music coming from the next field. He went in to the field and listened to the music. He saw a white ring in the grass in the grass with fairies with dancing around it. When they saw him they beat him with rocks and sticks. The next morning he was found half dead in the field. The fairy ring was gone.


The fire is lit when it is getting dark. All the children dance, sing, and roar around it. The people also light a torch and follow the cattle with it and make the sign of the cross over them with it. Most bonfires are lit on the top of hills.


Aeibhill, after being enchanted by her sister took up residence, as local tradition goes, in an underground palace also, situated at Castlecor, near Kanturk, Co. Cork, beneath an old cave hidden by trees. It is also said that she resumes her natural form for a week each year at midsummer, appearing as a beautiful maiden of twenty. She was regarded as the guardian spirit of the Dalcassian race, and Queen of the Fairies of North Munster. The King of Ireland, Brian Boru, is reported as saying on the evening of the Battle Clontarf, that Aeibhill came to him the previous night and told him he should fall that day.