The Fairy Bush

Hawthorn tree. Wikimedia Commons/Robin Somes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

The Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli.

Meeting the other crowd by Eddie lenihan.

NFSC, Vol.0112:356

NFSC,Vol.0956:207

NFSC,Vol.1038:37

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

Saint Declan’s Pattern Day

 

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

 

The Oratory

1010133_619694291455144_5610267886876686467_n
Photo copyright Shane Broderick

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

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

DSCF0764
Photo copyright Shane Broderick

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

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

 

The Round Tower and Cathedral

10458488_660396774051562_5734958697861351435_n
Photo copyright Shane Broderick

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

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

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

 

The Holy Well

DSC_0486-2
Photo copyright Shane Broderick

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_0489
Photo copyright Shane Broderick

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

DSC_0484
Photo copyright Shane Broderick

 

Saint Declans Stone

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

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

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

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

The Evil Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient accounts

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

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

 

 

Animal Folklore of Ireland Pt.1: Dog

DSC_0170

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

Supernatural Dogs

0000000000000000000000000000000000

 

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

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

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

Transformation

0000000000000000000000

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

Influence of Dogs on Names and Their Links With Heroes

00000000000000
Photo copyright Tony Mulrany @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/16913367@N02/4504310387

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

000000000000000.jpg
Spilsbury Taylor, Pattern at Glendalough (c 1816)

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

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

 

Gougane Barra

Photo courtesy of NicholasH on wikimedia commons

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

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

Croagh Patrick

Photo courtesy of Mark Waters

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

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

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

Faction fighting

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

some Irish fighting sticks /shillelagh

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Folklore of May-Day/ Bealtaine

DSC_1024.jpg

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

 

Butter Stealing, Witches and Hags as Hares

121126_TECH_butterchurn_cat.jpg.CROP.article250-medium.jpg
woman churning butter (1897)

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

 

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

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

Hag as a Hare

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

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

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

Flowers

DSC_1034.jpg
Hawthorn bloom

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

 

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

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

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

 

May-bush

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

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

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

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

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

Other Traditions and Customs

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibilography:

 

Bealoideas ix, 1939.

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

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

NFSC,Vol.0927:114.

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

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

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

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

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

Wilde.W (1852), Irish Popular Superstitions.

St Patrick: False Myths, Folklore and traditions of his Feast day

In this article, I ultimately aim to speak a bit of the historical Patrick, the mythological Patrick and to share some of the traditions associated with his feast day. Also due to the false information that proliferates the internet (mostly propagated by neo-pagans who favour sensationalist stories over actual research) I intend to bust some of those myths, namely the whole “All Snakes Day” and “the snakes he banished were a metaphor for the Druids” nonsense that pops up at this time of the year all over the internet. (caveat: I have nothing against pagans, I’m a practicing pagan myself, I just have an issue with the ill-informed, new age, fluffy bunny idiots who refuse to do proper research, who believe everything on the internet and who make stuff up as they go along).

As many know St. Patrick is regarded as the primary patron saint of Ireland. His elevated status to patron saint is mostly due to the falsely attributed fact of him introducing Christianity to Ireland (it should also be noted that his primacy was not always the case. It would appear that St. Brigid was the most venerated saint until the patriarchal Roman Church eclipsed the Celtic Church). In my opinion the feminine should be embraced considering Ireland herself is considered feminine and named after the Goddess Éirú, but that is a story for another day! (see my other article about Brigid and her origin as a pan-celtic Goddess) . It should also be noted that while spring time is intrinsically bound up with the feminine, i.e. birth and fertility, it is no coincidence that a powerful male character such as Patrick and his feast was imposed around the time of the vernal equinox.

One of the biggest falsely attributed “facts” to the saint is the belief of him bringing Christianity to Ireland. This new religion was not unknown to natives when Patrick returned here to preach the word of the new God. The traditional date for Patrick’s return to Ireland is 432 AD. Paladius had been sent here a year or so before as a bishop to “a people who believed in Christ”, meaning that there was already a number of converted people here prior to Patrick’s return. There were also several pre-patrician saints here many years prior to his coming, such as Declan of Ardmore. Additionally, Irish colonies in Wales and Cornwall would have had contact with early Christianity in Britain and brought it back over. Many would argue that Patrick never moved much further away from his seat in Armagh, which goes against multiple stories of him travelling the length and breadth of the country.

The Historical Patrick

Not much is known of the real Patrick and the only surviving writings generally attributed to him are his Confessio and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus (both can be read on the confession.ie website. Here you will find commentaries on the works and also view the extant manuscripts). Patrick was not, as many believe, Irish but was in fact Romano-British. He came from an ecclesiastical family where his father and grandfather were both deacon and priest. His real name was believed to be Maewyn Succat. He was captured by Irish raiders somewhere around his sixteenth year and brought back to Ireland as a slave to be a swineherd. It was here through vigorous praying and fasting where he got his message from god and had visitations by angels. He would escape back to Britain only to return later to convert the populous. In his own writings (if they are indeed his) he comes across as simple and humble, a far cry from how he was later portrayed in his hagiography as the Druid battling, demon smiting, miracle performer. Unfortunately, it is from these much later pseudo-historical works that many people draw their “facts” about Patrick.

The Mythological Patrick

The earliest Saints’ Lives of Patrick did not emerge until centuries after his death. Muirchú, a successor of Cogitosis (who had written the life of St. Brigid), wrote one of the Lives and Bishop Tírechán wrote the other (Tíreachán’s was more of a collectania than a chronological life). Both are highly fantastical but offer differing attitudes towards Druids especially and are heavy with biblical allegory when relating to Patrick battling his pagan adversaries, namely the Druids and the staunchly pagan King Loegaire.  This brings me to the point I mentioned above: the false belief that Patrick slaughtered and wiped out the Druids here in Ireland. There are a plethora of online articles, blogs and YouTube videos of ill-informed, un-educated, idiotic neo-pagans crying that their ancestors were murdered in the multitudes by Patrick. A “fact” that is utterly unsubstantiated and unfounded. Their protestations of not wearing green, calling it “All Snakes Day” and wearing black are utterly ridiculous. There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography.  These are the same sort of people who falsely claim that the snakes that Patrick banished were in fact a metaphor for pagans or Druids. This again is untrue.  The story of the banishment of the snakes doesn’t appear until much later (The imagery of Patrick banishing all snakes from Ireland stems from a separate Life of the Saint, written by Jocelyn of Furness late in the twelfth century) and in all of the Saints’ Lives, Druids are mentioned by name and never in a cryptic matter so this sudden use of a metaphor makes no sense. There are other instances in hagiography where a serpent is banished at a lake by a Saint (cf. Colmcille and the Loch Ness monster and St.Finbarr and the Péist at Gougane Barra) which could be looked at as the new religion banishing the old but in this particular instance with Patrick it just does not fit or make sense. Paganism and Druids did not just disappear overnight when Patrick arrived. For centuries later they pop up in the manuscripts in ways that show us they were, without a doubt, still around. A hymn protecting against the “spells of wrights and Druids” corroborates this as does the inclusion of Druids in Brehon Law texts (some centuries after Patrick’s death). Just as the new religion had repackaged many of the earlier traditions, it appears that the Druids took a similar approach and repackaged themselves as the professional poet class, the “filidh” (the etymology of which is originally thought to have meant “seer”). These poets were second only to the king and continued to have a very high status up until the battle of Kinsale and the so-called “Flight of the Earls” in the 1600’s.  My ranting aside, I will now share with you the traditions associated with the feast of the saint.

The Traditions of his Feast Day.

St-Patrick-cross.jpg
St Patrick’s cross

 

In the not so distant past, before all the green beer and dying rivers green (or any other plastic paddy tomfoolery) there were many traditions associated with the day. One of the most recognisable to still survive would be the wearing of shamrock. I will be using some examples from the National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) now digitised on Ducas.ie. This was a project run in the school year of 1937-8 where schools across the country tasked the children with collecting folklore from relatives and neighbours. This also helped Identify the richest areas to collect folklore for the larger national collection that was to follow. In addition, I will be using some examples from Kevin Danaher’s excellent book “The Year in Ireland” which focuses on the calendar customs of Ireland. Some of the traditions are as follows:

St. Patrick’s Day Crosses and wetting the shamrock

An entry in the NFSC notes that : all girls used to wear crosses on St. Patrick’s Day to honour the saint. They took 2 pieces of stiff cardboard, one longer than the other, covered the pieces with nice silk and sewn them together in the shape of a cross. They would collect the silk or satin for a few months before and as the time drew closer they’d sew them onto the cross. It was worn on left arm on the day and for the whole week after in school. There wasn’t any meas (respect) on any girl who didn’t have one. The brighter the colours the better and more proud the girls were of them. The biggest horse fair in Munster used to be held on St. Patrick’s Day but was changed to the 18th due to St. Patrick’s Day being a national holiday. A grandmother of a the collector used to go to the crossroads to watch all the horses galloping passed and it was “as good as being at the races”.  All the grown-up boys and girls used to attend the fair as well as newlywed couples who would attend in their wedding garments. “Every tinker in Munster used to attend”. They would occupy their time by trading. Some [traveller] families specialized in selling horses while others dealt in donkeys (NFSC, Vol. 0448:198). Although this account only mentions girls, a similar cross was wore by boys.

Another account of the cross mentions that the crosses were made in school the day before. Each child carried an egg into school. The yoke was used to colour the yellow part, while the green part was coloured by the juice of some plant. If any eggs were left over they were sold and sweets were bought for the children with the money. Along with the badges they wore shamrock. Men wore shamrock in their caps until Palm Sunday when they wore palm instead (NFSC, Vol. 0571:197).

Kevin Danaher, the respected folklorist says that both the crosses and “wetting the shamrock” (going for a drink,) are two of the oldest traditions that can be traced back the furthest. St. Patrick’s Day was also a cheat day during Lent which allowed for indulgence. (In fact eating meat on the day as part of Lenten indulgence was mentioned in the 12th century life by Jocelyn). This is attested a in an account (c.1681) by an English traveller, Thomas Dinley. He says: “The 17th day of March yearly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable (fixed date) feast when the Irish of all stations and condicions wore crosses in their hats, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitious wear shamrouges, 3 leaved grass, which they likewise eat  (they say) to cause a sweet breath. The common people and servants also demand their Patricks groat of their masters, which they goe expressly to town, though half a dozen miles off, to spend, where sometimes it amounts to a piece of 8 or cobb or piece, and very few of the zealous are found sober at night” (Danaher, 1996:58).  This tradition was also found outside Ireland within the Irish diaspora and It was recorded in 1713 in London by Dean Swift. His account mentions that he has seen so many people wearing crosses on the day that he thought “all the world was Irish”. These types of cross eventually died out (but many examples survive in museums), eventually giving way to the harp shaped badge and green ribbon rosette that were common in more modern times (Danaher,1996:63).  The “wetting of the shamrock” expression comes from the practice of dropping the shamrock in the final drink of the evening and when the glass has been emptied, the shamrock is removed and tossed over the left shoulder.

Another entry in the NFSC recounts that “On St. Patrick’s Day the people wear shamrocks and long ago they used wear a black sally cross on the right shoulder” (NFSC, Vol. 0547:81). It gives no further explanation of this type of cross but another account in the NFSC possibly sheds some light on this. It says that “one custom that is dying out is the making of a cross on the sleeve with a stick that is partly burned” (NFSC, Vol. 0640:40). This tradition is further elaborated on in an entry from Kilkenny. It says that the head of the family burned a hazel rod and marked a cross on each person’s arm. The significance of it being a hazel rod is explained as being due to the fact that the snakes were banished by Patrick with a hazel rod (NFSC, Vol. 0868:046).

We see a number of the traditions listed on the following short account, likewise found in the NFSC: “On that day Mass is celebrated in each church, and hymns to St. Patrick are sung. Each man, woman and child is wearing a bunch of shamrocks. Some are wearing green harps and badges of St. Patrick. After Mass, crowds of young men playing bands, and carrying banners, march through the towns, followed by admiring crowds. That night Ceilidhs, and Irish concerts are held. Boxes of shamrocks are sent to our absent friends in foreign lands” (NFSC,Vol.1037:145).

However you celebrate your St. Patrick’s Day, have a good one! I hope you enjoyed learning about the feast of the patron saint of Ireland! la fhéile pádraig shona daoibh (happy Saint Patricks day)

Blacksmiths and the supernatural

DSC_0130.jpg
Traditional forge. Copyright Shane Broderick Photography

This article will be focusing on the blacksmith in Ireland and how the world of the supernatural is intrinsically bound up with this craftsman. Blacksmiths have for millennia been a member of high status in the community and this status survived in rural Ireland until the decline of the craft in modern times(Mac Cana, 1997:34).  Their ability to turn raw materials such as iron ore or bog iron into usable tools and weapons made them seem like they were in possession of magic. Because of them working with iron, which is almost universally thought of as warding off evil, it is believed to imbue the smith with special powers or the ability to see or defeat evil. The suspicion of this power, perhaps mostly from the church is reflected in the 8th century hymn to protect people from the “spells of women, smiths and druids” (Kelly, 1988:62). We will see this opposition of the church reflected in a story below. They are often depicted as being of an unnatural size or have superhuman strength or stamina. Many folktales and mythological stories feature blacksmiths or blacksmithing gods showing the significance of the blacksmith in society. For this project I will be drawing mostly from the National Folklore Collection. I will also be using some examples from the Schools Collection as well as references from published books. My research is focused mostly, which the exception of one story, on the English language material I came across. I picked this subject as it is something I have had an interest in for a number of years and also I assumed that due to the fact that there was once a blacksmith in every town that there could possibly be an ample supply of interesting stories that would not only be interest the casual reader but would also broaden my own knowledge on the subject. I would like to begin by giving a brief overview of how the National Folklore Collection came into being and its importance.

In light of a quickly changing society, The Folklore of Ireland Society was set up in 1927 to document as much folk tradition as possible. Following this The Irish folklore Institute was set up in 1930. The government quickly realised that it would need a better equipped organisation and this was the impetus for the setting up of the Irish Folklore Commission in 1935. It was then that professional collectors, both full and part-time, travelled the length and breadth of country to record the native traditions. The collection is now made up of both the national collection (NFC) and also the schools collection (NFSC). The main collection ran from 1935-70 and the schools collection was carried out over the school year of 1937-8. Due to lack of man power and funding the collecting was not as effective as it could have been and many aspects of folk tradition were overlooked in favour of others. Irish speaking areas were favoured which is reflected in the larger portion of the collected material being in Irish. This makes it harder for any foreign scholarship to be carried out. Even though it was not as thorough as it could have been it still amounts to one of the largest ethnographic archives in the world and is ultimately an archive of national identity. For many years to come it will allow people to study the echoes of the past preserved within the archive.

Curing or Cursing

photo copyright TW Photography

In the course of my research I noticed a bit of a trend. It would appear to be advantageous for all involved to stay on the good side of a blacksmith. It is a recurring theme referred to time and time again, in both the NFC and also in the schools collection, that the blacksmith is both capable of curing people or cursing them. In cursing it would appear that the anvil, one of the principle tools of the blacksmith, is instrumental in acting out the curse. This may have to be either facing a certain direction or rotated a certain direction, i.e Deiseal or Tuathal (clockwise or anti-clockwise).

Máire ní Carthaigh offers 2 Items told to her by her father on the subject, the first of which tells of how one goes about getting a curse placed on someone. She says that “If you want something to befall your neighbour, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse”. The curse itself is not mentioned, which is usual, and neither is the repercussion of curse. The second story, called “The anvil curse” features the same sort of formula in relation to the pointing of the anvil to the East. This is more narrative based and is centred around a bailiff trying to evict people on Easter Sunday. It recounts how a number of men went to the forge and knelt around the anvil to pray. Instead of uttering a curse they would periodically get up and strike the anvil. This ultimately prevented the landlord from evicting his tenants. (NFC, IML.80:283).

A more malevolent version of the blacksmiths curse can be seen in the Schools Collection. The result of the curse can be seen in this tale, although unlike the previous tale the process of the curse is not revealed.  In this account Séamus Ó hOighleáin tells us how it is believed that the blacksmith shares this ability with the miller and that “he could do any enemy to death by turning the anvil on him”. He mentions that the methodology is unknown, that “how he turned it or what were the word of the malediction is unknown” but the aftermath is clearly seen later in the tale. This also features a landlord that was found dead at the exact hour of the “turning of the anvil”. It expresses that his skin was all black and that there was no doubt that he had been “done to death by the curse” (NFSC,Vol 0119:507). It is interesting in this account that the curse is thought of as being a trade secret, adding to the air of mystery surrounding the blacksmith.

One would think that given their ability to curse and ultimately kill people that they would be avoided but they were also sought out for cures. Like elsewhere in folklore, i.e the 7th son of a 7th son, this healing ability seems to be more efficacious when performed by a seventh generation blacksmith. Although said to be rare these were seen as having “all sorts of cures” for many different ailments. (NFC,Iml:1457:561). In the course of my research I came across two instances related to healing where the blacksmith was successful where doctors had failed. One of these interestingly involved a seventh generation smith as mentioned above. The smith was said to be well known to have had “cures from herbs and arrowroot”. The focus on this narrative though is on the banishment of a changeling that was thought to be a sickly child. When the mother of the child goes to the smith for a cure after the doctors had failed he advises her to go home and say that the woods next to the house are on fire. Upon hearing this the “child” rises out of the cradle exclaiming that “me children will all be burned” and eventually the child was returned (NFC,Iml.1457:667-9).  This is very similar to a tale offered up by John Gallivan (NFC,Iml.485:55-60) in Sligo, 90km away. This also involves a sickly child that doctors can do nothing for. The wits of the blacksmith once again prevail with the solution being the same. The husband runs in saying the fort is on fire and the changeling leaves to save his wife and children with the child being returned soon after. This tale however does not claim that the blacksmith has any other experience with herbalism or other cures. It was not the only fairy related tale I encountered. One tale attributes the skill of a blacksmith to the fairies, due to the fact he was on good terms with them (NFC, IML.485:188-9). This attribution of an exceptional skill to the fairies is not unknown elsewhere in Irish folklore. One of the only Irish language examples I translated deals with the same theme. A man on his deathbed, who was attended by two doctors that were unable to help him was healed by a blacksmith (NFC, Iml:1836:190-1). What I find interesting about this tale is that it includes a section where the priest attacks the blacksmith due to the fact he thinks that a priest should be better than a blacksmith at healing. This makes it seem like it is believed to be against the church. This was fairly unique in relation to the idea of the blacksmith being contra religion in regard to the religious themed stories I will talk of later, although it does echo the hymn guarding against the spells of smiths.

Butter stealing

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 very 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. (NFC,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 is able to help in a situation like this.

Size and Strength

These topics were probably the most numerous in my research of the schools collection where it was second only to the practical side of blacksmithing. These examples often describe blacksmiths as being of a large size and capable of superhuman feats of strength. The “test of strength” motif seems to be very popular in relation to tales of blacksmiths. One such tale tells of a smith who could “lift a pony over his head” and is described as “over six feet tall with a very long beard”. I found the mention of the long beard to be interesting due to the fact that many depictions of blacksmith gods such as Vulcan (roman) and Hephaestus (Greek) are shown as bearded. Of course many of the later celtic versions of these gods took on similar appearances. Lifting the pony was not he only feat of strength mention here. During a raid by English troops, he was said to have picked up a huge boulder and threw it at the troops. The result was that it had left a huge hole in the wall (NFC,IML.1405:167-8). Lifting great weights seem to be the most common of these feats of strength. Pádraig Téidina offers three stories in the schools collection of a local smiths renowned for their strength. The first two concern the same smith named “Séan an Gabar”. Interestingly one of these also features the smith lifting a horse over his head (NFSC,Vol.0647:270). The second tale tells of how he was unequalled in terms of strength. It tells of how even at the age of thirteen, Séan an Gabar was able to carry half a hundred weight for a hundred yards with ease, to the astonishment of everyone (NFSC,Vol.0647:268). The final story he had to offer was in relation to a different smith also capable of superhuman feats of strength. In this instance he is able to lift two anvils with one hand over his head and pass them to his other hand (NFSC,Vol.0647:271). . The final 2 examples of this “test of strength” I wish to include are very similar to each other in some regard. In the first I would also like to bring to attention the fact that both the smiths involved in this contest are described as being “like giants” (NFC, IML.437:187-8). The similar aspects, involving the lighting of a pipe from a cinder placed on top of an anvil that is picked up and handed to the other can also be found in the tale “The blacksmith and the Horseman” found in Sean O Sullivan’s book “Folktales of Ireland” (O Sullivan,1966:253). The lifting of the anvil with one hand occurs again and again and is no doubt beyond the ability of any normal person.

Tales of a religious nature

These examples that follow were collected from blacksmiths and are of an etiological nature and are connected to either Jesus or the Blessed Virgin. The first explains why the jaws of a blacksmiths tongs are uneven due to the fact that he made a pin out of the top of the jaws for the Blessed Virgin, to wrap a cloak around Jesus. This tale offers an interesting link to “forge water”, i.e water from the trough also. This mentions that a blacksmith can replenish his stamina from washing his hands in the trough due to the Blessed Virgin blessing the water (NFC, IML.815:48-9). The act of the blacksmith washing his hands to regain strength is a question featured in “The Handbook of Irish Folklore”. Water from the trough is also seen in many cases to have curative properties such as for curing warts (NFC, IML.407:64). The second story offered by this informant tells of why the blacksmith is prosperous and lucky while the tin-smith or “tinker” is often a tramp with no permanent abode. The blacksmiths refusal to make nails for the crucifixion, while the Tinker was willing to do is the explanation for this (NFC, IML.815:50). A similar tale to this was offered up by another blacksmith. This states that there is a geis or taboo on blacksmiths to hammer a nail on Good Friday. Its states that both the blacksmith and the forge are lucky due to his refusal to make the crucifixion nails (NFC, IML.482:560).

Conclusion

The material I found seems to paint the blacksmith as much more than just a normal person. Their special status is reflected in the fact that they are consulted on supernatural matters such as the butter stealing and the banishment of changelings. The superhuman feats of strength and larger than life size of the blacksmiths mentioned add to this and almost show them as a quasi-mythical figure. In making him seem as something outside the normal realm, it in effect turns the blacksmith into a liminal figure. When you take into account that often forges were placed on the outskirts of villages (due to fire risk) this point becomes more valid, a liminal character in a liminal space so to speak. Overall I was happy with the examples I found in my research. I do believe that only sticking to the English material for the most part might have limited my results but I believe the material I found illustrates adequately that the life of the blacksmith was inherently bound up with the world of the supernatural

Bibliography

1.1: NFC,IML.80:283, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.

1.2: NFC,IML.80:286, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.

1.3: NFSC,Vol.0119:507, Séamus Ó hOighleáin, Garryroe, Co.Mayo.

1.4: NFC, IML.1457:561, Hugh Corrigan (60),Blacksmith, Taumagh, Collector:James Delany,Druimlish, Co.Longford,

1.5: NFC,IML.1457:561, Hugh Corrigan (60),Blacksmith, Taumagh, Collector:James Delany,Druimlish, Co.Longford,

1.6: NFC,Iml.485:55-60, JohnGallivan (90), pensioner, Drumshinagh, Co.Sligo, Collector: Brígid Ní Gamnáin, Drumshinagh, Baile an Dúan, , pp55-60.

1.7: NFC,IML.1836:190-1, Tomás O Suilleabáin (80), farmer, Baile an tobar, Co.Galway, collector: Prionnsias De Búrca, 3/2/73.

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

1.9: NFC,IML.1405:167-8, Máire Nic Aindruí (80), housewife, Béal-an-Murtid, Mayo, Collector: Áine Ní Ruadáin, 4th April 1955.

1.10: NFC, IML.437:187-8, Johnny Hayes, (—) operator, Horetown, Co.Wexford, Collector: Tomás O Ciardha, Baile Cuillín, Wexford.

1.11: NFC, IML.815:48-51, Joseph McEntee (46), Blacksmith, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, P.J.Gaynor, Bailieboro, Co.Cavan, 2nd January 1942.

1.12: NFC, IML.482:560, Hugh Corrigan, Blacksmith.

1.13: NFC, IML.407:64, Pádraig Mac Doniraill (70), Bainishteior, castletown, limerick, Collector: Peadar Mac Doniraill,,Castletown, Limerick.

1.14: NFC, IML.485:188-9, Mrs.Higgins (60), Doonsheheen, Co.Sligo, Collector: Brígid M. Ní Gamnáin, Baile an Dún, Sligo, 23 April 1938.

Schools collection:

2.1: NFSC: Vol.0647:270, Tomás Ó Míodhcáin, Boolavonteen, Co.Waterford, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

2.2: NFSC, Vol.0647:268, Seamus Ó hAnnracháin, Ballynamult, Co.Waterford, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

2.3: NFSC, Vol.0647:271, Liam De h-lideberg, Dungarvan, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

Published Material:

O Sullivan.S (1966), Folktales Of Ireland, Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, London, pp.253-4.

Kelly.F (1988), A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp.62.

Mac Cana.P (1997), Celtic Mythology, Reed International Books Limited, Hong Kong, pp.34

Saint Brigid’s day Traditions

2bf6cc1d-921b-8cb6-5753f65cf9614c86

The first of February sees the feast day of one of the premier saints in the Irish tradition, Saint Brigid. Brigid is second in line to the more well Known Saint Patrick but evidence points to the fact that she may well have been higher up the scale till the patriarchal Roman Church and its customs eclipsed that of the “Celtic” church. While the historical personage of Patrick can be proved to have existed, the existence of Brigid lies in much murkier waters with no writings surviving from her time. We do however have no shortage of “saints lives” pertaining to Brigid, the earliest of which was written by Cogitosus (the predecessor of Muirchú, Patrick’s biographer) in an attempt to gain primacy for the church of Kildare over Armagh (Brigid over Patrick). The church later reviewed many of the fifth and sixth century Irish saints, demoting a number of them so they were no longer “calendar saints”, that being saints who have a feast day (O’Cathasaigh,1982:76). Brigid and Patrick both survived this cut with Patrick better fitting the patriarchal model of the Roman Church and becoming the premier saint of the country. There is ample proof however that Brigid is most likely a continuation of the earlier goddess Brigid/ Brigantia who was worshipped around the country and beyond. The tutelary Goddess of Leinster became its tutelary saint and prominent Celticists such as Myles Dillon, Nora Chadwick and Prionsios MacCana infer that Brigid is the personification of the Celtic goddess.  Synchretism like this is not uncommon, especially in Ireland, where the new faith adopted practices and beliefs of the pagans in order to ease the conversion. Because of this the saint took on many of the attributes of the earlier Goddess. It is no coincidence either that her feast day coincides with the ancient festival of Imbolc, the start of spring in the ancient Irish calendar. In this article I will be looking at the saint and of course some of the plethora of traditions that are associated with Saint Brigid’s day.

 

st20brigids20fire20temple20001l
Photo credit: Megalithic Ireland

Brigid is traditionally said to have been the abbess of a monastery in Kildare where her and her nuns tended a perpetual fire, recorded as a perpetual “ashless fire” according to Geraldus Cambrensis  in 1196 (O’Cathasaigh,1982:82). Liminality is a recurrent theme with the character of Brigid. Born at a liminal time in a liminal place, She is said to have been born on the threshold of a door (neither within or without the house) and at the breaking of dawn (neither day or night). This liminality can also be seen in her association with a red-eared white cow, an animal always associated with the otherworld and the Daoine Sídhe (fairies). Until fairly recently the cult of the saint remained relatively intact across the country but with some various regional differences (O’Cathasaigh,1982:87). Sean O Suilleabhain, the archivist of the National Folklore Collection, recorded many pilgrimages to holy wells, sacred streams and ruins for the saint. The biggest of these is to a shrine in the townland of Faughart, Co. Louth (the supposed birthplace of the saint). Here the cult of the saint still survives and flourishes to this day. Also in Faughart there was mention of the ruins of an ancient church to be found in The Ordnance Survey Letters (1836). The church is mentioned as “Teampull Brighde Na hAirde” and also mentioned is “Brigid’s Stone”. The stone is most likely the base of a high cross. What is interesting is that the hill has much earlier pagan associations with megalithic tombs, souterrains, and raths in the area (O’Cathasaigh,1982:90). Also to be found in the area are rag bushes with many offerings left at them.

 

As well as Brigid’s Stone there are also a number of other stones associated with her. Stones in the area feature marks that tell of a story when she tried to escape a suitor and plucked out one of her eyes to make herself less attractive. The marks on these stones recount every movement of the saint throughout this tale and go by names such as the headstone, hoof-mark stone, the waist stone and the eye stone (the one that healed the eye she had taken out). The etiological tales (i.e tales explaining the origin of something, especially unusual features of the landscape) explaining the marks on stones are plentiful throughout the country (such marks are not unique to Ireland and can be found elsewhere (cf. the knee marks of saint Peter and Paul outside the church of saint Francis in Rome where they prayed to defeat the magician Simon Magus). Due to the durability and impenetrability of stone these marks are often attributed to supernatural or superhuman characters as they alone are capable of changing the surface of the stones by touching them. These marks are often found attributed to otherworldly women or heroes when found on standing stones and are frequently attributed to saints from the early Celtic church such as the case above with Brigid (oftentimes to emphasise the power of the new faith), when dealing with the hollows of ballaun stones and such. Early saints often left marks on boulders from knees, hands heads etc. This tradition is especially prevalent in Leinster where the stones are often called Gloonan stones (stemming from the Irish word Glúin for knee). Tradition holds that many of the depressions of these stones hold curative powers when the accumulated water gathered from the hollows is used. (Zucchelli,2016: 90).

 

The feast/ festival and its traditions

As with many important feasts and festivals in the Irish calendar, the eve of the festival is just as crucial, if not more so, than the day itself. The traditions of the feast have been recorded in both the National Folklore Collection (hereafter NFC) and the Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) with others extant to this day.

A sod or two was often turned in a tillage field. Wind direction on the eve of the festival was carefully noted as the prevailing wind during the coming year. The day of the festival itself should show signs of improving weather but if it was too good it was an omen of bad weather to come. In some areas, especially in parishes dedicated to the saint, only work that was strictly necessary was carried out and in some areas of Kerry and west Cork any kind of work that involved the turning of wheels was avoided. In other regions both ploughing and smithwork fell under this ban.

Also, on the eve of the festival (31st Jan), called Brídeóg Night in some areas, the children of

c7632a263311b49bd22300624c6c64a5
Brídeóg

the district went out from door to door. They would disguise themselves in old clothes or in their own clothes turned inside out. They would mask their face with pieces of cloth or curtains, sometimes using straw or rush hats to keep the veils on. The Brídeóg, called miss biddy in this instance, was a doll made from old rags or a butter churn dressed up. The person recounting this tale mentions that in this case a turnip was carved and painted with soot. The groups of young people were divided into two groups by age: 8-13 and 13-20. They would play music at each house to receive money or sweets (NFSC,Vol.0126:270). A rhyme of some description was said as the door was answered. This again varied to some degree by district but was fundamentally the same. In Leckanvy, Co. Mayo the rhyme went as follows:

 

“Here comes poor Brigid both deaf and blind,

Put your hand in your pocket and give her a coin

If you haven’t a penny, a half penny will do

If you haven’t a halfpenny god bless you”

(NFSC,VOL.1038:107)

Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”.

dsc_0063
Brigid’s Cross

These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw. These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigids cross (some 3 legged varieties are to be found in the north and the more complex containing up to 30 lozenges, crosspieces or lattices. These diamond or lozenge crosses are found in all provinces but are most commonly found in Connaught and Munster (O’Danaher, 1972:16).On St Brigid’s Eve a member of the family would gather rushes and leave them at the door. At nightfall a member of the family would go outside and call to the people in the house to let Brigid in. They all shout a welcome while on their knees and this is repeated 3 times. The family then made crosses from the rushes and the following day holy water was sprinkled on them. The crosses are thought to protect against lightning, fire and protect animals from diseases (NFSC,Vol.1048:197). T.G.F Paterson recorded that in 1955 in Armagh that the custom of making crosses was dying out. He also mentions that the reeds for the crosses were to be pulled and on no account cut. The household had a special meal that evening (called Brigid’s tea/supper) featuring pancakes (Paterson,1955:17). A sheaf of oats or cake was thrown at the door to vanquish hunger but a second was left outside for the saint or a hungry traveller. An abundance of butter and milk could be found on the table (Cathasaigh,1982:88). In times gone by there were no ceilings inside the houses so it was common to attach the crosses to the inner side of the thatch with new ones being added year after year. When they could be no longer preserved they should under no circumstances be thrown away. They were to be either buried (to bestow a blessing on the crops) or burned in the fire. Giving them as gifts was said to put a blessing on the maker and their welfare was increased by the gift of bestowal and friendships would be strengthened in the donor and recipient (Paterson,1955:18). One of the earliest references to the cross is from a poem from 1735 that illustrates the power that the crosses were said to have. The poem goes as follows:

 

“St Bridget’s cross hung over door

Which did the house from fire secure

O Gillo thought, O powerfull charm

To keep a house from taking harm;

And tho’ the dogs and servants slept,

By Bridgets care the house was kept.”

This belief in the protection against fire, and also lightning, still persists today. It was also believe that they had the ability to ward off disease and that evil spirits were unable to enter the house while they were hung over the door. In some districts rushlights were made from the excess and lit in honour of the saint while in parts of Antrim a tradition was recorded where the excess rushes were fashioned into a ring and hung on the spinning wheel to bring a blessing on its work for the coming year (Danaher, 1972:18).

Some other traditions, recorded by Nuala McGinty, in the Schools collection are that every person working at sea take their clothes outside and shake them saying “Bratóg Bríde”. No one should go outside after dark and as well as making crosses people tie wreaths around their head to prevent headaches for the year. They kneel and pray while asking her to come in. They say the rosary after making the crosses (NFSC,Vol.1083:56).

Yet another common practice spanning many regions is the of Brat Bríde. This practice involves leaving a piece of

brat_bride_on_bush
Brat bride

cloth or ribbon outside before dawn to collect dew. This was carefully kept aside (as it was believed to have curative powers). The brat, often a tie, belt or braces were left out and worn by men whenever they engaged in any dangerous work for protection. The ribbon would be hung on the door so the saint would touch it or left outside. It was particularly useful against pains in the head such as headache, earache or toothache (O’Danaher,1972:33)

 

In her book Festival of Lughnasa, Maire MacNeill says that St Brigid’s feast as well as that of Bealtine and Samhain are feasts that can be held in the dwelling place. They are important to the social unit of the household. In the case of Brigid, there is much effort in preparing the household and there is a high level/ atmosphere of expectation on the eve of the feast. A symbolic extra place might be set for the visiting saint or a bed of straw made. Ashes are smoothed over and made flat and surrounded by a rolled up cloth to stop them being disturbed by wind. They are inspected in the morning to look for the marks of the wand of bride or especially the footprints. The footprints meant that Brigid was there overnight and they, the household, were especially favoured. They could expect an increase in their household, field, crops or flock. If there was no sign it was seen that they had offended her and they would burn incense and offer an oblation. This oblation was generally a cockerel buried alive at a junction of three streams (O’ Catháin,1992:8). Scholarship strongly implies that the goddess Brigid functioned as a household protector (O’Cathasigh,1982:72). This also seems to point to Christian-pagan synchronism and can be seen in the prayer to the saint to protect house when banking down the fire at night.

These are not by any means an exhaustive list of the traditions associated with the saint and her feast but I hope they illustrate the importance of the festival in the Irish calendar. Thank you for taking the time to read and I hope it kept your interest. Feel free to comment and share.

Bibliography

NFSC, Vol.0126:270, Collector: Rita Cunney, corrower, Mayo,Informant:Mr +Mrs Cunney, Corrower, Co.Mayo

NFSC,Vol>1048:197,Informant Hugh Melly(70), tullycleave, Ardara.

 

Ó Catháin.S, Hearth-Prayers and Other Traditions of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 122 (1992), pp. 12-34.

 

O’Cathasaigh, Donal. “The Cult of Brigid: A Study of Pagan-Christian Syncretism in Ireland.” In Mother Worship: Theme and Variations. Ed. James J. Preston. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Paterson.T.G.F, Harvest knots and Brigids Crosses,ULSTER FOLKLIFE 1955.

Zucchelli.C (2016), Sacred Stones of Ireland, Collins press.

Danaher.K (1976), The Year in Ireland, mercier press.

Christmas Folklore

tumblr_ngzqu8owh41sq3zvjo1_1280A few Christmas themed traditions dealing with christmas eve, Christmas day and St.Stephens night. Some have been taken from the schools collection of folklore (NFSC hereafter), collected from around the country during the school year of 1937-8. (This collection can be viewed online at Ducas.ie) The other source is from Kevin danaher’s book- The year in Ireland.

St.stephen’s day:

  • people who don’t eat meat on the day will not be sick during the year (NFSC, Volume 0787, Page 56)

    wrenboys
    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).

Christmas Day

 

  • Every Christmas log fires used be light (sic) and all the family sat around and the old people told stories. On Christmas morning when they went to Mass they took a few wisps of straw from the crib, brought them home and put one under the rafters of each cabin and under the beds. This was supposed to bring good luck. The old people say it isn’t right to wear anything new on Christmas day but to keep it until New Year’s Day. It is right to leave the doors open and unlocked on Christmas night as the Blessed Virgin is supposed to visit each house on that night. The people say that on Christmas night the animals talk. There was a boy long ago who did not believe this. One Christmas night he stole into the stable and lay down beside the horse to see would he hear him talking. Just at midnight he heard one horse say to another ‘This day week i will be carrying this boy to the graveyard’. That boy died a few days afterwards and he was taken to the graveyard on the very day the horse had said. On Christmas night also all animals go down on their knees and they all get an extra sheaf of straw on that night (NFSC, vol.0096:653).
  • Donegal: Christmas pies in the shape of cradles to represent the manger of Bethlemham (Danaher,1972:237).
  • Hearing crickets chirp behind the hob on Christmas was considered to be a source of good fortune for the coming year (Danaher,1972:241).

Christmas Eve:

  • The decorations usually fell to the kids who would collect holly, ivy bay and other evergreens and take them home. These were hung with string and thread or stitched onto fabric. Holly with berries was especially prized (Danaher,1972:233).
  • Farmers  gave gifts of meat, often corned beef  from the animals that had been slaughtered at Martinmas (Danaher,1972:237).
  • Lighting candle and placing in the window for the blessed vigin as she travels from
    3134025849_4c269f1d06_q
    Image credit: Sugargliding, Flickr

    house to house.  No one leaves their own house on the day. Games are played. A Decorated tree is taken into the kitchen at tea time and children dance around it and sing (NFSC, vol.0788:120). The lighting of the candle was often done by the youngest child (Danaher,1972:238).

  • If the principle candle went out for no reason it was considered a bad omen and could foretell a death in the family (Danaher,1972:238).
  • A new moon on Christmas Eve was considered a good omen (Danaher,1972:240).