Animal Folklore of Ireland Pt.1: Dog


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



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 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:



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

Photo copyright Tony Mulrany @

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: and don’t forget to follow my page on facebook :



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

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.



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