One of the most striking traditions associated with the 26th December is “The hunting of the wren”. In the past teams of young men would go out and hunt down the small birds to kill them and place them in the “wren bush” that they would carry around. They would then travel around performing music and collecting money. The origins of this peculiar tradition are lost in the mists of time. Of course with many folk traditions whose origins are obscure, it has been theorised that the custom has a pre-christian origin
Today, the tradition continues in many places but with the omission of the bird killing (fake birds are now used). The Wren boys would disguise themselves, sometimes dressing in girls clothes, use veils or curtains on their face, or use the traditional straw men garb. Below are a few accounts of the tradition:
“people who don’t eat meat on the day will not be sick during the year”
(NFSC, Volume 0787, Page 56)
Young boys go around with the wren.They hold the wren in a box and sing a song. The song is:”The wren, the wren the king of all birds.St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, Give us something and honour the wren. On St. Stephen’s Day people go visiting (NFSC, vol.0104: 391).
>In The journals of the Kildare archaeological society,v, 452 it mentions that if any of the wren boys were refused money when they visited houses, they would bury a wren (from their “wren bush”) opposite the hall door into which no good luck could enter for twelve months (Danaher,1972:247). Just to address the burying of the wren, there was a strong tradition in Ireland of sympathetic magic such as that displayed above. Often referred to as a “piseog”. Often meat, eggs or straw dolls were buried in a field of the person you wanted to “curse” or affect the luck of the person you aimed the piseog at. Sometimes items were also placed in walls or foundations of houses to bring luck (I might put an article together about this at some point).
>On St.Stephens day the boys of the district go with the wren. They disguise themselves. Some of them dress like girls. They wear masks and old clothes. They go from house to house singing,dancing, and playing music. They recite the following wren song; “The wren, the wren, the King of all birds, on St.Stephans day she was caught in the furs. Although she is small her family is great. Stand up young laddie and give us a treat. Up with the kettle and down with the pan. Give us some money and let us be gone. Look in the purse,There may be a copper there.help the wren. They gather a great amount of money and get plenty to eat and drink as they go around at night, they meet together and have a “spree.” (NFSC,Vol.0823:101)
“If there was no wren – people would think it was not Xmas at all”. (NFSC,Vol.0769:170)
>My father told me that when he was a little boy the people were more superstitious than they are now. If persons refused to give money to the wren boys, twenty or thirty years ago, all they had to do was to say that they would bury a feather of the wren convenient to their house and they would immediately give money rather than run the risk of having bad luck for a number of years.
Long ago the wren boys went on foot from house to house and as they could not cover a great deal of ground the takings were generally small.
Sometime they trampled through rain and snow from morning till night and had only one shilling or one and sixpence for their trouble.
Nowadays the wren boys travel on bicycles. (NFSC: Vol.0760:531).
“We followed him up,
We followed him down,
Till one of the wren boys,
Knocked him down.”
“Our clothes we tore,
And our boots we wore,
Following the wren,
For three days or more.”
Here we are again,
We won’t be here,
Till next year,
And here we are again.”
>On St. Stephen’s Day the “wren-boys” go around in procession from house to house. Grown up men come to the village also from the adjoining towns, and they are so well disguised that they are rarely recognized. They usually have a few melodeons in the party, and dance while a few go around to the houses for money. The whole party often enter the house, and dance among themselves or with the women-folk of the house – if they enter into the spirit of the festival. There is not any particular old song sung at this time – just any song they can all sing together. It is usual to spend the money gathered on drink and eatables to provide refreshment at a night’s dance which they hold in some neighbour’s house. The “wren-boys” are often called the “mummers”.
The custom of children dressing and going around gathering money is dying out of late. (NFSC:0056:0153).
Fairies remain a popular interest to many people although not many know the true nature of these beings in an Irish context. Due to the destructive influence of popular culture, many people wrongfully assume that they are small, winged, harmless creatures. This is not the case and in truth, it is much more complicated than that. I have had many people refuse outright to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when I inform them of this, so I hope this article makes some of this clearer.
They may sometimes appear smaller than us, but certainly not minuscule like the tinkerbell-esque creatures people expect. They look just like us and certainly don’t have wings, but due to existing on another plane to us, are able to conceal themselves. They live lives like us for the most part. Below I will detail how they live in their society, their origin stories and other information. Fairy lore, a pervasive belief around Ireland offers us a fascinating glimpse at the Irish perception of the otherworld- an alternative realm parallel to our own but just beyond earthly existence and our own temporal sphere. Eddie Lenihan, arguably one of foremost experts on the fairies, would argue that there is considerable and respectable proof of their existence owing to the vast corpus of material available through the ages and in all this material they have been described in great detail ( and not once have they been depicted with wings!).
To start I will look at the naming conventions. The word fairy is the most Widely known and easily identifiable ,although it is not a suitable, nor respectful term to use as such (as it falsely equates them with English fairies who are closer to imps or the tinkerbell type). Nor is any form of FAE or FAERIE (from old French and latin respectively). Known in Irish by many names and circumlocutions, they are not usually named directly for fear of insulting or invoking them. Typically know as Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe (the people of the mounds), they could also be referred to as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine úaisle (the noble people), the fair folk, the other crowd, the people of the hills and so on. For the remainder of the article I will simply refer to them as sídhe or the other crowd.
Society, likes and dislikes
So how does their society work? They have amusements similar to ours: they like to dance, play music and play games. They have been known to play Gaelic football (never soccer), hurling, bowls and chess. In terms of the games they will sometimes illicit the help of some hapless human (who dare not refuse them) to referee or take part in the match. The need for human help is a common motif and they will often be spirited away to take part in the games or in some cases where human women must act as midwife to deliver babies for the sídhe.
They have specific dwellings and a number of features of the landscape are often identified as being the abode of the other crowd, such as ringforts (lios or rath in Irish, these are circular enclosured earthen dwellings mostly dating to the middle ages), tumuli, dolmens or lone trees known as fairy trees (traditionally hawthorn). These enclosures and suspected abodes are usually treated with extreme caution even to this day (and good luck trying to find someone willing to cut down a fairy tree). They will furiously protect their dwellings and woe betide to anyone stupid enough to mess with them. Death and destruction is all that typically awaits those who transgress. That being said, they can make good or bad neighbours depending on how they are treated. They can be belligerent, but are placatable. Their true dwellings, those that exist in the otherworld are typically conceal from our view, similar to the magical barrier, the fé fiada, that was said to conceal the mounds and hostels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
They have their own specific pathways and roads and they would travel from place to place. When building houses it was not unusual to mark out the shape of the house with willow rods or small stone cairns. This would be left overnight to see if the house was “in the way” of any of these fairy paths. The willow rods had been removed from the ground, or the cairn of stones was disturbed, it was believed that the house was in the way of a fairy path and the process would be repeated until the rods or stones are left untouched. Many tales tell of houses that were in the way with loud noises being heard in the house at night, crashing, doors slamming, houses collapsing and general bad luck within the household.
Like ourselves, they have likes and dislikes. They like things like gold, milk (the first milk, known as colostrum or beestings, is often given as an offering to the sídhe), tobacco and poitín (often given as an offering to them). Most things associated with them are of a particular time: they will ride horses, but not cars or any auto-mobiles, they fight with sticks or hurleys but never guns or knives. Most of their activities are associated with Gaelic culture or associated with the natural landscape. When it comes to their hates, there are a number of items. They hate iron: it is one of the main repellents used when trying to discourage the other crowd. You see this a lot when trying to protect babies from being stolen and replaced by fairy changelings. It also pops up a lot in terms of protection while churning. Iron is an age old deterrent against evil or supernatural forces and many cultures around the globe believed this and as a result blacksmiths and iron workers are usually revered or thought to possess special powers as a result of them working with the iron (there is an article focusing on blacksmiths and the supernatural here ). They also hate salt and you will often encounter it being used as protection when churning butter. Salt will be sprinkled on the lid of the churn, underneath or into the butter itself to protect the process from being interfered with by the sídhe. Salt rubbed on the head when venturing outside at Halloween was used to protect anyone outside after dark. They also have a dislike of anything dirty (such as messy houses), they have an aversion to Christianity (both of their origin stories play into this and it is a common theme of many folktales where the sídhe will try to get a human to question a priest as to why they can’t get into heaven). I will cover the origin stories below. They also hate running water and are unable to cross it. This is also a common feature of folktales where someone fleeing the wrath of the sídhe, will only escape through crossing a stream (or in a few cases leaving Ireland completely by ship!).
The other crowd are also more active at certain times of the yearly cycle (such as may day or Samhain) and also at certain points of the life cycle (such as at birth) so salt and iron were used, among other things, at these times to remain safe from any malevolent actions the sídhe might want to take against you. As I mentioned above, may people find it hard to believe that they are not harmless. I have spent hours trying to convince some people that it is not in their best interest to seek out the sídhe. Even slight transgressions have ended in death, maiming or with transgressor ending up being driven completely mad or catatonic. I should add a caveat here. They are not overtly evil. They just have their own (often mysterious) agenda. It just so happens that accounts and tales of people falling foul of them far outweigh the opposite. That however does not mean they can’t or don’t help people. As I mentioned above, they sometimes need human intervention (be that in a sporting event or delivering a baby) and for their help, the person will often be rewarded. They have bestowed powers of healing (such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle or a number of healing books said to have been given to certain people over time). They have also been known to have bestowed fairy music on musicians who have played for them at a party. In times of famine, they have sometimes given otherworldly cows (designated by their white body and red ears) with endless milk to certain communities (who often inevitably mess up by exploiting this gift).
As I mentioned above there are two main origin stories for what we now call the fairies. There is what could be termed the native origin story, and the Christian one.
Native: From ancient times it was believed that a supernatural race has been believed to have lived in the hills, tombs, beneath the sea or lakes or on far away islands. In the literature, these are traditionally know as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the old gods of Ireland (such as Lugh, the Dagda, Brighid etc). These were seen as living in the otherworld, parallel to our own, but concealed from view. So, when it comes to what I termed the “native” origin story, it is believed that the “fairies” are in fact the Tuatha Dé Dannan, albeit diminished in spiritual significance, power and physical stature following their defeat and banishment underground.
Christian: As most will know, the entirety of our myths and legends were first recorded by Christian clerics in monastic scriptorium. Unlike the usual modus operandi elsewhere in Europe to demonize the pagan past, Ireland instead opted for euhemerisation. Most stories were given a Christian slant, but this was to work the stories into a Christian framework and make them acceptable. Unfortunately this meant that some gods were turned to humans (such as queen Medbh, Finn Mac Cumhaill, Brighid etc) and some stories were corrupted but for the most part, they were recorded by Irish monks who had an interest in the pagan past and were, in a sense, sympathetic to it. This leads us to the origin of the fairies as being half-fallen angels, cast out of heaven for not picking a side during the rebellion. They remain, half-way between heaven and hell, in the sky, on the land and beneath the earth, cursed to never see heaven (or till judgement day in some cases). This christian explanation for the sídhe became popular in the middle ages, no doubt a means for resolving the tension between the native and Christian cosmologies. As such it is not unusual to have devout Christian who fervently believes in the other crowd. This clearly preserved the native tradition and it’s syncretism also gave the fairy faith a prominent place in Christian eschatology and cosmology.
When we think of healing today, the knee jerk response is to think of doctors, hospitals and prescribed medications, made up of all manner of chemicals that come with a long list of adverse side effects. That modern medicine we are all familiar with is a relatively new discipline and up until very recently in Ireland the average person would have sought medical help from the local wise woman (bean feasa), herbalist or someone who simply ‘had the cure’.
In the schools collection we are told the following by one informant “Long ago in Ireland the people used herbs to cure people and animals. They tell us there is a herb for every disease if only we knew it or could find it out” (NFSC, VOL.0141:410) . Sometimes these cures relied on a knowledge of herbs and other times its providence lay in the supernatural realm or simply through means we would consider as ‘magic’. Ireland has a vast corpus of medical manuscripts that survive from the middle ages showing its rich history of learning and medicine, but we are lacking in accounts of the everyday person who practiced healing. There are however, many comparable accounts found in the UK from the middle ages onwards.
We see comparable elements, for example, in the use of magical charms as a form of healing, a practice we know was popular in Ireland up until relatively recently and many of which are found in the schools collection. One such account from William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft” in 1608 tells us that “charming is in as great request as physic, and charmers more sought unto than physicians in time of need” (Thomas, 2003:209). Thomas (ibid:210) also mentions that with the “inadequacies of orthodox medical services left a large proportion of people dependent upon traditional folk medicine”. This also could be applied to Ireland. There has of course, since the establishment of orthodox medicine at least, been a propensity towards thinking that these practitioners of native healing were in some way less reliable than ‘educated’ doctors. Lady Gregory tells us of a saying in Irish, “An old woman without learning,it is she who will be doing charms” (Gregory, 1976:148). This association with formal learning betrays the centuries of knowledge amassed by these practitioners of native healing, a tradition passed orally through the ages. For the purpose of the essay I will be searching through the National Folklore Schools Collection to see what treatments that are available for Tuberculosis, often called consumption in Ireland and I will also be looking at the treatments and ‘cures’ for warts.
To begin I will focus on Tuberculosis (TB), known colloquially in Ireland as ‘Consumption’ or ‘wasting sickness. In Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century TB was amongst the worst of the ‘killer diseases in Ireland. Rates of infection had risen in Ireland even after rates had decreased in England and wales after the significance of contagion was recognised in the 1800’s and with many considering it to be a particularly Irish problem in the early twentieth century (Jones, 1999:8).
When looking at cures in the schools collection (hereafter NFSC) we see a range of treatments, as is usually the case, ranging from medicinal to magical. In terms of plant based cures for TB, the Mullein plant, scientific name Verbascum, pops up on numerous occasions. The extracts of this plant have been used as part of traditional medicine for hundreds of years around the globe (Akdem & Tatli, 2006:85). The efficacy of this in treating TB is no doubt due to its use as an expectorant and its mucolytic qualities. It is often used to treat respiratory ailments and has antimicrobial and immunomodulatory qualities (ibid,8). In terms of the NFSC we find a number of ways that it was used. We are told that It cures consumption (NFSC, VOL.0922:139) and that it can be found in good soil. In terms of preparing it we are told to boil it and drink the water (NFSC, VOL.0773:125-6).
Another plant based cure that is mentioned is the “marrow plant”. The informant mentions that it is a flower that grows in your garden that blooms in the month of October (NFSC, VOL.0665:108-9). I am unsure of the plant in question and there is no instruction on the preparation of the cure. Other forms of plant based medicine mentioned in the schools collection include cures involving the use of garlic. The following account mentions that garlic was supposed to cure “almost any disease”. The account goes into much greater detail than many others and displays some real knowledge in terms of healing. It claims that a few “grains” garlic per day while fasting is of great benefit to those suffering from consumption or other lung diseases. It recommends using “new milk”, colloquially referred to as “beestings” or colostrum, to boil garlic in. It also mentions that this cure is particularly efficacious when used by babies or delicate people (NFSC, VOL.0141:410). Bovine Colostrum is widely believed to be particularly beneficial to humans and it has been said that “colostrum from pasture-fed cows contains immunoglobulins specific to many human pathogens” (Buchan, Borissenko, Brooks & McConnell, 2001:255). The use of garlic in this case is most likely due to its anti-microbial, antibiotic, expectorant and immune boosting properties (Kellet, 2003:71).
Milk does feature in many of the cures, with varying ingredients being boiled in it. Many of the cures however are not simply cure-alls and must be taken at a certain time in the progression of the disease to be effective. We are told that boiling a dandelion leaf in milk was a cure but if it was not drunk before a certain point that it was not effective as a cure (NFSC, VOL.0109:405). Unfortunately we are not told what stage this is to be drank at, but we could surmise that it is in the early stages of the disease. Both dandelion and garlic boiled in milk is mentioned elsewhere as a preventative if drank regularly (NFSC, VOL.0787:280). In terms of the specific time the cure has to be taken, the following account (NFSC, VOL.037:0057) mentions that it is a “perfect cure” if taken in the early stages of consumption. The recipe involves boiling “Sugar, Candy, liquorice, whiskey, Sweet-stick, brown sugar, a small quantity of flax seed and meacan na gcaorach” until it forms a syrup. I am unfamiliar with the plant ‘meacan na gcaorach’ [sheep’s root?] but it is mentioned as being a “garden vegetable with yellow flowers and large green leaves” (possibly sheep sorrel?) .
The following cure does not have any basis in actual healing but instead relies on a form of transference or sympathetic magic, often referred to as piséogs. This particular type of magic can be found in many cultures but is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record. A prime example of this is ‘gathering the dew’ on may eve. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3). Other forms of this magic include gaining power over another by possessing a piece of hair or clothing as well as it being found in cures that involve “like curing like”, such as “the hair of the dog that bit you” (Hanna, 1909:96) or “whistling for the wind” (a factor that popped up numerous times in my own field work when interviewing fishermen). Another more common example in Irish sources is the practice of tying rags to a “clootie tree” at a holy well. As the rag rots so does the disease.
The curing of consumption in this account is of a similar nature to this. It involves putting an egg into an ants nest and as the egg is eaten by the ants, the sickness will disappear also (NFSC, Vol.0800:155). Another account similar to this mentions how old people used to say that if you carry a potato around in your pocket that it would cure consumption (NFSC,Vol.0386:158). The potato here supposedly drawing out the disease in an act of transference. The final cure I would like to look at in relation to consumption leaves unsure as to whether it falls into the category of medicinal or magical or both. The cure in this instance involves acquiring seven rusty nails and putting them into a pint of porter for seven days (NFSC, VOL.0525:002). The use of rusty nails in porter (with its inherent iron content) seems to point to a recipe that involves a high Iron content but the fact it has to be specifically seven nails for seven days seems to point to a magical element. The number seven features prominently in Irish sources (in both ancient literature as well as more modern folklore such as seventh son of seventh son) as well as in biblical numerology. Also of course the fact that in many places around the globe, Iron is considered to be “imbued with an air of magic” (Jennings, 2014:2), and appearing in many tales as a deterrent to fairies and other supernatural creatures. The fact that the account mentions that as the drink depletes that the consumption will go with it seems to also allude to the fact that there is some form of transference involved here also. I should also mention that one account I encountered put emphasis on the fact the cure in question relied on it being prepared by “an old family” in the district that were noted for “curing where others failed”. They would make cures from “simple herbs” that could cure “dangerous” diseases such as consumption (NFSC, VOL.0824:128). Certain families having specific cures is quite common in Irish sources such as the Keoghs having the cure for shingles (NFSC, VOL.0823:480).
The second series of cures I would like to cover are for Warts. These feature a crossover of ingredients as well as also having a mix of medicinal cures as well as relying on supernatural or magical means as a means of getting rid of them. Wells and ballaun stones (the water that gathers in the hollow such as the “hole of water” mentioned in NFSC, VOL.1076:20) are often used for the supernatural cures. It is important to note though that since many of these healing powers are seen as rooted in Christian traditions that the healing is seen as a miracle as opposed to some form or act of magic (zuchelli,2016:149).
A number of different methods of cure were collected by Andrew Taylor (NFSC, VOL.1116:234). He tells us that any wells dedicated to St Patrick will cure the warts. Here we see the magic/religion overlap. He also tells us how rubbing clay on them and throwing it after a funeral will get rid of the warts .The others mentioned by him on the other hand rely on an entirely magical means of curative power, such as rowing a boat with the outgoing tide. Another example, again of transference like those found in the cures for consumption, is sticking a pin in your warts and then sticking the pin into a grave. Among some local cures collected in Dublin (NFSC, VOL.0787:334) we find both plant based and magical remedies side by side. The “stuff like milk” from the stem is said to cure the warts but the account also mentions a means for ridding one’s self of the warts through sympathetic magic. This involves counting the number of warts and putting the corresponding number of stones in a bag and throwing it in a field. Whoever is unlucky enough to pick up the bag gets the warts and they will go from your hands.
Frances Gallagher (NFSC, VOL.1076:20) tells us that there are a “whole lot of cures” for warts. Most of the cures collected by her fall under the heading of the sympathetic magic that has been seen in a number of examples above. She also mentions the stone trick, but it is to be left in the middle of the road instead of in a field. She also recommends that the package they are in should be made attractive so as to attract someone to pick it up. She suggests however that ten stones be collected, one throw away and the remaining nine put in the package. Another cure mentioned by her suggests that the warts be rubbed on the gizzard of a hen and then bury it. As this rots the warts disappear.
An interesting mix of both the sympathetic magic and religion can be found in Leitrim (NFSC, VOL.0229:303) tells us that rubbing the warts with straw, say some prayers and then bury it. As the straw decays so will the warts. As with the cure for TB being held by a family or person, we get this also in the cure for warts. In an account by Mrs Mulryan (NFSC, VOL.0770:451), she tells us that in her locality there was someone by the name of John Rogers who had a charm that he would not tell to anyone. He only required to know the number of warts. Whether he was using the same sort of sympathetic magic as above, we could only speculate, but there are mentions elsewhere (NFSC, VOL.0326:316) that tell us that people had charms for giving warts to another.
These examples above are by no means an exhaustive list of the therapeutic modalities available for either the consumption/TB or for the removal or treatment of warts. It barely scratches the surfaces of the cures given in the schools collection. They do however show that certain elements pop up again and again in the accounts with varying degrees of complexity to the instructions. The examples given also provide a good mix of both practical plant based lore and a more magical approach to the problem.
Hanna, W (1909), Sympathetic Magic, Folklore, Vol.20, No.1, Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Jennings, P (2014), Blacksmith Gods: Myths, Magic & Folklore, Moon Books, Winchester, UK. Zuchelli, C (2016), Sacred stones of Ireland, Collins press, Cork.
Jones. G (1999), Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940, Cork University Press, Cork.
McConnell, M. A.; Buchan, G.; Borissenko, M. V.; Brooks, H. J. L. (2001). “A comparison of IgG and IgG1 activity in an early milk concentrate from non-immunised cows and a milk from hyperimmunised animals”. Food Research International. 34 (2–3): 255–261.
NFSC, VOL.0037:0057, Collector: Eibhlín Ni Ailledéa, múinteoir, Dunmore, Co. Galway, Informant: Edward Burke (74),farmer, Carrownaseer South, Co. Galway.
NFSC, VOL.0141:410, Collector: Annie Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, Informant: Patrick Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, School: Gort an Tuair, Gortatoor, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Áine Nic Oirealla.
NFSC, VOL.0525:002, Collector: John Creed, Domhnach Mór, luimrick, Informant: Patrick O’Connell, Teacher: Aingeal Nic Aodha Bhuidhe.
NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.