Cursing in Irish Folk Tradition





In a past article, I looked at some methods of folk healing in the Irish tradition. In this article, I would like to look at different types of curses (mallacht). In a few online discussions lately, I have noticed a few people who were shocked or incredulous that there was a tradition of cursing in Ireland and more so that people who had the power to heal, could also curse. In fact, it was widely believed that the two things were intrinsically connected and two sides of the same coin.

Evidence of Irish curses can be found in several sources including dictionaries, newspapers, visitor writings, diaries, religious tracts, law Tracts, Epic literature, hagiography, and the National Folklore Collection (Duchas.ie). The antiquarian William Carlton, when speaking about curses, says that there is a “certain style and ritual” needed to “ give them energy”. People would make a public display of casting these curses (such as a busy marketplace, for example) and they often “beat the floor and looked to the skies, put their hands together and besought god to blight their opponents”. The inclusion of god here is not unusual as cursing is often a “blend of lyrical and ritualistic spell casting” mixed with prayers to god, Mary or the saints. Some curses were cast from a height or a seashore and this is especially evident in the case of ship sinking witches (covered more in-depth here).
 
We look at a few different types below including the curses of Blacksmiths and Millers, beggars’ curses, widows’ curses, piseog’s, the Evil Eye, cursing stones, the curses of priests and saints and curses aimed towards landlords.


The curses of Blacksmiths and Millers

The connection of blacksmiths with the supernatural and with the use of magic is certainly not unique to Ireland. Their ability to turn raw materials into essential tools and weaponry afforded them special status within the community, and also created an air of mystery around them. The fact they worked with Iron, a universal deterrent of evil, bolstered this belief and imbued them with the ability to see or defeat evil. I covered this more in-depth in this article here. In keeping with the theme of the current article, their connection to cursing revolves around one of the main tools of their trade, the anvil. A method of cursing that was feared by the church when they composed the 8th-century lorica hymn protecting against the “spells of women, and smiths, and druids”. The words of this spell enacted by the blacksmiths were often kept purposefully hidden and obscure, but we do know that to cast it they had to turn the anvil tuathal (anti-clockwise) while uttering the proscribed incantation. Like many curses in Irish tradition, you ran the risk of having it rebound on you if it wasn’t warranted, but some sources seem to allude to there being a price to pay no matter what.

A folklore collector for the Irish Folklore Commission asked six blacksmiths if they had ever heard of this curse and all claimed to have heard about it but had “put the cross of Christ between them and all such things”. Some even claimed to have seen it being carried out when they were younger. One example from the National Folklore Collection states that “If you want something to befall your neighbor, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse” (NFC, IML.80:283). Another gives an example of how an eviction was thwarted by using this curse. In this instance, however, the anvil is struck rather than rotated: “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). We will see other examples of eviction-related curses later in this article.
Sources also tell us that the miller had a similar ability, but in place of the anvil, his millstone was used. NFSC, Vol 0119:507, tells us “the blacksmith shares this ability with the miller and that “he could do any enemy to death by turning the millstone on him”.

Distance away from the victim did not matter. The curse worked as successfully if he were at the other side of the world as if he were just by their side. Landlords often feature as the targets in folktales and accounts:
“A miller farmer was about to be evicted. He and his friends gathered together in the mill and at the “witching hour” of midnight they “turned the millstone” on the landlord….. The shouts of the landlord in his death agony were heard in the district of the mill and he was found dead under his own bed next morning. His skin was as all over [as black as] the raven’s wing. It was really believed he was done to death by the turning of the millstone.
But here we see that there are repercussions:
“It was noted that some misfortune happened to everyone who had any part in the affair. One lost an eye, another a leg, another his reason. It seemed to bring a blight on the whole of them”. NFSC:Volume 0119, Page 506
 
 
Piseógs

SO, moving on to ‘piseogs’. This is one of those terms in Irish that can have multiple meanings. People will quite often refer to things as just being “piseogs”, meaning they are simply superstition.

The Ó Dónaill an Ua Mhaoileoin dictionary give the definitions as:
·         Geis (A supernatural taboo or injunction)
·         Ortha (A Charm)
·         Creideamh i ndraíocht agus is gcúrsaí osnádúrtha (Beilief in magic or in supernatural activity)

Ó Dónaill gives:
·         Charm/Spell
·         Superstitious practices
·         Superstition
·         Ag déanamh piseog (casting a Spell)

The ‘casting’ of Piseogs often takes the form of burying either eggs, meat, animal intestines or even straw dolls in the field of the intended victim. As these materials rot away, the luck of the person being targeted goes with them, or more ominously in the case of the ‘dolls’, the health of the person may deteriorate. This can be expedited by the caster by pouring water on the spot to make it rot faster.


Women who Curse

It would appear that the curses of women were especially feared throughout Irish history. The inclusion in the hymn mentioned above illustrates this but we also know that satire at the hands of women in medieval Ireland was also greatly feared. Women would let their hair down when casting curses and it appears that beggar women also left their hair down (women’s hair usually kept up or covered), to give the impression that they were “half-cocked” so to speak, and ready to curse should they be refused. Interestingly, Bean Chaointe (Keening Women) also left their hair down, mimicking their supernatural counterpart, the Bean Sídhe.

Female Satirists

Female satirists were especially feared in medieval Ireland. Áer (satire) was typically the domain of the Filidh (professional poet, second only to the king in status) and satire itself could be used as a weapon and as such was regulated by law. Illegal or unjustified use of satire was frowned upon and could lead to loss of your honour price. The tale Longes mac nUislenn (The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu) shows us that the freedom of movement afforded to filidh and other members of the Áes Dána (people of skill) was extended even more to accommodate female satirists: “No person was ever allowed into that house except her foster father, her foster mother and Leborcham; for the last mentioned one could not be prevented, for she was a female satirist”. Now, the fear behind this lay in the belief that satire, if properly used could physically harm the target, bringing out boils and blisters on the face. These blisters were especially problematic if you happened to be a king, for a physical blemish would disqualify you from kingship. Satire was also referred to as “un-poetry” and the law text Bretha Nemed Tóiseach tells us: “You are not to wound cheeks with the spears of un-poetry”. Mis-use however could bring it back on you, just like we have seen with the curse of the blacksmith above.

Similar to the idea that anyone with the ability to heal also can curse, it was believed anyone capable of giving praise could also use satire. Poetry was divided into three categories find, dubh, brecc:

•       White (Find) by which one praises
•       Black (Dubh) by which one satirises
•       Speckled (Brecc) by which one gives notice

The ‘Speckled’ one mentioned was also known as trefocal, a mix of satire and praise that served the purpose of giving a warning of impending satire, giving you plenty of time to rethink your actions. Several terms were used for satirists: Cáinte, Rindile and Birach Bríathar (one who is sharp with words).
 
Widows who curse

Widows’ curses were also greatly feared. These curses were especially common during the land war (circa 1879) but we have numerous examples of people enacting these curses even as late as the 1960s:
Mary MacCormack from Castlerea, for example, put a widow’s curse on the people who told the police that she was holding unlicensed public dances. Another example tells of a curse that rebounded on a widow and she “died tortured with liver disease.
 
 
The ‘Fire of Stones’ Curse

This interesting curse was used by people when they were being evicted from their houses. The purpose of this was to affect the house luck of whoever else was going to move into the house after them. Before leaving the newly evicted ex-tenants would block up the hearth with stones and say ““until these fires burn, will newcomers do any good” This method of cursing was still used in Ulster in the 1940s and 1950s.
 

Beggars who Curse

In the not-so-distant past, it was not uncommon to meet droves of itinerant mendicants traveling the length and breadth of Ireland. Beggars (Bacach, Lucht súil) would also employ curses if spurned or refused alms (this was the common impetus for the so-called ‘Ship sinking witches’ casting their curses).


Priests and Saints who Curse

This one shocks most people. I have encountered numerous people online who were completely incredulous that priests would be seen using curses, but there are almost 1500 years of examples of this stretching back to our earliest hagiographies. Some saints, in particular, were very fond of pronouncing maledictions on people and regularly cursed unfit kings (usually leading to extremely violent deaths brought about by a self-fulfilling prophecy). Examples of this can be especially seen in stories that feature a three-fold death (burning, drowning, stabbing) of the king as a result of the saint’s curse / prophecy. It could even be argued that given the proliferation of examples, that cursing almost served a sacerdotal function. We have the secular side, the Filidh with their satire and praise, and the ecclesiastical side, the priest/saint with the cursing and blessing, both essentially being part of the whole.

The Schools collection gives us an interesting story:
A priest named Spratt, put a curse on the Marquis of Waterford after the Marquis said “Sure ’tis out in the sea with the sprats (brisling, garvie, garvock) you ought to be”.  He replied with “You will get enough of the sprats yet”.
We are told how later the marquis “could not stay on dry land”, started living in a boat but the sprats used to jump into his boat and could not be kept out. The Marquis got so tired of life that he shot himself. NFSC,  Volume 0650:117

Eventually, the church took an official stance against priests using curses. In 1798 Bishops in Munster said they would sanction priests who used curses against their parishioners. Cursing by priests was officially banned by the church, especially politically and in 1883 the “Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act” outlawed “undue spiritual influence”.
1872 we have another example of a priest’s curse: “May the arm that is now sick, sling dead and powerless by her side before 12 months time”. This was pronounced from the pulpit while pointing at the the intended victim, a person the priest believed was responsible for painting tar on the pews. I don’t know about you, but I would love some more context to this story! I found the pointing element interesting as it brought to mind the druidic form of cursing known as corrguinecht (Crane or Heron killing). This curse was cast by standing on one leg, closing one eye, and pointing at the intended victim while incanting the spell.

Another priests curse was said to cause a woman’s children to be born blind and crippled.
 

Curses against landlords

I’m sure at this point you might have noticed a recurring theme that landlords were often at the receiving end of curses (which is very understandable given Irish history). Threatening rhyming curse letters were sent to Landlords and musical curses were also composed. An example from Limerick in 1886 certainly doesn’t hold back:
“May you wither up by the fire of hell soon and sudden, may the flesh rot off your bones, and fall away putrid before your eyes, and may the consolation of eternal flames come to be your consolation in your last illness, and that the hearthstone of hell be your pillow forever’.
As extreme as the above example may seem, it wasn’t unique. Curses often asked for all sorts of terrible things to happen to the intended victim such as broken bones, rotting flesh, heads smashed, stomachs exploded, Limbs withered, Blinding and so forth.
 

Cursing Stones

Here again, we have an example of something that could curse or cure. This was done similar to the examples we have seen above with the anvil and millstone. Turning them “tuathal” or anti-clockwise while chanting an incantation would send out a curse. These are often found at ecclesiastical sites, often known as ‘ballaun stones’. Sometimes they have ‘homing stones’ that return to the site should anybody take them. As with many of the examples we have looked at above, the curse had to be warranted or would be sent back at you. Interestingly, despite the cursing stones most likely having an ecclesiastical origin or usage, many were destroyed in the 19th century by the clergy due to their connection to cursing. Stones that “had long being used to lay powerful maledictions” were sought out and systematically destroyed or buried. Fortuitously, they didn’t get them all and we have a number of examples dotted around the country.
 
NFSC: Vol.0095:147

Emloc is in the parish of Louisburg on the Sea. In olden times there were two stones or rather flags here; one standing, on the seashore, and the other longer and thinner lying by the first.
If your neighbors wanted fine weather very badly, and you wanted to send him bad weather because of a grudge you had against him you had only to repair to Emloc turn the sand with the long flat slab repeating the while the proper prayers in the proper way, and the next day the rain and the bad weather would pour down on your friend the enemy, and you had him settled.
Another tale about the Emloc stones tells of someone trying it out when there was no chance of rain forecast. Two days of torrential rain followed as soon as he had carried out the ritual. Upon visiting a local bar, a seanchaí told him that a priest had long ago dumped the stones in the sea. He replied that they must have washed back in (homing stones) and the the old people in the area believed there were  “bad spirits in them”.
 

The Evil Eye:

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’. The curse could be intentional or unintentional on the part of the caster. Children who weren’t blessed were in danger of being “overlooked” so it was considered suspicious to not utter “God bless the child” when seeing one. Overly admired children could also fall prey to the Evil Eye (Droch shiúl). Another form of protection falls under the category of really weird stuff you really shouldn’t do, and was carried out by spitting on the child. Countercharms were often used as a remedy:

·         Hum the alphabet
·         Hum the letters of the name of the victim
·         Write out the letters of the alphabet, sprinkle with holy water burn (with addition of cross x3)
·         Steal a piece of their cloak, burn it and inhale the smoke.
·         Red string tied to tales of animals (especially around Mayday)
 
The person who cast it could also reverse it.

An example from Duchas tells us: “ 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).
 
You could be born with the power or gain it through being weaned from breast milk and put back on it. People with unusually coloured eyes, bushy eyebrows or certain hair colours may be more prone to possessing this power “Let not the eye of a red-haired woman rest on you.”  One account says that after a few fatal incidents that the person with “the evil eye” was forced to wear an eyepatch while walking around, however, he was said to also put his power to good use by later saving a pet pigeon when he stunned it out of a tree.

Mythical examples of this power include Balor, Togail Bruidne Dá Derga and Bruiden da Choca are some examples. We see numerous examples through the older sources where there is a connection between eyes and otherworldly or preternatural harm. Abnormal, differently colored eyes, and bushy eyebrows were associated with the evil eye. Babies and young cattle were especially vulnerable and even saints were known to have the evil eye.
I have an article covering more of  this ‘Curse’ here
 


Some Random Curses

With all this talk of curses, I should include some. Here are a couple that fall outside the categories above:

“Biadh a t-aifrionn gan solas duit,a bhean shalach” –  “May mass never comfort you, dirty woman”

‘Marbhadh Fáisg Ort’ – “The squeezeband of death on you!” (This is based on an item used to keep the mouths of corpses shut that was tied around jaw and head. This could be made from any material. So, basically wishing death on the person.
 

Medieval Curses

‘You son of a stammering, surly, puffed-up foreign woman‘ (mac ro boí oc gaillsig goit grúcbuirr)
‘You grandson of a ploughman [who is] filthy like a badger’ (uí airim brocṡalaig)
The rest can be seen here
 
Hope you enjoyed this sojourn into Irish cursing. Don’t forget to follow the facebook page and I will see you soon for the next article

Some others can be found here: https://www.sengoidelc.com/category/curses-insults/

Examples include:

Millfet lí th’aigthe! (I will destroy the beauty of your face. = I will kill you!)

Ní fes cía cú rot·chac for otrach! (No one knows what dog shit you out onto a dunghill!)

A chacc cuirre uidre ittige! (O shit of a flapping dun-colored crane!)

Bid móin ⁊ mothar a feranna-som co bráth. (Their lands will be boglands and thickets forever)

Ní raib úaid acht cairem ⁊ círmaire nó nech bed fíu iad. (“May none spring from him but shoemakers and combmakers, or people of that kind.”)

Úir aineóil tarat! (Foreign soil over you!)

Goirde shaogail duit abhus ⁊ ifrenn thall! (Short life to you on this side, and hell on the other!)

Sources

Duchas.ie (Schools collection), Main Manuscript Collection (NFC). Individual manuscripts mentioned in text.

The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature and Law,  Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly, Celtica 24

Irish Cursing and the Art of Magic, 1750-2018, Thomas Waters

In Defense of Saints Who Loved Malediction, Ksenia Kudenko, in “Charms, Charmers and Charming in Ireland: From the Medieval to the Modern

European and American Scholarship and the Study of Medieval Irish Magic, Jacqueline Borsje in “Charms, Charmers and Charming in Ireland: From the Medieval to the Modern

A Guide to Early Irish Law, Fergus Kelly

Celtic Spells and Counterspells, Jacqueline Borsje

Praise and Early Irish Poet, Liam Breatneach, Éirú vol.56

8 thoughts on “Cursing in Irish Folk Tradition

  1. Interesting article and well written – but giving actual examples of curses and explaining how to curse is irresponsible. Anybody can read this, including silly teenagers, sadists or the mentally ill, and you have no control over what they will do with the information you have provided.

    Like

  2. Excellent article, I have become accustomed to the gasps of horror if one mentions the use of hexing in a class or article but it’s beyond time to remind folk that Irish traditions include hexing, cursing, satire and malediction ❤

    Like

    1. Lucky the only “gasps of horror” on this comment section are from a guy stalking the blog who is still bent out of shape that I wrote a book review of a friend of his calling out their bullshit. So now it’s passive agressive comments of moral grandstanding. Glad you enjoyed the article though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not a stalker! I saw a link in FB and I read it just like i would any other article. The fact that I disagreed with what you said about Amantha Murphy (she is more of an acquaintance we have met only twice) does not mean I have personal enmity towards you. I am not looking to harass, fight or otherwise cause trouble. I can recognize good writing, but I still would be reluctant to share certain information that can be misused by the foolish or ill-intentioned, Just expressing my opinion – which is what a comment section is for.

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  3. Love this so many people are absolutely ignorant on our rich tradition of cursing, and imported wiccan/new age sensibilities have warped understanding of its importance.
    Also loved the ”   Hum the alphabet
    ·         Hum the letters of the name of the victim” – part of Draíocht Ceoil is humming, love to see the cross over !

    Like

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