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

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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.

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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

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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

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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”

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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”).

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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”.