Irish Witch Trials: The ‘Carnmoney Witch’ Mary Butters

“With Roun-tree tied in the cow’s tail,
And Vervain gleaned about the ditches,
But a these did naught avail,
Thou they Blest the cow, and cursed the witches”

Ballad of the Carnmoney witches

Ireland stands out as being relatively unique in the fact that we didn’t fare as badly as much of Europe (and beyond) when it comes to the witch craze that swept across the later medieval and early modern periods. As it stands, we only have a handful of documented, high-profile cases. One of these I covered in a previous article featuring the sorcery trial of Alice Kyteler and the subsequent burning of her maidservant Petronilla. You can read this article here.

The cases that we do have evidence of that feature diabolic witchcraft are found in towns of English influence (like in garrison towns such as Youghal and the case of Florence Newton in the 17th Century). The connection of diabolism never really caught on amongst the Gaelic population and typically the “witch” was seen as only attacking household produce and livestock (as opposed to demonic possession etc). You can read more of these ‘butter witches’ here. These butter witches were dealt with through a range of countermagic measures through consultation with a Bean Feasa (wise woman) instead of church (or judicial) involvement.

In 1807 in the Presbyterian community at the townland of Carnmoney, County Antrim, an interesting case arose. A tailor by the name of Alexander Montgomery and his wife Elizabeth found that they were unable to make butter from the milk they took from their only cow. Elizabeth enquired with some of the older women in the area who explained that this was not an unusual occurrence, and all had heard stories of this happening before. They offered a couple of suggestions of countermagic that would help, including tying Rowan (also known as Mountain Ash) branches to the tail of the cow and hanging another talisman in the animal’s enclosure/byre. When this failed they got twelve women to pray around the cow and fed it vervain (a herb with magical association).

When these measures failed the women suggested enlisting the help of a local Bean Feasa/ Bean Chumhachtach (wise woman/woman with supernatual power) who specialised in curing bewitched cattle (but also dabbled in telling fortunes, finding stolen horses, and using divination).

Mary Butters was sought out and brought in to try and rectify the issue. Mary was born in Carrickfergus, a town famous for another high-profile witch trial featuring the ‘Islandmagee Witches’ roughly a century before (I will cover this case in a future article). She tried various remedies including trying to churn the butter herself while whispering an incantation, as well as drawing a circle around the churn and washing it out with south-running water. When these failed she instructed Alexander and another local boy to turn their waistcoats inside out and to go stand guard at the head of the cow and not move until she returned to them at midnight. She entered the house with Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s 20-year-old son David, and their elderly lodger Margeret. She blocked up the windows, doors, and chimney and took out a large pot/cauldron. Into this, she placed sulfur, milk from the cow, and some large iron nails and crooked pins. This countermagic relied on sympathetic magic in which the cauldron represented the bladder of the witch who cast the bewitchment. As it was heated it would cause tremendous pain in the target. Blocking up the windows and doors prevented them from entering the house and knocking over the pot/cauldron and breaking the counterspell. The pain would cause the person to subsequently break the original bewitchment on the animal.

Mary placed the pot on the fire and began the proceedings. Midnight came and went and as the hours passed on Alexander became worried and made for the house. He kicked the door in and found his wife and son dead on the floor with Mary and Margeret barely clinging to life. They were carried outside but Margeret died a few minutes later, with Mary coming round soon after. One source claimed that Mary was brought back to her senses after being thrown on a dungheap and beaten by the husband and some locals, although this appears to not be true.

The inquest was carried out on the 19th of August 1807 in front of 12 jurors. All deaths were declared as accidental due to suffocation as a result of the sulfurous fumes due to Butters’s ritual. A trial was held in 1808, but this was discharged by a grand jury.

An unpublished 19th-century memoir by W.O. McGraw claimed that there was more to Butters’s actions than met the eye. He claimed that she did it on purpose to murder Elizabeth and her son who allegedly had been instrumental in the conviction and subsequent execution of a relative of Mary Butters in 1803 for spreading messages of rebellion. According to the source, Mary had insisted that the son, who was married and living miles away, be part of the ritual. It also claims that she had on multiple occasions tried to force Margeret to not take part in the ritual and that it would be of great cost to her if she did. None of this however was included in the trial, not to mention the ritual (including the use of sulfur) was widespread. As such these claims appear unsubstantiated.

Mary appears to have moved from Carrickfergus to Carnmoney following the ordeal and continued to be hired by the locals for many magical services for decades following the incident. Another point to note is that the case is interesting for the fact it took place in a presbyterian community (with Butters herself being Presbyterian), showing that the Irish (based in catholic communities) tradition and belief in butter witches transferred into Protestant and Presbyterian communities. The excerpt of the poem at the beginning of this article is a contemporary poem and is the possibly only extant poem we have relating to Irish witchcraft. The full poem is as follows:

In Carrick town a wife did dwell,
Who does pretend to conjure witches
Auld Barbara Goats and lucky Bell,
Yell no lang to come through her clutches ;
A waefu’ trick this wife did play,
On fimple Sawney, our poor tailor,
She’s mittimiss’d the other day
To lie in limbo with the Jailor :
This fimple Sawney had a Cow
Was aye as sleekit as an otter
It happen’d for a month or two,
Aye when they churn’d they got nae butter;
Roun-tree tied in the Cow’s tail,
And vervain glean’d about the ditches ;
These freets and charms did not prevail,
They cou’d not banif h the auld witches :
The neighbour wives a’ gather’d in
In number near about a dozen,
Elfpie Dough and Mary Linn,
An* Keat M’Cart the tailor’s cousin,
Aye they churn’d an’ aye they fwat,
Their aprons loos’d and coost their mutches
But yet nae butter they could get,
They bleft the Cow but curft the witches:
Had Sawney summoned all his wits,
And fent awa for Huie Mertin,
He could have gall’t the witches guts
An’ cur’t the kye to Nannie Barton ;
But he may fhow the farmer’s wab
An’ lang wade through Carmoney gutters,
Alas’ it was a fore mis-jab
When he employ’d auld Mary Butters;
The forcereft open’d the fcene,
With magic words of her invention,
To make the foolifh people keen
Who did not know her bafe intention,
She drew a circle round the churn,
An’ wafh’d the staff in fouth run water
An’ fwore the witches fhe would burn,
But fhe would have the tailor’s butter.
When fable night her curtain fpread,
Then fhe got on a flaming fire,

The tailor ftood at the Cow’s head
With his turn’d waiftcoat in the byer;
The chimney cover’d with a fcraw,
An’ ev’ry crevice where it fmoak’d,
But long before the cock did craw
The people in the houfe were choak’d,
The muckle pot hung on all night
As Mary Butters had been brewing,
In hopes to fetch fome witch or wight
Whas entrails by her art was ftewing
In this her magic a’ did fail
Nae witch or wizard was detected;
Now Mary Butters lies in jail,
For the bafe part that fhe has acted.
The tailor loft his fon an’ wife,
For Mary Butters did them fmother
But as he hates a fingle life,
In four weeks time he got another;
He is a crufe auld canty chiel,
An’ cares nae what the witches mutters
He’ll never mair employ the deil,
Nor his auld agent, Mary Butters;
At day the tailor left his poft,
Though he had feen no apparation
Nae wizard grim nae witch nor ghoft,
Though ftill he had a ftrong fuspicion
That fome auld wizard wrinkled wife,
Had caft her cantrips o’er poor brawney
Caufe fhe and he did live in ftrife,
An’ whare’s the man can blame poor Sawney;
Wae fucks for our young laffes now,
For who can read their mystic matters
Or tell if their fweet hearts be true,
The folk a run to Mary Butters;
To tell what thief a horfe did fteal,
In this fhe was a mere pretender
An’ has nae art to raife the deil
Like that auld wife, the witch of Endor
If Mary Butters be a witch,
Why but the people all fhould know it,
An’ if fhe can the mufes touch
I’m fure fhe’ll foon descry the poet,
Her ain familiar aff fhe’ll fen’
Or paughlet wir a tu’ commiffion,
To pour her vengeance on fhe men,
That tantalises her condition.


‘An Diabhal Inti’ TG4 Documentary, Episode 05, First broadcast 12.04.22.

‘Representing Magic in Modern Ireland: Belief, History, and Culture’ Andrew Sneddon

Dictionary of Irish Biography:

Crone, John S. “Witchcraft in Antrim.” Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 14, no. 1, 1908, pp. 34–37. JSTOR, Accessed 26 May 2022.

‘Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland’, Andrew Sneddon

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 ( 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

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:

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 (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

Herbs and Healing in the Irish Tradition: Cures for TB and Warts

Copyright Shane Broderick

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.


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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.

NFSC, VOL.0665:108-9, Collector: Colm Mach Uidhir, Killeen, Co.Louth, School: Louth (B.), Location: Louth, Co. Louth, Teacher: P. Randles.

NFSC, VOL.0770:451, Informant: Mrs.Mulryan, Lisnagrish, Co.Longford, School: Clochar na Trócaire, Meathais Truim, Edgeworthstown, Co. Longfors, Teacher: An tSiúr Bernard.

NFSC, VOL.0773:125-6, Informant: Mr Perkins, cellbridge, School: Kildraught (2), Location: Celbridge, Co. Kildare, Teacher: E. Ní Armhultaigh.

NFSC, VOL.0787:280, Collector: Sean Gormley, Garristown, Co. Dublin, Informant: unnamed grandparent (75), Garristown, Co. Dublin.

NFSC, VOL.0787:334, Collector Janie Delany, Bettyville, Co. Dublin, Informant: Peter Gilsenan, Broomfield, Co. Dublin, Teacher: P.J Connolly.

NFSC, VOL.0800:155, School: Clonbullogue, Location: Clonbulloge, Co. Offaly, Teacher: A. Fitzgerald.

NFSC, VOL.0823:480, School: Mountmellick 9B.), Mountmellick, Co. Laois, Teacher: Dll. Binéad.

NFSC, VOL.0824:128, Collector: Joseph Deffeu, múinteoir, Castlecuffe, Mountmellick, Co. laois.

NFSC, VOL.109:57, collector: Katie Caulfield, Tulrohaun, Co. Mayo, Informant Mrs Delany, School: Tulach Ruacháin, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Mary Agnes Smyth.

NFSC, VOL.1116:234, Collector: Andrew Taylor, Drung, Co. Donegal, Informant:  Mrs Taylor (56), Drung, Co. Donegal.

NFSC, VOL>0922:139, Collector: John Dolan, School: Ballyrahan, Location: Ballyraheen, Co. Wiclow, Teacher: Máiréad Ní Mheachair.

NFSC:1076:20, Collector: Andrew Wilkinson, Creeslough, Co. Donegal, Informant: Frances Gallagher, Masiness, Co.Donegal, School: Creeslough, Co. Donegal, Teacher: U. Ní Pháirceme.

Tatli. I, Akdemir. Z (2006), Traditional Uses and Biological Activities of Verbascum Species, FABAD Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences; Ankara Vol. 31, Iss. 2.

Thomas. K (2003), Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, Penguin, UK

The Irish Wake and its Gender Roles


When looking at the lifecycle in terms of folklore it cannot escape ones notice that many aspects of the life cycle have clearly defined gender roles. For the purpose of brevity in this essay I will focus on the death aspect of the lifecycle. I will focus on the rituals around death, namely the wake and how specific roles are gender specific, i.e. keening women (and the supernatural equivalent, the Bean Sí) and preparation of the body etc. Since the female roles are most prevalent according to death rituals I will briefly touch on the role of the Borekeen, the male master of ceremonies in relation to the games played at wakes, as well as some other male roles, to provide some balance. I will also be looking at a couple of paintings that depict wakes and also a photograph because I believe that these items show an interesting gender separation that illustrate the other points I have mentioned above.

When looking at folklore it is clearly evident that the important female roles, i.e. the Bean Feasa, Bean Bhán, Bean Chaointe and Bean Ghluine, are concerned with crisis points in the life cycle and are all insulated against the supernatural. In the case of the bean chaointe and the bean bhán, they are insulated against the malevolent power of death. We know that not all women were insulated in this fashion by the example of the the taboo for pregnant women to be present at a wake (Ó Crualaoich,1998:179)

Bean Chaointe/ keening women

The keen or lament was a central component in the rituals concerning death and from almost all the accounts passed down we can see that it was primarily a female role. The accounts of women performing laments far outweigh the number concerning men, in fact there are very few at all concerning men. In Irish Wake Amusements we get one of these rare accounts where a man composed a lament for his son (Ó Suilleabháin,1969:133). Angela Burke describes the lament or coaineadh as “a highly articulate tradition of women’s poetry” (Bourke,1988:287), a fact that is backed up by Patricia Lysaght when she says that  lamentation was a “central element of the culture of women” (Lysaght,1997:65). Lysaght goes on to say that this part of the ritual was so important that messengers would be sent great distances to find keening women, not only for people of the community but also if a stranger happened to die in the community (Lysaght,1997:67).  In effect the keener was a psychopomp  and the keen itself originally served a ritual function to help the soul travel from the world of the living into the spirit world (Ó Madagáin,2006:81). As mentioned above most accounts point to it being almost solely the domain of women. The practice eventually began to receive opposition from the clergy and accounts from synods around the 17th century onwards always mention women as keeners with the exception of the diocese of Leighlin that mentions the hiring “of men and women” (O Suilleabháin,1969:139). The synod of Armagh (1670) mentions that no member of the clergy would attend a wake at which “female keeners cried or screamed” (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We also see similar at the Synod of Tuam (1660) and the Synod of Dublin (1670) where they mention how people were “hiring female keeners at wakes” and how they had to “bring an end to the wailing and screaming of female keeners” respectively (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We cannot really tell with these older accounts if this was the norm, or if it was just the patriarchal nature of the church trying to stamp out the female aspect of the native tradition. We also see the male aspect trying to force itself into the funeral process in stories of clashes between the bean chaointe and the priests near the graveyard, which often erupted in violence, such as the priest attacking the keeners with a horsewhip (Ó Crualaoich,1998:154). Of course, this is not just male vs female but could also be looked at as ancestral vs popular religion. Although, that being said, many of the more modern accounts tell us exactly the same thing, that keeners were women.   Kevin Danaher tells that the keen was performed by the “old women of the place who were skilled in the art” (Danaher,1962:175).

Bean Sídhe

We can safely say from looking at the evidence that the transition of the soul/ spirit is in the hands of a human female agent but interestingly a female otherworld equivalent, the ‘banshee’, can be found in accounts throughout the country also. As the “bean sídhe” can be said to “sing” death into the community, the “bean chaointe” is seen to “sing” it out’ (Ó Crualaoich). There are a number of striking resemblances between the two that that back this theory up. We are told that the “gol” or cry was the most important constituent of the keen (Ó Madagáin,2006:84) and this bears striking resemblance to descriptions of the singular cry of the banshee.  When looking at details of the banshee’s cry we see reports such as “mournful cry”, a “wailing, piercing cry” and “pitiful” (Lysaght,1967:104).  The descriptions of this unnatural scream mirror those given of keening women and how they “shake the roof with their female crying and lamentation” (O suilleabháin,1969:134) and their “all unnatural screams” (O suilleabháin,1969:138). It is not just aural descriptions, but also physical that link these two together. Although the colour of her hair, and in some cases her age, changes, the bean sí is most often described as having long, often white, untied hair (lysaght,1967:348). This is strikingly similar to the keening women (who mostly consisted of older women and would most likely have had grey or white hair) and who wore their hair “dishevelled and unbound” (Norris: 1987:348) in a similar fashion. In many narratives of the bean sí she is not only described as crying but is also often told to be “tearing her hair” (Lysaght: 1967:104). This again is mirrored in the behaviour of her human counterpart where we are told that keeners “Beat their breasts, tear their hair and cry” (Ó Crualaoich,1998:150). The parallels between these two intrinsically connected females did not escape the keeners themselves. One informant claimed she was afraid that after death she might become a bean sí herself and described the bean sí as being “one of the oul criers” (Lysaght,1967:104). This lies in the belief that if a keener does not perform her job correctly that she is doomed to become a bean sí after death and is one of the origin myths for the bean sí.

Bean bhán

Keening was not the only aspect of death that primarily lay in the hands of women. There was a taboo against the family members to touch the body after death (Ó Crualaoich,1990:152) and this job was once again in the hands of women who were insulated against the malevolent power of death. It was carried out by the women termed bean bháin, literally meaning white women (due to the white sheets used). Sean Ó Suilleabháin tells us that the laying out of the corpse was done by a few neighbouring women who have had previous experience in doing so (O Suilleabháin,1969:13) but he gives no indication that this was even a semi-professional role like the keeners. In another source we are told that it was the oldest woman in the townland who was in charge of washing and preparing the corpse (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). We can see these women are insulated from the supernatural forces from the fact that both the water and sheets that come in contact with the body can be used in cures. The bean bháin is able to cut triangle out of the grave cloth and dispense them as cures (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). Women are also seen to be the ones who watch over the corpse for the duration of the wake, as the body is not to be left unattended at any point. One or two women usually stay at the side of the corpse (O Suilleabháin,1969:13). The only element of the preparation of the body that may be carried out by a man is in relation to shaving the corpse. If the person had a custom of shaving then it was carried out by another neighbour (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). Although this passage does not tell us specifically that it was a man who carried out the shaving, the wording of the passage seems to infer that it was a male neighbour. This however is not the only male role that is involved in this critical point in the life cycle.


Male roles

Although the more spiritual and important matters are the domain of the female at this stage in the life cycle, this under no circumstance means that the male is cast aside and ignored or considered inconsequential. There are also clearly defined gender roles that are reserved for men. At least two men were sent out for the essential supplies needed for the wake (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). These supplies consisted of the food and drink to offer to people who come to pay their last respects. It was also down to these men to get the candles (usually 12) that were lit around the body. Other supplies included the tobacco, snuff and clay pipes that were a staple at wakes. The men sent to get these supplies would also buy either a coffin or the supplies to make the coffin.

The borekeen and wake games

It was only usual in most cases for wake games to be found at wakes of someone who had passed of natural cause or in old age. Young or tragic deaths were more sombre affairs and would not have seen this behaviour to the extent the others would have. As mentioned at the beginning these games and revelry were presided over by a male master of ceremonies, the borekeen. When death caused disruption in the community, the female was the agent ushering the soul into the otherworld, i.e. presiding over death and the male was the agent presiding over life, whose job it is to “reassert the continuing of vitality and the potential for renewal in the community” (Lysaght, 1997:65). As a result they were cosmologically opposed, (Ó Crualaoich,1990:147) in essence a balance or compliment to each other. As well as having a male figure presiding over the games, many of these games and pass times were male-centred. That is not to say that they were all just involving men, as there were many matchmaking type games played that involved both sexes, but most of the recorded games seem to involve just male participants. These were often in the form of feats of strength to show physical prowess and gain acclaim (O Suilleabháin,1969:38). Story telling was also a favourite at wakes, even the more solemn ones, and we are told how these stories were more often than not told by an elderly man (O Suilleabháin,1969:14), most likely a member of the community with some renown in telling stories. Similar to keening this sort of behaviour at wakes came up against opposition by the clergy who at the synod of Cashel and Emly (1720) thought “the purpose [of the wake] is being defeated when immodest games are carried on which suppress the memory of death in the minds of those present” (O Suilleabháin,1969:149). It is interesting that the reason they condemn these activities is in fact the core reason of their purpose: a coping mechanism to deal with impact of death among them. The merrymaking scene found at these wakes made it “as though such a thing as grief were not in the world “(Norris,1987:347). This function as a coping mechanism can also be said about keening. An account by Tom Ó Flatharthan tells us how whenever his mother became distressed, following the tragic death of her child, that she would keen him to release the emotional distress (Ó Madagáin, 2006:81).


Pictorial evidence

There are a number of paintings whose subject matter is based around a wake that I thought were worthy of inclusion as many of the things seen within the painting are backed up by the accounts. They provide an interesting view on the gendered aspects of the wake and should not be overlooked. I have included three examples in the appendix: The Wake by N.Grogan (hereafter fig.1), The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton (hereafter Fig.2) and a photograph from the National Museum Archive of a funeral (hereafter Fig.3) and also (Fig.4) which is a drawing of what looks like keening women. I feel these best illustrate the evidence given so far. An element each share is the fact the coffin or corpse is surrounded by women. This is backed up in a number of the accounts (Oscar:1987:347, Ó Crualaoich,1990:150)  and seems to have been an important aspect even up to modern times.


Fig.1: The Wake by N. Grogan


When looking at this painting we see many of the elements featured in the accounts that when viewed in term of gender, are quite interesting. Near the hearth we see women crowded together practicing what looks like divination. Although not exclusively practiced by women it was certainly very common for women to do so. The game being played first and centre has a mix of boys and girls as it is not one of the feats of strength type games favoured by men and boys. To the left we see a group playing pranks (pipe exploding) and directly below them seems to be a bit of matchmaking taking place (which ties into the continuity of life in the face of death mentioned above). Moving towards the back we see what looks like a group of men involved in storytelling and drinking. Behind that we see the corpse with all the handy work of the ban bhán: the candles, sheets hung up and the corpse wrapped in a shroud. Next to the body we see it is mostly surrounded by mostly women.


 Fig.2: The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton


Here we see a more solemn wake, absent games, because of a tragic death. We do however see the keening women in action. The exaggerated movements of the woman standing and the more reserved stance of the gentleman standing brings to mind an account where we are told “the womenfolk are more demonstrative than the men and much less reserved than the men” (O Suilleabháin,1969:38).

Fig.3: Photo


I included this simply because it shows a number of old women, most likely keeners, surrounding the coffins. Oscar tells us how “four or five aged females” surrounded the coffin (Oscar:1987:347) and another piece tells us how “The coffin was surrounded by a prodigious number of females who wept and chanted” (Ó Crualaoich,1990:150), both accounts describing an almost identical scenario to the photo.



This illustration fits in similar to Fig.2 above with the exaggerated movements and demonstrative behaviour of the women while lamenting and the men are more reserved.

The evidence provided above from both the written evidence passed down to us and also from the illustrations that the death aspect of the life cycle has clearly defined gender roles. Although there are elements of fluidity at rare occasions we see that the certain roles related to the rituals concerning death certainly favour certain genders. In the male capacity we see the borkeen and the men who fetch the supplies for the wake and in the female capacity we see the bean chaointe (and her supernatural counterpart, the bean sí) and the bean bhán all working together to help the spirit of the deceased pass into the next world and also to promote the continuity of life in the community.


 Bourke.A (1988), The Irish Lament and the Grieving Process, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.11, No.4.

Danaher.K (1962), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier Press.

Lysaght.P (1976), Banshee Traditions in Béaloideas 1974-76, Iml.42/43, An Cumann le Béaloideas Eireann.

Lysaght.P (1988), Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland, Folklore 108.

Newell.V (1987), Reviewed Works: The Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.22, No.4.

Norris.L (1987), The Swanee Review: keening, Vol.95,No.4, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1990), Contest in the Cosmology and the Ritual of the Irish Merry Wake, Cosmo: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Vol.6, Edinburgh University Press.

Ó Crualaoich.G (1998), The Merry Wake in: Irish Popular culture 1650-1850, Ed. Donnolly.J & Miller.K, Irish Academic Press.

Ó Madagáin.B (2006), Keening and Other Old Irish Musics,  Clo Iar-Chonnachta.

Ó Súilleabháin.S (1967), Irish Wake Amusements, Mercier Press.

Oscar (1835), The Dublin Penny Journal: The Wake, Vol.3,  No.148.

Influence from the lecture notes (Photos and paintings sourced from powerpoint slides)  of Dr Stiofán Ó Cadhla and originally handed in as a class essay for the Folklore and Gender module, Folklore and Ethnology Department, University College Cork.