Blacksmiths and the supernatural

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Traditional forge. Copyright Shane Broderick Photography

This article will be focusing on the blacksmith in Ireland and how the world of the supernatural is intrinsically bound up with this craftsman. Blacksmiths have for millennia been a member of high status in the community and this status survived in rural Ireland until the decline of the craft in modern times(Mac Cana, 1997:34).  Their ability to turn raw materials such as iron ore or bog iron into usable tools and weapons made them seem like they were in possession of magic. Because of them working with iron, which is almost universally thought of as warding off evil, it is believed to imbue the smith with special powers or the ability to see or defeat evil. The suspicion of this power, perhaps mostly from the church is reflected in the 8th century hymn to protect people from the “spells of women, smiths and druids” (Kelly, 1988:62). We will see this opposition of the church reflected in a story below. They are often depicted as being of an unnatural size or have superhuman strength or stamina. Many folktales and mythological stories feature blacksmiths or blacksmithing gods showing the significance of the blacksmith in society. For this project I will be drawing mostly from the National Folklore Collection. I will also be using some examples from the Schools Collection as well as references from published books. My research is focused mostly, which the exception of one story, on the English language material I came across. I picked this subject as it is something I have had an interest in for a number of years and also I assumed that due to the fact that there was once a blacksmith in every town that there could possibly be an ample supply of interesting stories that would not only be interest the casual reader but would also broaden my own knowledge on the subject. I would like to begin by giving a brief overview of how the National Folklore Collection came into being and its importance.

In light of a quickly changing society, The Folklore of Ireland Society was set up in 1927 to document as much folk tradition as possible. Following this The Irish folklore Institute was set up in 1930. The government quickly realised that it would need a better equipped organisation and this was the impetus for the setting up of the Irish Folklore Commission in 1935. It was then that professional collectors, both full and part-time, travelled the length and breadth of country to record the native traditions. The collection is now made up of both the national collection (NFC) and also the schools collection (NFSC). The main collection ran from 1935-70 and the schools collection was carried out over the school year of 1937-8. Due to lack of man power and funding the collecting was not as effective as it could have been and many aspects of folk tradition were overlooked in favour of others. Irish speaking areas were favoured which is reflected in the larger portion of the collected material being in Irish. This makes it harder for any foreign scholarship to be carried out. Even though it was not as thorough as it could have been it still amounts to one of the largest ethnographic archives in the world and is ultimately an archive of national identity. For many years to come it will allow people to study the echoes of the past preserved within the archive.

Curing or Cursing

photo copyright TW Photography

In the course of my research I noticed a bit of a trend. It would appear to be advantageous for all involved to stay on the good side of a blacksmith. It is a recurring theme referred to time and time again, in both the NFC and also in the schools collection, that the blacksmith is both capable of curing people or cursing them. In cursing it would appear that the anvil, one of the principle tools of the blacksmith, is instrumental in acting out the curse. This may have to be either facing a certain direction or rotated a certain direction, i.e Deiseal or Tuathal (clockwise or anti-clockwise).

Máire ní Carthaigh offers 2 Items told to her by her father on the subject, the first of which tells of how one goes about getting a curse placed on someone. She says that “If you want something to befall your neighbour, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse”. The curse itself is not mentioned, which is usual, and neither is the repercussion of curse. The second story, called “The anvil curse” features the same sort of formula in relation to the pointing of the anvil to the East. This is more narrative based and is centred around 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).

A more malevolent version of the blacksmiths curse can be seen in the Schools Collection. The result of the curse can be seen in this tale, although unlike the previous tale the process of the curse is not revealed.  In this account Séamus Ó hOighleáin tells us how it is believed that the blacksmith shares this ability with the miller and that “he could do any enemy to death by turning the anvil on him”. He mentions that the methodology is unknown, that “how he turned it or what were the word of the malediction is unknown” but the aftermath is clearly seen later in the tale. This also features a landlord that was found dead at the exact hour of the “turning of the anvil”. It expresses that his skin was all black and that there was no doubt that he had been “done to death by the curse” (NFSC,Vol 0119:507). It is interesting in this account that the curse is thought of as being a trade secret, adding to the air of mystery surrounding the blacksmith.

One would think that given their ability to curse and ultimately kill people that they would be avoided but they were also sought out for cures. Like elsewhere in folklore, i.e the 7th son of a 7th son, this healing ability seems to be more efficacious when performed by a seventh generation blacksmith. Although said to be rare these were seen as having “all sorts of cures” for many different ailments. (NFC,Iml:1457:561). In the course of my research I came across two instances related to healing where the blacksmith was successful where doctors had failed. One of these interestingly involved a seventh generation smith as mentioned above. The smith was said to be well known to have had “cures from herbs and arrowroot”. The focus on this narrative though is on the banishment of a changeling that was thought to be a sickly child. When the mother of the child goes to the smith for a cure after the doctors had failed he advises her to go home and say that the woods next to the house are on fire. Upon hearing this the “child” rises out of the cradle exclaiming that “me children will all be burned” and eventually the child was returned (NFC,Iml.1457:667-9).  This is very similar to a tale offered up by John Gallivan (NFC,Iml.485:55-60) in Sligo, 90km away. This also involves a sickly child that doctors can do nothing for. The wits of the blacksmith once again prevail with the solution being the same. The husband runs in saying the fort is on fire and the changeling leaves to save his wife and children with the child being returned soon after. This tale however does not claim that the blacksmith has any other experience with herbalism or other cures. It was not the only fairy related tale I encountered. One tale attributes the skill of a blacksmith to the fairies, due to the fact he was on good terms with them (NFC, IML.485:188-9). This attribution of an exceptional skill to the fairies is not unknown elsewhere in Irish folklore. One of the only Irish language examples I translated deals with the same theme. A man on his deathbed, who was attended by two doctors that were unable to help him was healed by a blacksmith (NFC, Iml:1836:190-1). What I find interesting about this tale is that it includes a section where the priest attacks the blacksmith due to the fact he thinks that a priest should be better than a blacksmith at healing. This makes it seem like it is believed to be against the church. This was fairly unique in relation to the idea of the blacksmith being contra religion in regard to the religious themed stories I will talk of later, although it does echo the hymn guarding against the spells of smiths.

Butter stealing

Considering butter and butter making feature very prominently in Irish folklore it is no
surprise that in my research I came across an account of a blacksmith who offered to help with “the cure” for butter stealing. The family in question were “black in the face” from trying to make butter. This cure involved the blacksmith having to make both a horse shoe and nails, both made by heating the iron in different heats and placing them under the churn. The story then follows a very typical formula of the person who was stealing the butter is found in the form of a hare. It ends with everybody in the town getting their butter back. (NFC,IML.185:367-9) I found the inclusion of consulting the blacksmith in this story to be fairly unique as usually these types of tales involve a person just heating a piece of Iron and putting it into the milk to harm the person stealing the butter. In a society where butter stealing was a very real fear, I feel it speaks volumes about the status of the blacksmith in society due to the fact that he is able to help in a situation like this.

Size and Strength

These topics were probably the most numerous in my research of the schools collection where it was second only to the practical side of blacksmithing. These examples often describe blacksmiths as being of a large size and capable of superhuman feats of strength. The “test of strength” motif seems to be very popular in relation to tales of blacksmiths. One such tale tells of a smith who could “lift a pony over his head” and is described as “over six feet tall with a very long beard”. I found the mention of the long beard to be interesting due to the fact that many depictions of blacksmith gods such as Vulcan (roman) and Hephaestus (Greek) are shown as bearded. Of course many of the later celtic versions of these gods took on similar appearances. Lifting the pony was not he only feat of strength mention here. During a raid by English troops, he was said to have picked up a huge boulder and threw it at the troops. The result was that it had left a huge hole in the wall (NFC,IML.1405:167-8). Lifting great weights seem to be the most common of these feats of strength. Pádraig Téidina offers three stories in the schools collection of a local smiths renowned for their strength. The first two concern the same smith named “Séan an Gabar”. Interestingly one of these also features the smith lifting a horse over his head (NFSC,Vol.0647:270). The second tale tells of how he was unequalled in terms of strength. It tells of how even at the age of thirteen, Séan an Gabar was able to carry half a hundred weight for a hundred yards with ease, to the astonishment of everyone (NFSC,Vol.0647:268). The final story he had to offer was in relation to a different smith also capable of superhuman feats of strength. In this instance he is able to lift two anvils with one hand over his head and pass them to his other hand (NFSC,Vol.0647:271). . The final 2 examples of this “test of strength” I wish to include are very similar to each other in some regard. In the first I would also like to bring to attention the fact that both the smiths involved in this contest are described as being “like giants” (NFC, IML.437:187-8). The similar aspects, involving the lighting of a pipe from a cinder placed on top of an anvil that is picked up and handed to the other can also be found in the tale “The blacksmith and the Horseman” found in Sean O Sullivan’s book “Folktales of Ireland” (O Sullivan,1966:253). The lifting of the anvil with one hand occurs again and again and is no doubt beyond the ability of any normal person.

Tales of a religious nature

These examples that follow were collected from blacksmiths and are of an etiological nature and are connected to either Jesus or the Blessed Virgin. The first explains why the jaws of a blacksmiths tongs are uneven due to the fact that he made a pin out of the top of the jaws for the Blessed Virgin, to wrap a cloak around Jesus. This tale offers an interesting link to “forge water”, i.e water from the trough also. This mentions that a blacksmith can replenish his stamina from washing his hands in the trough due to the Blessed Virgin blessing the water (NFC, IML.815:48-9). The act of the blacksmith washing his hands to regain strength is a question featured in “The Handbook of Irish Folklore”. Water from the trough is also seen in many cases to have curative properties such as for curing warts (NFC, IML.407:64). The second story offered by this informant tells of why the blacksmith is prosperous and lucky while the tin-smith or “tinker” is often a tramp with no permanent abode. The blacksmiths refusal to make nails for the crucifixion, while the Tinker was willing to do is the explanation for this (NFC, IML.815:50). A similar tale to this was offered up by another blacksmith. This states that there is a geis or taboo on blacksmiths to hammer a nail on Good Friday. Its states that both the blacksmith and the forge are lucky due to his refusal to make the crucifixion nails (NFC, IML.482:560).

Conclusion

The material I found seems to paint the blacksmith as much more than just a normal person. Their special status is reflected in the fact that they are consulted on supernatural matters such as the butter stealing and the banishment of changelings. The superhuman feats of strength and larger than life size of the blacksmiths mentioned add to this and almost show them as a quasi-mythical figure. In making him seem as something outside the normal realm, it in effect turns the blacksmith into a liminal figure. When you take into account that often forges were placed on the outskirts of villages (due to fire risk) this point becomes more valid, a liminal character in a liminal space so to speak. Overall I was happy with the examples I found in my research. I do believe that only sticking to the English material for the most part might have limited my results but I believe the material I found illustrates adequately that the life of the blacksmith was inherently bound up with the world of the supernatural

Bibliography

1.1: NFC,IML.80:283, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.

1.2: NFC,IML.80:286, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.

1.3: NFSC,Vol.0119:507, Séamus Ó hOighleáin, Garryroe, Co.Mayo.

1.4: NFC, IML.1457:561, Hugh Corrigan (60),Blacksmith, Taumagh, Collector:James Delany,Druimlish, Co.Longford,

1.5: NFC,IML.1457:561, Hugh Corrigan (60),Blacksmith, Taumagh, Collector:James Delany,Druimlish, Co.Longford,

1.6: NFC,Iml.485:55-60, JohnGallivan (90), pensioner, Drumshinagh, Co.Sligo, Collector: Brígid Ní Gamnáin, Drumshinagh, Baile an Dúan, , pp55-60.

1.7: NFC,IML.1836:190-1, Tomás O Suilleabáin (80), farmer, Baile an tobar, Co.Galway, collector: Prionnsias De Búrca, 3/2/73.

1.8: NFC,IML.185:367-9, Patrick Fitzsimons (55), Postman and farmer, Rosehill, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, Collector: P.J.Gaynor, 27th of January 1942.

1.9: NFC,IML.1405:167-8, Máire Nic Aindruí (80), housewife, Béal-an-Murtid, Mayo, Collector: Áine Ní Ruadáin, 4th April 1955.

1.10: NFC, IML.437:187-8, Johnny Hayes, (—) operator, Horetown, Co.Wexford, Collector: Tomás O Ciardha, Baile Cuillín, Wexford.

1.11: NFC, IML.815:48-51, Joseph McEntee (46), Blacksmith, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, P.J.Gaynor, Bailieboro, Co.Cavan, 2nd January 1942.

1.12: NFC, IML.482:560, Hugh Corrigan, Blacksmith.

1.13: NFC, IML.407:64, Pádraig Mac Doniraill (70), Bainishteior, castletown, limerick, Collector: Peadar Mac Doniraill,,Castletown, Limerick.

1.14: NFC, IML.485:188-9, Mrs.Higgins (60), Doonsheheen, Co.Sligo, Collector: Brígid M. Ní Gamnáin, Baile an Dún, Sligo, 23 April 1938.

Schools collection:

2.1: NFSC: Vol.0647:270, Tomás Ó Míodhcáin, Boolavonteen, Co.Waterford, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

2.2: NFSC, Vol.0647:268, Seamus Ó hAnnracháin, Ballynamult, Co.Waterford, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

2.3: NFSC, Vol.0647:271, Liam De h-lideberg, Dungarvan, Collector: Pádraig Teidhirs, Cahernaleague, Co.Waterford

Published Material:

O Sullivan.S (1966), Folktales Of Ireland, Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, London, pp.253-4.

Kelly.F (1988), A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp.62.

Mac Cana.P (1997), Celtic Mythology, Reed International Books Limited, Hong Kong, pp.34

The Darker Side of Folklore: The Story of Bridget Cleary

Ireland’s rich and vibrant oral tradition of storytelling captured the hearts and minds of generation upon generation of Irish people going back centuries, who passed the long cold nights by the fire absorbed in these tales. While it is easy for us to view them as just stories through a modern lens and dismiss them as simple superstition, they had a much more profound effect on the people of the past. Many of these stories would have originated as an explanation of events and phenomenon that people would not have had at the time such as inexplicable illnesses and features of the landscape such as ringforts. While even back then some would havedismissed them as make believe, many seen them as truth which sometimes ended in a disastrous outcome. This was ultimately the outcome with the case of Bridget Cleary in 1895 where the belief in fairy changelings culminated in the torture and death of the young woman at the hands of her husband Michael and a number of other people including a local herb/fairy doctor Dennis Ganey. The storytelling tradition was instrumental in the outcome of this tragedy and it is evident in the common motifs often found in changeling stories that pop up in this case such as; the attempts to banish the “fairy” (including the use of fire), the administering of herbs, the inclusion of the priest and also in the manner that Michael Cleary believed he could rescue his wife from the fairies. Jack Dunne’s presence and prestige as someone knowledgeable in fairy lore was also pivotal to the outcome of the incident. Another notable point was the proximity of the house to a Rath, often called fairy forts, and believed to be the abode of the “the good folk”. Changeling stories are very common and were described by Emily Lyle as “being among the most commonest of the tales of the Fairies” (Bourke, 1999: 37).

The use of fire in this case is very important as it is a common element in the stories concerning banishment of changelings. It is a method that pops up many times in the national folklore collection. Although in all the documented cases of changeling burning, Bridget Cleary is the only one that involves an adult victim (Bourke, 1999:

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The Fireplace where Bridget was murdered

38). Many other reports can be found throughout the 19th century of children being placed on red hot shovels, drowned or mistreated and only 11 years before this event a case was reported less than 15 miles away from where the Cleary’s lived that involved a red hot shovel. One of the witness statements at the court case that followed stated that at one point Bridget had a burn mark on her forehead administered by her husband with a red-hot poker (Bourke, 1999: 79). He also used fire after he knocked her to the floor while trying to make her eat and also when he doused her in lamp oil to burn the body while saying “she’s an old deceiver left instead of my wife, you will see her go up the chimney”. This method can be seen time and time again for scaring away fairies such as a story where a man took a red hot tongs out of the fire saying “I’ll scald you first and burn you afterwards” upon which the child turned into an old person in front of them and left, only for the real child to be returned (Gafty, 1862). Another story features both a fairy man and also the use of fire where a changeling is banished when the “wise man” threatens to catch its nose with a tongs causing it to leave (Kennedy, 1886: 90-92). It also occurs in the story “Garret Barry and the changeling” where a fairy child talks to the piper after hearing him play the bagpipes. The outcome of this is the same whereby the fairy departs up the chimney after being threatened by a reddened shovel taken out of the fire (Lenihan, 2003: 296).

 

As mentioned, Jack Dunne had a very important part to play in the events that unfolded and was no doubt the impetus for the gross mistreatment of the young woman from the moment he uttered the words “That is not Bridgie Boland”. (Bourke, 1999: 62) This could be alluding to her change in appearance due to sickness and in many of the stories we find that the physical appearance of people who had spent time ‘away with the fairies’ would be somehow different (NFC 437:104-105,Wexford, 1945) . He also mentioned that one of her legs was shorter than the other. This was also a feature of a story shared by Eamonn á Búrc. Dunne’s knowledge of herbs and his insistence of Michael seeing the herb doctor, Dennis Ganey, was what caused Michael Cleary to abandon the idea of using real medicine in favour of using what they later called in court “fairy quackery”. A herb often associated with fairies foxglove (often called fairy thimbles), are the most attested and heavily documented herb in relation to fairies and a witness was even asked if lús mór (foxglove) was used. The fact that the herbs were boiled in new milk or beestings (Bourke, 1999: 78) as it is known is also important as new milk is often seen as being attractive to the fairies. In a quickly modernising world where people like Dunne, with his esoteric knowledge, were quickly losing the prestige and respect that they would have once had, then it is no doubt that he would have taken every opportunity to exert his dominance in the situation. Michael Cleary himself had said in court that were it not for the insistence of Jack Dunne he would not have done it.

The proximity of the fort and also the way in which Michael thought he could still

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Michael Cleary

“rescue” his wife following her death is also a conventional motif in fairy abduction stories. These forts were commonly referred to in the locality as places where fairies lived (Bourke, 1999: 11) and oral tradition marked the particular fort near their house as not being linked to normal human behaviour. (Bourke, 1999: 17). The association with the forts and the fairies is well attested and widespread and even Lady Gregory on her travels while collecting stories mentioned that they are always fairy haunted and are identifiable to the locals as such (Bourke, 1999: 47) Roads quite often avoid them and calamities often befall those who tamper with them or are in any way disrespectful to them. In regards to the rescue of Bridget, a witness Johanna testified in court that she had heard Michael talking specifically about the fairies and that his wife was up at Kylenegranagh fort and that they would go up Sunday night to rescue her. There he expected to find her on a horse and that if he cut the cords she was tied with that she would stay with them (Bourke, 1999: 16). He was later seen with a crowd of people with a knife to retrieve her. Two stories collected in the book “Meeting the Other Crowd” echo this. The first features Corbally fort where a man spotted a woman on a white horse being led by a group of fairies. The man was able to rescue her by pulling her off the horse. This story also mentions something left in her stead (Lenihan, 2003: 278). The second is the story of a brother that dreamt of his sister who had being “carried”. She could also be rescued if her feet touched the ground (Lenihan, 2003: 276). Another interesting story concerning a wife being stolen can be found in the national folklore collection. This specific story is interesting because it contains a few elements that are found in the Bridget Cleary case. The appearance of the wife had changed (“An ugly auld yoke instead of her”, as the husband put it) and the man visited a fairy doctor. He had administered herbs although in this case it was to enable the man to see the fairies. He was to go to a specific place at a certain time and he could pull his wife off the horse. As soon as he had retrieved her the thing in the house disappeared (Carroll, 1945: 105).

Many might look at Michael Cleary’s explanation as simply an excuse to cover up the mistreatment and murder of his wife but I think we have seen there are many elements that show how a clearly superstitious man under severe psychological stress got caught up in the events that unfolded. Even though they lived in a quickly modernising world, the stories still told at the fireside would have greatly influenced their world view. The interference of a man who would have commanded some respect due to his esoteric knowledge of the supernatural world (however waning this respect now was in the new world that was emerging) was central to the outcome of the case. Charlotte Dease says that the best place to find a mixture of ancient traditions mixed with modern is to look to the more rural areas of Ireland (Dease,1918:46). I think this was ultimately the case for Bridget Cleary.

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The Cleary’s House

Bibliography
Bourke,A (1999). The Burning of Bridget Cleary, London, Pimlico, pp.1-111.
Dease.C, Religious Traditions Of Gaelic Ireland, Irish monthly, Vol.47, No.567 (Jan 1918),pp.45-50.
Gafty,A.(1862), A holiday in Ireland in 1861, Dublin, Bealoideas 3, pp.368.
Hedderman, B.N. (1917), Glimpses of my life in Aran, Bristol, John Wright and sons Ltd.
Kennedy,P. (1866), Fictions of the Irish Celts, London, MacMillan and Co. pp.90-92.
Lenihan,E. and Green,C.(2003), Meeting the other crowd, Dublin, Gill and macmillan.
National Folklore Collection, Iml 437,Page 104, Mrs.John O’Carrol, Wexford, Thomas O’ Ciarda, 1945.
National Folklore Collection, Iml 48, pp16-22, Micíl Uí Fionnagáin,65, Priónseas ó Ceallaigh, Cork.