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”.

 

 

Animal Folklore of Ireland Pt.1: Dog

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Dogs have always been seen as not only loyal companions but also as protectors of both our homes and livestock and were historically used in times of war and also in helping with hunting. The majestic wolfhound, the oldest Irish breed was once a status symbol owned only by Kings and as their names suggests, used for hunting the wolves that once roamed our country. So, it is no surprise that with our close relationship with the hound, that it finds a prominent place in our Folklore, myths and legends. Both in Ireland and UK we share the belief that dogs are capable of seeing supernatural beings and I have many memories of being told that a dog was seeing a spirit when it was staring off into space intently, but was always assured it meant no harm if the dog was not scared. The belief that the dog could protect against the influences of the otherworld is by no means a new belief and in the Brehon laws we see that anyone who killed a dog belonging to a woman who was in labour, had to pay for a priest to stand over the woman and read the scriptures, day and night, until the labour was over to keep her safe from otherworldly influences (MacCoitir,2010:188).

Supernatural Dogs

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Not only do we find that they could see spirits, or fairies, but it was also a belief that they themselves could become ghosts. We see an example of this in the National Folklore Schools collection (hereafter NFSC) in a story collected by Michéal Ó Gealbháin called “A Dog’s Ghost”. The story tells of how the informant once had a dog he was very attached to, as was the dog to him. One day as he was returning from a trip to Castlebar he seen the dog running up the road to meet him. As he drew closer the dog seemed to disappear into the bushes and would not come when he called him. Assuming the dog had just followed a rabbit he continued on home. Upon reaching the house he remarked to his wife how the dog would not come home when he called and that he would have to go and find him. His wife put down her knitting and placing a hand on either shoulder, said to him “You must be brave” and after a no doubt dramatic pause, said “The dog is dead”. He knew by the sorrowful look in her eyes that she was not joking and after following his wife to stables found the dog lying dead on the floor. The dog had passed away shortly after he had left for Castlebar earlier that morning. (NFSC, Vol:0095:167). This story brings to mind similar accounts found throughout Irish Folklore of the ‘fetch’ of a person appearing to loved ones around the time of their death.

In some areas of the country we find that a baying hound, called a gaidhrín caointeach replaced the infamous Bean Sídhe (banshee) as the herald of death for certain families such as the O’keeffe’s in West Cork. We also find a tradition/ variation in Ireland akin to the hounds of hell archetype where it is believed that these death hounds awaited the soul after death in so any morsels of bread would be thrown out in an effort to entice the dogs away as the person lay dying (MacCoitir,2010:95).

In terms of supernatural dogs, we also find a proliferation of accounts of monstrous black dogs, often encountered by people who wonder about too late at night (In fact a cursory glance at the duchas.ie page turns up well over 100 dog related entries, the vast majority of which are black dog stories). They are often spotted near Ringforts (often called rath or Lios), the medieval enclosure dwellings that dot the landscape. These monuments, as many will know, are considered the abode of the ‘Good people’, the fairies, and are still treated by many with respect and superstition or even fear.  Eddie lenihan, the well respected Seanchaí and expert in fairy lore, tells us how these black dogs are the “frequenters and protectors” of fairy sites such as their dwellings and pathways. He tells us how the same dog, although not always a danger to people if left alone, can be seen over several generations in the same location and is often immobile and massive in size but just watches menacingly (lenihan,2003:89). Sometimes this ghostly black dog is connected with hidden treasure as we see in the following tale found in the NFSC: One evening as a boy was returning home from a fair, he met with a big black dog with “blazing eyes”. The dog leaped over a big gate into a bunch of nettles and disappeared. The boy recounted the story to his father and they both returned to the site with a shovel and after digging on the spot where the dog had vanished, found a box full of money (NFSC,Vol.0647:345). The black dog archetype is a migratory myth found in many lands outside of Ireland and is very popular in the British Isles but in the course my research for this article I came across an interesting find. In a story named “The Fairy Dog” in the NFSC we see an interesting account of a red dog (NFSC,Vol.0007:81). The colour red seems to me tosignify it as an otherworldly animal as we often find otherworldly cows and deer, usually white in color  with red ears, so I believe in the case the colour red may be used to point out its otherworldly origins. At the very least it is interesting in the fact it varies from the usual black dog with burning red eyes. For any interested in the UK variation of the black dog mythos, I would suggest checking out the work of Mark Norman here: http://www.troybooks.co.uk/black-dog-folklore.html

Transformation

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When looking at Irish myth and folklore we find many instances of people transforming into animals.  We see from some of our earliest literature that there was a druidic belief, something akin to reincarnation or rebirth where they thought that their ancestors “flew through the ages in the shape of birds”. This belief carried forward into the Christian era and we also see a multitude of instances of people who shapeshift in the form of one animal or another. We see long lived characters such as Tuán MacCaraill and Fintan son of Bochaire who survived thousands of years through shapeshifting into different animals and we also see similar events in the Lives of saints such as Saint Patrick and of course who could forget the children of Lir. So, it is no surprise considering the closeness and importance of humble dog, or Madra in Irish, that it would feature in similar shapeshifting stories. Two of these stories, found in the NFSC are due to enchantment by witches. In the “White Dog of the Valley” (NFSC,Vol.0442:071) we see a man who changes into a dog to steal the kings cattle and in “The Green Dog of the Woods” (NFSC,Vol.0222:023) we see a similar story when a man is under a spell that causes him to take on the form of a dog every evening.

Influence of Dogs on Names and Their Links With Heroes

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Photo copyright Tony Mulrany @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/16913367@N02/4504310387

We also see, because of the importance of dogs to the Irish, that they had an influence on Irish names. We see names such as Conn (such as Conn Céadcathach / Conn of the Hundred Battles) ,Conchobar (Conor) and Conall that derive from the word Cú/con meaning “hound, wolf” and of course one could not forget to mention the premier hero of the Irish mythological tradition, Cúchulainn. Originally named Setanta, he earned his name from killing the infamous, ferocious hound of the smith Culainn when arriving late to a dinner he was invited to by the king Conchubar,at the home of the smith. From that day forward he was known as Cúchulainn (the hound of Culainn) as he acted as protector in place of the hound till another could be trained to take his place. Because of his links with Dogs he also had a Geas (A taboo or obligation, often magically imposed) that forbid him from eating the flesh of a dog. Traditionally, the doom of heroes comes about due to their violation of their geas, either by accident, or by having multiple geasa and then being placed in a position where they have no option but to violate one geas in order to maintain another. For instance, The champion Cúchulainn came across three old crones roasting a hound on rowan spits.   They asked him to partake in their humble meal, but there was a geas on Cúchulainn forbidding him to eat the flesh of the hound (his totem animal) and also against eating meat cooked over an open fire.  Cúchulainn at first refused to eat the meat, but the crones persisted saying ‘you are too proud to eat an honest meal from a few old women but will feast on rich foods in the halls of chieftains and kings.’   Then Cúchulainn took the meat in his left hand – going against the double taboo and as soon as he ate the food he was paralyzed in the left side of his body, which hastened his inevitable demise in the forthcoming battle

We also see dogs feature in the Finnaíocht tradition of Irish mythology, that is the stories concerning Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn MacCool) and his roving warband, the Fianna.  These legends tell us of Finn’s favourite dog Bran, a dog thought to possess great knowledge and sense who often helped Finn or saved him from danger. The Birth of both Bran and Sceoling (another hound of the Fianna) falls under the category of transformation above. Both were born to a queen who had been transformed into the form of a dog by a sorceress and who gave birth to them while in this form. In The Lay’s of Finn we find a poem that tells the story of Bran, with Fionn praising him (MacCoitir,2010:99).

This is but a short summary of how dogs factor in on Irish Folklore. I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the subject and I hope to bring many more segments to my animal folklore series in the future. If you would like to read some of the Schools collection for yourself follow this link to read the entries on dogs: http://www.duchas.ie/en/src?q=dog&t=CbesStory and don’t forget to follow my page on facebook : https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/

 

Bibliography

NFSC.Vol:0095:167, collector: Michéal Ó Gealbháin, Informant: Mr.Morony, Clogher, Co. Mayo.

NFSC,Vol.0647:345, Collector: Tomás Ó Dúnaighe, Informant: Tom Dwyer, Ballynamult, Co. Waterford.

NFSC,Vol.0007:81, Collector: Joseph King, Informant: Thomas King (50), Farmer, Roundstone, Co. Galway.

NFSC,Vol.0222:023, Collector: Joseph Quinn, Cloone, Co. Leitrim.

NFSC,Vol.0442:071, Collector: Nellie Doyle, Informant: Nóra Ní Shuilleabháin.

Lenihan, E, 2004. Meeting the Other Crowd. TarcherPerigee

MacCoitir.N,2010, Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends and Folklore, Collins press.

The Folklore of May-Day/ Bealtaine

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The 1st of May brings us to the start of summer and one of the most important cross-quarter days (being between the solstices and equinoxes) in the Irish calendar. May-day, like many festivals of its kind has no shortage of traditions attached to it. Also, similar to Samhain, it is considered an extremely liminal time where influences from the otherworld can be a genuine threat. The May festival, or Bealtaine in Irish, is also a time when the fairies, or Sídhe, are thought to be especially active. It is traditionally considered a fire festival so bonfires are an integral part of it (the name Bealtaine is believed to mean “bright Fire” and like many other festivals it has its origins in pagan times) .  Many of the traditions associated with the festival are concerned with protection against the otherworldly forces. As this was a time when cattle would be put out to pasture, many of the superstitions (for lack of a better word) of May-day are related to butter production and protection of the animals. In the course of this article I will be looking at some of them and will be drawing examples mostly from the National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter listed as NFSC).

 

Butter Stealing, Witches and Hags as Hares

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woman churning butter (1897)

As I mentioned above, a particular fear on May-day was that witches were roaming about to steal the milk and butter from households. As milk and butter were not only an important part of the house-hold economy, but also the diet, the fear of it being stolen supernaturally was a huge threat to the livelihood of the house for the coming year. There are charms for both protecting against butter stealing and also forms of sympathetic magic to steal the butter. This magic allowed the person who cast it to gain all the efforts of the other persons churning, while the person actually churning would get nothing but froth.

 

Ruby Stronge gives a story of this witchcraft in the NFSC. She tells us how: “Long ago, on May morning, lots of old women went out in the morning before the sun arose and swept the dew of the grass by pulling a long rope after them and calling, “Come all to me, Come all to me.” This was a kind of witch craft [sic], taking away butter of other people’s milk. One May morning, a man was going along the road with his horse and cart to the bog. He happened to see this old woman pulling at the rope and saying, “Come all to me.” He jumped out of the cart and ran over and cut a piece of the rope and brought it home and threw it in a barrel. A short time afterwards, he went to the barrel to look for the rope and to his great surprise, the barrel was full of butter”.

The rope that is mentioned collecting the dew is the form of sympathetic magic I spoke of earlier. As the dew is collected by the rope, it represents the butter that is being stolen from whoever the spell is cast against. It was most likely the land of the person it was being stolen from that the witch was on in the first place.

Hag as a Hare

72688d6b3243ac4c951bab1bbdb60ff0.jpgWhen it comes to witches stealing butter, one of the most prevalent forms that the story or account takes is in the form of the shapeshifting hag who transforms into a hare. They are quite often impervious to normal weapons as Mrs. Elis tells us in the NFSC: “when she was in that shape she could only be shot with a silver sixpence” (NFSC, Vol. 0949: 092). This element of the story pops up numerous times in the folklore tradition. Another story, told by a collector’s grandfather tells of a man seeing a hare every morning in the field by the cow. When the cow stopped giving milk he got suspicious. He decided to kill the hare and gathered a group of men and hounds. They tried to shoot the hare, but to no avail. The shotgun pellets would not harm it. When attempting again the next day the man had quicksilver in his gun and manged to break the hare’s leg. When they followed it back to a house they found an old woman there with a wounded leg. They refused to kill her because she was an old woman. A month later when she died the cow started giving milk again (NFSC, Vol. 0950: 366).

There was a genuine threat felt by the people in terms of hags in the form of hares. The larger National Folklore Collection is littered with accounts of people who remember patrolling the fields with their fathers with shotguns loaded with silver sixpences on May eve to shoot any trespasser, especially if a hare was seen, showing that this was far beyond just being part of the story telling tradition. It is quite often in the tales with the “hag as hare” motif that when the injured hare is followed back to a house which it enters, an old woman is found injured inside in the same manner as the hare was. This injury isn’t always as a result of silver as we see in the next example:

“There was once a woman who lived in the district and she was supposed to have the ‘evil eye’. One day she was supposed to turn into a hare. When she was going in through her window a dog caught her leg and hurt it. The next day she was {found} in bed with a sore leg” (NFSC, Vol. 0946: 094).

Flowers

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Hawthorn bloom

The collection of flowers was another important custom. The most common custom was the collecting of flowers and making them into posies. Usually they were gathered before dusk on May Eve but sometimes the tradition held that they should be collected before dawn on May Day (Danaher, 1972: 88). It was also a custom to tie flowers to the bridles of horses, the tails or horns of cows and also to milk churns/dashes. The flowers picked were usually yellow in colour as this was the colour of most of the available flowers in bloom at this time (such as primroses, furze etc.). Decorating in this fashion served both a protective and festive function. In the Schools Collection we find the following story in relation to the May flowers:

 

“There is a lot of customs connected with May-Day. The first and most important of those old Irish customs, was the scattering of May flowers on the threshold [of the house]. Long, long ago before the light of Christianity brightened this once pagan land, our forefathers believed that in each woodland flower there lived a tiny fairy who could throw a spell of enchantment on any person who held it. The May flowers were supposed to be the tiny golden mansions of good luck. The reason then for scattering the flowers on each doorstep is that the inhabitants of the fairy mansions may shower an abundance of good luck on the entire household. Another reason was to save them from witchcraft of the “cailleachs” or the old hags, who were supposed to go from house to house on May morning stealing butter and milk from the churns. Any person who did not have the fairies of good luck guarding their thresholds when the cailleachs came along, all their efforts at churning would be useless for the following year. They were supposed to battle with the fairies of good luck on the doorstep but the fairies always won the combat” (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 236).

In the province of Munster it was more common to bring a “May bough” instead of flowers into the house. These were small branches of newly leafed trees (Danaher, 1972: 89). These served the same purpose as the flowers, to guard against ill-luck and evil influence, especially in the case where a branch of mountain ash was used. They would be placed on windows, doors, roofs etc., all places that would be at risk of these malevolent forces entering the house. According to local customs that varied per region as certain growths (such as Blackthorn, Whitethorn, Elder, Broom etc.) may or may not be considered auspicious to bring inside of the house.

As to the witches mentioned in the butter stealing segment, one informant in the NFSC tells us how: “On May Eve, people put May flowers on the doors and windows and the out-houses to keep away the witches”. (NFSC, Vol. 1033:174)

 

May-bush

DSC_1038.jpgAnother form of protection commonly used against the malevolent forces, be they of the sídhe or otherwise, at this liminal time is the May bush. Like most other traditions this can vary in popularity per region. The practice was to get a branch of a flowering bush and decorate it with ribbons, cloth, eggs shells etc. In terms of decoration with eggshells, the egg shells collected from Easter Monday were especially prized for decoration (Bealoideas 9, 1939:929). An example can be seen in the photo of my own May-bush above. Again the species of bush used varied. For my example I used Hawthorn, the bush traditionally associated with the sídhe, often known as fairy bushes.

As the May bush was also concerned with luck in some areas people tried to steal other May-bushes in the belief that they could steal away the luck. (Danaher, 1972: 92). Thankfully with a resurgence of interest in the field of folklore and also with a rise in the number of people wanting to connect with the traditions of their ancestors, this is one of the many customs that has seen a revival.  There are now a number of towns and schools that decorate May-bushes each year. If you would like to watch a video of May-bushes being decorated check out the video by Michael Fortune here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-Sm9ZryHNI .

There are other accounts of people putting unadorned bushes outside their house from the middle of the 16th century (to bring an abundance of milk for the year), but from the 17th century we see accounts of the decorated variety. The description from Sir Henry Piers (1682) bears a striking resemblance to the more modern accounts of the May-bush. The account goes as follows:

“On May Eve every family sets up before their house a green bush, strowed over with yellow flowers, which the meadows yield plentifully. The May bush was a branch or clump of some suitable tree or shrub, among which Whitethorn was the most popular, which was cut down and brought home…It was decorated with flowers, ribbons, paper streamers and other bright scraps of material. In some places garlands of egg-shells were hung on it; often these were the coloured or decorated shells of Easter eggs that were saved by the children. Sometimes rushlights or candles were attached to the bush at May Eve” (Piers.H,1682).

In William Wilde’s account in Irish Popular Superstitions, he tells us how “it was erected several days before the festival and was illuminated every night” but also claims that it was erected in “some green or common, or at cross-roads, or in the market place in the town” (Wilde, 1852: 60). He makes no mention here of them being erected in each household but it is interesting to note that they were placed at cross-roads, places that are oft associated with the supernatural. As well as the connection of converging roads with the supernatural we will also see how converging streams played a part in May-Day rituals.

Other Traditions and Customs

Water: Although Bealtaine is traditionally thought of as a fire festival, water also played a prominent role. Mrs. Rutledge tells us how:” All young maidens go to a spot where 3 streams converge and wash their faces in the water to bring them good luck for the year and to keep them from being sunburned during the summer. Also, the person who carries the first can of water from the well will also have good luck for the year” (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 237). Washing the face in the dew at dawn was a common belief and the dew itself was considered magical due to its nature of just appearing on the grass and as we have seen, it could be used for bad as well as good (such as in the witch stealing butter that was mentioned earlier). It is thought to be more effective at dawn as it is a boundary/ liminal time (Not quite day or night).

Weather:  Since May-Day is traditionally considered to be the first day of summer, signs of the weather, the appearance of the sky and of the May moon, strength and direction of the wind and the amount of rain were all carefully noted on this day as indications of the coming weather. For example: a cold east wind or a touch of frost was an ominous sign of hard things to come (Danaher,1972:88).

Work: One should not sail, dig, whitewash or bathe on May Day. This is either explained as either a reluctance to engage in any activity which might seem to have a magical purpose or to avoid anything that could be dangerous at a time where bad luck or evil influence might prevail (Danaher,1972:88).

Other superstitions: People never gave butter or milk away on May-Day because they feared bad luck. The man of the house would go get a branch of mountain ash and place it in the manure heap. This was to guard the cows and keep them from harm. Salt was never leant or given away (NFSC, Vol. 0235: 237). Long ago it was customary not to put out the ashes from the hearth, or sweep the floor on May-Day (NFSCVol.0235:235).

I hope you enjoyed this quick selection of the many traditions concerned with this major festival and turning point in the Irish calendar. I hope you found this look at our old traditions as fascinating as I did while researching it. Why not decorate your own May-bush, make your own May-flower posie or garland, or leave an offering out for the Sidhe? Make it a yearly tradition and get your friends, family, or even better your children involved. Because it is with the next generation that the fate of these traditions lie.

 

Bibilography:

 

Bealoideas ix, 1939.

Danaher.K (1972), The Year in Ireland, Mercier press.

NFSC,Vol.0147:558, Collector: Bridgie McHale, Knockmore.

NFSC,Vol.0927:114.

NFSC.Vol.0235:235, Collector: Nan Rutledge, Boyle, Co.Roscommon, Informant: Mrs.McLoughlin.

NFSC.Vol.0235:237, Collector:, Nan Rutledge, Informant: Mrs.Rutledge.

NFSC.Vol.0946:094, Collector: Mary McGinnity, Derrynawilt, Roslea.

NFSC.Vol.0949:092, Collector:Paddy Ellis, Drumlillagh, Co.Monaghan, Informant: Mrs.elis.

NFSC.Vol.1033:174, Collector: Ruby strong, Dronmore,Co.Donegal.

Wilde.W (1852), Irish Popular Superstitions.

Blacksmiths and the supernatural

DSC_0130.jpg
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