Faction fighting was a common occurrence at pattern days and fairs especially in contested areas, i.e. bordering parishes, mountain passes etc. Blackthorn sticks shaped into cudgels, known as shillelagh were used, often one in each hand. These sticks were seasoned over long periods of time by being rubbed with poitín or brandy and placed up the chimney. Any man wishing to instigate a fight at a fair would drag his coat behind him calling on anyone brave enough to fight him to stand on the coat tails. Máire MacNeill argues that this was not just a fight for the sake of fighting but instead served a ritualistic/symbolic function. She postulates that the combat could be a re-enactment of the fairy battles of the otherworld on the mortal plane (MacNeill,1982:408) or especially in the case of pattern days, gaining the favour of the local saint, the ‘Deus Loci’ so to speak. This was in aid of bringing the ‘luck’ back to the winners parish. However, recorded data of mass injury and the occasional death(s) shows that many of these events weren’t simply just for the sake of ritual, with some groups having often deadly grudges for one another. Other evidence points to the fact that many of the fights were related to land disputes and renewal of leases and the origin of the faction fights may reside in the agricultural based secret societies such as the “white boys”.
These events did not escape the notice of the outside observers and these provide us with a good example of the profane manifesting among the sacred activities at pattern days. It was noted that “bloody knees from devotion and bloody heads* from fighting” were not uncommon (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284).
*The risk of head injury was severe, with many people suffering long after the fights with fractured skulls and degloved scalps. To avoid this the fighters would wear hats a few sizes too big, which they would subsequently stuff with súgán (plaited straw) to cushion the blows to the head*.
“There was a man killed there once and a flower grows there in the part of the field where he was killed and it is in bloom most of the year”.
Hardy tells us how “parties come to fight and quarrel” (Hardy,1840:57) at Croagh Patrick while Croker, when referring to the pattern at Ardmore, tells us how “a scene of rioting and quarrelling” periodically ensued (Croker,in Hall & Hall,1841:284). He seems to believe that fighting is endemic to the Irish peasantry as he says “without which Paddy cannot live long in good humour” (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Of course, if we look at it from the view of MacNeill’s argument of it being symbolic fighting it makes a lot more sense than it would have to eyes of the uninitiated observers to whom we owe these accounts. Symbolic or not, injury was common as well as occasions of people dying.
It must be noted that it was not only men who were involved in these organised brawls. Women often line edges of the field of battle (or in boats if the fight took place at the beach) and either threw rocks or hit those unfortunate enough to be in range of the sock filled with a rock that they often carried.
Many towns and parishes had their own groups of fighters. Each faction had a leader, often called captain, and oaths of fealty were often given to the leader by the members. The “captain” would usually recruit 70-100 people to go to a fair with him, seeking battles from rival parishes. Two famous groups, for example, would be the Shanavests ( mostly farmers with land) and the Caravats (mostly made up of young men with little to no land of their own) . Many of these groups had their own code of behaviour. The Caravats for example had a code of silence when it came to talking to police, no surrender and no sucking up to the wealthy. The Shanavests on the other hand were willing to inform on neighbours and were typically friendly with the landlords and agents. This as you can imagine caused a great rivalry between the 2 groups. The mounting tension and escalation of violence (they had gone from using simply blackthorn/Ash sticks to using slashhooks, knives and even pistols) from these groups meant that the authorities were ever increasingly attempting to stop the bloodshed, which eventually led to these fights coming to an end (the introduction of the GAA also gave parishes a far less violent means of opposition) .
The church also had issues with them as they often took place at “pattern” or “patron” day pilgrimages. After some of the bloodier battles, a bishop called to put a stop to the bloody tradition that was causing so many young people to lose their lives prematurely. It was reputed that the leaders of the factions came to him during a mass, walking 2×2 down the isle and handing over their sticks and pledging to put an end to the faction fights.
“The only people who tried to keep it alive were the old seasoned veterans and at fire side and cross road they recalled the ‘brave deeds’ of the men”
In terms of participation numbers, many of the faction fights were certainly not just a few lads meeting in a field to batter each other. For instance, one fight had reportedly played host to 600 fighters. One of the worst recorded was at Ballybunnion in 1834. This fight took place on St John’s Eve annually, but over 2000 people are believed to have taken part in that year on Ballyveigh beach. Boats full of people and loaded with rocks lined the edge of the water and rival factions such as the Cooleens, the Mulvihils and the Lawlors stood against each other. A long standing feud between these groups was at the heart of the reason for this brawl. The day ended with bodies laying at edge of the water, belonging to the people who had drowned when some of the boats had capsized. Many more bodies lined the beach having succumbed to the injuries inflicted in the fight. Hundreds lay maimed and injured and the official death count was 20, but it is believed that the true number is much higher (owing to people dying from their injuries in the subsequent weeks).
We get a great account of the Caravats and Shanavests from the Nation Folklore Schools collection:
West Waterford Factions.
There used to be a lot of faction fighting in West Waterford up to fifty years ago. The ‘Shanavests‘ and the ‘Caravats‘ were the titles given to the most well known factions. The ‘Shanavests‘ came from Modeligo and wore a white waistcoat. The ‘Caravats‘ came from the Touraneema district and wore a kind of cravat. These two factions used meet at the annual fair of Modeligo. The fighting began after the buying and selling was done. Each man was armed with a stout stick and stones were often used. Fine young men were sometimes maimed for life and it was a common sight after the fight to see badly injured people lying on the fair ground. Each faction tried to drive the other across the river Finisk and victory came to the side which succeeded. Each side was led by a recognised captain or leader.
The last encounter between a ‘Shanavest‘ and a ‘Caravat‘ took place in Barrack St. Cappoquin. A ‘Caravat’ named Donovan had come to live in Barrack St. and one night a Shanavest named OMeara was passing the house when he called out to Donovan ‘Caravat‘. Donovan was in bed but upon hearing the shout he jumped out of bed snatched up the cudgel he had used in fights years before and clad only in his shirt ran after OMeara. A fierce fight followed but they were separated by onlookers.
Other well-known factions were the ‘Polleens’and the ‘Gows’. These were connections of the ‘Shanavests and the ‘Caravats‘ and they used to meet at the annual fair of Affane (May 14th)
The police were usually loath to interfere because if they did the two factions would unite and attack the police.
(NFSC: Vol.0637:57) Collected by Carl O leary, Cappoquin, Informant: Owen O’ Keefe (85), Farmer, Shanbally, Co.Waterford.
Croker, T.C (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281
Hall, S.C (1841), Ireland: Its Scenery,Character etc, How and parsons, London, pp.282-284
Hardy, P.D (1840), The Holy Wells of Ireland, Hardy and Walker, Dublin, pp.59-63
MacNeill, M (1982), The Festival of Lughnasa, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin, PP.88-408
Duchas.ie, The National Folklore Schools collection
Na Céad Fight Clubs, TG4 documentary. (featuring interviews with: Silvester Ó Muirí, Stiofán Ó Cadhla, Cormac Ó Gráda, Donnacha Ó Duibhir, Jack Philips.
Lecture notes of Dr Ciarán Ó Geallbháin for the Exploring the Otherworld module at the UCC Folklore and Ethnology department,
Few things have captured the imagination of the Irish across the millennia like the idea of the Otherworld. We have trips to the Otherworld recorded in some of our earliest tales, preserved in our oldest manuscripts. What is interesting is that these tales appear to have been an already strong tradition prior to having been written down in the Christian period by a monastic milieu. Like many other things in the world of myth and folklore, the idea of the Otherworld evolved over time. From domain of the Tuatha dé Dannan in the earliest tales, to the fairy Otherworld of modern accounts, this article hopes to illustrate a crash course in the Irish Otherworld and what elements evolve, and which stay the same.
We have a number of different literary genres of trips to an array of different worlds other than our own:
Eachtra (Adventures): These tales are overtly Pagan in nature and involve trips to the native, pre-Christian Otherworld. They often portray the Otherworld as being accessed through either entering a hollow hill or by the protagonist being surrounded in mist. These portals of entry are not confined to the Eachtra tale types and are found throughout the literature.
Imramma (Voyages): These are Christian tales, involving clerics setting off and visiting Otherworld islands that show signs of influence from the indigenous belief in the Otherworld. It is easy to see with the similarities between the pre-Christian and Christian Otherworlds and how there was almost a sense of rapprochement between the two traditions. A pre-Christian Otherworld with Christian Ideals (“Land of the Living where there is no Sin”). MacCana commented how “In most of its aspects, Irish Christianity is one of compromise and syncretism with indigenous tradition and usage”.
Fís(Visions): These are completely Christian in nature and deal with Christian eschatology and as a result the Otherworld in question is either hell or heaven and as such not applicable to this article.
“The multi-locational character of the Otherworld is evidenced throughout Irish tradition” Prionsias MacCana
Typically the Otherworld may surround you but you fail to see it. It was described by Ní Bhrolicháin as “A perfect realisation of this world. A place without death, disease, war and old age”, although there is at least one tale of the fairy Otherworld that depicts the fairies as aging and requiring a ritual to become youthful again. As with much in relation to the Otherworld things can be contradictory. In terms of the quote above the lack of war and death in the Otherworld is not exactly true, for example, in the case of De Gabháil in Síde (The Taking of Hollow Hill). Here death within the Otherworld is shown, although admittedly death is brought by humans entering in the sídhe (Otherworld, hollow hill). Humans bringing death to the Otherworld can also be found in Welsh sources, namely in the first branch of the Mabinogi, where Arawn, Lord of Anwyn (Welsh Otherworld) enlists the help of Pwyll in delivering a fatal blow to an immortal enemy. The need for human help in the Otherworld is also a very important element in the later fairy lore.
The Otherworld has received many names over the course of history, which again muddies the water even further. It is never made completely clear if these are multiple Otherworlds or just a single one given different names. Some of these are as follows:
Tír na mBeo(Land of the Living)
Tír na mBan (Land of Women)
Mag Mell (The Plain of Delight)
Tír Tairngire (The Promised Land)
Tír na nóg (The Land of Youth)
There is also the later addition of Otherworldly islands such as Hy Brasil, Little Aran and an Island off Ballycotton (to name but a few). These are likely a direct influence from the Imramma tales and only appear at 7 year intervals or during certain climactic conditions. The tradition of going across the sea to enter the Otherworld though only appears in two tales. Professor John Carey remarks how this was not in keeping with the native lore and may have been a product of the Ulster literary movement.
Summary of the Ancient Otherworld
The ancient Otherworld is portrayed often as being around us at all time, yet imperceptible to most people. It can be entered by passing through a hollow hill (Sídhe or Brugh) especially at liminal times of year such as Samhain . There are numerous mentions of the fact that “All sídhe are open at Samhain” and that the magical barrier, the Fé Fiada is not actively concealing them.
There is a time discrepancy between our world and the Otherworld, with them being at opposite points in the yearly cycle. We see examples of this in one of the early Finn tales when Finn McCumhaill (Fionn mac cool) is sat between Dá Chic Anann (The Paps of Anu) at Samhain. He can see into the two sídhe on either summit of the mountain and hears two men speak to each other. One says to the other “Is your Subhais good?”. The dish mentioned, Subhais, is typically a dish associated with Bealtaine, a festival at the opposite side of the year. This is similar to an event in Eachtra Nerai (The Adventure of Nera), also set at Samhain. As Nera returns from the Otherworld to warn the royal assembly at Rathcroghan of an impending attack, he is given Torthaí Samhraidh (the fruits of summer) to prove that he had been on a different plain to our own. This motif of bringing a gift back from the Otherworld is a prominent one which there are a number of examples, including it being a common occurrence within both Eachtra and Imramm tales.
It can also be accessed through bodies of water, such as lakes and there are many examples of tales that relate to underwater and flooded kingdoms or allusions to the Otherworld being under the water. This later evolves in the imram tales to the Otherworld being accessed by crossing the sea in boats, and later again to the mystical islands such as Hy Brasil. The difference between the Imram and Eachtra being that the Imram focuses on a “prolonged adventurous voyage at sea rather than upon the experience of a mortal in a single Otherworldly place”.
Music is commonly associated with the Otherworld in both ancient and modern accounts. Sad, mournful and magical music can often be an indicator that the Otherworld now surrounds you. The legendary Finn Mac Cumhaill encounters an otherworldly entity that emerges from a sídhe near Tara every 9 years and burns the royal fortress to the ground. He uses a magical instrument that causes people to fall asleep, not unlike the legendary harp of the Dagda himself. The element of mournful music combined with the magical aspect of it will be seen again in the modern Otherworld segment below.
Another theme that occurs in both old and new sources is abundance. This is a prominent feature throughout the tales. Feasts, trees laden with fruit and fields full of crops are often mentioned. In the human world this is intrinsically bound up with rightful rulership reflected in the fertility of the land. . The judgments and behaviour of the king reflect in the cosmos. Assuming the king has been ceremonially wedded to the land (personified in the form of the sovereignty goddess) and displays Fír Flatheomon (The King’s justice), the land would be fertile and abundant, as would the people of the Tuatha (petty kingdom). Were the king not to display these attributes, crops would fail, storms and plagues would ravage the land and children would be stillborn or born with deformities.
Modern Folklore of the Otherworld
Now we venture into the more modern take on the Otherworld, that of the fairies. We can see many parallels with the older tradition mentioned above with repeats of motifs such as altered time and reality, envelopment by mist, abundance and music. Here we see a departure from entering the Otherworld through Tumuli, which have been replaced by the monuments colloquially named “Fairy Forts”. These numerous monuments dot the Irish landscape, numbering roughly 30,000 or more, are also known by the names rath or lios. These were enclosured dwellings dating to the middle ages and to this day they are still treated with a degree of suspicion, or genuine fear. Many of these monuments lie unmolested in a farmer’s field, despite how much they may be in the way or taking up valuable planting space. The folklore record is full of what happens to those who dare destroy this abode of the good folk. Despite these innocuous looking “forts” appearing to us as a simple embankment ringed by trees, entering into them may transport you to the Otherworld, similar to entering a sídhe. Upon stepping into one of these areas you might find yourself in a mansion belonging to “the other crowd”. Likewise, it has been said that there have been incidents of people attempting to cut down fairy trees, only to be confronted by a member of the good folk asking why they are cutting into “the jamb of their door”. They will furiously protect their dwellings and usually death and destruction follow any desecration of them.
Unsuspecting people may also be transported by sleeping under a fairy tree or in some cases even from falling asleep on the side of the road. For example a tale recorded by Eddie Lenihan tells of a man who fell asleep on the edge of the road and awoke in “the finest house he had ever seen”. Here we see the common fairy lore motif of finding themselves in an Otherworldly mansion (which is a contrast to the older lore where entering a hollow brought you to an alternate land). More often than not these mansions have a huge table laden with food, mirroring the abundance of the “ancient” Otherworld. This food however comes with dire consequences. Should you make the mistake of ingesting any of this food, then you will remain in the fairy realm forever. A warning against doing this is usually given by another human (usually a long lost female family member) who had been “swept” (taken away) by the fairies in the past. These accounts and tales illustrate a grey area between the ghost world and the fairy world in the Irish lore. The Otherworld is often shown as being populated by not only the Sídhe, but also dead (or at least believed dead) humans. In terms of the food aspect, it could be argued there is at least one parallel between the ancient and modern beliefs of the intoxicating nature of the otherworldly food. Eachtra Conlae tells us how Conla was able to sustain himself entirely on an apple from the Otherworld but as a result essentially bound himself to the Otherworld. Comparatively looking at the apple aspect, it brings to mind Iðunn, the Norse goddess who had magical apples that prevented the gods from aging. The topic of aging brings me to my next point.
I mentioned above about the ageless nature of the Otherworld in the ancient tales. We have seen how the inhabitants of the sídhe are capable of dying, at least at the hands of humans. For the most part in the fairy lore, the good people are shown as likely being immortal. In many of the tales attributed to the “fallen angel” origin theory, the fairies have been around since the fall of Adam and will be there till judgement day. They are variously described throughout the lore as being either beautiful or wizened so their actual aging process is ambiguous at best. A tale collected by Eddie Lenihan gives us a fascinating insight into the aging of na daoine usaile. In this narrative we are told of a man, who after being “swept”, is introduced to multiple generations of fairies of extreme old age. They claim to have been there for hundreds of years and require human help in retrieving a magical razor blade from a well (retrieving things from wells and wells connected to the Otherworld being examples of more ancient motifs). Shaving with this razor brings them back to the age of 35. This is the only instance I have personally seen a ritual where the other crowd change their age.
We see a number of times where time anomalies happen. Anyone familiar with the older tales will know that the passage of time in the Otherworld is much different from our own. Months or years spent in the Otherworld could translate to mere minutes passing in our own world (c.f Adventure of Nera) or centuries might have passed (c.f Óisín returning from Tír na nÓg). In the modern lore, time discrepancies are relatively tame compared to the older tellings, but are still evident. People will often suffer lost time, similar to those now popularised by UFO encounters. Invisible barriers might hold a person in place (likely to prevent them from witnessing some fairy activity). Another time when this happens is when people are “led astray” and might spend hours lost in the one field. Being “led astray” may take a more serious turn when a fairy mist descends upon you. This clearly echoes the old tradition of being enveloped in mist when being transported to the Otherworld (c.f Baile in Scáil). The difference here though is that the fairy mist has the ability to drown out environmental noises such as birds, wind through the trees and most importantly, the sound of running water. Crossing running water would allow you to escape so covering the sound of this allows the other crowd the ability to lead you astray even further.
Yet another aspect of continued tradition, albeit altered to a degree, is the association of the Otherworld with music and the bringing back of gifts. Music is often heard coming from fairy forts. This is always described as mournful, unnatural sounding music and many skilled musicians have tried to “take an air out it”, yet are unable to take a single note from it. The music in this case seeming to be esoteric knowledge they are not allowed access as there have been a number of tunes freely given to humans that could be played and passed down. (an example, with added lyrics by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, is found here of the fairy music Port na nPúcaí). There have also been healing books taken from the Otherworld, as well as other healing items such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle. This was used by the famous healer to diagnose and cure the multitudes of people who traveled to seek her powers of precognition and healing. The gifts have changed over time and we find no real evidence, that I am overtly aware of, that shows the bringing back of blossoming or silver branches as tokens that we find in the manuscripts.
Hopefully this cursory glance into aspects of the Irish Otherworld has given at least a brief look into the evolution of the idea of the native Otherworld throughout the centuries and that it illustrates the continuation of many motifs over a millennia that still remained strong in the oral tradition well into modern times.
Shrove Tuesday, colloquially known as ‘Pancake Tuesday’, occurs on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent. ‘Pancake Tuesday’ remains very popular across Ireland to this day and is eagerly anticipated by almost all children. Most people around the country would have fond memories of rushing home from school to gorge on as many pancakes as they could manage. Many a boast and many a tall tale were made in school the following day as to how many pancakes were consumed the previous evening. This overindulgence lies at the heart of the tradition, which I will detail below.
“It is called Shrove Tuesday because on that day everyone is supposed to go to confession to be shriven or forgiven their sins in preparation for the Holy season of Lent. In Ireland Shrove Tuesday is a great day for marriages as they are forbidden in Lent”. (NFSC, Vol.0903:469).
In an account from County Cork, we are told how “On Shrove Tuesday night a crowd of boys dress up in old clothes. They go around to the houses where an old maid or an old bachelor lives. They make an old woman for the bachelor by getting a turnip for the head and a bag of straw for the body. They dress it in old clothes and they put it up on the pier. For the old maid they make an old man. This is called the Stócach. Sometimes they make an old man or an old woman on the wall with paint. This is often very annoying because it is very hard to remove the stains. (NFSC, Volume 0395:030). The targeting of unmarried people mentioned here is not an isolated affair at this time of the year more can be read here.
In this day and age, during Lent, you might find a select few who will attempt, and often fail to give up one luxury. In days gone by, it was a much stricter and more austere observance. Not only was meat banned, but also any form of dairy products (which accounted for a large proportion of the Irish diet). Ecclesiastical laws forbidding the consumption of the aforementioned items were promulgated through the Statutes of Armagh (1614, Synod of Drogheda) and the statutes of Clonmacnoise (1649), but it is believed that this was common practice for centuries prior to this time. Shrove Tuesday was a time to gorge out on the surplus of soon-to-be forbidden foods found in the house. The folklorist Kevin Danaher refers to it as ‘household festival’, where friends and family gathered together around the hearth to make and eat the pancakes. Interestingly, some families would have saved the holly from Christmas and this would be burned on the Shrove Tuesday cooking fire.
An account on Duchas (NFSC Vol.0392:006) mentions that games and dancing were part of the night’s revelry as well. The same account mentions an interesting element: “Long ago a certain man named Jackie the Lantern used to go around on Shrove Tuesday night. He used to have a lantern with him. Every person that he would catch, he would lead them astray. When the people would see the light, they would get dazzled from it”. A number of stories of ‘Jackie the Lantern’ can be found on Duchas.ie.
The flipping of the first pancake (a skill worthy of boasting) was carried out by the eldest unmarried daughter of the household. The result of which was used as a form of divination, to see if she would be married within the next year (as Shrove Tuesday was believed to be the final day one could get married, it would be at least the following year before she would have the chance to marry). If she was successful in the endeavour of flipping the pancake, she would be married by next year, but if she failed, she was doomed to be single for the foreseeable future (which could be a considerable cause of stress due to the status that was attributed to marriage in Ireland). This practice goes back at least a few centuries and was recorded by Mr and Mrs Hall as they toured Ireland in the 19th century.
Meat was also consumed in great quantities on the day. Records show animals being slaughtered for the occasion by wealthy land owners and the meat given to their poorer neighbours or tenants due to the old belief that nobody should be without meat on the day. An account from circa 1690 from a book salesman visiting Ireland from London tells of how the poorer people ate large amounts of meat on the day. This was a non-native account so it takes the usual dismissive attitude towards the Irish peasantry. He tells how these ‘papist peasants’ consume so much meat that it would sustain them until Easter, when again, they rise early in the morning to heavily consume “flesh”. The writer makes sure to stress the fact that these people are not of the upper classes. A later tradition connected to the meat, is where a piece of meat was hammered into the rafters or up inside the chimney in the hope that it would not only bring luck, but also in the hope they would not want for food in the coming year (a possible form of sympathetic magic/transference?). The piece of meat remained for the duration of Lent and was removed for Easter Sunday. It would appear that the absence of meat in the house during Lent was symbolically replaced by the morsel in the chimney/rafters to insure there would not be an absence of meat for the duration of the year to come. Continuing with the animal slaughter theme, a far more barbaric tradition and thankfully long since discontinued was once practiced on Shrove Tuesday. “Cock throwing” was where people gathered to throw stones at terrified cockerels who were tied to posts. Whoever threw the killing blow could keep the bird, and it was not unknown to witness people carrying a number of the birds home. This appears to be an imported pastime, as it is found throughout England up until the 18th century. The same visiting book salesman who recorded the 1690 account above, recorded another ritual. In Naas, County Kildare, he tells us how groups of townsfolk would gather on horseback and travel to a nearby field. They would seek out a hare and encircle it. They would try to prevent it from leaving what the author calls “the magic circle” and shout and scare the unfortunate animal until it dropped dead from fright. This was done until they had killed three hares and then they would go home.
In terms of slaughtered animals there was once a tradition where the head of the animal was presented to a blacksmith. Whether this is somehow connected to the blacksmith’s high status in society or if it was an offering given to stay on the good side of the blacksmith due to the belief that they could curse people, is unclear. One final animal related traditions relates to lizards. Licking a lizard was said to imbue the person with the ability to cure burns and scalds. Doing this on Shrove Tuesday was said to make the cure more powerful and effective.
Although we have no real tradition of folklore relating to St Valentines Day (with the exception of the two pieces related to cards I was able to find below from the National Folklore School’s Collection), we do however have a number of traditions relating to matchmaking and marriage. Read on to find out about Shrovetide weddings, the Skellig Lists, Chalk Sunday and other traditions related to marriage and matchmaking.
On Valentine’s Day (14th Feb) people used to send Valentine cards, which were about the size of a post card. There were coloured bows of ribbons attached to the corners and little rhymes written under them such as:-
If of me you often think
Send me back my bow of pink
If to me you would be true
Send me back my bow of blue
If you are another girl’s fellow
Send me back my bow of yellow.
If to me you would be wed
Send me back my bow of red
If with me you wouldn’t be seen
Send me back my bow of green
Shrovetide was customarily the time for traditional marriages in Ireland, with Shrove Tuesday being the optimum day of choice for such an occasion. Typically marriages were prohibited during the penitential season of Lent so people tried to marry just before its beginning. From Little Christmas (6th Jan) onwards, matchmakers would have been busy arranging marriages and the entire community would be awaiting the celebrations of the upcoming weddings of the successful matches.
Violins would be played while entering the church
Tray of copper and silver coins were handed to the groom when exiting the church to be thrown into the air and scattered into the crowd. This inevitably drew the attention of children but also drew attention of beggars and vagrants who would gather at these events, with accounts of brawls sometimes breaking out between them for possession of the coins.
The house of the bride’s parents was the scene of the after party, a far cry from the luxurious and expensive hotels now favoured. Music, feasting and dancing continued long into the night (and no doubt other matches were formed during the party.) On the way to the house it was not unusual for groups of boys to halt the wedding party by stretching a rope across the road. The groom would have to pay a small fee to pass.
The bride’s mother would often break a cake over the bride’s head for luck.
The first Sunday of Lent was known (in Munster and Leinster at least) as ‘Chalk Sunday’. Here, anyone unlucky enough not to have made a match or to have married during Shrovetide, were targeted on their way to or from church, by youngsters brandishing chalk who would proceed to mark the bachelor’s with lines and squiggles on their clothing. This for the most part would be met with good humour, at least from the younger bachelor’s who had some hope of marrying the following year. From the older generation, it might be met with verbal abuse or a chase with a walking stick. It persisted in some areas until the 1930’s or 40’s. It should be noted that being married offered an element of status within the community. An unmarried male of 50 was considered a ‘boy’ whereas a married 25 year old male was considered a man. Conversely, the same applied to women. In some areas “Salt Monday” took the place of this, where a sprinkling of salt was sprinkled on both bachelors and spinsters to preserve them till the next Shrovetide.
This was a Munster tradition owing to the belief that Easter occurred a week later on Skellig Michael and thus meaning Lent had not occurred yet on the Island, allowing people an extra week to get married. This led to people being publicly targeted in a similar fashion as the Chalking with jibes such as “don’t miss the boat [to the Skelligs]”. Local poets were encouraged to write poems and lists of the unmarried people (dubbed the Skellig lists). This went to the extreme as the lists were printed out and handed around the parish (minus the printers name for fear of retribution) and large posters being printed and placed around the town advertising the “great excursion” and all those that would be taking part.
In the day’s long before online dating sites or “swiping right”, many matches were carried out by a third party arbiter, sometimes in a semi-professional or professional manner. This third party representative was sometimes an acquaintance of the people involved and would try to negotiate a pairing and the accompanying dowry (not unlike the bride price or coibhche in the Brehon Laws). The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival that features a third generation Matchmaker, is an annual festival that harks back to those bygone days, attracting many singles each year. A few accounts of this practice of matchmaking, as found on Duchas.ie, are below. You can follow the links to see the original manuscripts.
From a few days after Christmas until Ash Wednesday in every year is called Seraft, and long ago country people made matches for their sons and daughters during that time, and any girl that was on the marriage list and did not succeed in getting a husband was supposed to be very sulky and have a puss on, the last Monday of the matchmaking period. This was called puss Monday. When a young man wanted to get married he looked around his own village and the village next to it to find a suitable girl. Then he asked somebody who was acquainted with the girl to go and see her parents and see if they would give their consent, and if they agreed they would arrange to meet together the next day in a public house in town, and the young man would stand drink for everyone. Then they started the matchmaking and her father asked the man what lands he owned or how much fortune was he looking for, then if they could come to a settlement the girl’s father would have to give the boy the fortune. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428050/4372260
Ancient Marriage Customs
Shrove Tuesday is the last day on which anybody can get married before Lent. Most marriages take plave between Advent and Lent. IN country places most marriages take place as the result of matchmaking. What is known as matchmaking is, when a man wishes to get married he looks for a girl of marriageable age, who has a good fortune. When he decided upon the girl he wished to ask in marriage but he gets a friend to go to the girl’s house to make terms with the father. The friend finds out what fortune the father is willing to give her. The friend goes back to the man and tells him the fortune. If the man thinks the fortune is big enough he goes to the girl’s house and often brings a bottle of whiskey with him. If the terms are settled satisfactorily the bottle of whiskey is produced to settle the business. The date of the marriage is then fixed. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5044823/5041972
Looking at the solemn nature surrounding death and the funeral process in the modern day, one would not expect them to be a place where matchmaking would occur. The Irish wake however, was a surprisingly social event. I wrote an article on the gender roles associated with the wake (and some of the traditions associated with it) that can be read here. But in short, it was a time where the whole community gathered, and outside of the formalities associated with the process, it was a time where the young people gathered to compete in feats of strength, drinking and taking part in (sometimes borderline bawdy) games and fake weddings among other activities. This sometimes resulted in romantic matches and subsequent marriages. If you want to learn more about the games and activities, Irish Wake Amusements is a fantastic book.
A common form of divination in Ireland was related to marriage. This was mostly carried out by women wanting to see who their future husband would be, but there are accounts of men also carrying out these forms of divination. The optimum time for this practice was Halloween when the veil between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest. People took advantage of the temporal liminality to divine the future. A list of these traditions can be found in my Halloween article here. Looking closer to Valentine’s days, at Shrovetide, the following tradition was recorded: Pancake tossing on Shrove Tuesday. Tossing of the first pancake is done by the eldest unmarried daughter of the host house. An unsuccessful flip of the pancake means she will not be married in the coming year. If successful, she cuts as many slices as there are people present and gives a piece to each person. A wedding ring might have been placed in the batter (similar to in barm brack at Halloween) and whoever finds it will have great luck receiving a prosperous and loving marriage.
One of the most striking traditions associated with the 26th December is “The hunting of the wren”. In the past teams of young men would go out and hunt down the small birds to kill them and place them in the “wren bush” that they would carry around. They would then travel around performing music and collecting money. The origins of this peculiar tradition are lost in the mists of time. Of course with many folk traditions whose origins are obscure, it has been theorised that the custom has a pre-christian origin
Today, the tradition continues in many places but with the omission of the bird killing (fake birds are now used). The Wren boys would disguise themselves, sometimes dressing in girls clothes, use veils or curtains on their face, or use the traditional straw men garb. Below are a few accounts of the tradition:
“people who don’t eat meat on the day will not be sick during the year”
(NFSC, Volume 0787, Page 56)
Young boys go around with the wren.They hold the wren in a box and sing a song. The song is:”The wren, the wren the king of all birds.St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, Give us something and honour the wren. On St. Stephen’s Day people go visiting (NFSC, vol.0104: 391).
>In The journals of the Kildare archaeological society,v, 452 it mentions that if any of the wren boys were refused money when they visited houses, they would bury a wren (from their “wren bush”) opposite the hall door into which no good luck could enter for twelve months (Danaher,1972:247). Just to address the burying of the wren, there was a strong tradition in Ireland of sympathetic magic such as that displayed above. Often referred to as a “piseog”. Often meat, eggs or straw dolls were buried in a field of the person you wanted to “curse” or affect the luck of the person you aimed the piseog at. Sometimes items were also placed in walls or foundations of houses to bring luck (I might put an article together about this at some point).
>On St.Stephens day the boys of the district go with the wren. They disguise themselves. Some of them dress like girls. They wear masks and old clothes. They go from house to house singing,dancing, and playing music. They recite the following wren song; “The wren, the wren, the King of all birds, on St.Stephans day she was caught in the furs. Although she is small her family is great. Stand up young laddie and give us a treat. Up with the kettle and down with the pan. Give us some money and let us be gone. Look in the purse,There may be a copper there.help the wren. They gather a great amount of money and get plenty to eat and drink as they go around at night, they meet together and have a “spree.” (NFSC,Vol.0823:101)
“If there was no wren – people would think it was not Xmas at all”. (NFSC,Vol.0769:170)
>My father told me that when he was a little boy the people were more superstitious than they are now. If persons refused to give money to the wren boys, twenty or thirty years ago, all they had to do was to say that they would bury a feather of the wren convenient to their house and they would immediately give money rather than run the risk of having bad luck for a number of years.
Long ago the wren boys went on foot from house to house and as they could not cover a great deal of ground the takings were generally small.
Sometime they trampled through rain and snow from morning till night and had only one shilling or one and sixpence for their trouble.
Nowadays the wren boys travel on bicycles. (NFSC: Vol.0760:531).
“We followed him up,
We followed him down,
Till one of the wren boys,
Knocked him down.”
“Our clothes we tore,
And our boots we wore,
Following the wren,
For three days or more.”
Here we are again,
We won’t be here,
Till next year,
And here we are again.”
>On St. Stephen’s Day the “wren-boys” go around in procession from house to house. Grown up men come to the village also from the adjoining towns, and they are so well disguised that they are rarely recognized. They usually have a few melodeons in the party, and dance while a few go around to the houses for money. The whole party often enter the house, and dance among themselves or with the women-folk of the house – if they enter into the spirit of the festival. There is not any particular old song sung at this time – just any song they can all sing together. It is usual to spend the money gathered on drink and eatables to provide refreshment at a night’s dance which they hold in some neighbour’s house. The “wren-boys” are often called the “mummers”.
The custom of children dressing and going around gathering money is dying out of late. (NFSC:0056:0153).
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.
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.
Glassie (1999:41) describes Material Culture as being “the tangible yield of human conduct”. The element of human conduct I would like to investigate below is dairy production, specifically the superstitions associated with it, as well as the methods for stealing or the prevention of stealing. Dairy was for a very long time, as far back as we can trace, a very important part of the economy, especially when looking at rural areas. Cream, milk and butter paid to Lord as part of food rents (see Fergus Kelly “Guide to Early Irish Law” chapter on clientship). Both Old and middle Irish sources mention butter and it appears to have been considered a high status luxury food that could only be given to you depending on your status. Kevin Danaher (1969:99) describes Ireland as a land “flowing with milk” and he mentions an account by an English soldier from 1690 says that the Irish were the “greatest lovers of milk” he had ever seen. He mentions how they “eat and drink it above twenty several sorts of ways”. It would come as no surprise then, with claims such as these, that there is a rich and colourful tradition of folklore attached to dairy production. Below I will look at some of these traditions in relation to dairy production, specifically the production of butter. As churning was a common household chore, as well as the butter being an important source of dairy, especially during winter months, it was of the utmost importance to do as much as possible to prevent otherworldly forces from stealing it, and also with the milk it comes from. Sometimes, when the butter did not ‘break’, supernatural interference was suspected as the reason for the milk not being turning into butter. In reality though, there were a number of reasons why butter would not come, ie temperature control, sterilisation issues and not separating the cream. Despite this, a number of tactics were adopted to help prevent this supernatural and malicious interference. For good luck, the lid of the churn could be spread with butter (unsalted) or have salt sprinkled on the lid to keep the fairies at bay. We also come across items being placed beneath the churn, such as hot coals or the shoe of an ass or horse (Iron and fire being common items of proven efficacy against supernatural forces and are well attested in the Irish corpus of folkloric material). There were also strict prohibitions against carrying out certain actions in the household as water not being allowed to leave the house, nor ashes be taken from the fire. Any person entering the house would have to “take a brash” (have a go off churning, to make sure they did not intend to steal any of the butter) and it forbidden to loan a churn (Rynne,1998:27). A number of these elements pop up in numerous accounts, a number of which can be seen below. There was a number of ways your milk or churn could be stolen. Either the cow was deprived of milk (by the evil eye overlooked, eyebitten) or the churn was ‘Blinked’ and the milk would yield no butter. Magic, ritual or medicine could also be used to cause this. Borrowing something from the house or byre such as burning turf, fire, freely given butter, a churn could allow people to place these enchantments and steal your butter or milk. They could also do this by putting something in the person’s house, such as butter, a butter substitute or metal implement which would enable them to magically transfer the profit to themselves.
In a country with a rich tradition relating to sacred stones (such as ballaun stones, ogham stones, stones circles etc), it is no surprise that an everyday function as important as butter making would make it into the lore concerning sacred stones. These fascinating monuments are the so-called “butter stones”. These peculiar items are, from all outward appearances, essentially ballaun stones. These however have butter, or more specifically, butter stealing origins attached to them. Since the nineteenth century, it has been surmised by some scholars that these were somehow a part of old dairies or involved in some folk magic practice to help with butter making. When the original use was lost ,then maybe the tales of transformation (that I will detail in a moment) then came into being to explain their unusual name (Zuchelli,2016:88). The tales of metamorphosis attached to them are similar to many folk tales of people being transformed, often into stone, generally for the transgression of some kind of geis or taboo. This of course is not unique to Ireland and is a common etiological tale explaining some feature of the landscape as having once been a person. Some examples of these butter stones here in Ireland are ‘St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps’ in Temple Feaghna, Co.Kerry and the ‘Butter Stone’ at St Peakaun’s Shrine in the Glen of Atherlow, Tipperary.
St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps: ( it is featured in the documentary here) Accounts from nineteenth century antiquarians tell us that people would visit the site around Easter times and turn the stones in the basin as the final ‘round’ on their pattern. The stones were considered to have healing properties and are also classified as ‘homing stones (meaning they will magically find their way back if taken) but local lore attributes there origin as ‘Butter stones’ to the sixth-century. Two different stories exist and we are told that the saint, Fiachna, either discovers that a women whom he had hired to work on his farm had been surreptitiously selling his butter at the market, or that an irate farmer complained about a woman who owned no cows but used charms to steal her neighbours profit. Whichever beginning you pick, the outcome is the same. Upon investigating the house of the woman he discovers her ill-gotten gains in the form of several rolls of butter. The vehement saint (hell hath no fury like an early Christian saint) turns the butter rolls and the wooden block they were on to stone (and later the women who is said to have been transformed into the nearby pillar stone), giving us the ‘Butter Lumps’ at the site today (ibid,87).
Butter Stone at Saint Peakaun’s Shrine: In older sources relating to this stone, we are told that the basins in the stone contained three, now lost, stones. One of these stones was said to be the Butter Stone. Newer sources now claim that the stone containing the basins, is itself the Butter Stone. The three distinctive depressions, the basins, are said to be from the fingers of a woman. The saint had visited a home of the woman who was engaged in butter making. He asked for food but was told nothing was available. The irate saint cursed the woman, turning the butter she was making into the stone, which still bears the print of her fingers (ibid:89).
“Gathering the Dew”
In a common folktale (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3), we are told of a priest who encounters ‘an old hag’, a common, well attested, antagonist in tales of this nature that will be more than familiar to anyone who has read any stories relating to ‘butter stealing’. A common technique used by these so-called ‘hags’ is using a rope to ‘gather the dew’. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target. In this particular rendition we are not informed of the exact material of the rope, such as the rope woven on Mayday eve from the mane of a stallion without a single white hair found in another tale (Jenkins,1991:310-11) .we are also told elsewhere that “A woman who had the power had a rope made of hair”(NFSC,Vol.1038:362). So, in this instance involving the priest and the hag, the hag is using rope (although not said to be specifically made from hair) and chanting the words “all to me” (meaning that all the butter of the person she is stealing from would come to her). Here we are reminded of the divide between the lay and ecclesiastical belief system that often pops up in folktales. Most lay people, especially rural inhabitants would at once spot the actions of the ‘hag’ and would have known immediately what she was doing. The priest absentmindedly and jokingly says “and half to me” in response as he overhears her while passing by, only to discover more butter that usual in his own dairy next morning when he wakes up. Upon investigation, much more is discovered in the woman’s house. Her guilt in this case lying on the fact he she only owned a male goat, “leaving little doubt of her evil doings”. The tale also mentions that the townspeople took action to prevent her from doing the same in future, but as ominous as that sounds we are not informed of what this action was. As to people ‘taking action’ against the nefarious forces looking to steal their profit, I will explain further below. I will first however go further into the use of the rope as a method of stealing.
The act of stealing through the gathering of dew using rope is attested in a number of sources and was evidently a very pervasive belief. The process was more or less enumerated above and it is almost always associated with “the dark arts” or witchcraft. In most examples we see the physical act of dragging the rope coupled with an incantation, or charm, to the tune of “come all to me”. In one account in the NFSC we are told how “ In Ireland long ago…there were many kinds of stories of witchcraft and rascality (sic) of this kind told. The people in the locality not only believe them but would swear by them” (NFSC:Vol.1042:69). In an account titled “ The black art”, collected by Henry Glassie (Glassie,1986:193-4), we are told by his informant, Hugh Nolan, that there were people who possessed this ‘black art’, which was “in the line of witchery” and was capable of taking milk from the cows. So, here we see that it was not only your butter that was in danger from being stolen, but that it could also be stolen at the source. Here again we see the same practice being employed, but it specifically states that it must be white, and in the shape of a rope. Hugh tells us how the milk would be transferred to the cows of the person carrying out the charm, and also that he believes that the rope was only “an accompaniment” to the spell, and that they needed “the charm of words that took the milk”. The exclusion of the charm here or the implication of it being unknown is no doubt just added to make the nature of the charm seem more esoteric and known only to those practitioners of these ‘dark arts’. He tells us of a case of how in his locality there was a person with only three cows that was producing more milk than another who had ten, clear evidence that they possessed this black art. These hags often had the ability to shapeshift into hares and in this guise we oft encounter them in folktales and accounts.
Hags as hares
This is a very old and persuasive belief and is by no means contained to just Ireland and is in fact found throughout Europe. In Ireland we have accounts of this dating back to the 12th century, given to us by the Cambro-Norman historian Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of wales) in his book “Topographia Hiberniae” (The Topography of Ireland). He says how it was believed in Ireland, Wales, Scotland about witches turning into hare to suckle the milk. This is mirrored in Irish sources, including in the laws. A 1586 (Brittania) account tells of “The Gaelic Irish believed that when a house was looked at through the shoulder-blade or bone of a sheep, and a spot or shadow appears in the middle of it , the owner of the house was a ‘wicked woman and witch’ who would next summer filtch away all their butter”. To counteract they would take some fire from the suspects house and look for “A hare amonst their heads of cattle on May-Day, they kill her, for they suppose she is some old trot , that would filch away their butter”. This also mentions a form counter-magic: taking the thatch from above the door of the person who is stealing your butter and then burning it. We also find an account from 1691 that mentions thatch but adds that anyone looking to “fetch fire” from them on May-Day was wicked— this of course follows through to modern day with the same belief found throughout the country. It is amazing to see the continuation of tradition, still fervently believed into the last century unchanged by modernity. As I mentioned, this phenomenon is not only found in Ireland but also throughout Europe. An interesting contrast is the Nordic tradition. The difference here is that instead of shapeshifting herself, the witch makes the creature. These “Milk-hares” were made by witches from various objects and can be sourced back to 15th century in church murals, witch trials and literature. In the Irish tradition the only way (in many cases) of injuring these shapeshifters is by shooting them with silver. If one were to follow the injured creature they would invariably find themselves following a blood trail to a house where they would find and injured or dead old woman with wounds matching where the hare had been shot (there is a modern account of this collected by Michael Fortune. I will add the video here. It can be found from 1:41 onwards)
(*note: Caution is advised when dealing with material from Lady Gregory and her friend W.B Yeats. The material below is found elsewhere in the folklore record so is likely genuine, but they are both prone to flights of fancy and prone to inventing Fakelore. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland is a reasonable resource due to the fact some of the material was actually collected by the author from people on her land, but it pays to be cautious).
In lady Gregory’s book Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, we get a short and concise section focusing on butter stealing. Here she tells us how to prevent “the others” (the good folk, daoine sídhe, fairies) from interfering with your work: “Sprinkle a few drops of holy water about the churn and put a coal of fire beneath it (that you should always do), as was always done in the old time, and the others will never touch it” (Gregory:247). In another account she is told of a woman who visited a wise woman to remedy the issue that day after day, no matter how hard she tried, she was unable to make butter. She was instructed to go to a running stream at sunrise and collect the water. After adding this to the milk while churning she ends up with rolls and rolls of butter, most likely her lost butter magically returning. Using water from a running stream often pops up in folklore and has many, often magical or healing properties, especially if it is taken from converging streams or streams that run on the boundaries of townlands. The fact it is collected at sunrise is also worth noting as this liminal time, not being either day or night, imbues the water with mystical properties (such as when morning dew is collected and believed to have healing capabilities). The final item in this section I would like to look at is the following quote: “There was a Burke and he knew how to get it (butter) back out of some Irish book that has disappeared since he died”. Now what seems to be inconsequential at first glance, stood out glaringly to me. This “Irish book” brings to mind accounts that I have read of magical healing books often given to people by the fairies. These books are invariably written in the Irish language and filled with esoteric and otherworldly as well as terrestrial healing methods. Sometimes these are passed down the family line but they often disappear upon the death of the person they had been gifted to. Next I will move on to what is probably the most macabre element attached to butter stealing lore, the dead hand.
One of the strangest traditions you are likely to come across in relation to butter stealing is without a doubt the dead hand/ hand of glory. This was, as you can imagine from the name, a preserved hand from a corpse. The milk was churned using this preserved hand by stirring the milk with it. Some source say it has to be done 8-9 times accompanied by spells. An account from Co Longford tells us that you need to mix some of your intended victims milk with your own in order for it to work. The proto-folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker gives an account (early 1800’s) of one of these macabre hand’s being produced as false evidence in a court against an old woman (luckily for her the judge found that she was being framed).
This so called “hand of glory”, is made by drying or smoking the hand of a corpse to preserve it and if you could procure the hand of unbaptised infant, this was believed to be the most powerful version of this horrific magical device. As hideous and unspeakable this eerie talisman is (especially when viewed though the lens of modernity) it was not always used for malicious reasons. The hand is efficacious in cures when applied to the afflicted part of the body (although I’m not sure how bad one would have to feel to allow a desiccated hand to be rubbed on them). Another interesting use for it was the belief that it could also be used by someone who was committing a crime in the belief that it would render them invisible or help them evade capture. There is an interesting account where two thieves were apprehended in 1831 at loughcrew with a hand in their possession. An interesting tidbit found in the National Folklore Schools collection says the following: “If you go to the churchyard and take up a dead hand, take it home and clean it and leave it hung up behind the door it will take twice as much butter off the churning as you would get otherwise” (NFSC Vol.0267:070). Luckily there were a number of proven methods to stop people from stealing your profit. A number of these methods will be addressed next.
To prevent your milk or butter from being stolen there were various safeguards you could employ to stop this from happening. People would have to be more vigilant on liminal days, such as mayday (described by Danaher as “a most important landmark in the Irish countryman’s year” (Danaher,1976:86)), when the threat of otherworldly forces was at it highest. It was a common practice of children on May eve to collect flowers to place on doorsteps, windowsills and in byres to protect the household and animals (ibid:86). These flowers can stop people with the power to ‘milk the dew’ by spreading them before the byre door on May-eve (NFSC, Vol.1038:362). These flowers were also tied, as a form of protection, to horns or tails of the cows or even to the churn dash itself (Danaher,1976:89). Hair can also be used for protection, with a hair spancel tied at the cow gap to prevent your cows being milked by fairies. Protection of the cows was also done by tying a red string to the tail after calving. This sort of protection was carried out because in many cases the cows of the people whose butter was stolen, went mad or got sick and died (Ní Bhradaigh, 1936:261).
Fire, salt and Iron are also Items that are efficacious in the prevention and nullification of these ill-boding forces, a factor that is not only confined to Ireland, but found in cultures across the globe. It would come as no surprise then that when looking at a profession that combines both fire and iron, that of a blacksmith, that they would feature in stories relating to the magical theft of butter or milk. 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 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 (NFSC,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 was consulted on in this matter in a situation like this. In another case where a blacksmith is indirectly involved in the cure, we are told how “among the locality there appears to have been a cure”. This involved a complicated ritual that got the butter back if “Worked properly”. The shoes for two male donkeys were to be “produced” (most likely from a blacksmith) and heated in a splendid fire”. This fire could have only red hot coals, no black sods of turf and there was to be no smoke in the room. As well as this the windows needed to be blinded and the door bolted. Similar to other tales where iron is used to dispel the evil force, the heated iron was to be placed inside the milk. One of the brothers had to hold the churn in its place to stop it from “jumping from place to place” in the kitchen. The ritual is “spoiled” though due to the door being opened but similar to other stories of this nature, we see that there has been a consequence of the hot Iron being placed into the milk. This action often has a direct effect on the person who is stealing the butter, and in this instance we see an old woman in the river next to house, splashing herself with water to cool down due to the heat generated from putting the red hot iron into the milk, and it affecting her in turn. She is identified as ‘being in league with the devil’ and being the one responsible for stealing the butter (NFSC:Vol.1042:69).
Diagnosis/cure: the “witch” could be seen by wise man or victim by looking into a bowl of water.
There were 2 common rituals for the removal of the spell:
For the churn, it was linked to the hearth by the coulter and chains of the plough.
for milk supply of the beast, all openings of house blocked up. In a pot over the fire, new iron needles/pins placed into it with herbs and sometimes milk. Both these rituals were believe to bring the witch running in agony to make it stop begging that she will lift her own enchantment.
The connection to fire is also seen elsewhere with a prohibition on smoking and other lore associated with fire. I will address these next.
Smoking and fire related lore
In many areas there was a prohibition on smoking while the churning was taking place. The following examples illustrate this:
A man would not be let light his pipe whilst the woman of the house is churning (Volume 0095, Page 269). Mayo.
No one should smoke while churning (Volume 0705, Page 077). Meath.
If a person was making a churning and somebody was to go out smoking he was supposed to bring out the butter that would be in the churning with him. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030).
If a person comes in while you are churning and puts a coal in the his pipe and walks out without taking a hand at the churn, the churning will never be made until he comes back and puts back that coal under the churn. (NFSC Volume 0267, Page 070).
During the making of a churning, a live coal should not be taken from fire without being replaced by a [?] of turf. This is also to prevent the butter being taken. (NFSC Volume 0118, Page 48).
A few random pieces to finish
It is said that if a person puts a piece of a stick under the churn when churning it would keep the fairies from taking the butter. ( NFSC Volume 0705, Page 077).
You are not supposed to throw out water when making churning as it will bring the butter out with it. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030). *Proper disposal of water can be traced back to medieval times (cf . Eachtra Nerai, 12th century eachtra type tale and also the more modern practice of shouting “watch out” when throwing water out the door to alert and fairies in the vicinity so as not to anger them).
If there is thunder while the churning is made the butter will be white ( NFSC Volume 0112, Page 32).
In conclusion, we have seen just a brief selection of the lore attached to the everyday practice of dairy production. It is no surprise given the importance of both milk and butter to both the households economy and diet that there would be a wealth of superstitions relating to their production and that we would find a vast corpus of methods in preventing the stealing of these commodities, finding the culprits involved and the eventual return of the lost ‘profit’. The fact that these folk magic practices, whether they be the malicious ones for stealing or the apotropaic ones to avert the malevolent forces, remained in wide use up to the middle of the last century stands testament to very real belief people had in these methods. Thank you for making it to the end of a relatively lengthy piece. Don’t forget to follow on facebook to keep up to date @ https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/
Originally written as part of the Material Culture Module by Dr Clíona o Carroll of the UCC Folklore and Ethnology Department and handed in as class assignment.
Carey, J. (1999) A Single Ray of the Sun, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth.
Danaher, K. (1969), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier press, Cork.
Glassie, H. (1999) Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Gregory.A, Beliefs and Visions in the West of Ireland.
Jenkins, R. (1991), Witches and Fairies: Supernatural Aggression and Deviance among the Irish Peasantry, in P. Naráez (ed), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Location: Gortnacart Glebe, Co. Donegal.
NFC,IML.185:367-9, Patrick Fitzsimons (55), Postman and farmer, Rosehill, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, Collector: P.J.Gaynor, 27th of January 1942.
The 23rd of June brings us St Johns eve, also known as Bonfire night (or bonefire due to the practice of burning bones in fires). In past it was known as Oiche teine chnáimh or Teine Féil’ Eóin. This was once a very popular observance across the country with large fires being kindled and tended over from sunset until late into the night. Prayers were said to obtain blessing on crops. Young and old gathered around fires to dance and many games were played. Men competed in casting weights and other feats of strength, speed and agility. In limerick, youths collected a large leaf with a strong stem called the “hocusfian”. They would proceed to strike each person they met with the leaf in the belief that they would protect those who were struck would be protected from illness and malicious evil forces for the coming year. These leaves were then burnt in the fire along with selected weeds considered troublesome in the hope that the fields would be protected from them for the coming year. Jumping the fires was also common and ashes from the fires were often spread in the fields ( The Year in Ireland, kevin Danaher).
The following examples of folklore are taken from The National Folklore Schools Collection, accessible online at Duchas.ie. Links are provided for each piece so you can view the original manuscript.
Bonfire night is a celebrated feast throughout the country. It is on the twenty third of June. The old people used to call it “Oidhche Fhéil Eoin”, but nowadays the people call it “Midsummer Night”.
The people always expect a change of weather at midsummer. If the weather is good up to midsummer they think that it will then change and that a bad harvest will follow. This year the weather is bad and the people are waiting anxiously for a change at midsummer because they think we will then have a good, dry, harvest.
The young people make preparations for bonfire night. They gather turf, sticks, shavings and fir. They light the fire a little after sundown. Generally there is a fire at every house and on a small hill a large fire is lighted. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428287/4391915/4478658
The White Cat The deep cave of Castle Cor situated about nine miles outside Mallow, contains many wonderful treasures, which are guarded by a white cat. This cat regains her human shape for a week every year at midsummer. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921815/4895088/5190298
This was that the fairies and witches were out on that night and they were riding on Broomsticks through the air, the fires are put up to keep them away.
It is said that the fairies on midsummer night come and they play sweet music and entice the people to come with them and take them to their caves and the people do not come back again.
24-6-38 One midsummer night about thirty years ago a man called Paddy O’Hara was coming down the flags on Dalkey Hill. He heard music coming from the next field. He went in to the field and listened to the music. He saw a white ring in the grass in the grass with fairies with dancing around it. When they saw him they beat him with rocks and sticks. The next morning he was found half dead in the field. The fairy ring was gone. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428238/4387632/4462968
The fire is lit when it is getting dark. All the children dance, sing, and roar around it. The people also light a torch and follow the cattle with it and make the sign of the cross over them with it. Most bonfires are lit on the top of hills. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922368/4874900/5080725
Aeibhill, after being enchanted by her sister took up residence, as local tradition goes, in an underground palace also, situated at Castlecor, near Kanturk, Co. Cork, beneath an old cave hidden by trees. It is also said that she resumes her natural form for a week each year at midsummer, appearing as a beautiful maiden of twenty. She was regarded as the guardian spirit of the Dalcassian race, and Queen of the Fairies of North Munster. The King of Ireland, Brian Boru, is reported as saying on the evening of the Battle Clontarf, that Aeibhill came to him the previous night and told him he should fall that day. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921885/4898841
Easter comes every year in the Spring. On the first Easter Sunday, Christ rose from the dead. It is said that the sun dances for joy on Easter morning. People eat a lot of eggs on EasterMorning. Children eat sweet Easter eggs. Some people get presents and Easter cards from their friends at Easter. Children who are going to school get holidays. People like new clothes at Easter. There is an old proverb about it. “Clothes at Easter, and food and drink at Christmas. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0775, Page 287.
People try to eat as many eggs as they can on Easter Sunday.There is an old rhyme at the Irish people about it:An egg for a gentleman,Two eggs for a ? man,Three eggs for a bog man. Bunty Gray, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0775, Page 287.
Taking three sups of Easter water in name of Holy Trinity. Easter water sprinkled in house and fields on May Eve. Drop of Easter water put in first mash of bran given to a cow after calving. Hair burned from cows udder with blessed candle when first milked after calving. Easter water put into first churn, into “sciollain”. Kept in house for seven years and there is then a cure in it. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0640, Page 39.
At Easter the people go around and collect Easter Eggs. They keep those eggs until Easter Sunday and then they cook them. On Easter Sunday morning some people get up very early to watch the sun dancing. The sun the moon and seven stars are supposed to dance on that morning. On good Friday the people do not look in a mirror because it is supposed to be unlucky. Most of the people like to be in the church at three o’clock on Good Friday. Maureen Mc Ardle, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0665, Page 280.
On Easter Sunday morning most people eat two eggs for their breakfast.
On that evening children gather together and light a fire outside in the fields. This fire is called cludog. Another custom is that a few days before easter the poor people send their children around through the country gathering eggs for easter. This fire is lighted in honour of Saint Patrick lighting his fire on the hill of slain [slane] on Easter Saturday. Also the lighting of the fire on Easter sunday is held in honour of our Lord [rising] from the dead,.
It [easter] is a great feast day in all countries. On the night before easter several of the people do not go to bed the way they would be able to see the sun and moon dancing. Bridget Claire, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1007, Page 261.
During Holy week some people go around gathering eggs, when they go into the houses they ask for an Easter Egg. On Easter Sunday morning the rising sun can be seen dancing on the wall and long ago the old people used to get up to see it dancing.
On Easter Saturday morning Holy water is blessed. People take some of it home as it is said when Easter holy water is in a house the house will never be burned. Eggs that are laid on Good Friday are put aside to be eaten for Easter Sunday. They are called Good Friday Eggs and anyone who eats one of these eggs will not be sick the whole year through. At three o’clock on Good Friday evening all catholics who can, go to the Chapel . It is said that they will get any request they ask from God if it is for their good, and if they deserve it.
Biddy McArdle who is dead now used to tell me that no food was eaten on Ash Wednesday or on Good Friday except nettle gruel, and she told us that on Easter Sunday five or six dozen of eggs would be boiled in a big pot and that every one who would come into the house would eat one. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0665, Page 278.
It is a common custom in this locality for children to make Easter houses. They are made during Holy Week of sods. Sods are placed on top of each other in a ring to form the walls. The walls are generally built to a height of about three feet. Groups of children co-operate in building them. A fireplace of stones is placed in the centre. The children light fires in these on Easter Monday and boil eggs there-on. The group of children who built the particular Easter house gather to have a meal-which includes the eggs-in their Easter-house. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1088, Page 039.
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When it comes to Irish folk tradition I think it fair to say that one of the most iconic creatures that springs to mind is the Banshee (Bean Sídhe or Bean Sí). The core elements and descriptions have remained pretty much unchanged throughout time and you would be hard pressed to find any child or adult the length and breadth of Ireland that hasn’t heard of her, and ask any old timer and you are almost guaranteed to be regaled with a story of a personal encounter, or at the very least knowledge of someone they know having had an encounter with this denizen of the otherworld. The term Banshee, a term that is in use throughout Ireland in both urban and rural areas, and has been in common usage since around the 17th century (but accounts of the supernatural death messenger go much further back). The popularity of this name may owe something to literary sources. The name Bean sídhe comes from the old Irish ben side meaning “otherworldly woman” or “woman of the mounds” ( the word Sídhe can mean either “mound” or “otherworld”). Many people interpret it as meaning “fairy woman” but I would be inclined to agree with Patricia Lysaght in regard to this particular translation being problematic (although technically correct etymologically) due to there being many traits of the bean sídhe being completely different to the people we term “Fairies”. The Fairies, or daoine sídhe, are usually depicted as social creatures who live in communities and are often married with children. These communities can interact with humans in either a friendly or unfriendly manner and have even been known to have human lovers. The death messenger on the other hand is a solitary creature who is never seen as living in a community of “banshees”. She is never said to be married nor is there any accounts of her doing a “kind turn” for humans, despite not being particularly malevolent. There are many erroneous memes floating around with false etymologies of this name, for instance the that claims the word banshee comes from “bán Sí” meaning “white fairy” which is wrong on every level.
There are however other names or terms used for the Banshee such as “bean chaointe” (keening woman), “Badhb” (Bibe), “Babha” (bow) or any combination such as Bo chaointe. The name Badbh comes from a war goddess attested in early Irish literature as an announcer of death who took the form of a scald crow. While there is no tradition in living memory of the banshee appearing as a scald crow (lysaght,1996:106), the tradition remained that the scald crow is seen an omen of death. Another interesting connection between divine female figure and the Banshee may be seen if we look to areas (south east) where the banshee is known as the “Badhb”.
It is said that the Banshee takes the shape of a young girl with golden hair and dressed in a shimmering white garment. The banshee is still heard in this part of Clare. They say that it is the same Banshee that comes to the O’Briens always since the days of Brian Boru. Informant: Mr John Connery,60, Glennagross, Co. Clare, Collector: Bean Uí Mhórdha, Meelick, Co. Clare. NFSC,Vol.0597:339
Here we may very much be looking echoes of a goddess and this can be seen in descriptions of her physical appearance. While in most areas she is seen as on old haggard woman with white or grey hair, the Badhb area often reports her as being tall, youthful and beautiful with blonde hair and white clothes. This is a stark contrast to the old disheveled and diminished look reported elsewhere. This more “popular” disheveled look interestingly starts to come to the fore around the 17th century.
“The Banshee is supposed to be a little old woman who is crying”. INFORMANT: Elizabeth Field, Coultry, Co. Dublin. NFSC: Vol.0792:285
Does this point to the goddess figure diminishing in status around the time of 16th/17th century with the dispossession of the Gaelic chieftains with a vestige of this Celtic matriarchal deity surviving in the Badhb area? I would also argue that a reflex of a goddess may be seen in the fact that strong attention is paid to the male line of important ancient Gaelic families. This, to me, brings to mind a possible link to the sovereignty goddess although I will admit the argument doesn’t carry much weight.
Traditionally the Bean Sídhe was believed to follow the ancient Gaelic families of Ireland, those being names with “O” or “Mac”. There don’t seem to be any accounts of any being attached to families who came to Ireland after the 17th century but there are accounts of some Norman or Norse descendants and also with some families “who came with Cromwell” having their own Banshee. Of the latter we have an account collected by Eddie Lenihan: “ This story of the banshee only being for the O’s and Mac’s is not right. Not right. Because the Frosts had a banshee, and other families I know came in with Cromwell. Do you know the Frosts came into Ireland in front of the Cromwellian army playing music? “ (Lenihan, :204)
As mentioned above The banshee is generally heard and not seen although there are also many, often contradictory, accounts recorded of her appearance. The more common depiction of the often small aged woman with unbound, free flowing white or grey hair and black clothes are very reminiscent of what could be argued to be her human counterpart, the bean chaointe or keening woman. These women who dressed in black were generally of advanced years with all illustrations of them showing them with their hair unbound. If fact it is believed in some areas that the banshee was formerly a keening woman who had sinned or not performed her job well enough. As the banshee is often said to be combing her hair, this has been interpreted by some as announcing the work of the bean Bhán or washer woman in charge of the preparation of the body prior to being laid out. It has been interpreted by others as being reminiscent of the tearing of hair, an act universally associated with grief and mourning and also a key part of the demonstrative behaviour of the keening women.
As I mentioned previously, the banshee is quite often heard and not seen and her quintessential Cry or gol is one of the most characteristic traits associated with this otherworldly death messanger. This cry is often the only thing that is reported, such as in cork and Kerry where you do not get accounts of what she looks like. The cry is often compared to being the call of a wild animal but this is often dismissed due to the omni-directional nature of the scream, its ability to travel at great speed, its duration, and its repetition and loudness (Lysaght, 1996). The gol is similar to that of the mortal keening women in that it has no discernible words or distinguishable melody (The keeners lament consists of two parts the caoineadh which contains a verse and refrain and the gol). A number of different descriptions of the banshees Gol can be found and can be categorized in two groups in relation to the nature of the description:
Group (A): Cry, gol, wail, olagón, ochaón, lóg, lógaireacht, caoineadh, keen, moan. Sorrow and grief are the key elements of this group and are associated with the mourning and wailing sounds of the human keening women and as such may point to the banshee being the “supernatural counterpart” of human professional mourners (lysaght,1996:69)
Group (B): roar, scream, shriek, screech, scréach, béic, call glaoch, liú. Fear is the presiding element here and these are mostly found in the badbh area (as described earlier). Here we see more of a connection to the supernatural and non- human sphere, although we do find some of these descriptors being applied to keening especially in the case of those hostile to the practice.
It should also be mentioned that while the banshee is not overtly malevolent, there is a tradition of stories where she can be a force to be reckoned with. This of course only applies to people who steal or find her comb. To the person unlucky enough to find/ steal this will be followed or chased to their house where the banshee proceeds to bash at the door or walls of the house until it is returned. This is almost always invariably returned through a window while being held with and iron thongs (Iron being an age old deterrent against evil, which I covered in a previous post here). The tongs are often damaged, and it is understood that the arm would have been injured or torn off had they used their hand to turn the object. In one of these accounts the collector was brought to the ruin of a local house and showed the crack going up the gable end of the house which was explained as having being put there from the banshee trying to get her comb back from the occupant of the house at the time.
“A man took the comb of the Banshee and she began crying around this house all night. The next day the man went to priest and told him what he had done and he priest told the man to give the comb back to the Banshee when she’d come the next night and to give it to her with a thongs through the window. He did and she took half of the tongs with her as well. It was well for him that he did so, if not she would have broken his hand off”. INFORMANT:John Ryan, 48, Bannow Moor, Co. Wexford. COLLECTOR: Tomás Breatnach, Carrick, Co. Wexford , NFSC:VOL.0876:041.