Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”. These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw (but feel free to make them from paper or whatever is available to you. For examples of paper crosses see folklore.ie here). These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigid’s cross. They were typically nailed to the thatch of the roof, over doors and in animal byres to protect from fire, lightning and fairy influence. To read more about the traditions of Saint Brigid’s day traditions, including more about the cross please see my article here .
Anne O’ Dowd’s book Straw, Hay and Rushes also has an excellent section on the crosses, including photos and information on the museum examples and types.
What you will need:
Fresh rushes (or straw)
Elastic bands or string
Trim the rushes to about 30 or 40 centimeters, depending on how big you want your cross. Pick the best rushes from the bunch.
Take a single rush for the center piece. Take a second rush and squeeze the middle and fold in half, like the photo below:
Now wrap this around the first rush like so:
Bend another rush and place it as follows (Making sure to always hold the center tight to stop it all unravelling):
Again, bend another rush as place going this direction:
Now, TURN THE CROSS ANTI-CLOCKWISE once. The rush you just placed that was facing to left should now be facing down. (If you think of a clock, it should go from 9 to 6). Now bend another rush and place it as follows:
Now every single time you add a rush, turn it anti-clockwise once and keep building up the pattern like below ( so add rush, turn, add rush, turn, add rush, turn until you are happy with the size of the cross):
Before placing the last piece, loosen a piece like the photo below and thread the final piece through it, placing it the same way you did the previous steps. Then pull the piece tight. This will hold the hold the whole thing together for you to tie off the ends, and will keep the pattern woven tighter:
It should now hold together for you to tie the ends off and trim:
Hopefully this was of help for you and you should now have your own Brigid’s cross to protect your home or animals. Don’t forget to follow on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore and feel free to leave pics of your completed crosses in the comments of the facebook post. Happy Saint Brigid’s Day!
Great news today in that the book, commonly referred to as The Book of Lismore, has returned home to Cork after spending almost the last 100 years in Chatsworth, UK at the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. It will be stored in University College Cork and will eventually be placed in a publicly accessible exhibit, along with a number of other manuscripts and artifacts in the university’s possession. But, Lismore is in Waterford I hear you say, so how is it coming ‘home’ to Cork? I will touch on that below as well as the contents of what is widely referred to as one of the “great books of Ireland”
This 15th century manuscript gained it’s name “The Book of Lismore” owing to the fact that it was found hidden in a wall in Lismore Castle during renovations and structural work in 1814. Its other name “The book of Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach” comes from the fact it is believed to have been composed for its patron Fínghin Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach, Lord of Cairbre, Co. Cork. The evidence for this rests on a poem to him and his wife Caitilín (the daughter of Thomas Fitzgerald, the 8th Earl of Desmond). A scribal note also mentions a couple (Lánamhna) for whom the book was written, although this has been argued that it might have been Fíngin’s father and mother and that the poem was added in later. It was then believed to have been housed in Killbrittain Castle (belonging to the Mac Cárthaigh clan) until 1642 when Lord Kinalmeaky (son of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork) mentions in a letter to his father that he took a manuscript after sacking the castle. The book was then sent to Lismore Castle, then in the possession of Richard Boyle. So, how did it end up in the wall? This was believed by some to have happened in 1643 when Lord Muskerry was besieging the castle, although this is disproved as a scribal note on one of the pages has a date of 1745 revealing someone had access to it at this point which leaves us with more questions than answers.
Following the discovery of the manuscript in the walls of Lismore Castle it made its way to a few scholars and scribes in Cork and of course in the process a number of folios were lost, not to mention that the workers who found it were said to have taken off with entire sections of it (a total of 66 folios/pages are believed to be missing). Then in 1856 the parts that now feature in the book were returned to Lismore. In 1930 it made its way to the Duke of Devonshire’s (the then and current owner of the castle) seat in Chatsworth. In 1950 a facsimile of the book was created and then in 2011 the original manuscript was briefly displayed in UCC while plans were put in place for it to be placed there permanently. Yesterday, the 28th October 2020 was that historic day. Looking to the future, the manuscript will prove to be an excellent resource for all students of language, paleography and Celtic studies for many years to come.
Stokes, O Grady and Macalister identified three main hands: In Bráthair Ó Buaghacháin (this was later found to be not the case as he is believed to have been the scribe responsible for an earlier version), Aonghas Ó Callanáin and an unidentified scribe but there is also evidence of an “intrusive hand” in the texts, sometimes mid text. This is evidenced by different sized texts, changes in ink, the number of lines per page etc, suggesting that another scribe (or scribes) took over the work.
Macalister referred to the manuscript as “not being for the library, the monastery or the professional scholar, but for the use of the intelligent, cultured layman”. The wide-range of material contained within certainly points to this. The religious material is to the front, giving way to the more secular works of entertainment later on. It contains a diverse array of texts from different sources and genres such as vita, myths, law tracts, travel texts and more. Some of these are:
A number of Saints’ lives (vita) 9 in total including at least one local, Finnchu of Brigown. Finnchu is unusual in the fact that he is comparable to Cú Chulainn’s riastrad when he becomes enraged. Flames and sparks were said to have issue from his mouth when angered. He was also said to have uttered a curse in a strange language from his mothers womb which caused barrels of ale to explode when his mother was refused a drink at a tavern. This is identical to the store of the Pre-Christian filidh (poet) Aitherne (This story and the corresponding ale charm can be read in Carey.J(2019), Charms in Medieval Irish Tales). All the other saints mentioned with the exception of Patrick are Irish, compared to the similar and contemporary Book of Fermoy (which mentions continental saints). The other lives include Brigit, Columcille, Seán of Scattery, Finnian of Clonard, Brendan of Clonfert.
The geographical text Crichad an Chaoilli that describes north Cork.
Irish apocryphal texts (one of which, In Tenga Bith Nua I touched on here) and the story of the Tenga is to be found in the link in the bibliography.
Enumeration of the 8 deadly sins.
A tract on the Anti-Christ.
Description of the day of judgement.
The Battles of Cellachán of Cashel. This was a propaganda text of the Mac Carthys.
Texts of an otherworldly nature such as The Adventure of Loegaire Mac Crimthann and the otherworldly visit of Tadhc Mac Céin.
Munster-centric texts such as The Siege of Drum Damguaire and poems to Munster Kings including Aillil Ólomm
A tale relating to an underwater monastery (Tale of the Pigs Psalter). For a deep discussion of the phenomenon of underwater monasteries see Carey.J(1992),Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries:The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic ColloquiumVol. 12 (1992), pp. 16-28 (13 pages)
Irish Kingship texts such as tales of Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill, the last king to hold the pagan Feis Temro at Tara. It also has material relating to the privileges of the Uí Neill and tracts on rights. The manuscript also has texts relating to foreign rulers such as The History Charlemagne (who Mac Neill claimed that many Irish kings modeled themselves on).
A list of the requirements to get into Finn Mac Cumhaill‘s Fianna.
Acallamh Na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Elders). This is chronologically (in therms of the setting of the tales) the end of the Fianian Cycle. It focuses on the remaining two members of Finn mac Cumhaill’s Fianna, who have somehow survived for centuries, as they travel around the country relating tales of the pagan past to Saint Patrick. They explain how places got their names and lament the old ways of the past. This tale takes up a significant portion of the manuscript.
Acallamh Becc (The Small Colloquy)
Lebor na Gceart (Book of Rights). This related to the rights of the kings of Cashel, from whom the Mac Cárthaigh were descendants, and how they had supremacy over all other kings in Ireland.
The only surviving Irish language translation of Marco Polo.
In 1324 Richard de Ledrede , the then bishop of Ossory , declared his diocese a hotbed of devil worshipers. Few knew the far reaching, dire consequences this declaration would have and the ripples it would send through the centuries. The woman at the center of all of this was Alice Kyteler, a wealthy woman from a Flemish merchant family. Her accumulated wealth over multiple marriages had led to the accusations of witchcraft in question.
Circa 40 years before the landmark case, Alice had married a wealthy merchant/moneylender and had a son. Following her husband’s death she married another wealthy man. He subsequently handed over his fortune to Alice’s son from the first marriage, much to the chagrin of his own children. This would later cause problems and ultimately become the impetus for the future accusations against her. Upon her third marriage, her son somehow benefitted financially again. Her final and fourth marriage was to a knight, Sir John de Poer. At this point, her accumulated wealth at the expense of her stepchildren as well as de Poer showing signs of arsenic poisoning (hair and fingernails falling out and emaciated) led to the suspicion of Alice and the accusations of witchcraft. The changing attitudes towards sorcery and witchcraft, especially on the part of the church, would have a dramatic effect on this case, as would the machinations of the highly cunning bishop at the epicenter of the whole ordeal.
It was only a few hundred years prior to this case, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that sorcery/witchcraft was beginning to be seen as an inversion of Christianity. The practice of which would have been treated as a misdemeanor before this change in attitude. In 1258 Pope Alexander legislated in favour of inquisitorial prosecution for sorcery due to it’s new connection to heresy. This allowed the church to institute torture as a method to procure confessions from suspected heretics, witches and sorcerers. This in turn gave the church more power than secular court in these regards. Before this, it lay on the accuser to furnish proof of guilt. These ‘crimes’ had usually been dealt with in English law as a petty offense. Inquisitorial prosecution, it seems, was introduced into this case by Bishop Ledrede, who likely picked up the practice from his stay at the court of Avignon, the then Papal seat. Ledrede had originally been sent to Ireland in the years leading up to the accusations of Kyteler by the Pope (who was known to be terrified of sorcery) because of his “zeal for reform and strict adherence to the law of the church”.
In total seven charges were brought against Alice, including:
Denying Christ and the Church.
Cutting up living animals and scattering them at crossroads* as offerings to a demon called “son of Art”. *Crossroads are understood to be liminal spaces and are often employed in magical rites
Stealing church keys and performing rituals inside the church at night.
In a skull of a thief, her and her accomplices placed the entrails of animals, the organs of a cockerel, nails cut from bodies, hair from the buttocks and used clothes from baby boys who had died before baptism. Using these ingredients, they were said to have made potions to kill people and to make people hate Christians.
It was claimed Alice had a familiar with whom she fornicated. It either appeared as a cat, a shaggy dog or a black man.
That she used sorcery to convince her husbands to give their wealth to her and her son, and also used sorcery to kill them.
Poisoning her latest husband.
Ledrede had used a law Ut Inguisitionis (1298) to force secular powers to obey the word of a Bishop. Luckily a prior of the Hospitalliers of St John, a relative of Alice’s first husband, stood up for her and put a spanner in the works. Ledrede was told that he would have to hold a public prosecution and that she would have to be formally ex-communicated before they could go ahead with the charges. Ledrede attempted to have the Prior arrested on charges of heresy (and for harbouring heretics) but the prior had some powerful acquaintances, in this case the Seneshal of Killkenny. The seneshal had Ledrede arrested for 17 days to prevent the arrest of the prior. Ledrede used this to his full advantage to start to swing public opinion in his favour. He placed an interdict on the diocese, meaning that no baptism, marriages and burials could take place. Given the strong belief in hell during this period, this was obviously of grave importance to the eternal souls of all parishioners. He also used his influence while incarcerated to give masses in full regalia from his cell. During this time, the seneshal put criers in each outlying town to see if anyone wanted to lodge complaints against Ledrede.
Every move on Ledrede’s part was carefully orchestrated for maximum effect. He left his cell in full high vestments. He turned up at the seneshal’s court, in full regalia holding the consecrated host before him (as any assault on him, would ultimately be an assault on Christ himself). He was not alone. In toe were Franciscans, Dominicans and an entire cathedral chapter. He also carried a decree concerning heretics. After forcing his way into the court, the seneshal asked him to get in the dock for questioning. He claimed that since he was holding the host, it would be like putting Jesus himself on trial, just like when he was tried by Pontius Pilate. Despite the best efforts of all involved, it was inevitable that public opinion would sway in the direction of the church and the bishop due to the constant attacks and insults. Upon seeing that public opinion was turning against her, Alice used her wealth to flee from Dublin and was never heard from again. Her not as wealthy associates and alleged co-conspirators were subsequently rounded up and arrested using a papal decree and under inquisitorial procedure, confessed. Unfortunately, only the poorest of these, Alice’s maidservant, Petronilla de Meath, bore the brunt of the whole thing. She was tortured, whipped and ultimately burnt at the stake (it was legal to torture under church law, but not secular), while all the others were released on payment of sureties. William Outlawe, the friar, was arrested and accused of heresy. He begged forgiveness and was released on the condition that he would pay penance in the form of saying multiple masses each day for a couple of years, and also by re-leading the roof of a church. He was later re-arrested for not carrying this penance out.
A quote from a Franciscan friar at the time, John Clyn, reads: “Moreover, even in olden days, it was neither seen nor heard of that anyone suffered the death penalty for heresy in Ireland”.
So, what had brought about this drastic change in attitude in Ireland that culminated in the barbaric death of a poor, young maidservant? In short, Ledrede, the man at the center of all of this. It is very likely that Ledrede himself introduced the connection of demonic forces and witchcraft to Ireland. It is no surprise that the landmark case found its way into a number of annal entries at the time. Many people, in a European context, believe that this case was a development “of a phenomenon which, with its distinctive characteristics of diabolism” gave rise to the great witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries (of course the influence of the Malleus Malificarum cannot be ignored either). Before the Kyteler case, these ideas had not really permeated beyond the Papal courts of Avignon. It was circa 1300 in France that learned circles started to disseminate the idea that a witch was connected to satanic sects and diabolical powers. To give further context to this, 17 years before this case, the King of France, Philip IV, had the Templar Order put to death on many similar charges and claims of diabolism. The pope of the time also fanned the flames by thinking his life was in danger from sorcery. Ledrede was appointed by the pope himself and had actually been present at court during the Templar trials. This of course is likely to have influenced his belief system and he is also likely to have had direct contact with the learned milieu who espoused the radical ideas of heresy.
Civil court up to the point of the case had seen witchcraft as a minor crime, punishable only in terms of damage done to the victim. The church was not interested because there was no link with religion. It was even believed that in order to control demons, a sorcerer have strong faith and a devout belief in god in order for it to work (c.f Carey, The Nature of Miracles in Early Irish Saint’s Lives for a similar tradition in how miracles worked).
It would come as no surprise to anyone that five years following the death of Petronilla de Meath, Richard de Ledrede had overplayed his hand and was finally exiled from Ireland. Unfortunately for Petronilla, it was too little too late. So give a little thought this Samhain to all the women over the centuries who were executed under the guise of being “witches”.
The 16th and 17th centuries saw many women put to death across Europe and beyond for witchcraft and for the use of diabolic powers imparted on them by demons. Surprisingly Ireland, apart from a few high profile cases largely escaped the phenomenon of witch accusations and mass murder of women with Islandmagee, Kilkenny and Youghal being some of the few cases of witch trials in Ireland. The idea of the satanist witch consorting with demons was an English introduction and it is no surprise that the locations where the trials did occur were areas of vast English influence (Youghal for example being an important garrison town). Even though witches did not figure too much in the Irish tradition, they did eventually make their way prominently into the oral tradition, although they are more likely to be shape-shifting into hares and trying to steal your milk or butter .
Many are aware of the famous witch trial that rocked Youghal in the 17th century when a poor old woman, Florence Newton, was accused and charged with witchcraft. What I doubt many people are aware of is that in the National Folklore Schools collection (collected in the school year 1937/38) there is an entry by John Quirke of Windmill Hill (the original transcript can be viewed here) that describes a tale of a witch who lived in a cottage by Moll Goggin’s corner. The witch one day puts three eggs in a pan. As she is cooking them, one pops out to which she remarks “one man gone”, when another egg hopped out she said “two men gone” and when the third egg hopped out she said “three men gone”. The tale mentions how three men drowned in the bay that day. The witch had used a common form of sympathetic magic, whereby the eggs represented fishermen and as they fall out of the pan, presumably the fishermen fell out of the boat and drowned. The story has a confusing element of which I am unaware of any comparanda elsewhere, such as the fact she was eventually banished in a ball of cotton wool, but the tale-type of the ship sinking witch is a maritime migratory legend found in coastal communities throughout northwestern Europe. In Ireland it is much more common on the west coast, so it is highly unusual and certainly special that it is found in Youghal. That being said, with Youghal’s very rich maritime heritage as well as a very high profile witch trial, it is not very surprising. Below I will delve deeper into the fascinating migratory legend.
The salient details of the legend change depending on where it is found. In Ireland the most common form of the tales follows the formula of “woman skilled in the black arts is refused alms or food or denied a favour” (extremely similar to the story of Florence Newton minus the maritime element). A number of different redactions are found, some including using eggs in water, which you will recognise from the tale above. Irish and Scottish sources focus on malicious female witches where as, for example, Scandinavian sources focus instead on benign male magicians attacking pirates and protecting the community. The polarising viewpoints illustrate well the ambivalent nature of magic use. Some of the Irish versions got invariably tied up with real tragedies such as a mass drowning in 1813 in Donegal. The motif of the refusal of alms was added on as the cause of the incident. Another violent storm in 1825 was incorporated into a tale where a woman refuted to be a witch had approached a few fishermen demanding fish. When they refused she swore revenge. She was reputedly seen at her cottage with a bowl of water and some feathers. She stirred the water and a storm arose. When the feathers sank, so did the boats and the bodies of the fishermen were found along the coast the next day and there was no trace of the witch to be found.
The method employed in the tale above to agitate the water and cause a storm is a common one as is blowing on the water to raise a wind. To bring in a Youghal connection here, in my interviews with Youghal fishermen, it was revealed to me by Séan Murphy and Bobby Thorpey that whistling was banned aboard the fishing boats, for fear of raising a wind. Other methods found in folk tales include the manipulation of thread, undoing knots in rope (also used by fishermen as a way of raising winds) and the construction of stone cairns on land as a sinking method. In some of these cases an incantation is uttered in conjunction with the methods listed above. More often than not these charms are not explained due to their esoteric nature and usually remain known only to the user of the “dark arts” in question. There are however a few cases where at least an element of the charm is included such as the declaration of “Tá na gnóthaí déanta (The deeds are done) or “Tá an bá déanta anois” (The drowning is completed). The “witches” carrying out these acts are often referred to as Bean Ultach (Ulster Women/women from the North) due to the belief that magic originated in the North. Interestingly a Cork variant of the tale connects the Freemasons to ship sinking as they were said to posses the ability to raise storms.
In terms of the materials used to represent boats in these magical rites, wooden bowls are more common in Scottish and Irish versions whereas in Scandinavia and areas of Norse influence (such as the Scottish Isles) seashells are often used. Some folk tales involve more fanciful or elaborate materials such as wax moulded into ships is believed to be “a literary sophistication of a folk motif”. The more common use of household objects shows how innocuous everyday items could be used to devastating effect and could easily be employed nefariously in rites of sympathetic magic. While on the subject of wax models, there is a more ancient counterpart that dates to at least 338 AD in the pseudo-historical biography of Alexander. In this, the Pharaoh Nectanebus, Alexander’s father uses a spell to sink incoming ships. He prays to “the god of spells” after filling a bowl of water and moulding both ships and men from wax. As he performed the rite and as the wax figures sank, so did the real ships in the bay. Any fans of Shakespeare will also recognise the motif from his Tempest where Prospero uses the same magic. To finish, I will leave you with the oldest recorded European version of the tale from Norfolk, dating to 1598:
“ [A ships crew] mislead oppo’ (upon) ye weste coast coming from spain, whose deaths were brought to pass by the excrable witch of kings lynn, whose name was Mother Gably, by boyling , or labouring of certaine eggs in a payle full of colde water”
Originally presented as a lecture for the Youghaloween Spooktacular festival on Oct 26th 2019
The National Folklore Schools Collection, Vol.0397:124, Collector: John Quirke, Youghal, Co.Cork.
Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh (1992) The Ship Sinking Witch: A Maritime Folk Legend from North Western Europe, Béaloideas, Iml.60/61, Cumann Béaloideas na hÉireann
Hutton.R (2017), The Witch, Yale University Press.
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.
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.
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.