Cursing in Irish Folk Tradition





In a past article, I looked at some methods of folk healing in the Irish tradition. In this article, I would like to look at different types of curses (mallacht). In a few online discussions lately, I have noticed a few people who were shocked or incredulous that there was a tradition of cursing in Ireland and more so that people who had the power to heal, could also curse. In fact, it was widely believed that the two things were intrinsically connected and two sides of the same coin.

Evidence of Irish curses can be found in several sources including dictionaries, newspapers, visitor writings, diaries, religious tracts, law Tracts, Epic literature, hagiography, and the National Folklore Collection (Duchas.ie). The antiquarian William Carlton, when speaking about curses, says that there is a “certain style and ritual” needed to “ give them energy”. People would make a public display of casting these curses (such as a busy marketplace, for example) and they often “beat the floor and looked to the skies, put their hands together and besought god to blight their opponents”. The inclusion of god here is not unusual as cursing is often a “blend of lyrical and ritualistic spell casting” mixed with prayers to god, Mary or the saints. Some curses were cast from a height or a seashore and this is especially evident in the case of ship sinking witches (covered more in-depth here).
 
We look at a few different types below including the curses of Blacksmiths and Millers, beggars’ curses, widows’ curses, piseog’s, the Evil Eye, cursing stones, the curses of priests and saints and curses aimed towards landlords.


The curses of Blacksmiths and Millers

The connection of blacksmiths with the supernatural and with the use of magic is certainly not unique to Ireland. Their ability to turn raw materials into essential tools and weaponry afforded them special status within the community, and also created an air of mystery around them. The fact they worked with Iron, a universal deterrent of evil, bolstered this belief and imbued them with the ability to see or defeat evil. I covered this more in-depth in this article here. In keeping with the theme of the current article, their connection to cursing revolves around one of the main tools of their trade, the anvil. A method of cursing that was feared by the church when they composed the 8th-century lorica hymn protecting against the “spells of women, and smiths, and druids”. The words of this spell enacted by the blacksmiths were often kept purposefully hidden and obscure, but we do know that to cast it they had to turn the anvil tuathal (anti-clockwise) while uttering the proscribed incantation. Like many curses in Irish tradition, you ran the risk of having it rebound on you if it wasn’t warranted, but some sources seem to allude to there being a price to pay no matter what.

A folklore collector for the Irish Folklore Commission asked six blacksmiths if they had ever heard of this curse and all claimed to have heard about it but had “put the cross of Christ between them and all such things”. Some even claimed to have seen it being carried out when they were younger. One example from the National Folklore Collection states that “If you want something to befall your neighbor, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse” (NFC, IML.80:283). Another gives an example of how an eviction was thwarted by using this curse. In this instance, however, the anvil is struck rather than rotated: “A bailiff trying to evict people on Easter Sunday. It recounts how a number of men went to the forge and knelt around the anvil to pray. Instead of uttering a curse they would periodically get up and strike the anvil. This ultimately prevented the landlord from evicting his tenants” (NFC, IML.80:283). We will see other examples of eviction-related curses later in this article.
Sources also tell us that the miller had a similar ability, but in place of the anvil, his millstone was used. NFSC, Vol 0119:507, tells us “the blacksmith shares this ability with the miller and that “he could do any enemy to death by turning the millstone on him”.

Distance away from the victim did not matter. The curse worked as successfully if he were at the other side of the world as if he were just by their side. Landlords often feature as the targets in folktales and accounts:
“A miller farmer was about to be evicted. He and his friends gathered together in the mill and at the “witching hour” of midnight they “turned the millstone” on the landlord….. The shouts of the landlord in his death agony were heard in the district of the mill and he was found dead under his own bed next morning. His skin was as all over [as black as] the raven’s wing. It was really believed he was done to death by the turning of the millstone.
But here we see that there are repercussions:
“It was noted that some misfortune happened to everyone who had any part in the affair. One lost an eye, another a leg, another his reason. It seemed to bring a blight on the whole of them”. NFSC:Volume 0119, Page 506
 
 
Piseógs

SO, moving on to ‘piseogs’. This is one of those terms in Irish that can have multiple meanings. People will quite often refer to things as just being “piseogs”, meaning they are simply superstition.

The Ó Dónaill an Ua Mhaoileoin dictionary give the definitions as:
·         Geis (A supernatural taboo or injunction)
·         Ortha (A Charm)
·         Creideamh i ndraíocht agus is gcúrsaí osnádúrtha (Beilief in magic or in supernatural activity)

Ó Dónaill gives:
·         Charm/Spell
·         Superstitious practices
·         Superstition
·         Ag déanamh piseog (casting a Spell)

The ‘casting’ of Piseogs often takes the form of burying either eggs, meat, animal intestines or even straw dolls in the field of the intended victim. As these materials rot away, the luck of the person being targeted goes with them, or more ominously in the case of the ‘dolls’, the health of the person may deteriorate. This can be expedited by the caster by pouring water on the spot to make it rot faster.


Women who Curse

It would appear that the curses of women were especially feared throughout Irish history. The inclusion in the hymn mentioned above illustrates this but we also know that satire at the hands of women in medieval Ireland was also greatly feared. Women would let their hair down when casting curses and it appears that beggar women also left their hair down (women’s hair usually kept up or covered), to give the impression that they were “half-cocked” so to speak, and ready to curse should they be refused. Interestingly, Bean Chaointe (Keening Women) also left their hair down, mimicking their supernatural counterpart, the Bean Sídhe.

Female Satirists

Female satirists were especially feared in medieval Ireland. Áer (satire) was typically the domain of the Filidh (professional poet, second only to the king in status) and satire itself could be used as a weapon and as such was regulated by law. Illegal or unjustified use of satire was frowned upon and could lead to loss of your honour price. The tale Longes mac nUislenn (The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu) shows us that the freedom of movement afforded to filidh and other members of the Áes Dána (people of skill) was extended even more to accommodate female satirists: “No person was ever allowed into that house except her foster father, her foster mother and Leborcham; for the last mentioned one could not be prevented, for she was a female satirist”. Now, the fear behind this lay in the belief that satire, if properly used could physically harm the target, bringing out boils and blisters on the face. These blisters were especially problematic if you happened to be a king, for a physical blemish would disqualify you from kingship. Satire was also referred to as “un-poetry” and the law text Bretha Nemed Tóiseach tells us: “You are not to wound cheeks with the spears of un-poetry”. Mis-use however could bring it back on you, just like we have seen with the curse of the blacksmith above.

Similar to the idea that anyone with the ability to heal also can curse, it was believed anyone capable of giving praise could also use satire. Poetry was divided into three categories find, dubh, brecc:

•       White (Find) by which one praises
•       Black (Dubh) by which one satirises
•       Speckled (Brecc) by which one gives notice

The ‘Speckled’ one mentioned was also known as trefocal, a mix of satire and praise that served the purpose of giving a warning of impending satire, giving you plenty of time to rethink your actions. Several terms were used for satirists: Cáinte, Rindile and Birach Bríathar (one who is sharp with words).
 
Widows who curse

Widows’ curses were also greatly feared. These curses were especially common during the land war (circa 1879) but we have numerous examples of people enacting these curses even as late as the 1960s:
Mary MacCormack from Castlerea, for example, put a widow’s curse on the people who told the police that she was holding unlicensed public dances. Another example tells of a curse that rebounded on a widow and she “died tortured with liver disease.
 
 
The ‘Fire of Stones’ Curse

This interesting curse was used by people when they were being evicted from their houses. The purpose of this was to affect the house luck of whoever else was going to move into the house after them. Before leaving the newly evicted ex-tenants would block up the hearth with stones and say ““until these fires burn, will newcomers do any good” This method of cursing was still used in Ulster in the 1940s and 1950s.
 

Beggars who Curse

In the not-so-distant past, it was not uncommon to meet droves of itinerant mendicants traveling the length and breadth of Ireland. Beggars (Bacach, Lucht súil) would also employ curses if spurned or refused alms (this was the common impetus for the so-called ‘Ship sinking witches’ casting their curses).


Priests and Saints who Curse

This one shocks most people. I have encountered numerous people online who were completely incredulous that priests would be seen using curses, but there are almost 1500 years of examples of this stretching back to our earliest hagiographies. Some saints, in particular, were very fond of pronouncing maledictions on people and regularly cursed unfit kings (usually leading to extremely violent deaths brought about by a self-fulfilling prophecy). Examples of this can be especially seen in stories that feature a three-fold death (burning, drowning, stabbing) of the king as a result of the saint’s curse / prophecy. It could even be argued that given the proliferation of examples, that cursing almost served a sacerdotal function. We have the secular side, the Filidh with their satire and praise, and the ecclesiastical side, the priest/saint with the cursing and blessing, both essentially being part of the whole.

The Schools collection gives us an interesting story:
A priest named Spratt, put a curse on the Marquis of Waterford after the Marquis said “Sure ’tis out in the sea with the sprats (brisling, garvie, garvock) you ought to be”.  He replied with “You will get enough of the sprats yet”.
We are told how later the marquis “could not stay on dry land”, started living in a boat but the sprats used to jump into his boat and could not be kept out. The Marquis got so tired of life that he shot himself. NFSC,  Volume 0650:117

Eventually, the church took an official stance against priests using curses. In 1798 Bishops in Munster said they would sanction priests who used curses against their parishioners. Cursing by priests was officially banned by the church, especially politically and in 1883 the “Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act” outlawed “undue spiritual influence”.
1872 we have another example of a priest’s curse: “May the arm that is now sick, sling dead and powerless by her side before 12 months time”. This was pronounced from the pulpit while pointing at the the intended victim, a person the priest believed was responsible for painting tar on the pews. I don’t know about you, but I would love some more context to this story! I found the pointing element interesting as it brought to mind the druidic form of cursing known as corrguinecht (Crane or Heron killing). This curse was cast by standing on one leg, closing one eye, and pointing at the intended victim while incanting the spell.

Another priests curse was said to cause a woman’s children to be born blind and crippled.
 

Curses against landlords

I’m sure at this point you might have noticed a recurring theme that landlords were often at the receiving end of curses (which is very understandable given Irish history). Threatening rhyming curse letters were sent to Landlords and musical curses were also composed. An example from Limerick in 1886 certainly doesn’t hold back:
“May you wither up by the fire of hell soon and sudden, may the flesh rot off your bones, and fall away putrid before your eyes, and may the consolation of eternal flames come to be your consolation in your last illness, and that the hearthstone of hell be your pillow forever’.
As extreme as the above example may seem, it wasn’t unique. Curses often asked for all sorts of terrible things to happen to the intended victim such as broken bones, rotting flesh, heads smashed, stomachs exploded, Limbs withered, Blinding and so forth.
 

Cursing Stones

Here again, we have an example of something that could curse or cure. This was done similar to the examples we have seen above with the anvil and millstone. Turning them “tuathal” or anti-clockwise while chanting an incantation would send out a curse. These are often found at ecclesiastical sites, often known as ‘ballaun stones’. Sometimes they have ‘homing stones’ that return to the site should anybody take them. As with many of the examples we have looked at above, the curse had to be warranted or would be sent back at you. Interestingly, despite the cursing stones most likely having an ecclesiastical origin or usage, many were destroyed in the 19th century by the clergy due to their connection to cursing. Stones that “had long being used to lay powerful maledictions” were sought out and systematically destroyed or buried. Fortuitously, they didn’t get them all and we have a number of examples dotted around the country.
 
NFSC: Vol.0095:147

Emloc is in the parish of Louisburg on the Sea. In olden times there were two stones or rather flags here; one standing, on the seashore, and the other longer and thinner lying by the first.
If your neighbors wanted fine weather very badly, and you wanted to send him bad weather because of a grudge you had against him you had only to repair to Emloc turn the sand with the long flat slab repeating the while the proper prayers in the proper way, and the next day the rain and the bad weather would pour down on your friend the enemy, and you had him settled.
Another tale about the Emloc stones tells of someone trying it out when there was no chance of rain forecast. Two days of torrential rain followed as soon as he had carried out the ritual. Upon visiting a local bar, a seanchaí told him that a priest had long ago dumped the stones in the sea. He replied that they must have washed back in (homing stones) and the the old people in the area believed there were  “bad spirits in them”.
 

The Evil Eye:

The Evil Eye was essentially a curse or malediction that could be placed on a person or animal by a person possessing the power to do so. This was done when the said person “glared” or stared intently at the intended victim. This is often referred to as being ‘overlooked’. The curse could be intentional or unintentional on the part of the caster. Children who weren’t blessed were in danger of being “overlooked” so it was considered suspicious to not utter “God bless the child” when seeing one. Overly admired children could also fall prey to the Evil Eye (Droch shiúl). Another form of protection falls under the category of really weird stuff you really shouldn’t do, and was carried out by spitting on the child. Countercharms were often used as a remedy:

·         Hum the alphabet
·         Hum the letters of the name of the victim
·         Write out the letters of the alphabet, sprinkle with holy water burn (with addition of cross x3)
·         Steal a piece of their cloak, burn it and inhale the smoke.
·         Red string tied to tales of animals (especially around Mayday)
 
The person who cast it could also reverse it.

An example from Duchas tells us: “ About forty years ago some people were admiring a heifer calf in a farmyard among whom was a woman reputed to have the “evil eye”. When the people had gone the calf fell to the ground in a fit, whereupon someone said that the woman with the “evil eye” should be asked to return [and} say “God bless her” over the calf. This was done immediately the calf stood up was as well as ever” (NFSC.Vol.0952:203).
 
You could be born with the power or gain it through being weaned from breast milk and put back on it. People with unusually coloured eyes, bushy eyebrows or certain hair colours may be more prone to possessing this power “Let not the eye of a red-haired woman rest on you.”  One account says that after a few fatal incidents that the person with “the evil eye” was forced to wear an eyepatch while walking around, however, he was said to also put his power to good use by later saving a pet pigeon when he stunned it out of a tree.

Mythical examples of this power include Balor, Togail Bruidne Dá Derga and Bruiden da Choca are some examples. We see numerous examples through the older sources where there is a connection between eyes and otherworldly or preternatural harm. Abnormal, differently colored eyes, and bushy eyebrows were associated with the evil eye. Babies and young cattle were especially vulnerable and even saints were known to have the evil eye.
I have an article covering more of  this ‘Curse’ here
 


Some Random Curses

With all this talk of curses, I should include some. Here are a couple that fall outside the categories above:

“Biadh a t-aifrionn gan solas duit,a bhean shalach” –  “May mass never comfort you, dirty woman”

‘Marbhadh Fáisg Ort’ – “The squeezeband of death on you!” (This is based on an item used to keep the mouths of corpses shut that was tied around jaw and head. This could be made from any material. So, basically wishing death on the person.
 

Medieval Curses

‘You son of a stammering, surly, puffed-up foreign woman‘ (mac ro boí oc gaillsig goit grúcbuirr)
‘You grandson of a ploughman [who is] filthy like a badger’ (uí airim brocṡalaig)
The rest can be seen here
 
Hope you enjoyed this sojourn into Irish cursing. Don’t forget to follow the facebook page and I will see you soon for the next article

Some others can be found here: https://www.sengoidelc.com/category/curses-insults/

Examples include:

Millfet lí th’aigthe! (I will destroy the beauty of your face. = I will kill you!)

Ní fes cía cú rot·chac for otrach! (No one knows what dog shit you out onto a dunghill!)

A chacc cuirre uidre ittige! (O shit of a flapping dun-colored crane!)

Bid móin ⁊ mothar a feranna-som co bráth. (Their lands will be boglands and thickets forever)

Ní raib úaid acht cairem ⁊ círmaire nó nech bed fíu iad. (“May none spring from him but shoemakers and combmakers, or people of that kind.”)

Úir aineóil tarat! (Foreign soil over you!)

Goirde shaogail duit abhus ⁊ ifrenn thall! (Short life to you on this side, and hell on the other!)

Sources

Duchas.ie (Schools collection), Main Manuscript Collection (NFC). Individual manuscripts mentioned in text.

The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature and Law,  Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly, Celtica 24

Irish Cursing and the Art of Magic, 1750-2018, Thomas Waters

In Defense of Saints Who Loved Malediction, Ksenia Kudenko, in “Charms, Charmers and Charming in Ireland: From the Medieval to the Modern

European and American Scholarship and the Study of Medieval Irish Magic, Jacqueline Borsje in “Charms, Charmers and Charming in Ireland: From the Medieval to the Modern

A Guide to Early Irish Law, Fergus Kelly

Celtic Spells and Counterspells, Jacqueline Borsje

Praise and Early Irish Poet, Liam Breatneach, Éirú vol.56

Butter Stealing Through Magic: Fears of an Agrarian Society

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Image 1: Jean François Millet Woman churning butter. Image 2: Ralph Hedley The Butter Churn 1897, wikimedia commons

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.

 

Butter Stones

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)

Lady Gregory*

(*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.

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.

 

“Taking action”

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.

 

 

Bibliography

Bealoideas 48/49.

Britannia (1586).

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.

NFSC Volume 0094, Page 474.

NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030.

NFSC Volume 0112, Page 32.

NFSC Volume 0199, Page 066.

NFSC Volume 0705, Page 077.

NFSC, Vol.0101:540, Informant: Sarah Mc Cormack, 48, Address, Rocksborough South, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Pádraig Pléimeann, School: Ceathrú Clochar, Location: Rocksborough South, Co. Mayo.

NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.

NFSC, Vol.1038:362.

NFSC, Vol.1038:362.

NFSC, Vol.1038:363, Teacher: Eamonn De Faoite, School: Urbal, Banagh, Killaghtee, Co Dún na Gall, 1938.

NFSC, Volume 0088E, Page 14_017

NFSC, Volume 0095, Page 269

NFSC, Volume 0107, Page 477.

NFSC, Volume 0108, Page 030.

NFSC, Volume 0118, Page 48.

NFSC, volume 0267, Page 070.

NFSC, Volume 0705, Page 077

NFSC, Volume 0773, Page 073.

NFSC,Vol.1038:362

NFSC:Vol.1042:69, Informant: Joseph Maguire, 60, Farmer, Clonconwal, Co.Donegal, Teacher: León Ó hÚallaigh, Gortnacart (roll number 15554),

Ní Bhrádaigh, C. (1936), Folklore of Co.Longford, Bealoideas, Iml. 6, Imh 2, December 1936, Cumann Le Bealoideas Éireann.

Rynne, C. (1998) At the Sign of the Cow: The Cork Butter Market, 1770-1924, Collins Press, Cork.

Topigraphica Hibernica.

Witchcraft and magic in Ireland.

Zuchelli, C. (2016) Sacred Stones of Ireland, Collins Press, Cork.

The Evil Eye

In this article I will be focusing on a subject that is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record, the Evil Eye. This is not unique to Ireland and is found in many different cultures with accounts dating far back into antiquity. I’m sure many will be familiar with the Evil Eye pendants (called Nazar) or keyrings from Turkey and Egypt, that are still a popular souvenir choice for holiday makers. In the Irish context it is quite often mentioned in an ambiguous manner (such as an account or story simply mentioning that the person “had the Evil Eye”) with no explanation as to what it actually is. I have compiled the following accounts as they illustrate the nature of the Evil Eye and also give us good examples of how it can be counteracted. Lady  Jane Francesca Wilde gives us a number of  excellent examples in her book Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. These examples are mirrored in the later National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) accounts that encompass the rest of the examples provided herein.

The Evil Eye was essentially a curse or malediction that could be placed on a person or animal by a person possessing the power to do so. This was done when the said person “glared” or stared intently at the intended victim. This is often referred to as being ‘overlooked’.

“There are several modes in which the Evil Eye can act, some much more deadly than others. If certain persons are met the first thing in the morning, you will be unlucky for the whole of that day in all you do. If the evil-eyed comes in to rest, and looks fixedly on anything, on cattle or on a child, there is doom in the glance; a fatality which cannot be evaded except by a powerful counter-charm. But if the evil-eyed mutters a verse over a sleeping child, that child will assuredly die, for the incantation is of the devil, and no charm has power to resist it or turn away the evil. Sometimes the process of bewitching is effected by looking fixedly at the object, through nine fingers; especially is the magic fatal if the victim is seated by the fire in the evening when the moon is full. Therefore, to avoid being suspected of having the Evil Eye, it is necessary at once, when looking at a child, to say “God bless it.” And when passing a farmyard where the cows are collected for milking, to say, “The blessing of God be on you and on all your labours.” If this form is omitted, the worst results may be apprehended, and the people would be filled with terror and alarm, unless a counter-charm were not instantly employed” Lady wilde.

Lady Wilde, often known by her pen name Speranza, also tells us “There is nothing more dreaded by the people, nor considered more deadly in its effects, than the Evil Eye.It may strike at any moment unless the greatest precautions are taken, and even then there is no true help possible unless the fairy doctor is at once summoned to pronounce the mystic charm that can alone destroy the evil and fatal influence”.

The only way to counteract this power was through the use of a powerful counter charm. If the evil eye had been used against an animal, effectively rendering it useless, then a person has to hum the alphabet under the nose of the animal who has it. If the name of the person who cast the evil eye is known for sure, then humming the letters of their name will suffice in breaking the curse (NFSC,Vol.0221:628). Another description of this ritual goes into far greater detail and has much more Christian elements included in it. We are told that as well as writing the letters of the alphabet in their order on a sheet of paper, the sign of the Cross was made on this paper with the pen three times, the paper was then sprinkled with holy water and burned under the animal’s nose. Some of the ashes of the paper were put in the mouth of the affected animal and the cure was then complete (NFSC,Vol.0941:324). Special precautions to protect the animal from this malicious force are taken at the liminal, auspicious times of year such as May eve, due to the fact that supernatural forces were considered to be at their zenith. Red tags or strings were tied to the cow’s tails as a prevention against the Evil Eye but this can also be performed at the birth of the animal also (NFSC.Vol.0978:071). Another way of counteracting it was that the person to whom the animal belongs must cut a piece off the coat of the person who overlooked it and burn the cloth under the animals head (NFSC.Vol.0978:071). It could also be reversed by the person who cast it. One account tells how:

“ About forty years ago some people were admiring a heifer calf in a farmyard among whom was a woman reputed to have the “evil eye”. When the people had gone the calf fell to the ground in a fit, whereupon someone said that the woman with the “evil eye” should be asked to return [and} say “God bless her” over the calf. This was done immediately the calf stood up was as well as ever” (NFSC.Vol.0952:203).

The person possessing the power is said to have gotten it through being born with it or it is said that people become possessed of the evil eye as babies if they are weaned of their mother’s milk and then given it again. This can be reversed by passing the baby under a green sod three times (NFSC,Vol.0221:628). Lady Wilde tells us how suspected persons were held in great suspicion, and they were recognised at once by certain signs. Men and women with dark lowering eyebrows are especially feared, and that “the handsome children are kept out of their path lest they might be overlooked by them” .Red hair was supposed to have the most malign influence, and it has even passed into a proverb: “Let not the eye of a red-haired woman rest on you.” Many of the people are unaware that their glance or frown has this evil power until some calamity results, and then they “strive not to look at any one full in the face, but to avert their eyes when speaking, lest misfortune might fall upon the person addressed”.

In the course of my research for this article I came across an interesting account of a man who possessed the evil eye. Following a number of accidents and misfortunes, seemingly of a fatal nature, the source of the accidents was traced back to the man, who had been present at all incidents (It should be noted that many people who possess the power are not inherently evil or intend to use their power maliciously). In an effort to avoid any further mishaps the community forced the man to wear an eye patch. What is interesting is the fact that we are given an example of his power being used for good. One day as the man was near the ruin of an old castle he encountered a crying boy. The boy was distressed because his pet pigeon was at the top of the ruin and could not be coaxed down. He took off the patch and stared intently at the pigeon. It fell to the ground and lay motionless, as if stunned; but there was no harm done to it and then the boy took it up and went his way.. Due to the limited scope of my research on the subject I am unable to confirm whether it is an isolated case where the power was used for good (I will include a link here for the Duchas.ie schools collection where you can read through the others if you wish).

Ancient accounts

We find two ancient accounts of the evil eye here in Ireland. The first is found in the mythological cycle of tales and relates to Balor of the evil eye, who was said to have a fortress on Tory Island. Balor was a king of the Formorians, the ancient inhabitants of Ireland (before the coming of the Tuatha Dé Danann). He is often described as a giant with a huge eye in the middle of his forehead this eye brought death and destruction on anyone he cast his gaze upon. He had gained this power from peering into a cauldron that contained a powerful spell that was being created by some druids. The vapours from the cauldron got into his eye when he looked inside which gave him the power of his deathly gaze. The most memorable instance of Balor using his eye is the story of his death at the battle of Maigh Tuireadh. In this famous battle between the Formorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann, Balor fell in battle at the hands of his own grandson, the pan-celtic god Lugh, when he trust his spear (or sling depending on the telling) through the eye of the giant. His eye was blown out the back of his head, turning his deadly gaze on his own men, destroying the forces of the Formorians. A piece of Dindseanchas (meaning lore of places) tells us that the place where his head fell and burned a hole in the ground, later filled with water and became known as “Lough na Suil” or “The Lake of the Eye”. Interestingly, this lake disappears every few years when it drains into a sink hole. Local mythology says that this happens to ensure that the atrocities of the battle may never be forgotten.

The only other ancient mention of the evil eye is that of a saint. Lady Gregory tells us “After Balor, the only other ancient instance of the fatal effects of the malefic Eye is narrated of St. Silan, who had a poisonous hair in his eyebrow that killed whoever looked first on him in the morning. All persons, therefore, who from long sickness, or sorrow, or the weariness that comes with years, were tired of life, used to try and come in the saint’s way, that so their sufferings might he ended by a quick and easy death. But another saint, the holy Molaise, hearing that St. Silan was coming to visit his church, resolved that no more deaths should happen by means of the poisoned hair. So he arose early in the morning, before any one was up, and went forth alone to meet St. Silan, and when he saw him coming along the path, he went boldly up and plucked out the fatal hair from his eyebrow, but in doing so he himself was struck by the venom, and immediately after fell down dead”.