Saint Finbarr of Cork: His Feast Day and Folklore

The feast day of Saint Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork City, falls on the 25th of September, but the rounds are observed on the closest Sunday to this date. Like many of the most popular saints, this involves visits to the holy wells associated with them to perform the “rounds*” in the hope of gaining the blessing of the saint in question. The site of pilgrimage associated with Finnbarr is Gougane Barra but he is also associated with the site that is now occupied by the Anglican cathedral that bears his name in the city. This is reputed to be the site where he set up his monastic settlement at Corcach Mór na Mumhan (The Great Marsh of Munster). Although he is much loved and still revered by the city folk as their patron saint (with the name Finbarr still being a very popular name for boys) and the pilgrimage to his shrine still draws numbers, research by the the noted hagiologist Professor Ó Rían created waves when he claimed that the saint may never have set foot in the south, and that it was in fact his cult that came here and grew in popularity. This as you would imagine, was received very coldly by the locals! We have no contemporary accounts of Finbarr in Cork, with the first “life” of the saint being written in the 13th century. So, whether he set foot here or not may never be revealed, but we have no shortage of folklore built up around the saint, some of which I will share below. He is often depicted with a bright shining hand, said to be touched by God himself. This was said to be so bright that he had to wear a glove to hide it. The Harry Clarke stained glass window (shown in the banner picture) depicts him as such. His legacy today exists in the sheer number of churches, roads, estates, sports clubs, people and the cathedral named after him. He is also the patron saint of University College Cork whose motto is “When Finbarr Taught, Let Munster Learn”.

* The rounds or turas are usually a set number of pilgrim stations where the pilgrims circumambulate in a sunwise (deiseal) direction performing a proscribed number of prayers or a specific ritual such as carving crosses into a stone.

First I will detail the historic accounts of the pilgrimage to Gougane Barra.

Gougane Barra and the Pilgrimage

Gougane Barra is the supposed site of the hermitage of Saint Finbarr and was the site of pilgrimage for centuries. The pattern (the word pattern derives from the word patron, i.e the patron saint associated with the site) there was recently revived, albeit without many of the more profane activities for which we have accounts. Thomas Crofton Croker gives us a fine example of the mix of sacred and profane goings on at this pattern in his book Researches In The South Of Ireland. He is clearly shocked by how “drunken men and the most depraved women” are side by side with the pious pilgrims and how an “uproar of prayers and oaths, of sanctity and blasphemy” could be heard simultaneously. In most of the other accounts, the observers tend to draw a line between the sacred aspect taking place during the day and gradually giving way to revelry as the night progresses. In Croker’s account, he places them side by side and shows no end to the religious aspect, which continues through the night alongside the secular activities. Here he tells us that both the holy well and chapel are still crowded at midnight while the dancing, drinking and fighting were happening. He likens the tents set up to a gypsy camp, an interesting choice of language no doubt to point out its wild, secular nature. He also tells us how “intoxication  becomes almost universal” at these tents and goes to great effort to point out the hedonistic nature of these encampments where people are singing “rebellious songs” and have pipers in every tent. We can see clearly that he doesn’t agree with dancing being compatible with a religious event and claims it is an “amusement of which the lower orders of Irish are immoderately attached”. The most profane aspect he mentions in his writing is the lighting of bonfires on the hillside in the evening which he says has nothing to do with the pattern or the saint but instead harkens back to a bygone era with origins in pagan sun worship. In terms of how shocking many of the supposedly sacred practices were to the uninitiated observers, one can only imagine how striking it was to witness the hillside littered with fires reflecting on the lake below.

While on the subject of sacredness we will turn our minds to the sacred aspects of the pattern as recorded by Crofton Croker. Here he gives us detailed accounts of the religious side of pattern similar to the much more sombre side that we see today at these pilgrimages, albeit with much more rigorous observances. The extreme nature of the rounds are a common feature throughout multiple accounts with many obscure practices being recorded. In relation to Gougán Barra the most obscure ritual the author provides to us is the placing of a rusty iron object by the devotees on the head of the person next to them three times while reciting a prayer. Beyond providing a sketch of the item and telling us that it was of “considerable importance” and that it was passed around with “much ceremony”, we are told no more about this object.  We do however get the impression that this was a very sacred object and a crucial ritual in relation to the pattern. When speaking of the sacred aspect of pilgrimages, or indeed of pattern days, one cannot fail to mention the importance of the holy well. In terms of pattern rounds it is oft a central, if not the most important aspect of the observance. Of the sacred waters at the well in this instance, we are given a very graphic account of how people with “the most disgusting sores and shocking infirmaties” washed themselves and thrust their arms or legs into the water to obtain a cure. He also tells us of how people eagerly drank this “polluted water” in hopes of receiving a blessing. Rigorous prayer is another common feature of pattern accounts. In regard to praying Croker tells us that an “immense concourse” of people were involved in a number of different acts of devotion. Many prayed on their knees with their arms uplifted with “considerable gesticulation”. Just as in modern patterns, a certain number of prayers had to be said at each ‘station’ as part of the ritual. Here Croker tells us how people kept track of these prayers. Some “counted their beads with much apparent fervour” or used small pebbles as a substitute. He also notes how men notched their cudgel or a piece of stick. Here with the mention of the cudgel we most likely see an intersection of the sacred and the profane. Men first mark the number of prayers on the cudgel that they possibly use as part of the faction fighting that was often found at pattern days.

The ‘Péist‘ (water monster) at Gougane Barra

The saint was said to have encountered a péist, a type of serpentine beast often encountered by saints (postulated by some as being the domination of Christianity over paganism, though I don’t subscribe to that myself as the connection of snakes and paganism is extremely tenuous). He arrives at Gougane and successfully banishes the serpent. In its attempt to escape to the sea, it created the channels of the river Lee as we know it today and the stones thrashed up in the process formed the island where Finbarr would later set up his monastic settlement.

Folklore of the Saint

In the National Folklore Schools Collection (digitised on Duchas.ie) there is no shortage of folklore based around the saint and sites associated with him.

First we get a story from Séan Ó Brian, Castledonovan, Co.Cork. He tells us of the ’rounds’ at the well associated with Finbarr in the townland of Kilbarry. He tells us that these rounds are carried out for the benefit of diseases and that people would throw pieces of bread or apples into the well as they pass it. He also tells us that a great fair or Óenach was held on the feast day in the town of Drimoleague that people would travel from far and wide to take part. (NFSC,Vol.0303:224)

Mrs K O Riordan supplied a wonderful story of when the saint was making his way to Cork from Gougane following instruction from an angel to do so. As he and his retinue of other saints ran out of water he struck a rock with his staff and a spring burst forth (which would later become a holy well called “tobar na naomh” or “the well of the saints”. This particular motif is quite common in the lore of saints and is often listed as the origin of many holy wells). Following this he realised that he had forgotten his book and spectacles and left them on a rock at “drom a bpóca”. He had one of the saints retrieve them but it is believed that to this day that the rock still bears the imprint of the book and spectacles. (NFSC, Vol. 0456:304)

We have two stories from the collection that curiously feature fairy lore. The first comes from Mrs Daly from Granig, Co Cork. She tells of hidden treasure said to be located at the subtlety named Castletreasure, south of Douglas. Legend tells us that there was a large sum of gold, in a golden chest, taken from saint Finbarr’s college by the Danes (who often appear anachronistically in Irish tales). They were said to have hidden it for fear the Irish would happen upon them and take it back. Scores of people were said to have looked for it over the years, but were often thwarted by an otherworldly black bull and a fairy woman who have chased people away (and even said to have killed some). (NFSC, Vol. 0321:057)

The second story was collected from Denis MacCarthy and again features a lot of interesting motifs found in fairy lore. In this account we are told of a family who live near a rath/lios (fairy fort). The fort was said to have an entrance going into the ground (possibly a soutterain) from which ‘the other crowd’ were said to emerge. The father of the household had previously been taken by the ‘other crowd’. One night the son had arrived home from playing at a wedding and started playing a strange, haunting tune on his fiddle that he had heard coming from the fort. His mother warned him that it was fairy music, the exact same his father was playing prior to having been taken, and that he should stop playing it. He ignored this and later played it at a wedding. The ‘other crowd’ came and claimed him. His mother went to see the local wise woman and she produced a relic (bone) of saint Finbarr and said she would be able to get her son back. It is interesting here, IMO, to see the mixing of native (bean feasa, wise woman) and christian elements as a solution as they are often opposed to one another. They proceed to the fort and she sees her son surrounded by the ‘other crowd’. She runs up and embraces her son while holding out the relic. The ‘other crowd’ upon seeing the relic use magic to turn some plants into horses and flee. (NFSC, Vol.0346:127-9)

Bibliography

Croker, T.C. (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281

Corkery, K (2017, Cork Folk Tales, The history Press Dublin

Duchas.ie, National Folklore Collection,Vol.0303:224, Vol.0456:304, Vol.0346:127-9

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The Evolution of the Irish Otherworld

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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.

 

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Bibliography

Duchas.ie

“Introduction to Early Irish Literature”, Muireann ní Bhrolicháin

“The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature” ed. Johnathon Wooding

“Meeting the other Crowd” Eddie Lenihan

“Folktales of Ireland” Séan o Suilleabháin

“Irish Folktales” Henry Glassie

“The Celtic Heroic Age” ed. Koch and Carey

“The Location of the Otherworld” John Carey

Fairies and Fairy lore: The reality of the Irish fairy

 

00000000000000.jpgFairies remain a popular interest to many people although not many know the true nature of these beings in an Irish context. Due to the destructive influence of popular culture, many people wrongfully assume that they are small, winged, harmless creatures. This is not the case and in truth, it is much more complicated than that. I have had many people refuse outright to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when I inform them of this, so I hope this article makes some of this clearer.

They may sometimes appear smaller than us, but certainly not minuscule like the tinkerbell-esque creatures people expect. They look just like us and certainly don’t have wings, but due to existing on another plane to us, are able to conceal themselves. They live lives like us for the most part. Below I will detail how they live in their society, their origin stories and other information. Fairy lore, a pervasive belief around Ireland offers us a fascinating glimpse at the Irish perception of the otherworld- an alternative realm parallel to our own but just beyond earthly existence and our own temporal sphere. Eddie Lenihan, arguably one of foremost experts on the fairies, would argue that there is considerable and respectable proof of their existence owing to the vast corpus of material available through the ages and in all this material they  have been described in great detail ( and not once have they been depicted with wings!).

Naming conventions

To start I will look at the naming conventions. The word fairy is the most Widely known and easily identifiable  ,although it is not a suitable, nor respectful term to use as such (as it falsely equates them with English fairies who are closer to imps or the tinkerbell type). Nor is any form of FAE or FAERIE (from old French and latin respectively). Known in Irish by many names and circumlocutions, they are not usually named directly for fear of insulting or invoking them. Typically know as Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe (the people of the mounds), they could also be referred to as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine úaisle (the noble people), the fair folk, the other crowd, the people of the hills and so on.  For the remainder of the article I will simply refer to them as sídhe or the other crowd.

 

Society, likes and dislikes

So how does their society work? They have amusements similar to ours: they like to dance, play music and play games. They have been known to play Gaelic football (never soccer), hurling, bowls and chess. In terms of the games they will sometimes illicit the help of some hapless human (who dare not refuse them) to referee or take part in the match. The need for human help is a common motif and they will often be spirited away to take part in the games or in some cases where human women must act as midwife to deliver babies for the sídhe.

They have specific dwellings and a number of features of the landscape are often identified as being the abode of the other crowd, such as ringforts (lios or rath in Irish, these are circular enclosured earthen dwellings mostly dating to the middle ages), tumuli, dolmens or lone trees known as fairy trees (traditionally hawthorn). These enclosures and suspected abodes are usually treated with extreme caution even to this day (and good luck trying to find someone willing to cut down a fairy tree). They will furiously protect their dwellings and woe betide to anyone stupid enough to mess with them. Death and destruction is all that typically awaits those who transgress. That being said, they can make good or bad neighbours depending on how they are treated. They can be belligerent, but are placatable.  Their true dwellings, those that exist in the otherworld are typically conceal from our view, similar to the magical barrier, the fé fiada, that was said to conceal the mounds and hostels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

They have their own specific pathways and roads and they would travel from place to place. When building houses it was not unusual to mark out the shape of the house with willow rods or small stone cairns. This would be left overnight to see if the house was “in the way” of any of these fairy paths. The willow rods had been removed from the ground, or the cairn of stones was disturbed, it was believed that the house was in the way of a fairy path and the process would be repeated until the rods or stones are left untouched. Many tales tell of houses that were in the way with loud noises being heard in the house at night, crashing, doors slamming, houses collapsing and general bad luck within the household.

Like ourselves, they have likes and dislikes. They like things like gold, milk (the first milk, known as colostrum or beestings, is often given as an offering to the sídhe), tobacco and poitín (often given as an offering to them). Most things associated with them are of a particular time: they will ride horses, but not cars or any auto-mobiles, they fight with sticks or hurleys but never guns or knives. Most of their activities are associated with Gaelic culture or associated with the natural landscape. When it comes to their hates, there are a number of items. They hate iron: it is one of the main repellents used when trying to discourage the other crowd. You see this a lot when trying to protect babies from being stolen and replaced by fairy changelings. It also pops up a lot in terms of protection while churning. Iron is an age old deterrent against evil or supernatural forces and many cultures around the globe believed this and as a result blacksmiths and iron workers are usually revered or thought to possess special powers as a result of them working with the iron (there is an article focusing on blacksmiths and the supernatural here ). They also hate salt and you will often encounter it being used as protection when churning butter. Salt will be sprinkled on the lid of the churn, underneath or into the butter itself to protect the process from being interfered with by the sídhe. Salt rubbed on  the head when venturing outside at Halloween was used to protect anyone outside after dark. They also have a dislike of anything dirty (such as messy houses), they have an aversion to Christianity (both of their origin stories play into this and it is a common theme of many folktales where the sídhe will try to get a human to question a priest as to why they can’t get into heaven). I will cover the origin stories below. They also hate running water  and are unable to cross it. This is also a common feature of folktales where someone fleeing the wrath of the sídhe, will only escape through crossing a stream (or in a few cases leaving Ireland completely by ship!).

The other crowd are also more active at certain times of the yearly cycle (such as may day or Samhain) and also at certain points of the life cycle (such as at birth) so salt and iron were used, among other things, at these times to remain safe from any malevolent actions the sídhe might want to take against you. As I mentioned above, may people find it hard to believe that they are not harmless. I have spent hours trying to convince some people that it is not in their best interest to seek out the sídhe. Even slight transgressions have ended in death, maiming or with transgressor ending up being driven completely  mad or catatonic. I should add a caveat here. They are not overtly evil. They just have their own (often mysterious) agenda.  It just so happens that accounts and tales of people falling foul of them far outweigh the opposite. That however does not mean they can’t or don’t help people. As I mentioned above, they sometimes need human intervention (be that in a sporting event or delivering a baby) and for their help, the person will often be rewarded. They have bestowed powers of healing (such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle or a number of healing books said to have been given to certain people over time). They have also been known to have bestowed fairy music on musicians who have played for them at a party. In times of famine, they have sometimes given otherworldly cows (designated by their white body and red ears) with endless milk to certain communities (who often inevitably mess up by exploiting this gift).

 

Origin story

As I mentioned above there are two main origin stories for what we now call the fairies. There is what could be termed the native origin story, and the Christian one.

Native: From ancient times it was believed that a supernatural race has been believed to have lived in the hills, tombs, beneath the sea or lakes or on far away islands. In the literature, these are traditionally know as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the old gods of Ireland (such as Lugh, the Dagda, Brighid etc). These were seen as living in the otherworld, parallel to our own, but concealed from view. So, when it comes to what I termed the “native” origin story, it is believed that the “fairies” are in fact the Tuatha Dé Dannan, albeit diminished in spiritual significance, power and physical stature following their defeat and banishment underground.

Christian: As most will know, the entirety of our myths and legends were first recorded by Christian clerics in monastic scriptorium. Unlike the usual modus operandi elsewhere in Europe to demonize the pagan past, Ireland instead opted for euhemerisation. Most stories were given a Christian slant, but this was to work the stories into a Christian framework and make them acceptable. Unfortunately this meant that some gods were turned to humans (such as queen Medbh, Finn Mac Cumhaill, Brighid etc) and some stories were corrupted but for the most part, they were recorded by Irish monks who had an interest in the pagan past and were, in  a sense, sympathetic to it. This leads us to the origin of the fairies as being half-fallen angels, cast out of heaven for not picking a side during the rebellion. They remain, half-way between heaven and hell, in the sky, on the land and beneath the earth, cursed to never see heaven (or till judgement day in some cases). This christian explanation for the sídhe became popular in the middle ages, no doubt a means for resolving the tension between the native and Christian cosmologies. As such it is not unusual to have  devout Christian who fervently believes in the other crowd. This clearly preserved the native tradition and it’s syncretism also gave the fairy faith a prominent place in Christian eschatology and cosmology.

The Fairy Bush

Hawthorn tree. Wikimedia Commons/Robin Somes

For today’s sojourn in the world of Irish folklore I would like to cover what are generally termed “fairy bushes”. These can also be known by a number of different names and you may also encounter them named as noble bush, gentle bush or gentry bush. The favoured name was often lone or lonely bush due to fact of their solitary growth and are often found left unmolested in the middle of cultivated farmland and treated with reverence and respect, regardless of how much of an inconvenience it is to the farmer.

They are also referred to by the Irish name for a thorn, Sceach or anglicised versions such as skeag,skeog, skea, skeagh or skagh. It was only well into the 20th century when some people no longer started to fear calling them by the name “Fairy Bush”, similar to the fear of calling the fairies themselves by name (they were always referred to as names such as “The other crowd”, “Na daoine usaile“, “Na daoine maithe”  or simply the Sídhe, among many others). Most often they are hawthorn but can sometimes be blackthorn, rowan, hollies or gnarled oaks can be associated with the supernatural.

Whitethorn (hawthorn) was considered a sacred tree. When it grows alone near the banks of stream, or on forts, it is considered  to be the haunt and peculiar abode of the fairies, and as such is not to be disturbed without risk, sooner or later, of personal danger to the person so offending,William Gregory Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland (1902).

They are often thought to be somewhat different in appearance to their more ordinary counterparts. The variation depends on where you are in the country: they may have more thorns than normal or no thorns at all, they may never blossom, may continue to grow after being uprooted or may be discernible due to their unusual formation (more gnarled or with elongated trunks, exposed roots etc).

Similar to the monuments known as ringforts ( alternatively named rath or lios,) these bushes are said to be the otherworldly abode of the other crowd. It is not uncommon to to find them growing on these ringforts. There are a number of references in early Irish sources to Bile rátha (Sacred tree of the fort) and these were possibly a common feature of these forts/ enclosed dwelling places. The bushes were also considered to be an assembly point or points were opposing factions of the sídhe would meet to fight. There have even been accounts of a strange green or white substance being found around these particular bushes, believed to be blood from these quarrelling fairies. One of the most famous of these being the latoon bush in County Clare. This made the news in 1999 when it was set to be destroyed when a new motorway was being built through the area. The bush is said to be a marker in a fairy path and was the rendezvous point for Kerry fairies on their way to do battle with the Connacht fairies. The respected folklorist, storyteller and fairy expert Eddie Lenihan made the news by sending dire warnings that misfortune would follow not only the people who would cut it down but that it would also pose a danger to any motorists driving over the spot. In the end effort was made to build around the sacred tree, thus preserving one more vital piece of our sacred landscape.

The fairies have a strong bond with their trees and there have been instances where they have been heard mourning, crying and wailing when their trees have been cut down. They have also been witnessed pulling cut branches out of carts or fires. Trees marked for destruction have been known to disappear over night. Strange animal sightings near the bushes are not uncommon either. Twigs or fallen branches are often left untouched where they have fallen out of fear and respect. Misfortune often befell anyone who attempted to cut down the trees and number of accounts of this nature are to be found on the National Folklore Schools Collection. Some excerpts from these can be read below:

“It is said that a man named John Judge cut a fairy bush in Coolnaha and that all the hair fell off his head.It is said that if anyone cut a fairy bush, they would loose the hand which they would cut it with” (NFSC, Vol.0112:356).

“A man named Thomas Moorhead of Killakena went to cut a lone-bush or a fairy-bush, and with the first blow which he gave it with the axe, his nose began to bleed, and he got a pain in his head, and was confined to bed for three weeks afterwards”. (NFSC,Vol.0956:207).

“There is a fairy bush out on our hill and it is said that if you would dare break a leaf of it that something bad would happen you.

“In olden times it is said that (in olden times) a lot of fairies lived in under this bush and since that it got the name ,The Fairy Bush” (NFSC,Vol.1038:37).

People who transgress this taboo of interfering with these bushes may be met with a number of repercussions. The retaliation from the other crowd can range from thorns being left in your bed, waking up paralysed ,cuts becoming septic and requiring amputation, blinding being driven mad (many stories end with the transgressors ending up in a mental asylum) or even death.  People are very careful when cutting down bushes to make sure they are not inhabited. A stone is often placed under or near the bush and if it is gone come morning, the bush is left alone as it thought to be inhabited by the good folk or is believed to be on a fairy path.. Music, strange noises or lights coming from them are often recorded from them also. For anyone who wishes to delve deeper into the lore of fairy trees, the good news is there is no shortage of material for you to read up on. There are many folktales focusing on the subject and I would also recommend reading The Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli and probably the best book out there on fairy encounters, Meeting the other crowd by Eddie lenihan or you can check out the National Folklore Schools Collection entries on the subject here.

 

Bibliography

The Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli.

Meeting the other crowd by Eddie lenihan.

NFSC, Vol.0112:356

NFSC,Vol.0956:207

NFSC,Vol.1038:37

William Gregory Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland (1902)

Animal Folklore of Ireland Pt.1: Dog

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

Supernatural Dogs

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

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

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

Transformation

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

Influence of Dogs on Names and Their Links With Heroes

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Folklore of May-Day/ Bealtaine

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

 

Butter Stealing, Witches and Hags as Hares

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woman churning butter (1897)

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

 

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

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

Hag as a Hare

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

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

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

Flowers

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Hawthorn bloom

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

 

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

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

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

 

May-bush

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

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

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

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

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

Other Traditions and Customs

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibilography:

 

Bealoideas ix, 1939.

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

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

NFSC,Vol.0927:114.

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

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

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

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

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

Wilde.W (1852), Irish Popular Superstitions.

Blacksmiths and the supernatural

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Traditional forge. Copyright Shane Broderick Photography

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

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

Curing or Cursing

photo copyright TW Photography

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

Máire ní Carthaigh offers 2 Items told to her by her father on the subject, the first of which tells of how one goes about getting a curse placed on someone. She says that “If you want something to befall your neighbour, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse”. The curse itself is not mentioned, which is usual, and neither is the repercussion of curse. The second story, called “The anvil curse” features the same sort of formula in relation to the pointing of the anvil to the East. This is more narrative based and is centred around a bailiff trying to evict people on Easter Sunday. It recounts how a number of men went to the forge and knelt around the anvil to pray. Instead of uttering a curse they would periodically get up and strike the anvil. This ultimately prevented the landlord from evicting his tenants. (NFC, IML.80:283).

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

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

Butter stealing

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

Size and Strength

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

Tales of a religious nature

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

Conclusion

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools collection:

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

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

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

Published Material:

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

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

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