The Filidh: The Senchaidh Sírchuimneach* of Medieval Ireland


In the politically fragmented and hierarchal society of Medieval Ireland, a country lauded as “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, few figures made an imprint on Irish society such as the one left by the intellectual powerhouses known as the filidh[1] (poets).

The pre-Christian origins and activities of the filidh may be a bit nebulous due to the distinct lack of written records from the time, but the evidence available points to the fact that they were likely an offshoot, or at the very least a spiritual successor, to the Druids and as such, inheritors of their knowledge[2]. It also suggests that they dealt in prophecy and had a function as a seer[3], but truth be told, little is known of them before the 7th century[4]. A clear connection between the Filidh and magic can be seen with the esoteric nature of the skills required by a master poet[5]:

  • Imabas Forosna(i): ‘supernatural knowledge that illuminates’. The mantic knowledge accessed by poets. Popularised in the stories of Finn Mac Cumhaill who gained this power from eating the ‘Salmon of knowledge’ (who itself had eaten the nuts of knowledge) and could access this esoteric knowledge by sucking his thumb.
  • Teinm Laedo: ‘Chewing the Flesh’, a form of divination
  • Dichetal do Chennaib: ‘Chanting the Heads’(?), a particular way of chanting.

Prophecy played a part in the wide-ranging skill set of these medieval polymaths, with this being evidenced in the stories and sagas, for instance in the story known as ‘The Colloguy of the Two sages’[6]

Prionsios Mac Cana[7] describes the Filidh as “a professional fraternity with a strong stake in society”. This statement is reflected by not only their legal status in society, but in the fact that they would inherit land as part of their occupation. Their status and honour price[8] was second only to the king himself and the Filidh were the only lay people to be considered of full Nemed (privileged/sacred) status[9]. In fact, Mac Manus[10] suggests that they were even more sacred than the king, considering that the historical record shows the killing of many kings, but hardly any Filidh. The hereditary position came with many benefits including a parcel of land, free of taxes, and it was within their power to request that this land was located near the stronghold of the chief[11]. Other benefits included getting the best cut of meat at a feast and sitting next to the king[12], as well as having the king’s confidence or acting as an advisor[13].

Their primary functions seem to have been related to the composition of panegyric poetry and Satire[14]. They would praise the bravery of chiefs or curse their enemies[15]using the magical power of satire or a curse to inflict harm. They would extol the victories and notable deeds of their patrons and record them in verse[16]. These records were invaluable for the descendants of the chiefs as they were handy propaganda tools to legitimize their rule, to show where their ancestors came from and how they were connected to the world or kingdom they ruled[17]. These records and stories, however, were not enough to give them this power or right to rule. The Filidh held the power in this regard. They acted as “provers of pedigree”[18] and they could literally legitimise the ownership of land, the ruler’s connection to the tuatha (kingdom) and his suzerainty over them. The Brehon Laws mention “ten immovable rocks which hold fast every ownership of estates” including the fact that land and title are confirmed “by the words of poets” and that legitimate inheritance is “chanted by poets”[19]. Given this, it is no surprise that kings bent over backwards to accommodate them throughout the centuries, but more on that later!

Praise poetry, satire and the legitimisation of land ownership were only a few of the arrows in the quiver of the multi-talented Filidh. They had to be a master of Coimhgne, which involved historical knowledge, advanced memory skills and the construction of Geneology[20].Even though they were typically employed by a single ruling family, they were one of the few people in society that had freedom of movement[21] which allowed them to travel freely between kingdoms. As a result of this, a working knowledge of the genealogies of all the most powerful families was needed. The poets also had to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Brehon Laws, the native, compensation-based justice system, which they would render down into rosc poetry (likely for mnemonic reasons to aid memory)[22]. Chiefs would often call on the Filidh to aid in making true judgements[23], as making a false judgment could be detrimental to the entire kingdom (in the form of crop failures and birth defects), but couldalso show the king as not being fit for rule.

As entertainers and repositories of Senchas (traditional lore), the poet also had to know stories. The number of these Príomhscéala (Primary stories) that they needed in their repertoire depended on what grade they were[24]. The highest grade, the Ollamh needed to know 350, whereas the lowest grade, the Focloc, needed to know only 30[25]. The importance of this aspect of their craft can be seen in the adage “Níba Filí gan Scéla” (He is not a poet who does not have stories). Consequently, the level of training was also reflected in the number of poetic meters that a poet had to know and the final degree of training required them to be able to compose a poem on any topic extemporaneously[26]. In terms of performing in front of chiefs and nobles, if a Filidh could not make it to perform, they might send a lesser poet, or Reccaire (Reciter) to present alongside a harpist[27].

As Christianity gained a foothold, the oral tradition of the Filidh had to contend with the new technology of writing and manuscripts, which flourished between the 6th-12th centuries in the monastic scriptoria. Ó Corráin[28] argues that by the 6th Century, the line between the secular Filidh and the monastic literati was either seriously blurred or entirely non-existent. But, just because these traditions overlapped and interacted, doesn’t mean they were the same thing. There is evidence to suggest that the Filidh refused to take on the new monastic meters, naming them Nua Crutha (new forms), at least until the 9th century when they, at last, took them up[29]. They also resisted letting go of the oral tradition in favour of literacy, and as a result, the monastic scriptoria were solely responsible for recording the entire corpus of tales before the second half of the 12th Century[30][31]. The monastic scholars likely had visits by the Filidh who recited the tales, poems and genealogies to the monks who ultimately wrote them down, preserving the native tradition for future generations. The overlap mentioned above is further evidenced by the fact that a number of clerics were also Filidh in their own right[32]. Early sources and annals do draw a clear distinction between the monastic scholar and the Filidh, but the Annals of Ulster, for instance, mention a cleric by the name of Mael Muire of Othain who is described as being Ríg-fhilli Éireann (Chief poet of Ireland)[33], showing that being a monastic figure was no impediment to become a very prominent poet or vice versa.

As mentioned above, the filidh were of extremely high status in Irish society, and as a result, could become very wealthy from their patrons. They could be paid in rings, jewellery, cattle, silver and they also had a right to claim the wedding raiment of any woman married within the kingdom. The highest grade could have a retinue of up to 24[34], which in and of itself would be a great financial burden to anyone having to host them, but the Filidh knowing that no chief would refuse them (for fear of satire[35] and loss of status due to lack of hospitality), would often turn up with three times the number of retinue they should have[36]. The increasing audacity and ludicrous demands of the Filidh eventually reached a boiling point at the Mór-dál at Druim Cett in 575 AD when King Aodh wanted to disband the institution of the poets. Were it not for the intercession of the saint Colm Cille, it is very likely that the Filidh would have been exiled[37] en masse. The Filidh were found guilty of Avarice, idleness and insolence and the Ríg-Fili Éreann, Dalán Forgaill was tasked with reforming the institution and with appointing a chief poet in each province who had to set up a bardic school[38]. These renowned bardic schools continued alongside the monasteries and allowed the Filidh to hold on to prominence within Irish society throughout the middle ages, almost up until the fall of the Gaelic order in the 17th century.


[1] Alternatively named as éces, éigeas, fear dána, dámh, sgoil in some sources.

[2] Brezina, C. (2007), ‘Celtic Mythology’, New York:Rosen Central. Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From History to Written Word: The History of Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101, pp.327

[3] Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. The link with them being seers can also be seen linguistically with their name.

[4] Murphy, G. (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’ An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, Dublin: Messenger Publications

[5] Mulligan, A.C (2009), ‘The Satire of the Poet is a Pregnancy: Pregnant Poets, Body Metaphors and Cultural Production in Medieval Ireland, Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48.

[6] Jackson, K (1934), ‘Tradition in Early Irish Prophecy’, Man, Vol34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

[7] Mac Cana, P (2004). ‘Praise Poetry in Ireland Before the Normans’, Éiru, Vol 55

[8] The amount of cattle, silver or cumal (female slaves) that had to be paid if they were wronged or injured.

[9] Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp 43-44

[10] MacManus, S (1990), ‘The Story of the Irish Race’, Wings Books: New Jersey, pp176

[11] Breatneach, P.A (1983), ‘The Chief’s Poet’, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol.83C, pp. 61-65

[12] Clark, P (2010), ‘The O’Cleary’s Hereditary Historians and Poets’, History Ireland, Vol.18, No.3, pp. 20

[13] Breatneach (1983)

[14] Breatneach, L (2006). ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, pp.67

[15] Clark (2010), pp.20

[16] D’Alton, E.A (1912). ‘History of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to Present Day’, Gresham Publishing Company Ltd: London.

[17] Brady, L. (2021), ‘Origin Myths in Early Insular Pseudo-histories: Medieval or Modern’, personal notes from online conference “Pseudo-history Among the Celtic speaking Peoples: Medieval Propaganda”, 12th June 2021

[18] Mac Cana (2004)

[19] Breatneach (2006)

[20] Clark (2010), pp

[21] Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp.46. Typically only people of the Áes Dána or ‘People of Skill’, such as poets, Wrights, and other craftsmen could travel from kingdom to kingdom.

[22] D’Alton (1912), pp.31

[23] The concept of making a true judgment could make or break a king in medieval Ireland. A false judgement could result in a king losing his status. It would also be reflected in his kingdom with storms, crop failure, murrain etc

[24] There were seven main grades of Filidh. In descending order. These were Ollamh, Anrúth, Clí, Cano, Dos, Mac Fuirmid, Focloc. (Breatneach, 1983:37)

[25] Kelly (2016), pp.46

[26] MacManus (1990), pp.179

[27] MacCana (2004), pp.23

[28]  Ibid, pp 12

[29] Murphy, G (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, pp87

[30] Breatneach (2006), pp.79

[31] After the second half of the 12th century the emergence of learned families, as well as church reform changed this dynamic

[32] Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd

[33] Mac Cana,p (1974), ‘The Rise of the Later Schools of Filidheacht’, Éiru, Vol.25, Royal Irish Academy, pp.126

[34] Kelly (2016), pp46

[35] Satire or Áer was believed to not only be able to blight crops, but could physically injure  someone by bringing out welts on their face.

[36] Mac Manus (1990), pp.179

[37] Two times leading up to the convention of Druim Cett this issue had been raised to exile them. 50 years after it, Ulster kings had to interject and save the poets  (Ibid:182)

[38] Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From Oral History to Written Word: The History of Ancient Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101. pp327-8

* ‘Long Memoried Custodian of Tradition’, Breathnach, L. (2006), ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brady, L. (2021), ‘Origin Myths in Early Insular Pseudo-histories: Medieval or Modern’, personal notes from online conference “Pseudo-history Among the Celtic speaking Peoples: Medieval Propaganda”, 12th June 2021
Breathnach, L. (2006), ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’, Éiru, Vol.56, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
Breatneach, P.A (1983), ‘The Chief’s Poet’, Proceeding of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol.83C, pp. 61-65
Brezina, C. (2007), ‘Celtic Mythology’, New York:Rosen Central
Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48.
Clark, P (2010), ‘The O’Cleary’s Hereditary Historians and Poets’, History Ireland, Vol.18, No.3, pp. 20
D’Alton, E.A (1912). ‘History of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to Present Day’, Gresham Publishing Company Ltd: London.
Jackson, K (1934), ‘Tradition in Early Irish Prophecy’, Man, Vol34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Kelly, F. (2016), ‘A Guide to Early Irish Law’, Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp 43-44
Mac Cana,p (1974), ‘The Rise of the Later Schools of Filidheacht’, Éiru, Vol.25, Royal Irish Academy, pp.126
MacManus, S (1990), ‘The Story of the Irish Race’, Wings Books: New Jersey, pp176
Mallory, J.P. (2016) ‘In Search of the Irish Dreamtime’, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Mulligan, A.C (2009), ‘The Satire of the Poet is a Pregnancy: Pregnant Poets, Body Metaphors and Cultural Production in Medieval Ireland, Carey (1997), “The Three Things Required of a Poet.”, Ériu, vol. 48.
Murphy, G. (1931), ‘The Origin of Irish Nature Poetry’ An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.20, No.77, Dublin: Messenger Publications
Ó Siodhacháin, P.H (2012), ‘From History to Written Word: The History of Irish Law’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol.101, pp.327

Animal Folkore: The Goose

For this edition of the animal folklore series, I am going to focus on a very divisive member of the animal kingdom, the goose. The goose has picked up a bit of a bad rep, especially online, as being an extremely aggressive and cantankerous creature. People have even gone so far as to label them as “Cobra Chickens”. Now, I have no doubt that some breeds, such as the Canadian goose that the term originates from, may in fact be more aggressive, but it is a shame that all of them are tarred with the same brush. Having spent the last 3 years visiting a local colony of Greylag geese (with a couple of Emden Geese thrown in) and befriending them, I can at least testify that the more domestic breeds are unfairly labelled in the same way. Given the fact they are some of my favourite birds, it is surprising that I have left it this long to write a piece on them, especially considering how they pop up in Irish myth, poetry and folklore.

Weather Divination

In older texts, we are told that bird flight was observed carefully as a form of divination, as were the voices of birds. The ancient text of Cormac’s Glossary (Seanas Cormaic) tells us that the early arrival of Brent Geese (Cadhan) meant that storms and high winds were to follow.  We see these beliefs repeated, to a degree, in more modern practice where birds would be observed for weather divination. The behaviour of geese was watched carefully in Donegal for instance and should a fisherman see a goose stick its neck in the air and beat its wings on its chest, it is very likely that he would not take to the sea in fear of high winds. In Mayo, the height they flew at was indicative of how the weather would play out: High flying = good weather, low flying = Rain.

Placenames

The Irish language (Gaeilge/Gaolainn) placenames in certain areas are related to geese such as:

  • Gort na gCadhan (Field of Brent Geese): Galway, Roscommon
  • Inis Gé (Goose Island): Mayo

Talking Geese?

An interesting belief in west Cork claims that geese are capable of speech, and not only that but are said to speak to each other in Irish no less! The conversation between them involves a young goose asking an older goose about food, with the latter replying “It is certain that if you don’t Whisht here, that they will grab us and wring our necks” (Bíodh geall mara n-Éiste tú anso, go mbéarfear orainn is go gcasfar na sgrogaill orainn)

Cures

The NFC (National Folklore Collection) has many cures listed among its pages and some are more grounded than others. For those who are unfamiliar, the NFC is one of the largest folklore archives in the world and is one of the greatest sources we have on genuine Irish folklore and traditions. Luckily it is all digitised online at dúchas.ie and is well worth browsing. Be warned though, you are likely to fall down a rabbithole or two and will lose hours of your life.

Returning to geese, they pop up a number of times in relation to cures. Outside of using goose grease as an ointment for arthritis, these tend to fall into the category of extremely unusual to the point of wondering where the logic to it is. To enact one of these cures, the bill of the goose is placed into the mouth of the sick person or child, with the breath of the goose said to provide the cure. In some instances, the goose has to be specifically a fasting gander and is used for curing oral thrush.

The Barnacle Goose (Gé Ghiúrainn)

Some may find it ludicrous but there was a long-standing and pervasive belief in Ireland that the barnacle goose was in fact a form of shellfish that grew on old pieces of timber, hence the ‘barnacle’ in the name. The fact that they closely resemble a type of shellfish called the goose barnacle in terms of colour, and the fact that they don’t nest here has likely given rise to this belief. Classing them as fish allowed religious men to eat them during lent or when meat was forbidden from being eaten (such as on Fridays)

The Cambro-Norman chronicler known as Gerald of Wales wrote the following in his book ‘Topigraphica Hibernica’:

‘They [the barnacle goose] are produced from timber tossed along the sea and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were seaweed attached to the timber and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in the process of time being clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into water or fly freely away into the air. They derive their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen with my own eyes more than a thousand of these birds down on the seashore from one piece of timber and enclosed in their shells and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Hence bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off birds at the time of fasting because they are not flesh nor born of flesh”

Geese as lost souls

Pádraig Breatnach recorded a story in Galway about a hunter who was unable to shoot a bunch of wild geese one night because a wild hare kept getting in the firing line. He recounted this event to his priest who warned him that he should hunt only during the day and to leave the night to the spirit world. The reason he advised this was because he claimed that the geese were in fact lost souls who died unable to return to their homeland and who were taking the form of geese to do so. He mentions that the hare was a good soul helping them to achieve this goal and warned that if the hunter was successful in killing the geese, the souls would never succeed in returning.

Riddle me this

Ní fhuil is ní feoil is ní cnámh é                                                    

Ach is as fuil agus feoil a d’fhás é                     

Bain an ceann de agus gléas deoch dó            

Agus beidh sé ag scéalaíocht go maidin dhuit

It’s not blood or flesh or bone                        

But it grows out of flesh and blood                 

Take the head off it and give it a drink            

And it will tell stories until morning                      

ANSWER: A goose feather used as a quill

A fairy goose

An interesting story that I found when perusing the National Folklore Schools Collection relates to a goose gifted by a fairy and the resulting abundance that comes with it.

A poor woman is at home during a very bad storm, worried that her house will be blown down. A member of the ‘other crowd’ [a fairy] appears at the door and offers her a goose, asking her to mind it. Every day she has the goose, her wealth and status increase to the point she was able to keep a number of maids. There was a problem though. Every time the goose laid an egg, she got louder and louder. At some point the woman couldn’t take any more, so she started throwing anything she could get at the goose. As the goose ran around the house screaming, the fairy appeared at the door, admonished the woman and took the goose back. Within a few moments, all the windows were blown in and she was suddenly left with nothing again.

This is one of many tales where people fall foul of the other crowd for not appreciating gifts that have been given.

Fled Dún na nGéd (The Feast of the Fort of the Geese)

A number of tales and poems mention geese, but one tale features them as a central aspect. A middle Irish text, dated to the 11th to mid-12th century, called the “Feast of the Fort of the Geese” features goose eggs as a very important feature of the tale. This text, by modern classifications is placed in the ‘Cycle of the Kings’, a series of texts usually based around real historic personages, as opposed to say, the more mythical focus of tales featured in the ‘mythological cycle’.

The story relates to the revolt of Congal Claén (king of the Ulaid) against his foster father, Domhnall mac Áeda (over king of the Uí Néill) and ends with a brief account of the battle of Mag Ráth (which took place in 637) in which Congal was ultimately defeated.

Domhnall’s Fort on the banks of the river Boyne, called Dún na nGéd (The Fort of the Geese), provides the scene for the tale. The Fort itself was said to be modeled on the Fort at Tara. Domhnall was given a prophecy that one of his foster sons would betray him, but due to his belief in the bond of fosterage, he refused to put the foster sons in fetters.

In preparation for the feast, Domhnall instructed his men to go in search of goose eggs for the feast. They searched high and low for eggs but couldn’t find any great number. That was until they came to the hermitage of Saint Erc. The Saint himself wasn’t home, as it was his practice to go up to his armpits in the river Boyne from morning till dusk praying. The soldiers asked the woman at the house for the baskets of eggs, but she explained that they belong to the Saint and that all he ate all day was 1 1/2 eggs and 2 sprigs of cress upon returning from his prayers. They refused to listen and took the eggs. Needless to say, the Saint wasn’t happy and cast a malediction (for the tradition of cursing in Ireland see here) on the feast.

At the banquet, Congal said he would inspect the banquet before everyone arrived and while doing so, ate one of the goose eggs (and Domhnall was made aware, as per the prophecy, that whoever ate it would be the one who would betray him). Domhnall attempted to have the curse reversed by getting 100 saints to bless the banquet but it didn’t work due to the fact Congal had eaten before everyone else.

During the feast, every king present was given a goose egg presented on a silver platter, except for Congal who was given a hen’s egg on a wooden plate. This slight, along with the fact that he should have been seated at the right of Domhnall instead of another king, caused Congal to declare publically that he would seek revenge, leading to the battle mentioned above.

Saint Kevin of Glendalough and the Goose

Saint Kevin is usually associated with Blackbirds, but there is a tale that recounts how Kevin came to a chieftain to request land for his monastery. The Chieftain laughed at the request and pointed to an injured goose with a broken wing. He told him he could have all the land that the goose could circle. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, the goose took to the air recovered and flew around the entire valley. Another version involves a sick and ailing pet goose that the saint offers to heal if he can claim all the land that the goose circles on his first flight. This story is very similar to the story of Saint Brigid, who is told that she can have all the land that her cloak can cover, only for her cloak to magically expand and cover a large swathe of land.


A few Pics of Geese for your enjoyment

Sources:

Fled Dún Na nGéd, A reapraisal by Máire Herbert

Dúchas.ie

Birds of Ireland: Facts, Folklore & History by Glynn Anderson

Irelands Birds by Niall Mac Coitir The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales

Follow on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/

Irish Witch Trials: The ‘Carnmoney Witch’ Mary Butters

“With Roun-tree tied in the cow’s tail,
And Vervain gleaned about the ditches,
But a these did naught avail,
Thou they Blest the cow, and cursed the witches”

Ballad of the Carnmoney witches

Ireland stands out as being relatively unique in the fact that we didn’t fare as badly as much of Europe (and beyond) when it comes to the witch craze that swept across the later medieval and early modern periods. As it stands, we only have a handful of documented, high-profile cases. One of these I covered in a previous article featuring the sorcery trial of Alice Kyteler and the subsequent burning of her maidservant Petronilla. You can read this article here.

The cases that we do have evidence of that feature diabolic witchcraft are found in towns of English influence (like in garrison towns such as Youghal and the case of Florence Newton in the 17th Century). The connection of diabolism never really caught on amongst the Gaelic population and typically the “witch” was seen as only attacking household produce and livestock (as opposed to demonic possession etc). You can read more of these ‘butter witches’ here. These butter witches were dealt with through a range of countermagic measures through consultation with a Bean Feasa (wise woman) instead of church (or judicial) involvement.

In 1807 in the Presbyterian community at the townland of Carnmoney, County Antrim, an interesting case arose. A tailor by the name of Alexander Montgomery and his wife Elizabeth found that they were unable to make butter from the milk they took from their only cow. Elizabeth enquired with some of the older women in the area who explained that this was not an unusual occurrence, and all had heard stories of this happening before. They offered a couple of suggestions of countermagic that would help, including tying Rowan (also known as Mountain Ash) branches to the tail of the cow and hanging another talisman in the animal’s enclosure/byre. When this failed they got twelve women to pray around the cow and fed it vervain (a herb with magical association).

When these measures failed the women suggested enlisting the help of a local Bean Feasa/ Bean Chumhachtach (wise woman/woman with supernatual power) who specialised in curing bewitched cattle (but also dabbled in telling fortunes, finding stolen horses, and using divination).

Mary Butters was sought out and brought in to try and rectify the issue. Mary was born in Carrickfergus, a town famous for another high-profile witch trial featuring the ‘Islandmagee Witches’ roughly a century before (I will cover this case in a future article). She tried various remedies including trying to churn the butter herself while whispering an incantation, as well as drawing a circle around the churn and washing it out with south-running water. When these failed she instructed Alexander and another local boy to turn their waistcoats inside out and to go stand guard at the head of the cow and not move until she returned to them at midnight. She entered the house with Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s 20-year-old son David, and their elderly lodger Margeret. She blocked up the windows, doors, and chimney and took out a large pot/cauldron. Into this, she placed sulfur, milk from the cow, and some large iron nails and crooked pins. This countermagic relied on sympathetic magic in which the cauldron represented the bladder of the witch who cast the bewitchment. As it was heated it would cause tremendous pain in the target. Blocking up the windows and doors prevented them from entering the house and knocking over the pot/cauldron and breaking the counterspell. The pain would cause the person to subsequently break the original bewitchment on the animal.

Mary placed the pot on the fire and began the proceedings. Midnight came and went and as the hours passed on Alexander became worried and made for the house. He kicked the door in and found his wife and son dead on the floor with Mary and Margeret barely clinging to life. They were carried outside but Margeret died a few minutes later, with Mary coming round soon after. One source claimed that Mary was brought back to her senses after being thrown on a dungheap and beaten by the husband and some locals, although this appears to not be true.

The inquest was carried out on the 19th of August 1807 in front of 12 jurors. All deaths were declared as accidental due to suffocation as a result of the sulfurous fumes due to Butters’s ritual. A trial was held in 1808, but this was discharged by a grand jury.

An unpublished 19th-century memoir by W.O. McGraw claimed that there was more to Butters’s actions than met the eye. He claimed that she did it on purpose to murder Elizabeth and her son who allegedly had been instrumental in the conviction and subsequent execution of a relative of Mary Butters in 1803 for spreading messages of rebellion. According to the source, Mary had insisted that the son, who was married and living miles away, be part of the ritual. It also claims that she had on multiple occasions tried to force Margeret to not take part in the ritual and that it would be of great cost to her if she did. None of this however was included in the trial, not to mention the ritual (including the use of sulfur) was widespread. As such these claims appear unsubstantiated.

Mary appears to have moved from Carrickfergus to Carnmoney following the ordeal and continued to be hired by the locals for many magical services for decades following the incident. Another point to note is that the case is interesting for the fact it took place in a presbyterian community (with Butters herself being Presbyterian), showing that the Irish (based in catholic communities) tradition and belief in butter witches transferred into Protestant and Presbyterian communities. The excerpt of the poem at the beginning of this article is a contemporary poem and is the possibly only extant poem we have relating to Irish witchcraft. The full poem is as follows:

In Carrick town a wife did dwell,
Who does pretend to conjure witches
Auld Barbara Goats and lucky Bell,
Yell no lang to come through her clutches ;
A waefu’ trick this wife did play,
On fimple Sawney, our poor tailor,
She’s mittimiss’d the other day
To lie in limbo with the Jailor :
This fimple Sawney had a Cow
Was aye as sleekit as an otter
It happen’d for a month or two,
Aye when they churn’d they got nae butter;
Roun-tree tied in the Cow’s tail,
And vervain glean’d about the ditches ;
These freets and charms did not prevail,
They cou’d not banif h the auld witches :
The neighbour wives a’ gather’d in
In number near about a dozen,
Elfpie Dough and Mary Linn,
An* Keat M’Cart the tailor’s cousin,
Aye they churn’d an’ aye they fwat,
Their aprons loos’d and coost their mutches
But yet nae butter they could get,
They bleft the Cow but curft the witches:
Had Sawney summoned all his wits,
And fent awa for Huie Mertin,
He could have gall’t the witches guts
An’ cur’t the kye to Nannie Barton ;
But he may fhow the farmer’s wab
An’ lang wade through Carmoney gutters,
Alas’ it was a fore mis-jab
When he employ’d auld Mary Butters;
The forcereft open’d the fcene,
With magic words of her invention,
To make the foolifh people keen
Who did not know her bafe intention,
She drew a circle round the churn,
An’ wafh’d the staff in fouth run water
An’ fwore the witches fhe would burn,
But fhe would have the tailor’s butter.
When fable night her curtain fpread,
Then fhe got on a flaming fire,

The tailor ftood at the Cow’s head
With his turn’d waiftcoat in the byer;
The chimney cover’d with a fcraw,
An’ ev’ry crevice where it fmoak’d,
But long before the cock did craw
The people in the houfe were choak’d,
The muckle pot hung on all night
As Mary Butters had been brewing,
In hopes to fetch fome witch or wight
Whas entrails by her art was ftewing
In this her magic a’ did fail
Nae witch or wizard was detected;
Now Mary Butters lies in jail,
For the bafe part that fhe has acted.
The tailor loft his fon an’ wife,
For Mary Butters did them fmother
But as he hates a fingle life,
In four weeks time he got another;
He is a crufe auld canty chiel,
An’ cares nae what the witches mutters
He’ll never mair employ the deil,
Nor his auld agent, Mary Butters;
At day the tailor left his poft,
Though he had feen no apparation
Nae wizard grim nae witch nor ghoft,
Though ftill he had a ftrong fuspicion
That fome auld wizard wrinkled wife,
Had caft her cantrips o’er poor brawney
Caufe fhe and he did live in ftrife,
An’ whare’s the man can blame poor Sawney;
Wae fucks for our young laffes now,
For who can read their mystic matters
Or tell if their fweet hearts be true,
The folk a run to Mary Butters;
To tell what thief a horfe did fteal,
In this fhe was a mere pretender
An’ has nae art to raife the deil
Like that auld wife, the witch of Endor
If Mary Butters be a witch,
Why but the people all fhould know it,
An’ if fhe can the mufes touch
I’m fure fhe’ll foon descry the poet,
Her ain familiar aff fhe’ll fen’
Or paughlet wir a tu’ commiffion,
To pour her vengeance on fhe men,
That tantalises her condition.


Sources:

‘An Diabhal Inti’ TG4 Documentary, Episode 05, First broadcast 12.04.22.

‘Representing Magic in Modern Ireland: Belief, History, and Culture’ Andrew Sneddon

Dictionary of Irish Biography: https://www.dib.ie/biography/butters-mary-a1313

Crone, John S. “Witchcraft in Antrim.” Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 14, no. 1, 1908, pp. 34–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20566332. Accessed 26 May 2022.

‘Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland’, Andrew Sneddon

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

How to make a Saint Brigid’s Cross:

Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”. These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw (but feel free to make them from paper or whatever is available to you. For examples of paper crosses see folklore.ie here). These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigid’s cross. They were typically nailed to the thatch of the roof, over doors and in animal byres to protect from fire, lightning and fairy influence. To read more about the traditions of Saint Brigid’s day traditions, including more about the cross please see my article here .

Anne O’ Dowd’s book Straw, Hay and Rushes also has an excellent section on the crosses, including photos and information on the museum examples and types.

.

.

.

What you will need:

Fresh rushes (or straw)

Scissors

Elastic bands or string

.

.

.

.

Trim the rushes to about 30 or 40 centimeters, depending on how big you want your cross. Pick the best rushes from the bunch.

Take a single rush for the center piece. Take a second rush and squeeze the middle and fold in half, like the photo below:

Now wrap this around the first rush like so:

Bend another rush and place it as follows (Making sure to always hold the center tight to stop it all unravelling):

Again, bend another rush as place going this direction:

Now, TURN THE CROSS ANTI-CLOCKWISE once. The rush you just placed that was facing to left should now be facing down. (If you think of a clock, it should go from 9 to 6). Now bend another rush and place it as follows:

Now every single time you add a rush, turn it anti-clockwise once and keep building up the pattern like below ( so add rush, turn, add rush, turn, add rush, turn until you are happy with the size of the cross):

.

.

.

Before placing the last piece, loosen a piece like the photo below and thread the final piece through it, placing it the same way you did the previous steps. Then pull the piece tight. This will hold the hold the whole thing together for you to tie off the ends, and will keep the pattern woven tighter:

.

.

.

.

.

It should now hold together for you to tie the ends off and trim:

Hopefully this was of help for you and you should now have your own Brigid’s cross to protect your home or animals. Don’t forget to follow on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore and feel free to leave pics of your completed crosses in the comments of the facebook post. Happy Saint Brigid’s Day!

And if perhaps you do admire,

That this great house did ne’er take fire,

When sparks ,as thicks as stars in the sky,

About the house did often fly,

And reach’d the sapless wither’d thatch,

Which dry spunge the fire would catch,

And where no chimney was erected,

Where sparks and flames might be directed

St Bridget’s cross hung over the door ,

Which did the house from fire secure

NFC Iml 1148:465 + Iml 482:172

Gráinne Mhaol, Ireland’s Pirate Queen

“A woman who overstepped the part of womanhood”

Comment from one of her many detractors.

Few historical characters have made such an imprint on Irish folklore and legend as Gráinne Ní Mháille (Anglicised as Grace O Malley, or simply Granuaile). Luckily outside of the oral tradition, we have a number of historical accounts (almost all from English sources) detailing the life and exploits of this extraordinary woman.

Her family were accomplished seafarers, with her father known to have travelled often between Ireland, Scotland and Spain. This seafaring lifestyle set the O Malley’s apart from most clans. The family motto “Terra Marique Potus” (Powerful by land and sea) illustrates their overall efficacy quite well. Control of the waters of their territory allowed them to levy tolls for safe passage and for fishing rights. In 1579, we see an account from an English admin claiming that each year 50 English ships would have to pay a “great tribute” to the O Malleys in order to fish there. The fertile waters filled with Hake, Herring, Cod, Ling, Turbot, Salmon and shelfish provided an important source of income for the O Malley Clan as well as making nets and building fishing boats. They also supplemented their coffers by means of piracy, a long standing family tradition, and in this regard Gráinne was lightyears ahead of her ancestors.

Born circa 1530, she was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara (Black Oak) Ó Mháille, chieftain of Umhaill, Co Mayo. Although Gaelic tradition barred her from holding the chieftainship, This certainly didn’t stop her being a trailblazer by sea, even though it was a rarity for women to helm a ship (not to mention them generally being considered bad luck on ships). This fact no doubt accounted for her notoriety and made her stand out. Had she been born a son to Eoghan, she may have faded into obscurity as just another seafaring O Malley. And this was a century and a half before the Irish women Anne Bonny and Mary Reid were forging their high seas careers in the Caribbean. Spending time as a child with her father on his trading and fishing voyages helped hone her skills on the sea, which taught her how to travel by star or by compass, how to divine the weather and navigate the treacherous waters. This intimate knowledge of the hard to navigate (and largely uncharted) inlets of her own territory certainly made her a force to be reckoned with.

Her first marriage to to Dónal “an Chogaidh” Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battles) produced two sons (Eoghan and Murchadh) and a Daughter (named Margaret after her mother). Eventually however Gráinne chose to leave Iar-Chonnacht, taking many of Dónal’s clansmen with her to live under her rule in Mayo. It was from here that she would start to really make a name for herself in her supposed 40 year career of piracy. From here they would swoop on merchants, many trying to make their way to Galway, and exact a toll for safe passage. These attacks by the Flahertys and the O Malleys were recorded in correspondence between Galway city and the English council in Dublin. Coming back to Dónal, he was Táinaiste elect for the O Flaherty clan and next in line for the chieftanship. Queen Elizabeth 1 threw a spanner in the works in that regard by promoting an upstart minor O Flaherty chieftain as chieftain of Iar-chonnacht. This was a complete repudiation of the native Brehon law system and a very effective divide and conquer technique*.One of many things that would set English law and Brehon laws on a collision course. Donal however, would be killed not long after this event, falling at the hands of his rivals, the Joyces. (*another common tactic at the time was that any captured children of Gaelic lords should be indoctrinated in English ways, thus transforming them from Gaelic chieftain to Anglicised Lord.

“A Nurse for all rebellion in the province for 40 years”

English military governor, Sir Richard Bingham referring to Gráinne, 1593

One of many legends relating to her tells of a time when Gráinne was on a religious Saint Bridget’s day pilgrimage to a holy well on Clare Island. News reached her of a shipwreck on Achill Island and neither the rough seas nor religious observance were enough to beat the draw of potential salvage. Among the wreckage, she was said to have found one Hugh de Lacy, son of a wealthy merchant from Wexford. The two soon became lovers. This however was to be a short romance as he was tragically killed by the Mac Mahons. she bided her time to get her revenge, till one day while looking from the parapets of her castle, she spied the Mac Mahons on pilgrimage to a nearby Island. She quickly swooped on them, destroying the ships and slaughtering them all. This not being enough, she went to Doona castle, routed it and claimed it for herself.

Another legend involves the heir to howth castle. She arrived at the castle one evening and was refused hospitality, a very serious slight in Irish culture. As she was leaving, she encountered the heir and subsequently kidnapped him. She was said to have been offered a significant amount of gold and silver that she turned down. Her terms: leave a side door to the castle open and always have an extra place at the table (The door is said to be still open to this day). Records do exist that mention that she was given a ring as a pledge.

By 1567, Gráinne now in her late 30’s had married again. This time to Richard an Iarann* Bourke, the owner of the castle most synonymous with Gráinne, Rockfleet Castle. Richard was also heir to the MacWilliamship, the most powerful title in Connaught (*The Iron, said to be either from the fact he wore an ancient suit of armour, or from the iron foundry on his land). They had one child issue from this marriage, Tibbot ne long or Toby of the ships (owing to the fact she was said to have given birth to him on her ship, mid battle). After a year, she was said to have made use of the Brehon Law practice of dismissing a trial marriage. She locked him out of his own castle and dismissed him from atop the parapets. They would however fight alongside each other for a couple of decades after this. Rockfleet Castle remained her main residence till her death in 1603. I should mention here also that both Gráinne and Richard made extensive use of the Gallóglaigh (Gallowglass) warriors from the Scottish Isles. These mercenaries, renowned for their fighting skill and prowess, were typically shipped over between May and October to be hired by Gaelic chieftains. The Ferrying of these soldiers of fortune was one of the many forms of seafaring activities and income of the O Malley’s. The clan most associated with the west of Ireland was the O Donnells. Clan Donnell would eventually settle in the west of Ireland as sub-chieftans of the O Malley’s in Umhaill. While these Gallowglass remained the mercenaries of the land, Gráinne and her sons were mercenaries on the water.

Circa 1577 after a botched raid of the Earl of Desmond, Gráinne was captured and imprisoned. She would spend the next few years incarcerated, first in Askeaton, then on to Limerick prison, Then Dublin castle. Desmond had originally intended to present Gráinne to the queen as a show of loyalty (but only 3 years after this he would be labelled a traitor and start a rebellion). After two years of incarceration she was released. The merchants of Galway didn’t waste any time upon her release, and hired a large sea borne force to attack her at her castle. She found no difficulty in routing this attack.

Not one for the quiet life. She would soon encounter one of her greatest adversaries, Sir Richard Bingham. Bingham would relentlessly harass Gráinne for many years. To the point she would try on numerous occasions to have him removed from his post. Somewhere around 1586 she was captured by Bingham, but her release was organized by her son in law, “the Devils Hook”. This was due to fact he was the only one of her relatives that wasn’t in open rebellion and as such, could be trusted. She wasted no time in gathering her galleys and heading to Scotland to hire more Gallowglass warriors. A storm damaged her galley and she ended up in Ulster. Here she struck up an alliance with Hugh Dubh O’ Donnell and Hugh O Neill (Táiniste of the Uí Neill chieftaincy). These men, who had once been bitter enemies, decided to bury the hatchet to form an alliance after seeing the effect the English had on Connacht and knowing what was likely in store for them also.

Circa 1591 Gráinne would receive news that her son Murrough ne Moar had submitted to Bingham. Gráinne was clearly incensed by this and “burned his town, spoiled his people and their cattle and killed three or four of his men”. A woman such as Gráinne would not let the simple fact of familial associations get in the way of her wrath. One legend tells of a time when her other son, Tibbot ne Long lost his nerve in battle and supposedly ran behind her. Gráinne was said to have shouted at him “An ag iaraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dthánig as? (Are you trying to hide behind my backside, the place you came from?). There was no special treatment when it came to cowardice with Gráinne.

By 1592, Gráinne, her son and her step son were some of the only people who had not submitted to Bingham His relentless harassing of Gráinne would lead to him impounding her galleys, murdering her son, taking her cattle and ravaging her lands. Gráinne, now in her 60’s was still a force to be reckoned with. These events would lead her to try and petition the Queen in person, and that is exactly what she did in June 1593.

Legend would have you believe she stormed up the Thames in her Galley and waltzed right into court to Queen Elizabeth. She would spend a few months at court waiting to be seen. That being said, given her record of piracy, there aren’t many Gaelic chieftains who would have been bold enough to set foot on English soil, let alone stroll straight into court with a petition. The only other recorded chieftain to do this was Shane O Neill (1562). On being summoned to court, she was said to appear barefoot in Irish costume before Queen Elizabeth. A famous story of this meeting says that when presented with a fine lace trimmed handkerchief, Gráinne blew her nose in it and threw it in the fire. Elizabeth remarked how she was meant to put it in her pocket, to which Gráinne retorted that the Irish had a better standard of cleanliness. She was famously said to have declined the offer of the the title countess, as she was already an equal. As powerful as Elizabeth was, she had led an army or captained her own ship on the seas (despite giving herself the moniker of “the mistress of the seas” and could never compare to Gráinne in any way. Gráinne applied for a license so that during her life she would “invade with fire and sword, all the Queens enemies”. The reasoning behind this was that she could could undermine Bingham and do what she had been doing, but be untouchable by the English

Bingham would continue to be a thorn in Gráinne’s side for a number of years, by putting detachments of soldiers on her ships and pitting her against relations by saying they were rebels (Bingham still managed to undermine her licence by not only keeping tabs on her, but putting her under financial strain by having to support the Queens troops). Gráinne, not one to be undermined, offered to man her ships with 100 soldiers at her own cost from Easter till Michaelmass.

The exact circumstances of her death are unknown but it is believed to have occurred circa 1603 at Rockfleet castle. Whether she outlived Queen Elizabeth, who died the same year, is not known. She is said to be buried in the ruins of the Cistercian abbey on Clare Island. Even though she is absent from the Irish Annals, her legend continued strong within the oral tradition and still remains so to this day. There are few who have not heard Gráinne Mhaol and her fame will not be forgotten for many centuries to come.

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

Don’t forget to follow on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore

Witch Trials and Witchcraft in Ireland: Alice Kyteler

witch trials fin2.jpg

Alice Kyteler and the Kilkenny Witch Trial

In 1324 Richard de Ledrede , the then bishop of Ossory , declared his diocese a hotbed of devil worshipers.  Few knew the far reaching, dire consequences this declaration would have and the ripples it would send through the centuries. The woman at the center of all of this was Alice Kyteler, a wealthy woman from a Flemish merchant family. Her accumulated wealth over multiple marriages had led to the accusations of witchcraft in question.

Circa 40 years before the landmark case, Alice had married a wealthy merchant/moneylender and had a son. Following her husband’s death she married another wealthy man. He subsequently handed over his fortune to Alice’s son from the first marriage, much to the chagrin of his own children. This would later cause problems and ultimately become the impetus for the future accusations against her. Upon her third marriage, her son somehow benefitted financially again. Her final  and fourth marriage was to a knight, Sir John de Poer. At this point, her accumulated wealth at the expense of her stepchildren as well as de Poer showing signs of arsenic poisoning (hair and fingernails falling out and emaciated) led to the suspicion of Alice and the accusations of witchcraft. The changing attitudes towards sorcery and witchcraft, especially on the part of the church, would have a dramatic effect on this case, as would the machinations of the highly cunning bishop at the epicenter of the whole ordeal.

It was only a few hundred years prior to this case, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that sorcery/witchcraft was beginning to be seen as an inversion of Christianity. The practice of which would have been treated as a misdemeanor before this change in attitude. In 1258 Pope Alexander legislated in favour of inquisitorial prosecution for sorcery due to it’s new connection to heresy. This allowed the church to institute torture as a method to procure confessions from suspected heretics, witches and sorcerers. This in turn gave the church more power than secular court in these regards. Before this, it lay on the accuser to furnish proof of guilt. These ‘crimes’ had usually been dealt with in English law as a petty offense. Inquisitorial prosecution, it seems, was introduced into this case by Bishop Ledrede, who likely picked up the practice from his stay at the court of Avignon, the then Papal seat. Ledrede had originally been sent to Ireland in the years leading up to the accusations of Kyteler by the Pope (who was known to be terrified of sorcery) because of his “zeal for reform and strict adherence to the law of the church”.

In total seven charges were brought against Alice, including:

  • Denying Christ and the Church.
  • Cutting up living animals and scattering them at crossroads* as offerings to a demon called “son of Art”. *Crossroads are understood to be liminal spaces and are often employed in magical rites
  • Stealing church keys and performing rituals inside the church at night.
  • In a skull of a thief, her and her accomplices placed the entrails of animals, the organs of a cockerel, nails cut from bodies, hair from the buttocks and used clothes from baby boys who had died before baptism. Using these ingredients, they were said to have made potions to kill people and to make people hate Christians.
  • It was claimed Alice had a familiar with whom she fornicated. It either appeared as a cat, a shaggy dog or a black man.
  • That she used sorcery to convince her husbands to give their wealth to her and her son, and also used sorcery to kill them.
  • Poisoning her latest husband.

Ledrede had used a law Ut Inguisitionis (1298) to force secular powers to obey the word of a Bishop. Luckily a prior of the Hospitalliers of St John, a relative of Alice’s first husband, stood up for her and put a spanner in the works. Ledrede was told that he would have to hold a public prosecution and that she would have to be formally ex-communicated before they could go ahead with the charges. Ledrede attempted to have the Prior arrested on charges of heresy (and for harbouring heretics) but the prior had some powerful acquaintances, in this case the Seneshal of Killkenny. The seneshal had Ledrede arrested for 17 days to prevent the arrest of the prior. Ledrede used this to his full advantage to start to swing public opinion in his favour. He placed an interdict on the diocese, meaning that no baptism, marriages and burials could take place. Given the strong belief in hell during this period, this was obviously of grave importance to the eternal souls of all parishioners. He also used his influence while incarcerated to give masses in full regalia from his cell. During this time, the seneshal put criers in each outlying town to see if anyone wanted to lodge complaints against Ledrede.

Every move on Ledrede’s part was carefully orchestrated for maximum effect. He left his cell in full high vestments. He turned up at the seneshal’s court, in full regalia holding the consecrated host before him (as any assault on him, would ultimately be an assault on Christ himself). He was not alone. In toe were Franciscans, Dominicans and an entire cathedral chapter. He also carried a decree concerning heretics. After forcing his way into the court, the seneshal asked him to get in the dock for questioning. He claimed that since he was holding the host, it would be like putting Jesus himself on trial, just like when he was tried by Pontius Pilate. Despite the best efforts of all involved, it was inevitable that public opinion would sway in the direction of the church and the bishop due to the constant attacks and insults. Upon seeing that public opinion was turning against her, Alice used her wealth to flee from Dublin and was never heard from again. Her not as wealthy associates and alleged co-conspirators were subsequently rounded up and arrested using a papal decree and under inquisitorial procedure, confessed. Unfortunately, only the poorest of these, Alice’s maidservant, Petronilla de Meath, bore the brunt of the whole thing. She was tortured, whipped and ultimately burnt at the stake (it was legal to torture under church law, but not secular), while all the others were released on payment of sureties. William Outlawe, the friar, was arrested and accused of heresy. He begged forgiveness and was released on the condition that he would pay penance in the form of saying multiple masses each day for a couple of years, and also by re-leading the roof of a church. He was later re-arrested for not carrying this penance out.

A quote from a Franciscan friar at the time, John Clyn, reads: “Moreover, even in olden days, it was neither seen nor heard of that anyone suffered the death penalty for heresy in Ireland”.

So, what had brought about this drastic change in attitude in Ireland that culminated in the barbaric  death of a poor, young maidservant? In short, Ledrede, the man at the center of all of this. It is very likely that Ledrede himself introduced the connection of demonic forces and witchcraft to Ireland. It is no surprise that the landmark case found its way into a number of annal entries at the time. Many people, in a European context, believe that this case was a development “of a phenomenon which, with its distinctive characteristics of diabolism” gave rise to the great witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries (of course the influence of the Malleus Malificarum cannot be ignored either). Before the Kyteler  case, these ideas had not really permeated beyond the Papal courts of Avignon. It was circa 1300 in France that learned circles started to disseminate the idea that a witch was connected to satanic sects and diabolical powers. To give further context to this, 17 years before this case, the King of France, Philip IV, had the Templar Order put to death on many similar charges and claims of diabolism. The pope of the time also fanned the flames by thinking his life was in danger from sorcery. Ledrede was appointed by the pope himself and had actually been present at court during the Templar trials. This of course is likely to have influenced his belief system and he is also likely to have had direct contact with the learned milieu who espoused the radical ideas of heresy.

Civil court up to the point of the case had seen  witchcraft as a minor crime, punishable only in terms of damage done to the victim. The church was not interested because there was no link with religion. It was even believed that in order to control demons, a sorcerer have strong faith and a devout belief in god in order for it to work (c.f Carey, The Nature of Miracles in Early Irish Saint’s Lives for a similar tradition in how miracles worked).

It would come as no surprise to anyone that five years following the death of Petronilla de Meath, Richard de Ledrede had overplayed his hand and was finally exiled from Ireland. Unfortunately for Petronilla, it was too little too late. So give a little thought this Samhain to all the women over the centuries who were executed under the guise of being “witches”.

Don’t forget to follow me on facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/

https://www.facebook.com/ShaneBroderickPhotography/

Bibliography:

Neary. A (1983), The Origins and Character of the Kilkenny Witchcraft Case of 1324, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History and Literature, Vol.83C , pp.333-350.

Williams. B (1994), The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler, History of Ireland, Vol.2, No.4, pp.20-24.

The Ship Sinking Witch Of Youghal

witch sink.jpg

The 16th and 17th centuries saw many women put to death across Europe and beyond for witchcraft and for the use of diabolic powers imparted on them by demons. Surprisingly Ireland, apart from a few high profile cases largely escaped the phenomenon of witch accusations and mass murder of women with Islandmagee, Kilkenny and Youghal being some of the few cases of witch trials in Ireland. The idea of the satanist witch consorting with demons was an English introduction and it is no surprise that the locations where the trials did occur were areas of vast English influence (Youghal for example being an important garrison town). Even though witches did not figure too much in the Irish tradition,  they did eventually make their way prominently into the oral tradition, although they are more likely to be shape-shifting into hares and trying to steal your milk or butter .

Many are aware of the famous witch trial that rocked Youghal in the 17th century when a poor old woman, Florence Newton, was accused and charged with witchcraft. What I doubt many people are aware of is that in the National Folklore Schools collection (collected in the school year 1937/38) there is an entry by John Quirke of Windmill Hill (the original transcript can be viewed here) that describes a tale of a witch who lived in a cottage by Moll Goggin’s corner. The witch one day puts three eggs in a pan. As she is cooking them, one pops out to which she remarks “one man gone”, when another egg hopped out she said “two men gone” and when the third egg hopped out she said “three men gone”. The tale mentions how three men drowned in the bay that day. The witch had used a common form of sympathetic magic, whereby the eggs represented fishermen and as they fall out of the pan, presumably the fishermen fell out of the boat and drowned. The story has a confusing element of which I am unaware of any comparanda elsewhere, such as the fact she was eventually banished in a ball of cotton wool, but the tale-type of the ship sinking witch is a maritime migratory legend found in coastal communities throughout northwestern Europe. In Ireland it is much more common on the west coast, so it is highly unusual and certainly special that it is found in Youghal. That being said, with Youghal’s very rich maritime heritage as well as a very high profile witch trial, it is not very surprising. Below I will delve deeper into the fascinating migratory legend.

The salient details of the legend change depending on where it is found. In Ireland the most common form of the tales follows the formula of “woman skilled in the black arts is refused alms or food or denied a favour” (extremely similar to the story of Florence Newton minus the maritime element). A number of different redactions are found, some including using eggs in water, which you will recognise from the tale above. Irish and Scottish sources focus on malicious female witches where as, for example, Scandinavian sources focus instead on benign male magicians attacking pirates and protecting the community. The polarising viewpoints illustrate well the ambivalent nature of magic use. Some of the Irish versions got invariably tied up with real tragedies such as a mass drowning in 1813 in Donegal. The motif of the refusal of alms was added on as the cause of the incident. Another violent storm in 1825 was incorporated into a tale where a woman refuted to be a witch had approached a few fishermen demanding fish. When they refused she swore revenge. She was reputedly seen at her cottage with a bowl of water and some feathers. She stirred the water and a storm arose. When the feathers sank, so did the boats and the bodies of the fishermen were found along the coast the next day and there was no trace of the witch to be found.

The method employed in the tale above to agitate the water and cause a storm is a common one as is blowing on the water to raise a wind. To bring in a Youghal connection here, in my interviews with Youghal fishermen, it was revealed to me by Séan Murphy and Bobby Thorpey that whistling was banned aboard the fishing boats, for fear of raising a wind. Other methods found in folk tales include the manipulation of thread, undoing knots in rope (also used by fishermen as a way of raising winds) and the construction of stone cairns on land as a sinking method. In some of these cases an incantation is uttered in conjunction with the methods listed above. More often than not these charms are not explained due to their esoteric nature and usually remain known only to the user of the “dark arts” in question. There are however a few cases where at least an element of the charm is included such as  the declaration of “Tá na gnóthaí déanta (The deeds are done) or “Tá an bá déanta anois” (The drowning is completed). The “witches” carrying out these acts are often referred to as Bean Ultach  (Ulster Women/women from the North) due to the belief that magic originated in the North. Interestingly a Cork variant of the tale connects the Freemasons to ship sinking as they were said to posses the ability to raise storms.

In terms of the materials used to represent boats in these magical rites, wooden bowls are more common in Scottish and Irish versions whereas in Scandinavia and areas of Norse influence (such as the Scottish Isles) seashells are often used. Some folk tales involve more fanciful or elaborate materials such as wax moulded into ships is believed  to be “a literary sophistication of a folk motif”. The more common use of household objects shows how innocuous everyday items could be used to devastating effect and could easily be employed nefariously in rites of sympathetic magic. While on the subject of wax models, there is a more ancient counterpart that dates to at least 338 AD in the pseudo-historical biography of Alexander. In this, the Pharaoh Nectanebus, Alexander’s father uses a spell to sink incoming ships. He prays to “the god of spells” after filling a bowl of water and moulding both ships and men  from wax. As he performed the rite and as the wax figures sank, so did the real ships in the bay. Any fans of Shakespeare will also recognise the motif from his Tempest where Prospero uses the same magic. To finish,  I will leave you with the oldest recorded European version of the tale from Norfolk, dating to 1598:

“ [A ships crew] mislead oppo’ (upon) ye weste coast coming from spain, whose deaths were brought to pass by the excrable witch of kings lynn, whose name was Mother Gably, by boyling , or labouring of certaine eggs in a payle full of colde water”

 

Originally presented as a lecture for the Youghaloween Spooktacular festival on Oct 26th 2019

 

Sources:

The National Folklore Schools Collection, Vol.0397:124, Collector: John Quirke, Youghal, Co.Cork.

Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh (1992) The Ship Sinking Witch: A Maritime Folk Legend from North Western Europe, Béaloideas, Iml.60/61, Cumann Béaloideas na hÉireann

Hutton.R (2017), The Witch, Yale University Press.

 

Don’t forget to follow me on facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/

https://www.facebook.com/ShaneBroderickPhotography/

Irish Stick Fighting and Faction Fights

 

faction.jpgFaction fighting was a common occurrence at pattern days and fairs especially in contested areas, i.e. bordering parishes, mountain passes etc. Blackthorn sticks shaped into cudgels, known as shillelagh were used, often one in each hand. These sticks were seasoned over long periods of time by being rubbed with poitín or brandy and placed up the chimney. Any man wishing to instigate a fight at a fair would drag his coat behind him calling on anyone brave enough to fight him to stand on the coat tails.  Máire MacNeill argues that this was not just a fight for the sake of fighting but instead served a ritualistic/symbolic function. She postulates that the combat could be a re-enactment of the fairy battles of the otherworld on the mortal plane (MacNeill,1982:408) or especially in the case of pattern days, gaining the favour of the local saint, the ‘Deus Loci’ so to speak. This was in aid of bringing the ‘luck’ back to the winners parish. However, recorded data of mass injury and the occasional death(s) shows that many of these events weren’t simply just for the sake of ritual, with some groups having often deadly grudges for one another. Other evidence points to the fact that many of the fights were related to land disputes and renewal of leases and the  origin of the faction fights may reside in the agricultural based secret societies such as the “white boys”.

These events did not escape the notice of the outside observers and these provide us with a good example of the profane manifesting among the sacred activities at pattern days. It was noted that “bloody knees from devotion and bloody heads* from fighting” were not uncommon (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284).

*The risk of head injury was severe, with many people suffering long after the fights with fractured skulls and degloved scalps. To avoid this the fighters would wear hats a few sizes too big, which they would subsequently stuff with súgán (plaited straw) to cushion the blows to the head*.

“There was a man killed there once and a flower grows there in the part of the field where he was killed and it is in bloom most of the year”.

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0345, Page 233: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921711/4892898/5170628

Hardy tells us how “parties come to fight and quarrel” (Hardy,1840:57) at Croagh Patrick while Croker, when referring to the pattern at Ardmore, tells us how “a scene of rioting and quarrelling” periodically ensued (Croker,in Hall & Hall,1841:284). He seems to believe that fighting is endemic to the Irish peasantry as he says “without which Paddy cannot live long in good humour” (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Of course, if we look at it from the view of MacNeill’s argument of it being symbolic fighting it makes a lot more sense than it would have to eyes of the uninitiated observers to whom we owe these accounts. Symbolic or not, injury was common as well as occasions of people dying.

It must be noted that it was not only men who were involved in these organised brawls. Women often line edges of the field of battle (or in boats if the fight took place at the beach) and either threw rocks or hit those unfortunate enough to be in range of the sock filled with a rock that they often carried.

Many towns and parishes had their own groups of fighters. Each faction had a leader, often called captain, and oaths of fealty were often given to the leader by the members. The “captain” would usually recruit 70-100 people to go to a fair with him, seeking battles from rival parishes. Two famous groups, for example, would be  the Shanavests ( mostly farmers with land) and the Caravats (mostly made up of young men with little to no land of their own) . Many of these groups had their own code of behaviour. The Caravats for example had a code of silence when it came to talking to police, no surrender and no sucking up to the wealthy. The Shanavests on the other hand were willing to inform on neighbours and were typically friendly with the landlords and agents. This as you can imagine caused a great rivalry between the 2 groups. The mounting tension and escalation of violence (they had gone from using simply blackthorn/Ash sticks to using slashhooks, knives and even pistols) from  these groups meant that the authorities were ever increasingly attempting to stop the bloodshed, which eventually led to these fights coming to an end (the introduction of the GAA also gave parishes a far less violent means of opposition) .

The church also had issues with them as they often took place at “pattern” or “patron” day pilgrimages. After some of the bloodier battles, a bishop called to put a stop to the bloody tradition that was causing so many young people to lose their lives prematurely. It was reputed that the leaders of the factions came to him during a mass, walking 2×2 down the isle and handing over their sticks and pledging to put an end to the faction fights.

“The only people who tried to keep it alive were the old seasoned veterans and at fire side and cross road they recalled the ‘brave deeds’ of the men”

The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0405, Page 301. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4613713/4611483/4651854

In terms of participation numbers, many of the faction fights were certainly not just a few lads meeting in a field to batter each other. For instance, one fight had reportedly played host to 600 fighters. One of the worst recorded was at Ballybunnion in 1834. This fight took place on St John’s Eve annually, but over 2000 people are believed to have taken part in that year on Ballyveigh beach. Boats full of people and loaded with rocks lined the edge of the water and rival factions such as the Cooleens, the Mulvihils and the Lawlors stood against each other. A long standing feud between these groups was at the heart of the reason for this brawl. The day ended with bodies laying at edge of the water, belonging to the people who had drowned when some of the boats had capsized. Many more bodies lined the beach having succumbed to the injuries inflicted in the fight. Hundreds lay maimed and injured and the official death count was 20, but it is believed that the true number is much higher (owing to people dying from their injuries in the subsequent weeks).

We get a great account of the Caravats and Shanavests from the Nation Folklore Schools collection:

West Waterford Factions.

There used to be a lot of faction fighting in West Waterford up to fifty years ago. The ‘Shanavests‘ and the ‘Caravats‘ were the titles given to the most well known factions. The ‘Shanavests‘ came from Modeligo and wore a white waistcoat. The ‘Caravats‘ came from the Touraneema district and wore a kind of cravat. These two factions used meet at the annual fair of Modeligo. The fighting began after the buying and selling was done. Each man was armed with a stout stick and stones were often used. Fine young men were sometimes maimed for life and it was a common sight after the fight to see badly injured people lying on the fair ground. Each faction tried to drive the other across the river Finisk and victory came to the side which succeeded. Each side was led by a recognised captain or leader.

The last encounter between a ‘Shanavest‘ and a ‘Caravat‘ took place in Barrack St. Cappoquin. A ‘Caravat’ named Donovan had come to live in Barrack St. and one night a Shanavest named OMeara was passing the house when he called out to Donovan ‘Caravat‘. Donovan was in bed but upon hearing the shout he jumped out of bed snatched up the cudgel he had used in fights years before and clad only in his shirt ran after OMeara. A fierce fight followed but they were separated by onlookers.

Other well-known factions were the ‘Polleens’and the ‘Gows’. These were connections of the ‘Shanavests and the ‘Caravats‘ and they used to meet at the annual fair of Affane (May 14th)

The police were usually loath to interfere because if they did the two factions would unite and attack the police.

(NFSC: Vol.0637:57) Collected by Carl O leary, Cappoquin, Informant: Owen O’ Keefe (85), Farmer, Shanbally, Co.Waterford.

 

Bibliography:

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

Hall, S.C (1841), Ireland: Its Scenery,Character etc, How and parsons, London, pp.282-284

Hardy, P.D (1840), The Holy Wells of Ireland, Hardy and Walker, Dublin, pp.59-63

MacNeill, M (1982), The Festival of Lughnasa, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin, PP.88-408

Duchas.ie, The National Folklore Schools collection

Na Céad Fight Clubs, TG4 documentary. (featuring interviews with: Silvester Ó Muirí, Stiofán  Ó Cadhla, Cormac Ó Gráda, Donnacha Ó Duibhir, Jack Philips.

Lecture notes of Dr Ciarán Ó Geallbháin for the Exploring the Otherworld module at the UCC Folklore and Ethnology department,