Wander a short walk from the heart of Cork City and you might just happen across this fantastic gem and its wonderful avian denizens (I’m sure anyone who follows my photography page is driven demented by the sheer amount of photos of geese, swans and ducks as I have charted the growth of all this year’s hatchlings on the lough). The well-loved lough is a favourite spot for walkers and joggers, but I doubt many are aware of the fascinating legend that lies behind this natural spring fed pond. The earliest mention I could track down of this tale was circa 1825 when Thomas Crofton Croker was travelling around collecting tales and folklore. Chances are this legend might stretch back a little further, providing of course he didn’t make it up entirely after being inspired by seeing the lough. The story presents a number of motifs that are found in Irish literature dating back to the middle ages. I will briefly mention those at the end. First I will give a run down of the folktale.
Fadó, fadó (long ago) there was a great king called Corc whose fort was in the center of a valley where the lough now lies. Within the courtyard of this fort was a spring with the finest pure water to be found anywhere. People flocked from near and far to draw water from the well. This brought great concern to the king, as he feared his precious water would be all used up so he had a great wall constructed around it with a solid door, to which only he had a key. If he required water for himself, he would send his daughter to retrieve it for him.
One night, the king decided to have a great feast. Kings, princes and nobles from all the neighboring tuatha (petty kingdoms) were all in attendance and Corc personally selected the greatest filidh (poets) from near and far to regale his guests with praise poetry and to play their cruith (harp). Huge celebratory fires were lit, the tables were laden with the finest foods and everybody danced and drank. As the feast drew on, one of the lords in attendance rose to toast the king. “Sláinte (good health) to our great Rí (king). We do not want for the finest food or drink, but the one thing absent is some water”. You see, Corc had purposefully held this back in the hope someone would ask and he would be able to wow them with the well-renowned water that now lay hidden. “Water you shall have, and I challenge anyone present to find a finer source of water than this anywhere in the whole of Éireann (Ireland). “Daughter, fetch us some water le do thoil (please)”. The daughter, named Fíor Uisce (pure water, spring water) balked at being asked to do such a menial task in the presence of such illustrious company, so the king suggested that the fine prince that she had been dancing with all night go with her. Fíor Uisce and the prince delighted in this, so off they went. She retrieved the key and the prince carried the fine, heavy golden jug that Corc had specially made for this occasion and they made their way to the courtyard.
Upon opening the well-house door, Fíor Uisce leaned over the well to retrieve the water, but owing to the weight of the jug, she lost her balance and fell into the well. The prince tried his best to save her but the water burst forth from the well head with such force that he was forced to flee. The courtyard filled with such speed that by the time he made the relatively short journey back to the fort and spoke a single word to the king, he was up to his neck in water. The water continued to rise until the valley was full and it engulfed the fort, the outbuildings and the fine gardens and hence, the present day lough was formed.
But that was not the end of it. For the king was not drowned, nor were any of the guests. Fíor Uisce, the fair daughter of the king was also alive and every night following this, up to present day, the celebrations still continue beneath the surface of the lough, and it is said that it will continue until someone happens across the fine golden chalice that lies hidden beneath the surface. It is believed that this happened as judgement for shutting off the pure water from the poor people who relied on it. It is also said that on days where the waters are clear, that you can still see the buildings clearly beneath the water. So next time you are there keep an eye out for the buildings beneath the surface and the tell-tale glint of the gold vessel!
Sin é mo scéal-sa, má tá bréag ann bíodh! Ní mise a chum ná a cheap é ! (“that is my story, and if there is a lie, so be it! For it wasn’t me who composed it!)
So, with the tale out of the way, I will now touch upon some of the motifs present and any connection to history that I could find. A lot of the elements of this folktale can be found elsewhere in Irish literature. When looking for a real king, there was none by the name that I could link to a kingdom in Cork city, but there was a Corc (or Conall) mac Luigthig, who reigned in the 4th Century and is traditionally believed to have been the founder of the kingship of Cashel and the progenitor of many of the clans and septs of Munster. He was however said to have a son, Ciar from whom the Ui Mhic Ceir, an unimportant sept on the south side of Cork City, arose (and the lough is situated on the south side).
The “flooded kingdom” type motif occurs in a number of places. The dindsheanchas (Lore of places) tales of the goddesses Sínann and Boand(of which the Shannon and Boyne rivers are named respectively) tell of when they attempt to access otherworldly knowledge through a well, which subsequently gushes forth killing the goddesses. It is not unknown to find tales where buildings and communities still survive beneath the surface. There is even a very Christian version of this underwater world with otherworldly monasteries that are covered in far better detail in Professor John Carey’s article “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel.
The golden chalice for collecting water brings to mind the tales that mention treasures hidden within otherworldly wells not to mention the archaeological record that shows votive deposits in bodies of water, and even at least one instance where ecclesiastical treasure was hidden within a holy well.
I hope you have enjoyed my recounting of this tale of one my favourite places. Should you want to read other versions of this tale, you can find the original version in Crofton Crokers “Irish Fairy Legends” or another version in Kate Corkery’s “Folk Tales of Cork”.
Below is my own copy of Crofton Croker from 1834 that I acquired recently
Social hierarchy was very much prevalent in early Irish society. You were either free (Saor) or unfree (Daor). Slaves obviously fall into the latter category and as a slave, you were considered an ambue (non-person) and had no protection against being killed or injured. The terms used in the texts are Mug for male slaves that were used for menial labour and Cumal for female slaves who were in turn used for household tasks. The Cumal was of great value, so much so that the term would later be used to denote a unit of currency or a specific size of land (1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver). These slaves could be people obtained as debt slaves, prisoners of war from raids into other Tuatha (petty kingdoms), or prisoners from raids on Britain (the most famous captive of which being Saint Patrick himself) . Even more abhorrent is what we find in the law text Gúbretha Caratniad, which implies that children may have been sold into slavery by their parents. The motivation behind this can only be speculated at, but it doesn’t lessen how horrific it is.
Another law text, Di Astud Chirt acus Dlighid, tells us that it was seen as an anti-social act for a king to release slaves as it was believed that it would entail cosmic/supernatural retribution in the form of crops failing and milk drying up as such slaves were an integral part of the kings prosperity. However, the law texts also claim that the king should have a freed slave (having previously been held captive by a rival king) as part of their bodyguards. Runaway slaves (élúdach) could not avail of sanctuary and could not be protected by anyone, even if they were high status or Nemed (privileged, sacred). Slaves could be hurt or killed by their master with no repercussion and any attack on them by others resulted in compensation being paid to the master, not the slave. Next I will cover hostages, who were in most cases in a completely different league to slaves when it came to status.
The material below regarding hostages is taken from the lecture “Hostages in Medieval Ireland” given by PHD candidate Philip Healy on the 27th Feb 2020 at University College Cork.
When looking at the manuscripts, we have numerous mentions of hostages throughout the heroic literature, the law tracts and the annals, especially covering the periods between the 7th century to the 12th century. These hostages were given for a variety of different reasons including:
Suriety for legal cases
Submission to subordinate kings
To secure political agreement
The major differences we see between slaves and hostages was that they were not mistreated and there is evidence to suggest that they retained their status, enjoyed the hospitality of the king and had freedom of movement within the Tuatha (people would not typically have any legal rights outside their own kingdom). The legal text Críth Gabhlach tells us how forfeited hostages may be fettered but more often than not they enjoyed meals at the high table between the king and filidh or brithim . The Senchas Már tells us that hostage giving in legal disputes was commonplace among the upper classes (the high cost of default is another piece of evidence in regard to this).
Between the years 600-1000 we see no evidence of any hostages being harmed, however between 1000-1200 we see that five hostages were killed. The reason for this is likely due to a general increase in violence and social upheaval. During this period we see an increase in mutilations, castrations and blindings.
The terms used when referring to hostages depend on the period we are looking at:
The Poem below, of unknown authorship is placed in the mouth of Finn uí Baiscne, more commonly known as Finn MacCumhaill, leader of the Fianna and main protagonist of the very popular Fenian cycle (I will cover Fenian tales in a separate post at some point in the future). This method of composing poems and placing them in the mouth of a literary character is found in a number of places throughout the manuscripts.
The poem luckily survived in a gloss* ( *scholia, a marginal note or explanatory comment in the margins of manuscripts) on the commentary of Amhra Colm cille (a eulogy of Saint Colm Cille composed in the late 6th or early 7th century by Dallán Forgail, the Chief Ollam of Ireland ). This poem below now survives in a number of manuscripts such as the 12th century Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow, the oldest extant manuscript in vernacular Irish), The Yellow Book of Lecan (late 14th/early 15th century), Rawlinson B 502 (Bodleian library copy of the Amhra) and TCD MS 1441.
The poem was given a date of 8th/9th century by Gerard Murphy and has been translated by Kuno Meyer and Kenneth Jackson (In Four Old Irish Songs of Summer and Winter and Studies in early Celtic nature poetry respectively). The meter, which relies on 3 syllables on each line and 4 lines in each verse was known by a number of names such as Anamain or Cethramtu Rannaigechta Móire (quarter of Rannaigecht Mór).
ut dixit Find hu Baiscne As Finn, descendent of Baíscni, said:
Scél lem dúib: I bring news:
dordaid dam; Stag bellows;
snigid gaim; Winter pours
ro fáith sam. Summer gone.
Gáeth ard úar; High cold wind;
ísel grían; Low the sun;
gair a r-rith; Short its course;
ruirthech rían; Ocean roars;
Rorúad rath; Red Bracken;
ro cleth cruth; Shape hidden;
ro gab gnáth Now common
giugrann guth. voice of the barnacle geese
Ro gab úacht Cold now holds
etti én; Wings of birds;
aigre ré; Time of ice;
é mo scél. That’s my news/story.
Glossary of words:
Scél: News, tidings, a story. Modern Irish (hereafter M.IR): Scéal
Lem: M.IR Liom
Dúib: You (plural), M.IR: Daoibh
Doirdaid: Belling, bellowing, the noise of a stag in rut. Dord was a term use for a buzzing or humming sound. It is also connected to the Fianna. The Dord Fianna was a chant or hum used by Finn and his men.
Snigid: pours/flows, M.Ir: Sní, sníonn
Gaim: Winter, M.Ir: Geimhreadh
Fáith: has gone
Sam: Summer, M.Ir: Samhradh
Gáeth: wind, M.Ir: Gaoth
Úar: Cold, M.Ir: Fuar
Ísel: low, M.Ir: Íseal
A r-rith: course, M>Ir: Rith
Rían: An archaic word for Ocean. This was the word that was glossed in the commentaries on the Amhra and the reason why the poem was penned in the marginalia and preserved. M.Ir: Aigéan.
Rorúadh:Very red, deep red. Ró used to denote the possession of a quality in a high (but not necessarily excessive) degree. Rúadh in M.Ir: Rua (foxy)
Faction fighting was a common occurrence at pattern days and fairs especially in contested areas, i.e. bordering parishes, mountain passes etc. Blackthorn sticks shaped into cudgels, known as shillelagh were used, often one in each hand. These sticks were seasoned over long periods of time by being rubbed with poitín or brandy and placed up the chimney. Any man wishing to instigate a fight at a fair would drag his coat behind him calling on anyone brave enough to fight him to stand on the coat tails. Máire MacNeill argues that this was not just a fight for the sake of fighting but instead served a ritualistic/symbolic function. She postulates that the combat could be a re-enactment of the fairy battles of the otherworld on the mortal plane (MacNeill,1982:408) or especially in the case of pattern days, gaining the favour of the local saint, the ‘Deus Loci’ so to speak. This was in aid of bringing the ‘luck’ back to the winners parish. However, recorded data of mass injury and the occasional death(s) shows that many of these events weren’t simply just for the sake of ritual, with some groups having often deadly grudges for one another. Other evidence points to the fact that many of the fights were related to land disputes and renewal of leases and the origin of the faction fights may reside in the agricultural based secret societies such as the “white boys”.
These events did not escape the notice of the outside observers and these provide us with a good example of the profane manifesting among the sacred activities at pattern days. It was noted that “bloody knees from devotion and bloody heads* from fighting” were not uncommon (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284).
*The risk of head injury was severe, with many people suffering long after the fights with fractured skulls and degloved scalps. To avoid this the fighters would wear hats a few sizes too big, which they would subsequently stuff with súgán (plaited straw) to cushion the blows to the head*.
“There was a man killed there once and a flower grows there in the part of the field where he was killed and it is in bloom most of the year”.
Hardy tells us how “parties come to fight and quarrel” (Hardy,1840:57) at Croagh Patrick while Croker, when referring to the pattern at Ardmore, tells us how “a scene of rioting and quarrelling” periodically ensued (Croker,in Hall & Hall,1841:284). He seems to believe that fighting is endemic to the Irish peasantry as he says “without which Paddy cannot live long in good humour” (Croker, in Hall & Hall,1841:284). Of course, if we look at it from the view of MacNeill’s argument of it being symbolic fighting it makes a lot more sense than it would have to eyes of the uninitiated observers to whom we owe these accounts. Symbolic or not, injury was common as well as occasions of people dying.
It must be noted that it was not only men who were involved in these organised brawls. Women often line edges of the field of battle (or in boats if the fight took place at the beach) and either threw rocks or hit those unfortunate enough to be in range of the sock filled with a rock that they often carried.
Many towns and parishes had their own groups of fighters. Each faction had a leader, often called captain, and oaths of fealty were often given to the leader by the members. The “captain” would usually recruit 70-100 people to go to a fair with him, seeking battles from rival parishes. Two famous groups, for example, would be the Shanavests ( mostly farmers with land) and the Caravats (mostly made up of young men with little to no land of their own) . Many of these groups had their own code of behaviour. The Caravats for example had a code of silence when it came to talking to police, no surrender and no sucking up to the wealthy. The Shanavests on the other hand were willing to inform on neighbours and were typically friendly with the landlords and agents. This as you can imagine caused a great rivalry between the 2 groups. The mounting tension and escalation of violence (they had gone from using simply blackthorn/Ash sticks to using slashhooks, knives and even pistols) from these groups meant that the authorities were ever increasingly attempting to stop the bloodshed, which eventually led to these fights coming to an end (the introduction of the GAA also gave parishes a far less violent means of opposition) .
The church also had issues with them as they often took place at “pattern” or “patron” day pilgrimages. After some of the bloodier battles, a bishop called to put a stop to the bloody tradition that was causing so many young people to lose their lives prematurely. It was reputed that the leaders of the factions came to him during a mass, walking 2×2 down the isle and handing over their sticks and pledging to put an end to the faction fights.
“The only people who tried to keep it alive were the old seasoned veterans and at fire side and cross road they recalled the ‘brave deeds’ of the men”
In terms of participation numbers, many of the faction fights were certainly not just a few lads meeting in a field to batter each other. For instance, one fight had reportedly played host to 600 fighters. One of the worst recorded was at Ballybunnion in 1834. This fight took place on St John’s Eve annually, but over 2000 people are believed to have taken part in that year on Ballyveigh beach. Boats full of people and loaded with rocks lined the edge of the water and rival factions such as the Cooleens, the Mulvihils and the Lawlors stood against each other. A long standing feud between these groups was at the heart of the reason for this brawl. The day ended with bodies laying at edge of the water, belonging to the people who had drowned when some of the boats had capsized. Many more bodies lined the beach having succumbed to the injuries inflicted in the fight. Hundreds lay maimed and injured and the official death count was 20, but it is believed that the true number is much higher (owing to people dying from their injuries in the subsequent weeks).
We get a great account of the Caravats and Shanavests from the Nation Folklore Schools collection:
West Waterford Factions.
There used to be a lot of faction fighting in West Waterford up to fifty years ago. The ‘Shanavests‘ and the ‘Caravats‘ were the titles given to the most well known factions. The ‘Shanavests‘ came from Modeligo and wore a white waistcoat. The ‘Caravats‘ came from the Touraneema district and wore a kind of cravat. These two factions used meet at the annual fair of Modeligo. The fighting began after the buying and selling was done. Each man was armed with a stout stick and stones were often used. Fine young men were sometimes maimed for life and it was a common sight after the fight to see badly injured people lying on the fair ground. Each faction tried to drive the other across the river Finisk and victory came to the side which succeeded. Each side was led by a recognised captain or leader.
The last encounter between a ‘Shanavest‘ and a ‘Caravat‘ took place in Barrack St. Cappoquin. A ‘Caravat’ named Donovan had come to live in Barrack St. and one night a Shanavest named OMeara was passing the house when he called out to Donovan ‘Caravat‘. Donovan was in bed but upon hearing the shout he jumped out of bed snatched up the cudgel he had used in fights years before and clad only in his shirt ran after OMeara. A fierce fight followed but they were separated by onlookers.
Other well-known factions were the ‘Polleens’and the ‘Gows’. These were connections of the ‘Shanavests and the ‘Caravats‘ and they used to meet at the annual fair of Affane (May 14th)
The police were usually loath to interfere because if they did the two factions would unite and attack the police.
(NFSC: Vol.0637:57) Collected by Carl O leary, Cappoquin, Informant: Owen O’ Keefe (85), Farmer, Shanbally, Co.Waterford.
Croker, T.C (1981), Researches in the South of Ireland, Irish Academic Press, pp.278-281
Hall, S.C (1841), Ireland: Its Scenery,Character etc, How and parsons, London, pp.282-284
Hardy, P.D (1840), The Holy Wells of Ireland, Hardy and Walker, Dublin, pp.59-63
MacNeill, M (1982), The Festival of Lughnasa, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin, PP.88-408
Duchas.ie, The National Folklore Schools collection
Na Céad Fight Clubs, TG4 documentary. (featuring interviews with: Silvester Ó Muirí, Stiofán Ó Cadhla, Cormac Ó Gráda, Donnacha Ó Duibhir, Jack Philips.
Lecture notes of Dr Ciarán Ó Geallbháin for the Exploring the Otherworld module at the UCC Folklore and Ethnology department,
Few things have captured the imagination of the Irish across the millennia like the idea of the Otherworld. We have trips to the Otherworld recorded in some of our earliest tales, preserved in our oldest manuscripts. What is interesting is that these tales appear to have been an already strong tradition prior to having been written down in the Christian period by a monastic milieu. Like many other things in the world of myth and folklore, the idea of the Otherworld evolved over time. From domain of the Tuatha dé Dannan in the earliest tales, to the fairy Otherworld of modern accounts, this article hopes to illustrate a crash course in the Irish Otherworld and what elements evolve, and which stay the same.
We have a number of different literary genres of trips to an array of different worlds other than our own:
Eachtra (Adventures): These tales are overtly Pagan in nature and involve trips to the native, pre-Christian Otherworld. They often portray the Otherworld as being accessed through either entering a hollow hill or by the protagonist being surrounded in mist. These portals of entry are not confined to the Eachtra tale types and are found throughout the literature.
Imramma (Voyages): These are Christian tales, involving clerics setting off and visiting Otherworld islands that show signs of influence from the indigenous belief in the Otherworld. It is easy to see with the similarities between the pre-Christian and Christian Otherworlds and how there was almost a sense of rapprochement between the two traditions. A pre-Christian Otherworld with Christian Ideals (“Land of the Living where there is no Sin”). MacCana commented how “In most of its aspects, Irish Christianity is one of compromise and syncretism with indigenous tradition and usage”.
Fís(Visions): These are completely Christian in nature and deal with Christian eschatology and as a result the Otherworld in question is either hell or heaven and as such not applicable to this article.
“The multi-locational character of the Otherworld is evidenced throughout Irish tradition” Prionsias MacCana
Typically the Otherworld may surround you but you fail to see it. It was described by Ní Bhrolicháin as “A perfect realisation of this world. A place without death, disease, war and old age”, although there is at least one tale of the fairy Otherworld that depicts the fairies as aging and requiring a ritual to become youthful again. As with much in relation to the Otherworld things can be contradictory. In terms of the quote above the lack of war and death in the Otherworld is not exactly true, for example, in the case of De Gabháil in Síde (The Taking of Hollow Hill). Here death within the Otherworld is shown, although admittedly death is brought by humans entering in the sídhe (Otherworld, hollow hill). Humans bringing death to the Otherworld can also be found in Welsh sources, namely in the first branch of the Mabinogi, where Arawn, Lord of Anwyn (Welsh Otherworld) enlists the help of Pwyll in delivering a fatal blow to an immortal enemy. The need for human help in the Otherworld is also a very important element in the later fairy lore.
The Otherworld has received many names over the course of history, which again muddies the water even further. It is never made completely clear if these are multiple Otherworlds or just a single one given different names. Some of these are as follows:
Tír na mBeo(Land of the Living)
Tír na mBan (Land of Women)
Mag Mell (The Plain of Delight)
Tír Tairngire (The Promised Land)
Tír na nóg (The Land of Youth)
There is also the later addition of Otherworldly islands such as Hy Brasil, Little Aran and an Island off Ballycotton (to name but a few). These are likely a direct influence from the Imramma tales and only appear at 7 year intervals or during certain climactic conditions. The tradition of going across the sea to enter the Otherworld though only appears in two tales. Professor John Carey remarks how this was not in keeping with the native lore and may have been a product of the Ulster literary movement.
Summary of the Ancient Otherworld
The ancient Otherworld is portrayed often as being around us at all time, yet imperceptible to most people. It can be entered by passing through a hollow hill (Sídhe or Brugh) especially at liminal times of year such as Samhain . There are numerous mentions of the fact that “All sídhe are open at Samhain” and that the magical barrier, the Fé Fiada is not actively concealing them.
There is a time discrepancy between our world and the Otherworld, with them being at opposite points in the yearly cycle. We see examples of this in one of the early Finn tales when Finn McCumhaill (Fionn mac cool) is sat between Dá Chic Anann (The Paps of Anu) at Samhain. He can see into the two sídhe on either summit of the mountain and hears two men speak to each other. One says to the other “Is your Subhais good?”. The dish mentioned, Subhais, is typically a dish associated with Bealtaine, a festival at the opposite side of the year. This is similar to an event in Eachtra Nerai (The Adventure of Nera), also set at Samhain. As Nera returns from the Otherworld to warn the royal assembly at Rathcroghan of an impending attack, he is given Torthaí Samhraidh (the fruits of summer) to prove that he had been on a different plain to our own. This motif of bringing a gift back from the Otherworld is a prominent one which there are a number of examples, including it being a common occurrence within both Eachtra and Imramm tales.
It can also be accessed through bodies of water, such as lakes and there are many examples of tales that relate to underwater and flooded kingdoms or allusions to the Otherworld being under the water. This later evolves in the imram tales to the Otherworld being accessed by crossing the sea in boats, and later again to the mystical islands such as Hy Brasil. The difference between the Imram and Eachtra being that the Imram focuses on a “prolonged adventurous voyage at sea rather than upon the experience of a mortal in a single Otherworldly place”.
Music is commonly associated with the Otherworld in both ancient and modern accounts. Sad, mournful and magical music can often be an indicator that the Otherworld now surrounds you. The legendary Finn Mac Cumhaill encounters an otherworldly entity that emerges from a sídhe near Tara every 9 years and burns the royal fortress to the ground. He uses a magical instrument that causes people to fall asleep, not unlike the legendary harp of the Dagda himself. The element of mournful music combined with the magical aspect of it will be seen again in the modern Otherworld segment below.
Another theme that occurs in both old and new sources is abundance. This is a prominent feature throughout the tales. Feasts, trees laden with fruit and fields full of crops are often mentioned. In the human world this is intrinsically bound up with rightful rulership reflected in the fertility of the land. . The judgments and behaviour of the king reflect in the cosmos. Assuming the king has been ceremonially wedded to the land (personified in the form of the sovereignty goddess) and displays Fír Flatheomon (The King’s justice), the land would be fertile and abundant, as would the people of the Tuatha (petty kingdom). Were the king not to display these attributes, crops would fail, storms and plagues would ravage the land and children would be stillborn or born with deformities.
Modern Folklore of the Otherworld
Now we venture into the more modern take on the Otherworld, that of the fairies. We can see many parallels with the older tradition mentioned above with repeats of motifs such as altered time and reality, envelopment by mist, abundance and music. Here we see a departure from entering the Otherworld through Tumuli, which have been replaced by the monuments colloquially named “Fairy Forts”. These numerous monuments dot the Irish landscape, numbering roughly 30,000 or more, are also known by the names rath or lios. These were enclosured dwellings dating to the middle ages and to this day they are still treated with a degree of suspicion, or genuine fear. Many of these monuments lie unmolested in a farmer’s field, despite how much they may be in the way or taking up valuable planting space. The folklore record is full of what happens to those who dare destroy this abode of the good folk. Despite these innocuous looking “forts” appearing to us as a simple embankment ringed by trees, entering into them may transport you to the Otherworld, similar to entering a sídhe. Upon stepping into one of these areas you might find yourself in a mansion belonging to “the other crowd”. Likewise, it has been said that there have been incidents of people attempting to cut down fairy trees, only to be confronted by a member of the good folk asking why they are cutting into “the jamb of their door”. They will furiously protect their dwellings and usually death and destruction follow any desecration of them.
Unsuspecting people may also be transported by sleeping under a fairy tree or in some cases even from falling asleep on the side of the road. For example a tale recorded by Eddie Lenihan tells of a man who fell asleep on the edge of the road and awoke in “the finest house he had ever seen”. Here we see the common fairy lore motif of finding themselves in an Otherworldly mansion (which is a contrast to the older lore where entering a hollow brought you to an alternate land). More often than not these mansions have a huge table laden with food, mirroring the abundance of the “ancient” Otherworld. This food however comes with dire consequences. Should you make the mistake of ingesting any of this food, then you will remain in the fairy realm forever. A warning against doing this is usually given by another human (usually a long lost female family member) who had been “swept” (taken away) by the fairies in the past. These accounts and tales illustrate a grey area between the ghost world and the fairy world in the Irish lore. The Otherworld is often shown as being populated by not only the Sídhe, but also dead (or at least believed dead) humans. In terms of the food aspect, it could be argued there is at least one parallel between the ancient and modern beliefs of the intoxicating nature of the otherworldly food. Eachtra Conlae tells us how Conla was able to sustain himself entirely on an apple from the Otherworld but as a result essentially bound himself to the Otherworld. Comparatively looking at the apple aspect, it brings to mind Iðunn, the Norse goddess who had magical apples that prevented the gods from aging. The topic of aging brings me to my next point.
I mentioned above about the ageless nature of the Otherworld in the ancient tales. We have seen how the inhabitants of the sídhe are capable of dying, at least at the hands of humans. For the most part in the fairy lore, the good people are shown as likely being immortal. In many of the tales attributed to the “fallen angel” origin theory, the fairies have been around since the fall of Adam and will be there till judgement day. They are variously described throughout the lore as being either beautiful or wizened so their actual aging process is ambiguous at best. A tale collected by Eddie Lenihan gives us a fascinating insight into the aging of na daoine usaile. In this narrative we are told of a man, who after being “swept”, is introduced to multiple generations of fairies of extreme old age. They claim to have been there for hundreds of years and require human help in retrieving a magical razor blade from a well (retrieving things from wells and wells connected to the Otherworld being examples of more ancient motifs). Shaving with this razor brings them back to the age of 35. This is the only instance I have personally seen a ritual where the other crowd change their age.
We see a number of times where time anomalies happen. Anyone familiar with the older tales will know that the passage of time in the Otherworld is much different from our own. Months or years spent in the Otherworld could translate to mere minutes passing in our own world (c.f Adventure of Nera) or centuries might have passed (c.f Óisín returning from Tír na nÓg). In the modern lore, time discrepancies are relatively tame compared to the older tellings, but are still evident. People will often suffer lost time, similar to those now popularised by UFO encounters. Invisible barriers might hold a person in place (likely to prevent them from witnessing some fairy activity). Another time when this happens is when people are “led astray” and might spend hours lost in the one field. Being “led astray” may take a more serious turn when a fairy mist descends upon you. This clearly echoes the old tradition of being enveloped in mist when being transported to the Otherworld (c.f Baile in Scáil). The difference here though is that the fairy mist has the ability to drown out environmental noises such as birds, wind through the trees and most importantly, the sound of running water. Crossing running water would allow you to escape so covering the sound of this allows the other crowd the ability to lead you astray even further.
Yet another aspect of continued tradition, albeit altered to a degree, is the association of the Otherworld with music and the bringing back of gifts. Music is often heard coming from fairy forts. This is always described as mournful, unnatural sounding music and many skilled musicians have tried to “take an air out it”, yet are unable to take a single note from it. The music in this case seeming to be esoteric knowledge they are not allowed access as there have been a number of tunes freely given to humans that could be played and passed down. (an example, with added lyrics by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, is found here of the fairy music Port na nPúcaí). There have also been healing books taken from the Otherworld, as well as other healing items such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle. This was used by the famous healer to diagnose and cure the multitudes of people who traveled to seek her powers of precognition and healing. The gifts have changed over time and we find no real evidence, that I am overtly aware of, that shows the bringing back of blossoming or silver branches as tokens that we find in the manuscripts.
Hopefully this cursory glance into aspects of the Irish Otherworld has given at least a brief look into the evolution of the idea of the native Otherworld throughout the centuries and that it illustrates the continuation of many motifs over a millennia that still remained strong in the oral tradition well into modern times.
Shrove Tuesday, colloquially known as ‘Pancake Tuesday’, occurs on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent. ‘Pancake Tuesday’ remains very popular across Ireland to this day and is eagerly anticipated by almost all children. Most people around the country would have fond memories of rushing home from school to gorge on as many pancakes as they could manage. Many a boast and many a tall tale were made in school the following day as to how many pancakes were consumed the previous evening. This overindulgence lies at the heart of the tradition, which I will detail below.
“It is called Shrove Tuesday because on that day everyone is supposed to go to confession to be shriven or forgiven their sins in preparation for the Holy season of Lent. In Ireland Shrove Tuesday is a great day for marriages as they are forbidden in Lent”. (NFSC, Vol.0903:469).
In an account from County Cork, we are told how “On Shrove Tuesday night a crowd of boys dress up in old clothes. They go around to the houses where an old maid or an old bachelor lives. They make an old woman for the bachelor by getting a turnip for the head and a bag of straw for the body. They dress it in old clothes and they put it up on the pier. For the old maid they make an old man. This is called the Stócach. Sometimes they make an old man or an old woman on the wall with paint. This is often very annoying because it is very hard to remove the stains. (NFSC, Volume 0395:030). The targeting of unmarried people mentioned here is not an isolated affair at this time of the year more can be read here.
In this day and age, during Lent, you might find a select few who will attempt, and often fail to give up one luxury. In days gone by, it was a much stricter and more austere observance. Not only was meat banned, but also any form of dairy products (which accounted for a large proportion of the Irish diet). Ecclesiastical laws forbidding the consumption of the aforementioned items were promulgated through the Statutes of Armagh (1614, Synod of Drogheda) and the statutes of Clonmacnoise (1649), but it is believed that this was common practice for centuries prior to this time. Shrove Tuesday was a time to gorge out on the surplus of soon-to-be forbidden foods found in the house. The folklorist Kevin Danaher refers to it as ‘household festival’, where friends and family gathered together around the hearth to make and eat the pancakes. Interestingly, some families would have saved the holly from Christmas and this would be burned on the Shrove Tuesday cooking fire.
An account on Duchas (NFSC Vol.0392:006) mentions that games and dancing were part of the night’s revelry as well. The same account mentions an interesting element: “Long ago a certain man named Jackie the Lantern used to go around on Shrove Tuesday night. He used to have a lantern with him. Every person that he would catch, he would lead them astray. When the people would see the light, they would get dazzled from it”. A number of stories of ‘Jackie the Lantern’ can be found on Duchas.ie.
The flipping of the first pancake (a skill worthy of boasting) was carried out by the eldest unmarried daughter of the household. The result of which was used as a form of divination, to see if she would be married within the next year (as Shrove Tuesday was believed to be the final day one could get married, it would be at least the following year before she would have the chance to marry). If she was successful in the endeavour of flipping the pancake, she would be married by next year, but if she failed, she was doomed to be single for the foreseeable future (which could be a considerable cause of stress due to the status that was attributed to marriage in Ireland). This practice goes back at least a few centuries and was recorded by Mr and Mrs Hall as they toured Ireland in the 19th century.
Meat was also consumed in great quantities on the day. Records show animals being slaughtered for the occasion by wealthy land owners and the meat given to their poorer neighbours or tenants due to the old belief that nobody should be without meat on the day. An account from circa 1690 from a book salesman visiting Ireland from London tells of how the poorer people ate large amounts of meat on the day. This was a non-native account so it takes the usual dismissive attitude towards the Irish peasantry. He tells how these ‘papist peasants’ consume so much meat that it would sustain them until Easter, when again, they rise early in the morning to heavily consume “flesh”. The writer makes sure to stress the fact that these people are not of the upper classes. A later tradition connected to the meat, is where a piece of meat was hammered into the rafters or up inside the chimney in the hope that it would not only bring luck, but also in the hope they would not want for food in the coming year (a possible form of sympathetic magic/transference?). The piece of meat remained for the duration of Lent and was removed for Easter Sunday. It would appear that the absence of meat in the house during Lent was symbolically replaced by the morsel in the chimney/rafters to insure there would not be an absence of meat for the duration of the year to come. Continuing with the animal slaughter theme, a far more barbaric tradition and thankfully long since discontinued was once practiced on Shrove Tuesday. “Cock throwing” was where people gathered to throw stones at terrified cockerels who were tied to posts. Whoever threw the killing blow could keep the bird, and it was not unknown to witness people carrying a number of the birds home. This appears to be an imported pastime, as it is found throughout England up until the 18th century. The same visiting book salesman who recorded the 1690 account above, recorded another ritual. In Naas, County Kildare, he tells us how groups of townsfolk would gather on horseback and travel to a nearby field. They would seek out a hare and encircle it. They would try to prevent it from leaving what the author calls “the magic circle” and shout and scare the unfortunate animal until it dropped dead from fright. This was done until they had killed three hares and then they would go home.
In terms of slaughtered animals there was once a tradition where the head of the animal was presented to a blacksmith. Whether this is somehow connected to the blacksmith’s high status in society or if it was an offering given to stay on the good side of the blacksmith due to the belief that they could curse people, is unclear. One final animal related traditions relates to lizards. Licking a lizard was said to imbue the person with the ability to cure burns and scalds. Doing this on Shrove Tuesday was said to make the cure more powerful and effective.
Although we have no real tradition of folklore relating to St Valentines Day (with the exception of the two pieces related to cards I was able to find below from the National Folklore School’s Collection), we do however have a number of traditions relating to matchmaking and marriage. Read on to find out about Shrovetide weddings, the Skellig Lists, Chalk Sunday and other traditions related to marriage and matchmaking.
On Valentine’s Day (14th Feb) people used to send Valentine cards, which were about the size of a post card. There were coloured bows of ribbons attached to the corners and little rhymes written under them such as:-
If of me you often think
Send me back my bow of pink
If to me you would be true
Send me back my bow of blue
If you are another girl’s fellow
Send me back my bow of yellow.
If to me you would be wed
Send me back my bow of red
If with me you wouldn’t be seen
Send me back my bow of green
Shrovetide was customarily the time for traditional marriages in Ireland, with Shrove Tuesday being the optimum day of choice for such an occasion. Typically marriages were prohibited during the penitential season of Lent so people tried to marry just before its beginning. From Little Christmas (6th Jan) onwards, matchmakers would have been busy arranging marriages and the entire community would be awaiting the celebrations of the upcoming weddings of the successful matches.
Violins would be played while entering the church
Tray of copper and silver coins were handed to the groom when exiting the church to be thrown into the air and scattered into the crowd. This inevitably drew the attention of children but also drew attention of beggars and vagrants who would gather at these events, with accounts of brawls sometimes breaking out between them for possession of the coins.
The house of the bride’s parents was the scene of the after party, a far cry from the luxurious and expensive hotels now favoured. Music, feasting and dancing continued long into the night (and no doubt other matches were formed during the party.) On the way to the house it was not unusual for groups of boys to halt the wedding party by stretching a rope across the road. The groom would have to pay a small fee to pass.
The bride’s mother would often break a cake over the bride’s head for luck.
The first Sunday of Lent was known (in Munster and Leinster at least) as ‘Chalk Sunday’. Here, anyone unlucky enough not to have made a match or to have married during Shrovetide, were targeted on their way to or from church, by youngsters brandishing chalk who would proceed to mark the bachelor’s with lines and squiggles on their clothing. This for the most part would be met with good humour, at least from the younger bachelor’s who had some hope of marrying the following year. From the older generation, it might be met with verbal abuse or a chase with a walking stick. It persisted in some areas until the 1930’s or 40’s. It should be noted that being married offered an element of status within the community. An unmarried male of 50 was considered a ‘boy’ whereas a married 25 year old male was considered a man. Conversely, the same applied to women. In some areas “Salt Monday” took the place of this, where a sprinkling of salt was sprinkled on both bachelors and spinsters to preserve them till the next Shrovetide.
This was a Munster tradition owing to the belief that Easter occurred a week later on Skellig Michael and thus meaning Lent had not occurred yet on the Island, allowing people an extra week to get married. This led to people being publicly targeted in a similar fashion as the Chalking with jibes such as “don’t miss the boat [to the Skelligs]”. Local poets were encouraged to write poems and lists of the unmarried people (dubbed the Skellig lists). This went to the extreme as the lists were printed out and handed around the parish (minus the printers name for fear of retribution) and large posters being printed and placed around the town advertising the “great excursion” and all those that would be taking part.
In the day’s long before online dating sites or “swiping right”, many matches were carried out by a third party arbiter, sometimes in a semi-professional or professional manner. This third party representative was sometimes an acquaintance of the people involved and would try to negotiate a pairing and the accompanying dowry (not unlike the bride price or coibhche in the Brehon Laws). The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival that features a third generation Matchmaker, is an annual festival that harks back to those bygone days, attracting many singles each year. A few accounts of this practice of matchmaking, as found on Duchas.ie, are below. You can follow the links to see the original manuscripts.
From a few days after Christmas until Ash Wednesday in every year is called Seraft, and long ago country people made matches for their sons and daughters during that time, and any girl that was on the marriage list and did not succeed in getting a husband was supposed to be very sulky and have a puss on, the last Monday of the matchmaking period. This was called puss Monday. When a young man wanted to get married he looked around his own village and the village next to it to find a suitable girl. Then he asked somebody who was acquainted with the girl to go and see her parents and see if they would give their consent, and if they agreed they would arrange to meet together the next day in a public house in town, and the young man would stand drink for everyone. Then they started the matchmaking and her father asked the man what lands he owned or how much fortune was he looking for, then if they could come to a settlement the girl’s father would have to give the boy the fortune. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428050/4372260
Ancient Marriage Customs
Shrove Tuesday is the last day on which anybody can get married before Lent. Most marriages take plave between Advent and Lent. IN country places most marriages take place as the result of matchmaking. What is known as matchmaking is, when a man wishes to get married he looks for a girl of marriageable age, who has a good fortune. When he decided upon the girl he wished to ask in marriage but he gets a friend to go to the girl’s house to make terms with the father. The friend finds out what fortune the father is willing to give her. The friend goes back to the man and tells him the fortune. If the man thinks the fortune is big enough he goes to the girl’s house and often brings a bottle of whiskey with him. If the terms are settled satisfactorily the bottle of whiskey is produced to settle the business. The date of the marriage is then fixed. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5044823/5041972
Looking at the solemn nature surrounding death and the funeral process in the modern day, one would not expect them to be a place where matchmaking would occur. The Irish wake however, was a surprisingly social event. I wrote an article on the gender roles associated with the wake (and some of the traditions associated with it) that can be read here. But in short, it was a time where the whole community gathered, and outside of the formalities associated with the process, it was a time where the young people gathered to compete in feats of strength, drinking and taking part in (sometimes borderline bawdy) games and fake weddings among other activities. This sometimes resulted in romantic matches and subsequent marriages. If you want to learn more about the games and activities, Irish Wake Amusements is a fantastic book.
A common form of divination in Ireland was related to marriage. This was mostly carried out by women wanting to see who their future husband would be, but there are accounts of men also carrying out these forms of divination. The optimum time for this practice was Halloween when the veil between this world and the otherworld was at its thinnest. People took advantage of the temporal liminality to divine the future. A list of these traditions can be found in my Halloween article here. Looking closer to Valentine’s days, at Shrovetide, the following tradition was recorded: Pancake tossing on Shrove Tuesday. Tossing of the first pancake is done by the eldest unmarried daughter of the host house. An unsuccessful flip of the pancake means she will not be married in the coming year. If successful, she cuts as many slices as there are people present and gives a piece to each person. A wedding ring might have been placed in the batter (similar to in barm brack at Halloween) and whoever finds it will have great luck receiving a prosperous and loving marriage.
One of the most striking traditions associated with the 26th December is “The hunting of the wren”. In the past teams of young men would go out and hunt down the small birds to kill them and place them in the “wren bush” that they would carry around. They would then travel around performing music and collecting money. The origins of this peculiar tradition are lost in the mists of time. Of course with many folk traditions whose origins are obscure, it has been theorised that the custom has a pre-christian origin
Today, the tradition continues in many places but with the omission of the bird killing (fake birds are now used). The Wren boys would disguise themselves, sometimes dressing in girls clothes, use veils or curtains on their face, or use the traditional straw men garb. Below are a few accounts of the tradition:
“people who don’t eat meat on the day will not be sick during the year”
(NFSC, Volume 0787, Page 56)
Young boys go around with the wren.They hold the wren in a box and sing a song. The song is:”The wren, the wren the king of all birds.St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, Give us something and honour the wren. On St. Stephen’s Day people go visiting (NFSC, vol.0104: 391).
>In The journals of the Kildare archaeological society,v, 452 it mentions that if any of the wren boys were refused money when they visited houses, they would bury a wren (from their “wren bush”) opposite the hall door into which no good luck could enter for twelve months (Danaher,1972:247). Just to address the burying of the wren, there was a strong tradition in Ireland of sympathetic magic such as that displayed above. Often referred to as a “piseog”. Often meat, eggs or straw dolls were buried in a field of the person you wanted to “curse” or affect the luck of the person you aimed the piseog at. Sometimes items were also placed in walls or foundations of houses to bring luck (I might put an article together about this at some point).
>On St.Stephens day the boys of the district go with the wren. They disguise themselves. Some of them dress like girls. They wear masks and old clothes. They go from house to house singing,dancing, and playing music. They recite the following wren song; “The wren, the wren, the King of all birds, on St.Stephans day she was caught in the furs. Although she is small her family is great. Stand up young laddie and give us a treat. Up with the kettle and down with the pan. Give us some money and let us be gone. Look in the purse,There may be a copper there.help the wren. They gather a great amount of money and get plenty to eat and drink as they go around at night, they meet together and have a “spree.” (NFSC,Vol.0823:101)
“If there was no wren – people would think it was not Xmas at all”. (NFSC,Vol.0769:170)
>My father told me that when he was a little boy the people were more superstitious than they are now. If persons refused to give money to the wren boys, twenty or thirty years ago, all they had to do was to say that they would bury a feather of the wren convenient to their house and they would immediately give money rather than run the risk of having bad luck for a number of years.
Long ago the wren boys went on foot from house to house and as they could not cover a great deal of ground the takings were generally small.
Sometime they trampled through rain and snow from morning till night and had only one shilling or one and sixpence for their trouble.
Nowadays the wren boys travel on bicycles. (NFSC: Vol.0760:531).
“We followed him up,
We followed him down,
Till one of the wren boys,
Knocked him down.”
“Our clothes we tore,
And our boots we wore,
Following the wren,
For three days or more.”
Here we are again,
We won’t be here,
Till next year,
And here we are again.”
>On St. Stephen’s Day the “wren-boys” go around in procession from house to house. Grown up men come to the village also from the adjoining towns, and they are so well disguised that they are rarely recognized. They usually have a few melodeons in the party, and dance while a few go around to the houses for money. The whole party often enter the house, and dance among themselves or with the women-folk of the house – if they enter into the spirit of the festival. There is not any particular old song sung at this time – just any song they can all sing together. It is usual to spend the money gathered on drink and eatables to provide refreshment at a night’s dance which they hold in some neighbour’s house. The “wren-boys” are often called the “mummers”.
The custom of children dressing and going around gathering money is dying out of late. (NFSC:0056:0153).
Fairies remain a popular interest to many people although not many know the true nature of these beings in an Irish context. Due to the destructive influence of popular culture, many people wrongfully assume that they are small, winged, harmless creatures. This is not the case and in truth, it is much more complicated than that. I have had many people refuse outright to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when I inform them of this, so I hope this article makes some of this clearer.
They may sometimes appear smaller than us, but certainly not minuscule like the tinkerbell-esque creatures people expect. They look just like us and certainly don’t have wings, but due to existing on another plane to us, are able to conceal themselves. They live lives like us for the most part. Below I will detail how they live in their society, their origin stories and other information. Fairy lore, a pervasive belief around Ireland offers us a fascinating glimpse at the Irish perception of the otherworld- an alternative realm parallel to our own but just beyond earthly existence and our own temporal sphere. Eddie Lenihan, arguably one of foremost experts on the fairies, would argue that there is considerable and respectable proof of their existence owing to the vast corpus of material available through the ages and in all this material they have been described in great detail ( and not once have they been depicted with wings!).
To start I will look at the naming conventions. The word fairy is the most Widely known and easily identifiable ,although it is not a suitable, nor respectful term to use as such (as it falsely equates them with English fairies who are closer to imps or the tinkerbell type). Nor is any form of FAE or FAERIE (from old French and latin respectively). Known in Irish by many names and circumlocutions, they are not usually named directly for fear of insulting or invoking them. Typically know as Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe (the people of the mounds), they could also be referred to as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine úaisle (the noble people), the fair folk, the other crowd, the people of the hills and so on. For the remainder of the article I will simply refer to them as sídhe or the other crowd.
Society, likes and dislikes
So how does their society work? They have amusements similar to ours: they like to dance, play music and play games. They have been known to play Gaelic football (never soccer), hurling, bowls and chess. In terms of the games they will sometimes illicit the help of some hapless human (who dare not refuse them) to referee or take part in the match. The need for human help is a common motif and they will often be spirited away to take part in the games or in some cases where human women must act as midwife to deliver babies for the sídhe.
They have specific dwellings and a number of features of the landscape are often identified as being the abode of the other crowd, such as ringforts (lios or rath in Irish, these are circular enclosured earthen dwellings mostly dating to the middle ages), tumuli, dolmens or lone trees known as fairy trees (traditionally hawthorn). These enclosures and suspected abodes are usually treated with extreme caution even to this day (and good luck trying to find someone willing to cut down a fairy tree). They will furiously protect their dwellings and woe betide to anyone stupid enough to mess with them. Death and destruction is all that typically awaits those who transgress. That being said, they can make good or bad neighbours depending on how they are treated. They can be belligerent, but are placatable. Their true dwellings, those that exist in the otherworld are typically conceal from our view, similar to the magical barrier, the fé fiada, that was said to conceal the mounds and hostels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
They have their own specific pathways and roads and they would travel from place to place. When building houses it was not unusual to mark out the shape of the house with willow rods or small stone cairns. This would be left overnight to see if the house was “in the way” of any of these fairy paths. The willow rods had been removed from the ground, or the cairn of stones was disturbed, it was believed that the house was in the way of a fairy path and the process would be repeated until the rods or stones are left untouched. Many tales tell of houses that were in the way with loud noises being heard in the house at night, crashing, doors slamming, houses collapsing and general bad luck within the household.
Like ourselves, they have likes and dislikes. They like things like gold, milk (the first milk, known as colostrum or beestings, is often given as an offering to the sídhe), tobacco and poitín (often given as an offering to them). Most things associated with them are of a particular time: they will ride horses, but not cars or any auto-mobiles, they fight with sticks or hurleys but never guns or knives. Most of their activities are associated with Gaelic culture or associated with the natural landscape. When it comes to their hates, there are a number of items. They hate iron: it is one of the main repellents used when trying to discourage the other crowd. You see this a lot when trying to protect babies from being stolen and replaced by fairy changelings. It also pops up a lot in terms of protection while churning. Iron is an age old deterrent against evil or supernatural forces and many cultures around the globe believed this and as a result blacksmiths and iron workers are usually revered or thought to possess special powers as a result of them working with the iron (there is an article focusing on blacksmiths and the supernatural here ). They also hate salt and you will often encounter it being used as protection when churning butter. Salt will be sprinkled on the lid of the churn, underneath or into the butter itself to protect the process from being interfered with by the sídhe. Salt rubbed on the head when venturing outside at Halloween was used to protect anyone outside after dark. They also have a dislike of anything dirty (such as messy houses), they have an aversion to Christianity (both of their origin stories play into this and it is a common theme of many folktales where the sídhe will try to get a human to question a priest as to why they can’t get into heaven). I will cover the origin stories below. They also hate running water and are unable to cross it. This is also a common feature of folktales where someone fleeing the wrath of the sídhe, will only escape through crossing a stream (or in a few cases leaving Ireland completely by ship!).
The other crowd are also more active at certain times of the yearly cycle (such as may day or Samhain) and also at certain points of the life cycle (such as at birth) so salt and iron were used, among other things, at these times to remain safe from any malevolent actions the sídhe might want to take against you. As I mentioned above, may people find it hard to believe that they are not harmless. I have spent hours trying to convince some people that it is not in their best interest to seek out the sídhe. Even slight transgressions have ended in death, maiming or with transgressor ending up being driven completely mad or catatonic. I should add a caveat here. They are not overtly evil. They just have their own (often mysterious) agenda. It just so happens that accounts and tales of people falling foul of them far outweigh the opposite. That however does not mean they can’t or don’t help people. As I mentioned above, they sometimes need human intervention (be that in a sporting event or delivering a baby) and for their help, the person will often be rewarded. They have bestowed powers of healing (such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle or a number of healing books said to have been given to certain people over time). They have also been known to have bestowed fairy music on musicians who have played for them at a party. In times of famine, they have sometimes given otherworldly cows (designated by their white body and red ears) with endless milk to certain communities (who often inevitably mess up by exploiting this gift).
As I mentioned above there are two main origin stories for what we now call the fairies. There is what could be termed the native origin story, and the Christian one.
Native: From ancient times it was believed that a supernatural race has been believed to have lived in the hills, tombs, beneath the sea or lakes or on far away islands. In the literature, these are traditionally know as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the old gods of Ireland (such as Lugh, the Dagda, Brighid etc). These were seen as living in the otherworld, parallel to our own, but concealed from view. So, when it comes to what I termed the “native” origin story, it is believed that the “fairies” are in fact the Tuatha Dé Dannan, albeit diminished in spiritual significance, power and physical stature following their defeat and banishment underground.
Christian: As most will know, the entirety of our myths and legends were first recorded by Christian clerics in monastic scriptorium. Unlike the usual modus operandi elsewhere in Europe to demonize the pagan past, Ireland instead opted for euhemerisation. Most stories were given a Christian slant, but this was to work the stories into a Christian framework and make them acceptable. Unfortunately this meant that some gods were turned to humans (such as queen Medbh, Finn Mac Cumhaill, Brighid etc) and some stories were corrupted but for the most part, they were recorded by Irish monks who had an interest in the pagan past and were, in a sense, sympathetic to it. This leads us to the origin of the fairies as being half-fallen angels, cast out of heaven for not picking a side during the rebellion. They remain, half-way between heaven and hell, in the sky, on the land and beneath the earth, cursed to never see heaven (or till judgement day in some cases). This christian explanation for the sídhe became popular in the middle ages, no doubt a means for resolving the tension between the native and Christian cosmologies. As such it is not unusual to have devout Christian who fervently believes in the other crowd. This clearly preserved the native tradition and it’s syncretism also gave the fairy faith a prominent place in Christian eschatology and cosmology.
When we think of healing today, the knee jerk response is to think of doctors, hospitals and prescribed medications, made up of all manner of chemicals that come with a long list of adverse side effects. That modern medicine we are all familiar with is a relatively new discipline and up until very recently in Ireland the average person would have sought medical help from the local wise woman (bean feasa), herbalist or someone who simply ‘had the cure’.
In the schools collection we are told the following by one informant “Long ago in Ireland the people used herbs to cure people and animals. They tell us there is a herb for every disease if only we knew it or could find it out” (NFSC, VOL.0141:410) . Sometimes these cures relied on a knowledge of herbs and other times its providence lay in the supernatural realm or simply through means we would consider as ‘magic’. Ireland has a vast corpus of medical manuscripts that survive from the middle ages showing its rich history of learning and medicine, but we are lacking in accounts of the everyday person who practiced healing. There are however, many comparable accounts found in the UK from the middle ages onwards.
We see comparable elements, for example, in the use of magical charms as a form of healing, a practice we know was popular in Ireland up until relatively recently and many of which are found in the schools collection. One such account from William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft” in 1608 tells us that “charming is in as great request as physic, and charmers more sought unto than physicians in time of need” (Thomas, 2003:209). Thomas (ibid:210) also mentions that with the “inadequacies of orthodox medical services left a large proportion of people dependent upon traditional folk medicine”. This also could be applied to Ireland. There has of course, since the establishment of orthodox medicine at least, been a propensity towards thinking that these practitioners of native healing were in some way less reliable than ‘educated’ doctors. Lady Gregory tells us of a saying in Irish, “An old woman without learning,it is she who will be doing charms” (Gregory, 1976:148). This association with formal learning betrays the centuries of knowledge amassed by these practitioners of native healing, a tradition passed orally through the ages. For the purpose of the essay I will be searching through the National Folklore Schools Collection to see what treatments that are available for Tuberculosis, often called consumption in Ireland and I will also be looking at the treatments and ‘cures’ for warts.
To begin I will focus on Tuberculosis (TB), known colloquially in Ireland as ‘Consumption’ or ‘wasting sickness. In Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century TB was amongst the worst of the ‘killer diseases in Ireland. Rates of infection had risen in Ireland even after rates had decreased in England and wales after the significance of contagion was recognised in the 1800’s and with many considering it to be a particularly Irish problem in the early twentieth century (Jones, 1999:8).
When looking at cures in the schools collection (hereafter NFSC) we see a range of treatments, as is usually the case, ranging from medicinal to magical. In terms of plant based cures for TB, the Mullein plant, scientific name Verbascum, pops up on numerous occasions. The extracts of this plant have been used as part of traditional medicine for hundreds of years around the globe (Akdem & Tatli, 2006:85). The efficacy of this in treating TB is no doubt due to its use as an expectorant and its mucolytic qualities. It is often used to treat respiratory ailments and has antimicrobial and immunomodulatory qualities (ibid,8). In terms of the NFSC we find a number of ways that it was used. We are told that It cures consumption (NFSC, VOL.0922:139) and that it can be found in good soil. In terms of preparing it we are told to boil it and drink the water (NFSC, VOL.0773:125-6).
Another plant based cure that is mentioned is the “marrow plant”. The informant mentions that it is a flower that grows in your garden that blooms in the month of October (NFSC, VOL.0665:108-9). I am unsure of the plant in question and there is no instruction on the preparation of the cure. Other forms of plant based medicine mentioned in the schools collection include cures involving the use of garlic. The following account mentions that garlic was supposed to cure “almost any disease”. The account goes into much greater detail than many others and displays some real knowledge in terms of healing. It claims that a few “grains” garlic per day while fasting is of great benefit to those suffering from consumption or other lung diseases. It recommends using “new milk”, colloquially referred to as “beestings” or colostrum, to boil garlic in. It also mentions that this cure is particularly efficacious when used by babies or delicate people (NFSC, VOL.0141:410). Bovine Colostrum is widely believed to be particularly beneficial to humans and it has been said that “colostrum from pasture-fed cows contains immunoglobulins specific to many human pathogens” (Buchan, Borissenko, Brooks & McConnell, 2001:255). The use of garlic in this case is most likely due to its anti-microbial, antibiotic, expectorant and immune boosting properties (Kellet, 2003:71).
Milk does feature in many of the cures, with varying ingredients being boiled in it. Many of the cures however are not simply cure-alls and must be taken at a certain time in the progression of the disease to be effective. We are told that boiling a dandelion leaf in milk was a cure but if it was not drunk before a certain point that it was not effective as a cure (NFSC, VOL.0109:405). Unfortunately we are not told what stage this is to be drank at, but we could surmise that it is in the early stages of the disease. Both dandelion and garlic boiled in milk is mentioned elsewhere as a preventative if drank regularly (NFSC, VOL.0787:280). In terms of the specific time the cure has to be taken, the following account (NFSC, VOL.037:0057) mentions that it is a “perfect cure” if taken in the early stages of consumption. The recipe involves boiling “Sugar, Candy, liquorice, whiskey, Sweet-stick, brown sugar, a small quantity of flax seed and meacan na gcaorach” until it forms a syrup. I am unfamiliar with the plant ‘meacan na gcaorach’ [sheep’s root?] but it is mentioned as being a “garden vegetable with yellow flowers and large green leaves” (possibly sheep sorrel?) .
The following cure does not have any basis in actual healing but instead relies on a form of transference or sympathetic magic, often referred to as piséogs. This particular type of magic can be found in many cultures but is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record. A prime example of this is ‘gathering the dew’ on may eve. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3). Other forms of this magic include gaining power over another by possessing a piece of hair or clothing as well as it being found in cures that involve “like curing like”, such as “the hair of the dog that bit you” (Hanna, 1909:96) or “whistling for the wind” (a factor that popped up numerous times in my own field work when interviewing fishermen). Another more common example in Irish sources is the practice of tying rags to a “clootie tree” at a holy well. As the rag rots so does the disease.
The curing of consumption in this account is of a similar nature to this. It involves putting an egg into an ants nest and as the egg is eaten by the ants, the sickness will disappear also (NFSC, Vol.0800:155). Another account similar to this mentions how old people used to say that if you carry a potato around in your pocket that it would cure consumption (NFSC,Vol.0386:158). The potato here supposedly drawing out the disease in an act of transference. The final cure I would like to look at in relation to consumption leaves unsure as to whether it falls into the category of medicinal or magical or both. The cure in this instance involves acquiring seven rusty nails and putting them into a pint of porter for seven days (NFSC, VOL.0525:002). The use of rusty nails in porter (with its inherent iron content) seems to point to a recipe that involves a high Iron content but the fact it has to be specifically seven nails for seven days seems to point to a magical element. The number seven features prominently in Irish sources (in both ancient literature as well as more modern folklore such as seventh son of seventh son) as well as in biblical numerology. Also of course the fact that in many places around the globe, Iron is considered to be “imbued with an air of magic” (Jennings, 2014:2), and appearing in many tales as a deterrent to fairies and other supernatural creatures. The fact that the account mentions that as the drink depletes that the consumption will go with it seems to also allude to the fact that there is some form of transference involved here also. I should also mention that one account I encountered put emphasis on the fact the cure in question relied on it being prepared by “an old family” in the district that were noted for “curing where others failed”. They would make cures from “simple herbs” that could cure “dangerous” diseases such as consumption (NFSC, VOL.0824:128). Certain families having specific cures is quite common in Irish sources such as the Keoghs having the cure for shingles (NFSC, VOL.0823:480).
The second series of cures I would like to cover are for Warts. These feature a crossover of ingredients as well as also having a mix of medicinal cures as well as relying on supernatural or magical means as a means of getting rid of them. Wells and ballaun stones (the water that gathers in the hollow such as the “hole of water” mentioned in NFSC, VOL.1076:20) are often used for the supernatural cures. It is important to note though that since many of these healing powers are seen as rooted in Christian traditions that the healing is seen as a miracle as opposed to some form or act of magic (zuchelli,2016:149).
A number of different methods of cure were collected by Andrew Taylor (NFSC, VOL.1116:234). He tells us that any wells dedicated to St Patrick will cure the warts. Here we see the magic/religion overlap. He also tells us how rubbing clay on them and throwing it after a funeral will get rid of the warts .The others mentioned by him on the other hand rely on an entirely magical means of curative power, such as rowing a boat with the outgoing tide. Another example, again of transference like those found in the cures for consumption, is sticking a pin in your warts and then sticking the pin into a grave. Among some local cures collected in Dublin (NFSC, VOL.0787:334) we find both plant based and magical remedies side by side. The “stuff like milk” from the stem is said to cure the warts but the account also mentions a means for ridding one’s self of the warts through sympathetic magic. This involves counting the number of warts and putting the corresponding number of stones in a bag and throwing it in a field. Whoever is unlucky enough to pick up the bag gets the warts and they will go from your hands.
Frances Gallagher (NFSC, VOL.1076:20) tells us that there are a “whole lot of cures” for warts. Most of the cures collected by her fall under the heading of the sympathetic magic that has been seen in a number of examples above. She also mentions the stone trick, but it is to be left in the middle of the road instead of in a field. She also recommends that the package they are in should be made attractive so as to attract someone to pick it up. She suggests however that ten stones be collected, one throw away and the remaining nine put in the package. Another cure mentioned by her suggests that the warts be rubbed on the gizzard of a hen and then bury it. As this rots the warts disappear.
An interesting mix of both the sympathetic magic and religion can be found in Leitrim (NFSC, VOL.0229:303) tells us that rubbing the warts with straw, say some prayers and then bury it. As the straw decays so will the warts. As with the cure for TB being held by a family or person, we get this also in the cure for warts. In an account by Mrs Mulryan (NFSC, VOL.0770:451), she tells us that in her locality there was someone by the name of John Rogers who had a charm that he would not tell to anyone. He only required to know the number of warts. Whether he was using the same sort of sympathetic magic as above, we could only speculate, but there are mentions elsewhere (NFSC, VOL.0326:316) that tell us that people had charms for giving warts to another.
These examples above are by no means an exhaustive list of the therapeutic modalities available for either the consumption/TB or for the removal or treatment of warts. It barely scratches the surfaces of the cures given in the schools collection. They do however show that certain elements pop up again and again in the accounts with varying degrees of complexity to the instructions. The examples given also provide a good mix of both practical plant based lore and a more magical approach to the problem.
Hanna, W (1909), Sympathetic Magic, Folklore, Vol.20, No.1, Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Jennings, P (2014), Blacksmith Gods: Myths, Magic & Folklore, Moon Books, Winchester, UK. Zuchelli, C (2016), Sacred stones of Ireland, Collins press, Cork.
Jones. G (1999), Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940, Cork University Press, Cork.
McConnell, M. A.; Buchan, G.; Borissenko, M. V.; Brooks, H. J. L. (2001). “A comparison of IgG and IgG1 activity in an early milk concentrate from non-immunised cows and a milk from hyperimmunised animals”. Food Research International. 34 (2–3): 255–261.
NFSC, VOL.0037:0057, Collector: Eibhlín Ni Ailledéa, múinteoir, Dunmore, Co. Galway, Informant: Edward Burke (74),farmer, Carrownaseer South, Co. Galway.
NFSC, VOL.0141:410, Collector: Annie Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, Informant: Patrick Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, School: Gort an Tuair, Gortatoor, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Áine Nic Oirealla.
NFSC, VOL.0525:002, Collector: John Creed, Domhnach Mór, luimrick, Informant: Patrick O’Connell, Teacher: Aingeal Nic Aodha Bhuidhe.
NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.