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

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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

The Book Of Lismore: Returns Home to Cork

Image source and copyright: https://libguides.ucc.ie/the-book-of-lismore

Great news today in that the book, commonly referred to as The Book of Lismore, has returned home to Cork after spending almost the last 100 years in Chatsworth, UK at the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. It will be stored in University College Cork and will eventually be placed in a publicly accessible exhibit, along with a number of other manuscripts and artifacts in the university’s possession. But, Lismore is in Waterford I hear you say, so how is it coming ‘home’ to Cork? I will touch on that below as well as the contents of what is widely referred to as one of the “great books of Ireland”

This 15th century manuscript gained it’s name “The Book of Lismore” owing to the fact that it was found hidden in a wall in Lismore Castle during renovations and structural work in 1814. Its other name “The book of Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach” comes from the fact it is believed to have been composed for its patron Fínghin Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach, Lord of Cairbre, Co. Cork. The evidence for this rests on a poem to him and his wife Caitilín (the daughter of Thomas Fitzgerald, the 8th Earl of Desmond). A scribal note also mentions a couple (Lánamhna) for whom the book was written, although this has been argued that it might have been Fíngin’s father and mother and that the poem was added in later. It was then believed to have been housed in Killbrittain Castle (belonging to the Mac Cárthaigh clan) until 1642 when Lord Kinalmeaky (son of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork) mentions in a letter to his father that he took a manuscript after sacking the castle. The book was then sent to Lismore Castle, then in the possession of Richard Boyle. So, how did it end up in the wall? This was believed by some to have happened in 1643 when Lord Muskerry was besieging the castle, although this is disproved as a scribal note on one of the pages has a date of 1745 revealing someone had access to it at this point which leaves us with more questions than answers.

Following the discovery of the manuscript in the walls of Lismore Castle it made its way to a few scholars and scribes in Cork and of course in the process a number of folios were lost, not to mention that the workers who found it were said to have taken off with entire sections of it (a total of 66 folios/pages are believed to be missing). Then in 1856 the parts that now feature in the book were returned to Lismore. In 1930 it made its way to the Duke of Devonshire’s (the then and current owner of the castle) seat in Chatsworth. In 1950 a facsimile of the book was created and then in 2011 the original manuscript was briefly displayed in UCC while plans were put in place for it to be placed there permanently. Yesterday, the 28th October 2020 was that historic day. Looking to the future, the manuscript will prove to be an excellent resource for all students of language, paleography and Celtic studies for many years to come.

Scribes

Stokes, O Grady and Macalister identified three main hands: In Bráthair Ó Buaghacháin (this was later found to be not the case as he is believed to have been the scribe responsible for an earlier version), Aonghas Ó Callanáin and an unidentified scribe but there is also evidence of an “intrusive hand” in the texts, sometimes mid text. This is evidenced by different sized texts, changes in ink, the number of lines per page etc, suggesting that another scribe (or scribes) took over the work.

Contents

Macalister referred to the manuscript as “not being for the library, the monastery or the professional scholar, but for the use of the intelligent, cultured layman”. The wide-range of material contained within certainly points to this. The religious material is to the front, giving way to the more secular works of entertainment later on. It contains a diverse array of texts from different sources and genres such as vita, myths, law tracts, travel texts and more. Some of these are:

  • A number of Saints’ lives (vita) 9 in total including at least one local, Finnchu of Brigown. Finnchu is unusual in the fact that he is comparable to Cú Chulainn’s riastrad when he becomes enraged. Flames and sparks were said to have issue from his mouth when angered. He was also said to have uttered a curse in a strange language from his mothers womb which caused barrels of ale to explode when his mother was refused a drink at a tavern. This is identical to the store of the Pre-Christian filidh (poet) Aitherne (This story and the corresponding ale charm can be read in Carey.J(2019), Charms in Medieval Irish Tales). All the other saints mentioned with the exception of Patrick are Irish, compared to the similar and contemporary Book of Fermoy (which mentions continental saints). The other lives include Brigit, Columcille, Seán of Scattery, Finnian of Clonard, Brendan of Clonfert.
  • The geographical text Crichad an Chaoilli that describes north Cork.
  • Irish apocryphal texts (one of which, In Tenga Bith Nua I touched on here) and the story of the Tenga is to be found in the link in the bibliography.
  • Enumeration of the 8 deadly sins.
  • A tract on the Anti-Christ.
  • Description of the day of judgement.
  • The Battles of Cellachán of Cashel. This was a propaganda text of the Mac Carthys.
  • Texts of an otherworldly nature such as The Adventure of Loegaire Mac Crimthann and the otherworldly visit of Tadhc Mac Céin.
  • Munster-centric texts such as The Siege of Drum Damguaire and poems to Munster Kings including Aillil Ólomm
  • A tale relating to an underwater monastery (Tale of the Pigs Psalter). For a deep discussion of the phenomenon of underwater monasteries see Carey.J(1992),Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries:The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic ColloquiumVol. 12 (1992), pp. 16-28 (13 pages)
  • Irish Kingship texts such as tales of Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill, the last king to hold the pagan Feis Temro at Tara. It also has material relating to the privileges of the Uí Neill and tracts on rights. The manuscript also has texts relating to foreign rulers such as The History Charlemagne (who Mac Neill claimed that many Irish kings modeled themselves on).
  • A list of the requirements to get into Finn Mac Cumhaill‘s Fianna.
  • Acallamh Na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Elders). This is chronologically (in therms of the setting of the tales) the end of the Fianian Cycle. It focuses on the remaining two members of Finn mac Cumhaill’s Fianna, who have somehow survived for centuries, as they travel around the country relating tales of the pagan past to Saint Patrick. They explain how places got their names and lament the old ways of the past. This tale takes up a significant portion of the manuscript.
  • Acallamh Becc (The Small Colloquy)
  • Lebor na Gceart (Book of Rights). This related to the rights of the kings of Cashel, from whom the Mac Cárthaigh were descendants, and how they had supremacy over all other kings in Ireland.
  • The only surviving Irish language translation of Marco Polo.

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Bibliography:

Many thanks to Dr Caitríona Ó Dochartaigh, UCC for sending me on these articles by John Carey and Máire Herbert from Traveled tales- Leabhar Scéalach Siúlach: The Book of Lismore at University College Cork (2011). It gives a more in depth look at some of the contents mentioned above: https://www.ucc.ie/en/media/academic/seanmeanghaeilge/newsitems/TravelledTales.pdf

Ó Cuív.B (1983), Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History and literature, Vol 83c, pp 269-92.

Smith.M (2016), Kinship and Kingship: Identity and Authority in the Book of Lismore, The Journal of American Studies of Irish Medieval Studies, Vol 9, pp.77-85.

The Seven Heavens: An Irish Eschatological Tradition

In a country with an epithet like “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, one would expect to find a very rich and plentiful resource of religious beliefs when looking at the vast collection of manuscripts handed down to us from our forebearers. This is certainly the case and among these beliefs the medieval Irish seemed to have a special fondness towards the eschatological tradition. Within this tradition we find the subject of this current essay, the so called ‘seven heavens’. John Carey classes the ‘seven heavens’ as being the “most striking element in insular eschatological tradition”, a claim that is certainly hard to refute considering the fact that accounts of it can be found in manuscripts dating well into the 19th century. This popularity is especially striking considering the fact that many of the beliefs found therein had long since gone out of fashion. The main focus of these texts is on seven zones or heavens through which souls have to pass. Several of these ‘zones’ contain punishments of a purificatory nature, ultimately culminating in judgement before the divine.

This tradition of course does not originate in Ireland, nor is it limited to such. Carey argues for a Gnostic background for the tradition and although there are ten zones/heavens in many instances in the Coptic sources, they do in fact share a common denominator, the fact that these zones share the hell like torments that have a purifying effect on the souls involved. In the Irish sources though it is not common to connect the seven heavens with the seven known planets known at the time unlike what we see in, for example, the Egyptian sources where they often equate the seven heavens with the planetary bodies or the primeval week. The resemblance between the Irish, old English and Latin material pertaining to the seven heavens does at the very least point to the possibility of them all stemming from a common source. This theory of a common lost apocryphon can be argued for due to the schema relating to the passage of souls through the heavens and the remarkable similarities between the Irish, Old English and Latin sources. Each of these portrays the heavens as concentric with a gate or door to each entrance. The entrances of the first two of the seven heavens are guarded by 2 virgins and an archangel. Souls must pass through the zones facing obstacles such as fiery walls and streams with levels of time taken to pass through the obstacles being dependent on if the soul was righteous or a sinner. As they reach the 7th heaven they are subject to judgement by god with the sinners being eaten by a succession of twelve dragons until they are deposited into the devil’s mouth. By the time the tradition had evolved to the point of the more modern versions, such as in In Tenga Bithnua modern recension (hereafter TBNM) this description has become more graphic in terms of the dragons eating the soul and it being passed through the anus into the mouth of the next dragon. Also similar to the Seacht Neamha (hereafter SN), we see the use of classical names for rivers (such as Asceron, Styx etc.). This so-called ‘lost apocryphon’ of the seven heavens was proposed by Stephenson to have been derived from a mixture of the Greek version of the Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul and another apocalypse that was translated into Latin before reaching Ireland. This was more or less backed up by Carey although he views Pistis Sophia as being a better candidate over the Apocalypse of Paul. Whichever apocalypse informed it, it is clearly evident that there was indeed Coptic influence and it may be safely assumed that there were some now lost editions circulating that ultimately informed our own native insular seven heavens tradition.

In an Irish context we have a number of texts relating to the seven heavens that survive. As mentioned above these cover a large time period from the 12th century up until the 19th century. The primary texts relating to this tradition are the account of the seven heavens contained within Fís Adomnáin, ‘An Seacht Neamha’ in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum (hereafter LFF), and ‘In Tenga Bithnua’. The oldest account of the seven heavens that can be found in Ireland is contained within Fís Adomnáin (hereafter FA) and is found in Lebor na hUidre. This recension of FA has essentially the same framework as the Visio Santi Pauli but chooses to omit all the names of the doors and of the heavens. Also it would appear, according to Touati, that the FA seven heavens section could have been informed by the homily of the karlsruhe fragment which is Hiberno-Latin in origin and was very likely familiar to the author of FA.

Another Irish seven heavens text we are aware of is ‘In Tenga Bithnua’ (hereafter TBN). John Carey places the original composition of this to around the 9th century whereas Whitley Stokes had placed it to the 10th/11th century around the time of the crossover between old and middle Irish period. The popularity of this text can be seen from it being copied over many centuries, long after the belief systems contained within had become obsolete. There are numerous copies of this text extant in three recensions. The third recension, or modern recension (TBNM), can be found in 39 manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to the 15th century (this copy however does not have the seven heavens section ) and the latest of which are 18th and 19th cent. Of these later manuscripts twenty copies are from the 18th century and eighteen from the 19th century. The language in these recensions, in comparison to the others, has been modernised and due to this fact, can be dated to no earlier than the period in which they were written. Even though the language has been ‘updated’ as such, there are some similarities found there with phrases found in both SN and FA and while TBNM does not directly derive from them, it certainly shows influence from them. What is worth noting though is that in TBNM we see more attention paid to the names of the seven heavens unlike FA, with many of the names being similar to SN. Another development when looking at TBNM is that it is the only recension that features the ease of passage through the trials by the righteous and the prolonging of torments of the sinners that is in other seven heavens texts that is not evident in the first and second recensions of TBN.

So in conclusion we see that in the case of SN, TBN and FA that there are gates involving barring access to the heavens that would appear to be some sort of interface between the vertical and horizontal approach to the traditions. We also see virgins as guardians (only named in one instance) that have iron rods for scourging souls. And in some cases these heavens seem to be specifically concentric as opposed to ascent. In all cases these souls have to pass through various obstacles such as fiery rivers, walls etc, that increase in difficulty depending on the purity of the soul and the ultimate time needed to pass dependant on said purity. Each passes through these zones till they reach an antechamber of sorts in the sixth heaven and ultimately being judged by god himself in the seventh heaven. In all cases we also encounter twelve dragons who swallow the soul of those damned to hell, passing the soul from one to another till the damned soul is deposited into the jaws of the devil.

The remaining seven heavens text we find in Ireland is the An Seacht Neamha text found in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum . This is the only version of this text that we have available to us. Also in this manuscript we see a deliberate attempt to modernise the language possibly to make it more accessible to the readers of the 15th century. We see many parallels between SN and TBN in the fact that they both have very close descriptions of the heavens. Both describe seventy two rewards in the paradisal zones and seventy two punishments in the hell like zones but as well as its similarities it has its own unique elements that cannot be found elsewhere. These elements include the naming of the virgins found in the second heaven. This naming of the virgins can also be found in the Old English homily along with identical naming of doors which leads us to believe that both derive from the same source.

Bibliography
‘The End and Beyond: Medieval Irish Eschatology’, Carey, J.,Nic Cárthaigh, E., and Ó Dochartaigh, C. (eds.), 2 vols (Aberystwth,2014), vol.1

Carey, J.,’The King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings’, (Dublin, 2000)

Carey, J.,’The Seven Heavens and the Twelve Dragons in insular apocalyptic’, in McNamara, M. (ed.), Apocalyptic and Eschatological Heritage: The Middle East and Celtic Realms, (Dublin,2003)

Herbert, M.,’Medieval Collections of Ecclesiastical and Devotional Materials: Leabhar Breac, Liber Flavus Fergusiorum and the Book of Fenagh’ in B. Cunningham and S. Fitzpatrick (eds.), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin,2009)

Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)

Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)
Stokes, W.,’The Evernew Tongue’, Eriú 2 (1905)

Fíor Uisce: The Legend of the Lough

DSCF64334.jpgWander 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 (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 Luigthigwho 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

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Slavery and Hostages in Early Medieval Ireland

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Slavery

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.

Hostages

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:

  • Gíall (continuous use)
  • Aitre (11th century onwards)
  • Brága (12th century onwards)

The Yellow Book of Lecan

IMG_20191112_142204.jpgThe Yellow book of Lecan, or Leabhar Buidhe Lecain is a composite/miscellany manuscript dating to the 14th/15th century and is currently housed in Trinity College, Dublin.

It is written in Middle Irish on vellum and contains almost the entirety of the Ulster Cycle of tales within it’s pages. An incomplete version of the Táin bó Cúailnge found here,made up of copies of other versions, was used with the incomplete version found in Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) to form the complete recension of the Táin that we have today. The Ogham tract found in the Book of Ballymote is also found in this manuscript as well as the Irish triads, The Settling of the Manor of Tara and a version of St Patrick’s life. The life and the Settling  were said to have been recounted by Fintan Mac Bócaire (one of the first arrivals in Ireland, who arrived with Noah’s granddaughter Cessair). The version of the life also tells of the giant  Trefuilngid Tre-eochair who was based at the hill of Tara, who was the first person in Ireland to hear of the Crucifixion of Christ.

Also found within is Tech Midchuarta which gives us the seating plan of the royal dining hall at Tara

The book was sourced from either Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh  or from Dáithí Óg Ó Dubhda in the year 1700.  Ó Flaithbheartaigh and Ó Dubhda would have obtained them from Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh whose family created and preserved the book. Following this the pages were bound together, seventeen manuscripts as a single volume and were dubbed “The Yellow Book of Lecan”.

 

DSCF4613.jpgContents include, but not limited to:

 

  • Life of Saint Féchín of Fore
  • “Sanas Cormaic”, Cormac’s Glossary
  • O’Mulconry’s Glossary (Etymological Tract)
  • Beginning of Togail Bruidne Da Derga
  • “Cáin Domhnaigh”, The Law of Sunday: A legal tract forbidding work on Sunday
  • “Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu”, ‘The wise sayings of Flann Fína Or Aldfrith, son of Oswiu’
  • Audacht Morainn ‘The Testament of Morann’, a Speculum Principum  or ‘Mirror of princes’
  • The triads of Ireland
  • Tech Midchuarta (plan and description).
  • Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca ‘The Death of Muirchertach mac Ercae’
  • Fled Dúin na nGéd ‘The Banquet of the Fort of the Geese’
  • List of Archbishops of Armagh from St. Patrick to Giolla Mac Liag (Gelasius).
  • Account of celebrated trees of Ireland prostrated by a storm in the year 665.
  • Fragment of  ‘The voyage of Máel Dúin’s coracle’.
  • ‘The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla’
  • ‘The Voyage of Bran mac Febaill’
  • The adventure of Connla’
  • Leabhar Ollamhan, including the Auraicept na n-Éces ‘Poets’ Primer’, a treatise on Ogham
  • Amra Coluimcille
  • Longes mac n-Uislenn ‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu
  • Clesa Conculaind ‘The Feats of Cú Chulainn”
  • Assembly of Druim Cet
  • Aided Díarmata meic Cerbaill ‘The Death of Diarmait Mac Cerbaill”
  • ‘The Wooing of Étain’
  • The Four Jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann On the Tuatha Dé Danann and their magical education,
  • Poem ascribed to Torna Éces, on pre-Christian kings of Ireland buried on Croghan; on burial places in Teltown
  • On the seven orders of ‘bards’

Sources:

https://www.revolvy.com/page/Yellow-Book-of-Lecan?cr=1

http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/jce/yellowlecan.html

Further reading:

Jones, Mary (2003), “The Yellow Book of Lecan”, Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia

Stokes, Whitley, ed. (1891), “Life of St Féchín of Fore”, Revue Celtique, 12: 318–353

Reeves, William, ed. (1873), “On the Céli Dé, commonly called Culdees”, Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, 24

Meyer, Kuno; Stern, L. Chr., eds. (1901), “Das Apgitir des Colmán maccu Béognae”, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie (in German and Irish), 3: 447

O’Keeffe, J.G. (1931), “Dál Caladbuig and reciprocal services between the kings of Cashel and various Munster states”, Irish Texts, I: 19–21

Hull, Vernam (1930), “How Finn made peace between Sodelb and Glangressach”, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 18: 422–4, doi:10.1515/zcph.1930.18.1.422

Stokes, Whitley, ed. (1905), “The Colloquy of the Two Sages”, Revue Celtique, 26: 4–64

Stokes, Whitley, ed. (1905), “The Adventure of St. Columba’s Clerics”, Revue Celtique, 26: 130–70

Hull, Vernam (1930), “The four jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann”, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, 18 (1): 73–89, doi:10.1515/zcph.1930.18.1.73

Ferguson, Samuel (1879–1888), “On the legend of Dathi”, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 2nd, 2: 167–184

Maniet, Albert (1953), “Cath Belaig Dúin Bolc”, Éigse, 7: 95–111

Sources

 

Ó Muraíle, Nollaig (1996), “The Celebrated Antiquary: Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh (c.1600-1671) – His Life, Lineage and Learning”, Maynooth monographs, Maynooth An Sagart, pp. 16 and 23

Ó Concheanainn, Tomás (1986), “The manuscript tradition of two Middle Irish Leinster tales”, Celtica, 18: 13–33

Ó Concheanainn, Tomás (1986), “A personal reference by Giolla Íosa Mór Mac Fhirbhisigh”, Celticia, 18: 34

Ó Concheanainn, Tomás (1980), “The YBL fragment of Táin Bó Flidais”, Celtica, 14: 56–57

Abbott, Thomas Kingsmill (1900), Catalogue of the manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, pp. 328–37

Abbott, Thomas Kingsmill; Gwynn, E.J. (1921), Catalogue of the Irish manuscripts in the Library of Trinity college, pp. 94–110

“Leabhar Buidhe Lecain”, http://www.maryjones.us , list of contents of work by pages

Witch Trials and Witchcraft in Ireland: Alice Kyteler

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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”.

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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.