Cursing in Irish Folk Tradition





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

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


The curses of Blacksmiths and Millers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Women who Curse

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

Female Satirists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beggars who Curse

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


Priests and Saints who Curse

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

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

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

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

Curses against landlords

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

Cursing Stones

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

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

The Evil Eye:

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

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

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

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


Some Random Curses

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

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

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

Medieval Curses

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

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

Examples include:

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

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

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

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

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

Úir aineóil tarat! (Foreign soil over you!)

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

A Guide to Early Irish Law, Fergus Kelly

Celtic Spells and Counterspells, Jacqueline Borsje

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

How to make a Saint Brigid’s Cross:

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

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

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What you will need:

Fresh rushes (or straw)

Scissors

Elastic bands or string

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

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

Now wrap this around the first rush like so:

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

Again, bend another rush as place going this direction:

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

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

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

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

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

And if perhaps you do admire,

That this great house did ne’er take fire,

When sparks ,as thicks as stars in the sky,

About the house did often fly,

And reach’d the sapless wither’d thatch,

Which dry spunge the fire would catch,

And where no chimney was erected,

Where sparks and flames might be directed

St Bridget’s cross hung over the door ,

Which did the house from fire secure

NFC Iml 1148:465 + Iml 482:172

Gráinne Mhaol, Ireland’s Pirate Queen

“A woman who overstepped the part of womanhood”

Comment from one of her many detractors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Finbarr of Cork: His Feast Day and Folklore

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

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

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

Gougane Barra and the Pilgrimage

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

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

The ‘Péist‘ (water monster) at Gougane Barra

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

Folklore of the Saint

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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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

The Ship Sinking Witch Of Youghal

witch sink.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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Scél Lem Dúib: An Early Irish Poem

sceal leim dubh fin.jpg
Image copyright ISOS and the Royal Irish Academy. The red dots either side of the second column point to the beginning of the poem in question. Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 25 E23, p. 11. All rights belong to Royal Irish academy

The Poem below, of unknown authorship is placed in the mouth of Finn uí Baiscne, more commonly known as Finn MacCumhaill, leader of the Fianna and main protagonist of the very popular Fenian cycle (I will cover Fenian tales in a separate post at some point in the future). This method of composing poems and placing them in the mouth of a literary character is found in a number of places throughout the manuscripts.

The poem luckily survived in a gloss*  ( *scholia, a marginal note or explanatory comment in the margins of manuscripts) on the commentary of Amhra Colm cille (a eulogy of Saint Colm Cille composed in the late 6th or early 7th century by Dallán Forgail,  the Chief Ollam of Ireland ). This poem below  now survives in a number of manuscripts such as the 12th century Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow, the oldest extant manuscript in vernacular Irish), The Yellow Book of Lecan (late 14th/early 15th century),  Rawlinson B 502 (Bodleian library copy of the Amhra) and  TCD MS 1441.

The poem was given a date of 8th/9th century by Gerard Murphy and has been translated by Kuno Meyer and Kenneth Jackson (In Four Old Irish Songs of Summer and Winter and Studies in early Celtic nature poetry respectively). The meter, which relies on 3 syllables on each line and 4 lines in each verse was known by a number of names such as Anamain or Cethramtu Rannaigechta Móire (quarter of Rannaigecht Mór).

 

 

ut dixit Find hu Baiscne                  As Finn, descendent of Baíscni, said:

 

Scél lem dúib:                                    I bring news:

dordaid dam;                                     Stag bellows;

snigid gaim;                                        Winter pours

ro fáith sam.                                      Summer gone.

 

Gáeth ard úar;                                     High cold wind;

ísel grían;                                             Low the sun;

gair a r-rith;                                        Short its course;

ruirthech rían;                                    Ocean roars;

 

Rorúad rath;                                       Red Bracken;

ro cleth cruth;                                   Shape hidden;

ro gab gnáth                                       Now common

giugrann guth.                            voice of the barnacle geese

 

Ro gab úacht                                      Cold now holds

etti én;                                                 Wings of birds;

aigre ré;                                               Time of ice;

é mo scél.                                            That’s my news/story.

 

Glossary of words:

Scél: News, tidings, a story. Modern Irish (hereafter M.IR): Scéal

Lem: M.IR Liom

Dúib: You (plural), M.IR: Daoibh

Doirdaid: Belling, bellowing, the noise of a stag in rut. Dord was a term use for a buzzing or humming sound. It is also connected to the Fianna. The Dord Fianna was a chant or hum used by Finn and his men.

Snigid: pours/flows, M.Ir: Sní, sníonn

Gaim: Winter, M.Ir: Geimhreadh

Fáith: has gone

Sam: Summer, M.Ir: Samhradh

Gáeth: wind, M.Ir: Gaoth

Árd: High

Úar: Cold, M.Ir: Fuar

Ísel: low, M.Ir: Íseal

Gair: short

A r-rith: course, M>Ir: Rith

Ruirthech: running swiftly

Rían: An archaic word for Ocean. This was the word that was glossed in the commentaries on the Amhra and the reason why the poem was penned in the marginalia and preserved. M.Ir: Aigéan.

Rorúadh: Very red, deep red. Ró  used to denote the possession of a quality in a high (but not necessarily excessive) degree. Rúadh in M.Ir: Rua (foxy)

Raith: Bracken. M.Ir: Raithneach

Cleith: Hidden/ concealed. M.Ir:  faoi cheilt. 

Cruth: shape

Gnáth: common/normal

Giugrann: Wild goose. M.Ir: Gé fhiáin.

Guth: voice.

Úacht: Cold, M.Ir: Fuacht

Etti: Wings, M.Ir: Sciathán, Eitéog

Én: (of) Birds, M.Ir: Éan.

Aigre: Ice, M.Ir: Leac, Oighear

Ré: period or lapse of time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

https://www.scoilgaeilge.org/academics/mairead/EarlyIrishLiterature/SummerHasGone.htm

https://www.vanhamel.nl/codecs/Commentary_on_the_Amra_Choluim_Chille

https://celt.ucc.ie/published/G400053/index.html

Irish Script on Screen

Story Archaeology

eDil

Irish Stick Fighting and Faction Fights

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Waterford Factions.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

Duchas.ie, The National Folklore Schools collection

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

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

The Evolution of the Irish Otherworld

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Few things have captured the imagination of the Irish across the millennia like the idea of the Otherworld. We have trips to the Otherworld recorded in some of our earliest tales, preserved in our oldest manuscripts. What is interesting is that these tales appear to have been an already strong tradition prior to having been written down in the Christian period by a monastic milieu. Like many other things in the world of myth and folklore, the idea of the Otherworld evolved over time. From domain of the Tuatha dé Dannan in the earliest tales, to the fairy Otherworld of modern accounts, this article hopes to illustrate a crash course in the Irish Otherworld and what elements evolve, and which stay the same.

 

We have a number of different literary genres of trips to an array of different worlds other than our own:

  • Eachtra (Adventures): These tales are overtly Pagan in nature and involve trips to the native, pre-Christian Otherworld. They often portray the Otherworld as being accessed through either entering a hollow hill or by the protagonist being surrounded in mist. These portals of entry are not confined to the Eachtra tale types and are found throughout the literature.
  • Imramma (Voyages): These are Christian tales, involving clerics setting off and visiting Otherworld islands that show signs of influence from the indigenous belief in the Otherworld. It is easy to see with the similarities between the pre-Christian and Christian Otherworlds and how there was almost a sense of rapprochement between the two traditions. A pre-Christian Otherworld with Christian Ideals (“Land of the Living where there is no Sin”). MacCana commented how “In most of its aspects, Irish Christianity is one of compromise and syncretism with indigenous tradition and usage”.
  • Fís (Visions): These are completely Christian in nature and deal with Christian eschatology and as a result the Otherworld in question is either hell or heaven and as such not applicable to this article.

 

“The multi-locational character of the Otherworld is evidenced throughout Irish tradition”  Prionsias MacCana

 

Typically the Otherworld may surround you but you fail to see it. It was described by  Ní Bhrolicháin as “A perfect realisation of this world. A place without death, disease, war and old age”, although there is at least one tale of the fairy Otherworld that depicts the fairies as aging and requiring a ritual to become youthful again.  As with much in relation to the Otherworld things can be contradictory.  In terms of the quote above the lack of war and death in the Otherworld is not exactly true, for example, in the case of De Gabháil in Síde (The Taking of Hollow Hill). Here death within the Otherworld is shown, although admittedly death is brought by humans entering in the sídhe (Otherworld, hollow hill). Humans bringing death to the Otherworld can also be found in Welsh sources, namely in the first branch of the Mabinogi, where Arawn, Lord of Anwyn (Welsh Otherworld) enlists the help of Pwyll in delivering a fatal blow to an immortal enemy. The need for human help in the Otherworld is also a very important element in the later fairy lore.

The Otherworld has received many names over the course of history, which again muddies the water  even further. It is never made completely clear if these are multiple Otherworlds or just a single one given different names. Some of these are as follows:

  • Tír na mBeo (Land of the Living)
  • Tír na mBan (Land of Women)
  • Mag Mell (The Plain of Delight)
  • Tír Tairngire (The Promised Land)
  • Tír na nóg (The Land of Youth)

There is also the later addition of Otherworldly islands such as Hy Brasil, Little Aran and an Island off Ballycotton (to name but a few). These are likely a direct influence from the Imramma tales and  only appear at 7 year intervals or during certain climactic conditions. The tradition of going across the sea to enter the Otherworld though only appears in two tales. Professor John Carey remarks how this was not in keeping with the native lore and may have been a product of the Ulster literary movement.

Summary of the Ancient Otherworld

The ancient Otherworld is portrayed often as being around us at all time, yet imperceptible to most people. It can be entered by passing through a hollow hill (Sídhe or Brugh) especially at liminal times of year such as Samhain . There are numerous mentions of the fact that “All sídhe are open at Samhain” and that the magical barrier, the Fé Fiada is not actively concealing them.

There is a time discrepancy between our world and the Otherworld, with them being at opposite points in the yearly cycle. We see examples of this in one of the early Finn tales when Finn McCumhaill (Fionn mac cool) is sat between Dá Chic Anann (The Paps of Anu) at Samhain. He can see into the two sídhe on either summit of the mountain and hears two men speak to each other. One says to the other “Is your Subhais good?”. The dish mentioned, Subhais, is typically a dish associated with Bealtaine, a festival at the opposite side of the year. This is similar to an event in Eachtra Nerai (The Adventure of Nera), also set at Samhain. As Nera returns from the Otherworld to warn the royal assembly at Rathcroghan of an impending attack, he is given Torthaí Samhraidh (the fruits of summer) to prove that he had been on a different plain to our own. This motif of bringing a gift back from the Otherworld is a prominent one which there are a number of examples, including it being a common occurrence within both Eachtra and Imramm tales.

It can also be accessed through bodies of water, such as lakes and there are many examples of tales that relate to underwater and flooded kingdoms or allusions to the Otherworld being under the water. This later evolves in the imram tales to the Otherworld being accessed by crossing the sea in boats, and later again to the mystical islands such as Hy Brasil. The difference between the Imram and Eachtra being that the Imram focuses on a “prolonged adventurous voyage at sea rather than upon the experience of a mortal in a single Otherworldly place”.

Music is commonly associated with the Otherworld in both ancient and modern accounts. Sad, mournful and magical music can often be an indicator that the Otherworld now surrounds you. The legendary Finn Mac Cumhaill encounters an otherworldly entity that emerges from a sídhe near Tara every 9 years and burns the royal fortress to the ground. He uses a magical instrument that causes people to fall asleep, not unlike the legendary harp of the Dagda himself. The element of mournful music combined with the magical aspect of it will be seen again in the modern Otherworld segment below.

Another theme that occurs in both old and new sources is abundance. This is a prominent feature throughout the tales. Feasts, trees laden with fruit and fields full of crops are often mentioned. In the human world this is intrinsically bound up with rightful rulership reflected in the fertility of the land. . The judgments and behaviour of the king reflect in the cosmos. Assuming the king has been ceremonially wedded to the land (personified in the form of the sovereignty goddess) and displays Fír Flatheomon (The King’s justice), the land would be fertile and abundant, as would the people of the Tuatha (petty kingdom). Were the king not to display these attributes, crops would fail, storms and plagues would ravage the land and children would be stillborn or born with deformities.

 

Modern Folklore of the Otherworld

Now we venture into the more modern take on the Otherworld, that of the fairies. We can see many parallels with the older tradition mentioned above with repeats of motifs such as altered time and reality, envelopment by mist, abundance and music. Here we see a departure from entering the Otherworld through Tumuli, which have been replaced by the monuments colloquially named “Fairy Forts”. These numerous monuments dot the Irish landscape, numbering roughly 30,000 or more, are also known by the names rath or lios. These were enclosured dwellings dating to the middle ages and to this day they are still treated with a degree of suspicion, or genuine fear. Many of these monuments lie unmolested in a farmer’s field, despite how much they may be in the way or taking up valuable planting space. The folklore record is full of what happens to those who dare destroy this abode of the good folk. Despite these innocuous looking “forts” appearing to us as a simple embankment ringed by trees, entering into them may transport you to the Otherworld, similar to entering a sídhe. Upon stepping into one of these areas you might find yourself in a mansion belonging to “the other crowd”. Likewise, it has been said that there have been incidents of people attempting to cut down fairy trees, only to be confronted by a member of the good folk asking why they are cutting into “the jamb of their door”. They will furiously protect their dwellings and usually death and destruction follow any desecration of them.

Unsuspecting people may also be transported by sleeping under a fairy tree or in some cases even from falling asleep on the side of the road. For example a tale recorded by Eddie Lenihan tells of a man who fell asleep on the edge of the road and awoke in “the finest house he had ever seen”. Here we see the common fairy lore motif of finding themselves in an Otherworldly mansion (which is a contrast to the older lore where entering a hollow brought you to an alternate land). More often than not these mansions have a huge table laden with food, mirroring the abundance of the “ancient” Otherworld. This food however comes with dire consequences. Should you make the mistake of ingesting any of this food, then you will remain in the fairy realm forever. A warning against doing this is usually given by another human (usually a long lost female family member) who had been “swept” (taken away) by the fairies in the past. These accounts and tales illustrate a grey area between the ghost world and the fairy world in the Irish lore. The Otherworld is often shown as being populated by not only the Sídhe, but also dead (or at least believed dead) humans. In terms of the food aspect, it could be argued there is at least one parallel between the ancient and modern beliefs of the intoxicating nature of the otherworldly food. Eachtra Conlae  tells us how Conla was able to sustain himself entirely on an apple from the Otherworld but as a result essentially bound himself to the Otherworld. Comparatively looking at the apple aspect, it brings to mind  Iðunn, the Norse goddess who had magical apples that prevented the gods from aging. The topic of aging brings me to my next point.

I mentioned above about the ageless nature of the Otherworld in the ancient tales. We have seen how the inhabitants of the sídhe are capable of dying, at least at the hands of humans. For the most part in the fairy lore, the good people are shown as likely being immortal. In many of the tales attributed to the  “fallen angel” origin theory, the fairies have been around since the fall of Adam and will be there till judgement day. They are variously described throughout the lore as being either beautiful or wizened so their actual aging process is ambiguous at best. A tale collected by Eddie Lenihan gives us a fascinating insight into the aging of na daoine usaile. In this narrative we are told of a man, who after being “swept”, is introduced to multiple generations of fairies of extreme old age. They claim to have been there for hundreds of years and require human help in retrieving a magical razor blade from a well (retrieving things from wells and wells connected to the Otherworld being examples of more ancient motifs). Shaving with this razor brings them back to the age of 35. This is the only instance I have personally seen a ritual where the other crowd change their age.

We see a number of times where time anomalies happen. Anyone familiar with the older tales will know that the passage of time in the Otherworld is much different from our own. Months or years spent in the Otherworld could translate to mere minutes passing in our own world (c.f Adventure of Nera) or centuries might have passed (c.f Óisín returning from Tír na nÓg). In the modern lore, time discrepancies are relatively tame compared to the older tellings, but are still evident. People will often suffer lost time, similar to those now popularised by UFO encounters. Invisible barriers might hold a person in place (likely to prevent them from witnessing some fairy activity). Another time when this happens is when people are “led astray” and might spend hours lost in the one field. Being “led astray” may take a more serious turn when a fairy mist descends upon you. This clearly echoes the old tradition of being enveloped in mist when being transported to the Otherworld (c.f Baile in Scáil). The difference here though is that the fairy mist has the ability to drown out environmental noises such as birds, wind through the trees and most importantly, the sound of running water. Crossing running water would allow you to escape so covering the sound of this allows the other crowd the ability to lead you astray even further.

Yet another aspect of continued tradition, albeit altered to a degree, is the association of the Otherworld with music and the bringing back of gifts. Music is often heard coming from fairy forts. This is always described as mournful, unnatural sounding music and many skilled musicians have tried to “take an air out it”, yet are unable to take a single note from it. The music in this case seeming to be esoteric knowledge they are not allowed access as there have been a number of tunes freely given to humans that could be played and passed down. (an example, with added lyrics by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, is found here of the fairy music Port na nPúcaí). There have also been healing books taken from the Otherworld, as well as other healing items such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle. This was used by the famous healer to diagnose and cure the multitudes of people who traveled to seek her powers of precognition and healing. The gifts have changed over time and we find no real evidence, that I am overtly aware of, that shows the bringing back of blossoming or silver branches as tokens that we find in the manuscripts.

Hopefully this cursory glance into aspects of the Irish Otherworld has given at least a brief look into the evolution of the idea of the native Otherworld throughout the centuries and that it illustrates the continuation of many motifs over a millennia that still remained strong in the oral tradition well into modern times.

 

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Bibliography

Duchas.ie

“Introduction to Early Irish Literature”, Muireann ní Bhrolicháin

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

“Meeting the other Crowd” Eddie Lenihan

“Folktales of Ireland” Séan o Suilleabháin

“Irish Folktales” Henry Glassie

“The Celtic Heroic Age” ed. Koch and Carey

“The Location of the Otherworld” John Carey

Shrove Tuesday

00shrove.jpg
Pancake tossing, Mr and Mrs Hall, Ireland.

Shrove Tuesday, colloquially known as ‘Pancake Tuesday’, occurs on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent. ‘Pancake Tuesday’ remains very popular across Ireland to this day and is eagerly anticipated by almost all children. Most people around the country would have fond memories of rushing home from school to gorge on as many pancakes as they could manage. Many a boast and many a tall tale were made in school the following day as to how many pancakes were consumed the previous evening. This overindulgence lies at the heart of the tradition, which I will detail below.

“It is called Shrove Tuesday because on that day everyone is supposed to go to confession to be shriven or forgiven their sins in preparation for the Holy season of Lent. In Ireland Shrove Tuesday is a great day for marriages as they are forbidden in Lent”. (NFSC, Vol.0903:469).

In an account from County Cork, we are told how “On Shrove Tuesday night a crowd of boys dress up in old clothes. They go around to the houses where an old maid or an old bachelor lives. They make an old woman for the bachelor by getting a turnip for the head and a bag of straw for the body. They dress it in old clothes and they put it up on the pier. For the old maid they make an old man. This is called the Stócach. Sometimes they make an old man or an old woman on the wall with paint. This is often very annoying because it is very hard to remove the stains. (NFSC, Volume 0395:030). The targeting of unmarried people mentioned here is not an isolated affair at this time of the year more can be read here.

In this day and age, during Lent, you might find a select few who will attempt, and often fail to give up one luxury. In days gone by, it was a much stricter and more austere observance. Not only was meat banned, but also any form of dairy products (which accounted for a large proportion of the Irish diet). Ecclesiastical laws forbidding the consumption of the aforementioned items were promulgated through the Statutes of Armagh (1614, Synod of Drogheda) and the statutes of Clonmacnoise (1649), but it is believed that this was common practice for centuries prior to this time. Shrove Tuesday was a time to gorge out on the surplus of soon-to-be forbidden foods found in the house. The folklorist Kevin Danaher refers to it as ‘household festival’, where friends and family gathered together around the hearth to make and eat the pancakes. Interestingly, some families would have saved the holly from Christmas and this would be burned on the Shrove Tuesday cooking fire.

An account on Duchas (NFSC Vol.0392:006) mentions that games and dancing were part of the night’s revelry as well. The same account mentions an interesting element: “Long ago a certain man named Jackie the Lantern used to go around on Shrove Tuesday night. He used to have a lantern with him. Every person that he would catch, he would lead them astray. When the people would see the light, they would get dazzled from it”. A number of stories of ‘Jackie the Lantern’ can be found on Duchas.ie.

The flipping of the first pancake (a skill worthy of boasting) was carried out by the eldest unmarried daughter of the household. The result of which was used as a form of divination, to see if she would be married within the next year (as Shrove Tuesday was believed to be the final day one could get married, it would be at least the following year before she would have the chance to marry). If she was successful in the endeavour of flipping the pancake, she would be married by next year, but if she failed, she was doomed to be single for the foreseeable future (which could be a considerable cause of stress due to the status that was attributed to marriage in Ireland). This practice goes back at least a few centuries and was recorded by Mr and Mrs Hall as they toured Ireland in the 19th century.

Meat was also consumed in great quantities on the day. Records show animals being slaughtered for the occasion by wealthy land owners and the meat given to their poorer neighbours or tenants due to the old belief that nobody should be without meat on the day. An account from circa 1690 from a book salesman visiting Ireland from London tells of how the poorer people ate large amounts of meat on the day. This was a non-native account so it takes the usual dismissive attitude towards the Irish peasantry. He tells how these ‘papist peasants’ consume so much meat that it would sustain them until Easter, when again, they rise early in the morning to heavily consume “flesh”. The writer makes sure to stress the fact that these people are not of the upper classes.  A later tradition connected to the meat, is where a piece of meat was hammered into the rafters or up inside the chimney in the hope that it would not only bring luck, but also in the hope they would not want for food in the coming year (a possible form of sympathetic magic/transference?). The piece of meat remained for the duration of Lent and was removed for Easter Sunday. It would appear that the absence of meat in the house during Lent was symbolically replaced by the morsel in the chimney/rafters to insure there would not be an absence of meat for the duration of the year to come. Continuing with the animal slaughter theme, a far more barbaric tradition and thankfully long since discontinued was once practiced on Shrove Tuesday. “Cock throwing” was where people gathered to throw stones at terrified cockerels who were tied to posts. Whoever threw the killing blow could keep the bird, and it was not unknown to witness people carrying a number of the birds home. This appears to be an imported pastime, as it is found throughout England up until the 18th century. The same visiting book salesman who recorded the 1690 account above, recorded another ritual. In Naas, County Kildare, he tells us how groups of townsfolk would gather on horseback and travel to a nearby field. They would seek out a hare and encircle it. They would try to prevent it from leaving what the author calls “the magic circle” and shout and scare the unfortunate animal until it dropped dead from fright. This was done until they had killed three hares and then they would go home.

In terms of slaughtered animals there was once a tradition where the head of the animal was presented to a blacksmith. Whether this is somehow connected to the blacksmith’s high status in society or if it was an offering given to stay on the good side of the blacksmith due to the belief that they could curse people, is unclear. One final animal related traditions relates to lizards. Licking a lizard was said to imbue the person with the ability to cure burns and scalds. Doing this on Shrove Tuesday was said to make the cure more powerful and effective.

 

 

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Sources:

The Year in Ireland, Kevin Danaher.