The “night of the big wind” or as it is known in Irish “Óiche na Gaoithe Móire” was one of the worst storms ever recorded in Ireland leading to many deaths, mass homelessness, and apocalyptic levels of destruction around the entire country. The power of the storm and the resulting damage was so intense that people ascribed supernatural origins to it, with some believing that it was Divine retribution, and others thinking that the fairies were to blame.
The storm itself occurred on the night of the 6th of January (the 12th night/feast of the epiphany/Nollag na mBan) and the early hours of the 7th in 1839. The devastation of that night would be passed through the generations, with people recounting it to the next generation whenever a storm would break out.
The day started with snowfall, but throughout the day the temperature would rise by 10 degrees leading to the day becoming unnaturally warm and clammy by some accounts. A number of people noted that there was a sense of foreboding in the air and that there were ominous, motionless clouds and an unnatural absence of wind. As the evening pushed on, rain and hail started and the wind amped up in intensity from about 10pm onwards. The rudimentary weather measurements available at the time recorded extremely low barometric pressure, ideal for extreme winds, earlier in the day.
First-hand accounts of the event paint a picture of the absolute terror that must have been felt by people. One man, who was only a boy at the time tells how his brothers struggled to rescue all the animals before the outhouses collapsed around them. He tells us how the sound of the wind from that night stuck with him his entire life and that it was so loud that adults had to shout directly into each other’s ears for any hope of hearing each other. Other accounts tell us that it sounded like “a continuous peal of thunder” or the “bellowing of ten thousand bulls”. We can only imagine how terrifying this would have been, especially to a child.
The Newry telegraph was one of the first to report on the damage on the 8th and even though the full extent of the damage was unknown it reported that several ships and boats had been wrecked with a number of lives lost, houses decimated and unroofed, stacks of turf (the main source of fuel) destroyed, stored crops wrecked, livestock dead or missing and centuries-old trees uprooted (10,000 alone on the Ballymeyer demesne). In many cases, people lost everything.
To paint a picture of the conditions in the country at the time. The population was roughly 8.2 million (today it is 5 million) and the majority of houses were mud-walled thatched cabins, with an estimated 2 million people living in sod/mud cabins (like this). If you think of the fact that even the “big house”, stone churches, and castles were damaged, the ramshackle houses of the lower classes stood no hope at all. As you can imagine, the thatched houses brought their own problems. The wide chimneys and thatch were a disaster waiting to happen and fires broke out in many townlands, with varying degrees of destruction. More rural areas fared better than towns in this regard due to the houses being further apart. Loughrea suffered terribly with 87 homes being completely destroyed. The whole town might have been lost were it not for the wind suddenly changing direction. One policeman trying to help to quell the conflagration, received serious burns to the eyes from red-hot ashes blowing into his face. It’s hard to imagine the terror of the roaring winds, the screaming and abject terror and the pitch black of the night being broken by roaring fires and buildings falling around them. Outside of the losses to fire, 600 people in the area were left destitute. Many had to flock to churches and police stations in the following days for shelter. It was said that as a result of the storm “manys a one who lost their fortune and manys a one who found it” owing to the fact that many people kept their savings either stashed in the thatch roof, or in the chimney. For those unlucky enough to lose it, there were others who were unscrupulous enough to make their own fortune by gathering up the ill-gotten gains.
As I mentioned above, even the big houses weren’t safe. The large ornate chimneys of the mansions and stately homes of the landed gentry fell prey to the unnatural winds. Many deaths were a result of falling masonry and it is estimated that almost 5000 chimneys were knocked throughout the country (houses big and small). Some people were even forced to find shelter by hedges, hollows, and embankments. Eyewitness accounts tell how “huge limbs of oak flew like straws before the fury of the tempest”.
A number of anecdotal stories arouse out of the disaster. Herrings were said to be found 6 miles inland, supposedly carried by the winds after being pulled from the water. Salt brine was reported covering trees 12 miles inland. Waves were said to have come over the top of the Cliffs of Moher and the sound of waves crashing over was said to be heard miles inland, so loud that it could be heard over the thunderous roar of the wind itself. A canal was said to be stripped dry of water by the force of the wind. A pig was said to be carried a quarter of a mile and found safe and well stuck in a tree. And, given the vast destruction of trees and destruction of birds’ nesting and roosting spots (and the mass death of birds) the following spring was said to be almost devoid of birdsong. A massive tree was uprooted in a Carrickfergus graveyard, bringing “many of the dead to the surface”. An account from one area claims that the damage was so bad that it was the “big wind” that was the impetus for emigration and not the great hunger that would follow only a handful of years later. sand dunes formed from sand carried inland appeared in numerous areas. One account tells how years later while preparing to build a new house, an entire house was found 8 feet below the sand, having been entirely subsumed by the sand dunes.
As you could imagine, given the widescale destruction, it would come as no surprise that supernatural forces were blamed. Some gave divine retribution as a cause and that it may be a signifier that the world was about to end. The great scholar John ó Donoghue was spending the night in a hotel in Glendalough while carrying out fieldwork for the ordinance survey. As he survey the damage the following day, he remarked that the whole country looked like it had been “swept away by a broom” (ó Donovan was intimately familiar with Irish manuscripts, so I have to wonder if he is referencing Irish eschatological belief here, a tale where a giant broom will sweep the world clear on doomsday). Others ascribed the disaster to the sídhe (the fairies). A few different versions of this exist: invading fairies fighting Irish ones, massive groups of different factions fighting each other, or that it was the fairies finally leaving Ireland on magical tornadoes. An account in the national folklore collection tells us that a local spot normally associated with fairy music has been silent since.
The estimated damage done (in today’s money) is somewhere around the 250 million mark. The death toll is uncertain but is estimated at between 300 to 600 people. Thousands were left homeless, and many were injured. Stones were erected in some towns detailing the damage done. Interestingly, when the old age pension was introduced in 1908, the age of the people applying for it was determined by if they were alive at the time of the big wind.
We can only hope that we will never see a storm of this magnitude again in our lifetimes
‘Night of the Big Wind’, Frank Watters, Journal of the Pontzpass and District History Society, 1994 (pp.73-82) Irish Weather Online ‘The Calm Before the Storm’, Irish Times, 16th Oct 2017 NFSC, Vol.0313:0569, NFSC, Vol.0185:0569 NFSC,Vol.0909:288 NFSC, Vol.0186:364 NFSC,Vol.0113:376
For this edition of the animal folklore series, I am going to focus on a very divisive member of the animal kingdom, the goose. The goose has picked up a bit of a bad rep, especially online, as being an extremely aggressive and cantankerous creature. People have even gone so far as to label them as “Cobra Chickens”. Now, I have no doubt that some breeds, such as the Canadian goose that the term originates from, may in fact be more aggressive, but it is a shame that all of them are tarred with the same brush. Having spent the last 3 years visiting a local colony of Greylag geese (with a couple of Emden Geese thrown in) and befriending them, I can at least testify that the more domestic breeds are unfairly labelled in the same way. Given the fact they are some of my favourite birds, it is surprising that I have left it this long to write a piece on them, especially considering how they pop up in Irish myth, poetry and folklore.
In older texts, we are told that bird flight was observed carefully as a form of divination, as were the voices of birds. The ancient text of Cormac’s Glossary (Seanas Cormaic) tells us that the early arrival of Brent Geese (Cadhan) meant that storms and high winds were to follow. We see these beliefs repeated, to a degree, in more modern practice where birds would be observed for weather divination. The behaviour of geese was watched carefully in Donegal for instance and should a fisherman see a goose stick its neck in the air and beat its wings on its chest, it is very likely that he would not take to the sea in fear of high winds. In Mayo, the height they flew at was indicative of how the weather would play out: High flying = good weather, low flying = Rain.
The Irish language (Gaeilge/Gaolainn) placenames in certain areas are related to geese such as:
Gort na gCadhan (Field of Brent Geese): Galway, Roscommon
Inis Gé (Goose Island): Mayo
An interesting belief in west Cork claims that geese are capable of speech, and not only that but are said to speak to each other in Irish no less! The conversation between them involves a young goose asking an older goose about food, with the latter replying “It is certain that if you don’t Whisht here, that they will grab us and wring our necks” (Bíodh geall mara n-Éiste tú anso, go mbéarfear orainn is go gcasfar na sgrogaill orainn)
The NFC (National Folklore Collection) has many cures listed among its pages and some are more grounded than others. For those who are unfamiliar, the NFC is one of the largest folklore archives in the world and is one of the greatest sources we have on genuine Irish folklore and traditions. Luckily it is all digitised online at dúchas.ie and is well worth browsing. Be warned though, you are likely to fall down a rabbithole or two and will lose hours of your life.
Returning to geese, they pop up a number of times in relation to cures. Outside of using goose grease as an ointment for arthritis, these tend to fall into the category of extremely unusual to the point of wondering where the logic to it is. To enact one of these cures, the bill of the goose is placed into the mouth of the sick person or child, with the breath of the goose said to provide the cure. In some instances, the goose has to be specifically a fasting gander and is used for curing oral thrush.
The Barnacle Goose (Gé Ghiúrainn)
Some may find it ludicrous but there was a long-standing and pervasive belief in Ireland that the barnacle goose was in fact a form of shellfish that grew on old pieces of timber, hence the ‘barnacle’ in the name. The fact that they closely resemble a type of shellfish called the goose barnacle in terms of colour, and the fact that they don’t nest here has likely given rise to this belief. Classing them as fish allowed religious men to eat them during lent or when meat was forbidden from being eaten (such as on Fridays)
The Cambro-Norman chronicler known as Gerald of Wales wrote the following in his book ‘Topigraphica Hibernica’:
‘They [the barnacle goose] are produced from timber tossed along the sea and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were seaweed attached to the timber and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in the process of time being clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into water or fly freely away into the air. They derive their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen with my own eyes more than a thousand of these birds down on the seashore from one piece of timber and enclosed in their shells and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Hence bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off birds at the time of fasting because they are not flesh nor born of flesh”
Geese as lost souls
Pádraig Breatnach recorded a story in Galway about a hunter who was unable to shoot a bunch of wild geese one night because a wild hare kept getting in the firing line. He recounted this event to his priest who warned him that he should hunt only during the day and to leave the night to the spirit world. The reason he advised this was because he claimed that the geese were in fact lost souls who died unable to return to their homeland and who were taking the form of geese to do so. He mentions that the hare was a good soul helping them to achieve this goal and warned that if the hunter was successful in killing the geese, the souls would never succeed in returning.
Riddle me this
Ní fhuil is ní feoil is ní cnámh é
Ach is as fuil agus feoil a d’fhás é
Bain an ceann de agus gléas deoch dó
Agus beidh sé ag scéalaíocht go maidin dhuit
It’s not blood or flesh or bone
But it grows out of flesh and blood
Take the head off it and give it a drink
And it will tell stories until morning
ANSWER: A goose feather used as a quill
A fairy goose
An interesting story that I found when perusing the National Folklore Schools Collection relates to a goose gifted by a fairy and the resulting abundance that comes with it.
A poor woman is at home during a very bad storm, worried that her house will be blown down. A member of the ‘other crowd’ [a fairy] appears at the door and offers her a goose, asking her to mind it. Every day she has the goose, her wealth and status increase to the point she was able to keep a number of maids. There was a problem though. Every time the goose laid an egg, she got louder and louder. At some point the woman couldn’t take any more, so she started throwing anything she could get at the goose. As the goose ran around the house screaming, the fairy appeared at the door, admonished the woman and took the goose back. Within a few moments, all the windows were blown in and she was suddenly left with nothing again.
This is one of many tales where people fall foul of the other crowd for not appreciating gifts that have been given.
Fled Dún na nGéd (The Feast of the Fort of the Geese)
A number of tales and poems mention geese, but one tale features them as a central aspect. A middle Irish text, dated to the 11th to mid-12th century, called the “Feast of the Fort of the Geese” features goose eggs as a very important feature of the tale. This text, by modern classifications is placed in the ‘Cycle of the Kings’, a series of texts usually based around real historic personages, as opposed to say, the more mythical focus of tales featured in the ‘mythological cycle’.
The story relates to the revolt of Congal Claén (king of the Ulaid) against his foster father, Domhnall mac Áeda (over king of the Uí Néill) and ends with a brief account of the battle of Mag Ráth (which took place in 637) in which Congal was ultimately defeated.
Domhnall’s Fort on the banks of the river Boyne, called Dún na nGéd (The Fort of the Geese), provides the scene for the tale. The Fort itself was said to be modeled on the Fort at Tara. Domhnall was given a prophecy that one of his foster sons would betray him, but due to his belief in the bond of fosterage, he refused to put the foster sons in fetters.
In preparation for the feast, Domhnall instructed his men to go in search of goose eggs for the feast. They searched high and low for eggs but couldn’t find any great number. That was until they came to the hermitage of Saint Erc. The Saint himself wasn’t home, as it was his practice to go up to his armpits in the river Boyne from morning till dusk praying. The soldiers asked the woman at the house for the baskets of eggs, but she explained that they belong to the Saint and that all he ate all day was 1 1/2 eggs and 2 sprigs of cress upon returning from his prayers. They refused to listen and took the eggs. Needless to say, the Saint wasn’t happy and cast a malediction (for the tradition of cursing in Ireland see here) on the feast.
At the banquet, Congal said he would inspect the banquet before everyone arrived and while doing so, ate one of the goose eggs (and Domhnall was made aware, as per the prophecy, that whoever ate it would be the one who would betray him). Domhnall attempted to have the curse reversed by getting 100 saints to bless the banquet but it didn’t work due to the fact Congal had eaten before everyone else.
During the feast, every king present was given a goose egg presented on a silver platter, except for Congal who was given a hen’s egg on a wooden plate. This slight, along with the fact that he should have been seated at the right of Domhnall instead of another king, caused Congal to declare publically that he would seek revenge, leading to the battle mentioned above.
Saint Kevin of Glendalough and the Goose
Saint Kevin is usually associated with Blackbirds, but there is a tale that recounts how Kevin came to a chieftain to request land for his monastery. The Chieftain laughed at the request and pointed to an injured goose with a broken wing. He told him he could have all the land that the goose could circle. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, the goose took to the air recovered and flew around the entire valley. Another version involves a sick and ailing pet goose that the saint offers to heal if he can claim all the land that the goose circles on his first flight. This story is very similar to the story of Saint Brigid, who is told that she can have all the land that her cloak can cover, only for her cloak to magically expand and cover a large swathe of land.
A few Pics of Geese for your enjoyment
Fled Dún Na nGéd, A reapraisal by Máire Herbert
Birds of Ireland: Facts, Folklore & History by Glynn Anderson
Irelands Birds by Niall Mac Coitir The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales
“With Roun-tree tied in the cow’s tail, And Vervain gleaned about the ditches, But a these did naught avail, Thou they Blest the cow, and cursed the witches”
Ballad of the Carnmoney witches
Ireland stands out as being relatively unique in the fact that we didn’t fare as badly as much of Europe (and beyond) when it comes to the witch craze that swept across the later medieval and early modern periods. As it stands, we only have a handful of documented, high-profile cases. One of these I covered in a previous article featuring the sorcery trial of Alice Kyteler and the subsequent burning of her maidservant Petronilla. You can read this article here.
The cases that we do have evidence of that feature diabolic witchcraft are found in towns of English influence (like in garrison towns such as Youghal and the case of Florence Newton in the 17th Century). The connection of diabolism never really caught on amongst the Gaelic population and typically the “witch” was seen as only attacking household produce and livestock (as opposed to demonic possession etc). You can read more of these ‘butter witches’ here. These butter witches were dealt with through a range of countermagic measures through consultation with a Bean Feasa (wise woman) instead of church (or judicial) involvement.
In 1807 in the Presbyterian community at the townland of Carnmoney, County Antrim, an interesting case arose. A tailor by the name of Alexander Montgomery and his wife Elizabeth found that they were unable to make butter from the milk they took from their only cow. Elizabeth enquired with some of the older women in the area who explained that this was not an unusual occurrence, and all had heard stories of this happening before. They offered a couple of suggestions of countermagic that would help, including tying Rowan (also known as Mountain Ash) branches to the tail of the cow and hanging another talisman in the animal’s enclosure/byre. When this failed they got twelve women to pray around the cow and fed it vervain (a herb with magical association).
When these measures failed the women suggested enlisting the help of a local Bean Feasa/ Bean Chumhachtach (wise woman/woman with supernatual power) who specialised in curing bewitched cattle (but also dabbled in telling fortunes, finding stolen horses, and using divination).
Mary Butters was sought out and brought in to try and rectify the issue. Mary was born in Carrickfergus, a town famous for another high-profile witch trial featuring the ‘Islandmagee Witches’ roughly a century before (I will cover this case in a future article). She tried various remedies including trying to churn the butter herself while whispering an incantation, as well as drawing a circle around the churn and washing it out with south-running water. When these failed she instructed Alexander and another local boy to turn their waistcoats inside out and to go stand guard at the head of the cow and not move until she returned to them at midnight. She entered the house with Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s 20-year-old son David, and their elderly lodger Margeret. She blocked up the windows, doors, and chimney and took out a large pot/cauldron. Into this, she placed sulfur, milk from the cow, and some large iron nails and crooked pins. This countermagic relied on sympathetic magic in which the cauldron represented the bladder of the witch who cast the bewitchment. As it was heated it would cause tremendous pain in the target. Blocking up the windows and doors prevented them from entering the house and knocking over the pot/cauldron and breaking the counterspell. The pain would cause the person to subsequently break the original bewitchment on the animal.
Mary placed the pot on the fire and began the proceedings. Midnight came and went and as the hours passed on Alexander became worried and made for the house. He kicked the door in and found his wife and son dead on the floor with Mary and Margeret barely clinging to life. They were carried outside but Margeret died a few minutes later, with Mary coming round soon after. One source claimed that Mary was brought back to her senses after being thrown on a dungheap and beaten by the husband and some locals, although this appears to not be true.
The inquest was carried out on the 19th of August 1807 in front of 12 jurors. All deaths were declared as accidental due to suffocation as a result of the sulfurous fumes due to Butters’s ritual. A trial was held in 1808, but this was discharged by a grand jury.
An unpublished 19th-century memoir by W.O. McGraw claimed that there was more to Butters’s actions than met the eye. He claimed that she did it on purpose to murder Elizabeth and her son who allegedly had been instrumental in the conviction and subsequent execution of a relative of Mary Butters in 1803 for spreading messages of rebellion. According to the source, Mary had insisted that the son, who was married and living miles away, be part of the ritual. It also claims that she had on multiple occasions tried to force Margeret to not take part in the ritual and that it would be of great cost to her if she did. None of this however was included in the trial, not to mention the ritual (including the use of sulfur) was widespread. As such these claims appear unsubstantiated.
Mary appears to have moved from Carrickfergus to Carnmoney following the ordeal and continued to be hired by the locals for many magical services for decades following the incident. Another point to note is that the case is interesting for the fact it took place in a presbyterian community (with Butters herself being Presbyterian), showing that the Irish (based in catholic communities) tradition and belief in butter witches transferred into Protestant and Presbyterian communities. The excerpt of the poem at the beginning of this article is a contemporary poem and is the possibly only extant poem we have relating to Irish witchcraft. The full poem is as follows:
In Carrick town a wife did dwell, Who does pretend to conjure witches Auld Barbara Goats and lucky Bell, Yell no lang to come through her clutches ; A waefu’ trick this wife did play, On fimple Sawney, our poor tailor, She’s mittimiss’d the other day To lie in limbo with the Jailor : This fimple Sawney had a Cow Was aye as sleekit as an otter It happen’d for a month or two, Aye when they churn’d they got nae butter; Roun-tree tied in the Cow’s tail, And vervain glean’d about the ditches ; These freets and charms did not prevail, They cou’d not banif h the auld witches : The neighbour wives a’ gather’d in In number near about a dozen, Elfpie Dough and Mary Linn, An* Keat M’Cart the tailor’s cousin, Aye they churn’d an’ aye they fwat, Their aprons loos’d and coost their mutches But yet nae butter they could get, They bleft the Cow but curft the witches: Had Sawney summoned all his wits, And fent awa for Huie Mertin, He could have gall’t the witches guts An’ cur’t the kye to Nannie Barton ; But he may fhow the farmer’s wab An’ lang wade through Carmoney gutters, Alas’ it was a fore mis-jab When he employ’d auld Mary Butters; The forcereft open’d the fcene, With magic words of her invention, To make the foolifh people keen Who did not know her bafe intention, She drew a circle round the churn, An’ wafh’d the staff in fouth run water An’ fwore the witches fhe would burn, But fhe would have the tailor’s butter. When fable night her curtain fpread, Then fhe got on a flaming fire,
The tailor ftood at the Cow’s head With his turn’d waiftcoat in the byer; The chimney cover’d with a fcraw, An’ ev’ry crevice where it fmoak’d, But long before the cock did craw The people in the houfe were choak’d, The muckle pot hung on all night As Mary Butters had been brewing, In hopes to fetch fome witch or wight Whas entrails by her art was ftewing In this her magic a’ did fail Nae witch or wizard was detected; Now Mary Butters lies in jail, For the bafe part that fhe has acted. The tailor loft his fon an’ wife, For Mary Butters did them fmother But as he hates a fingle life, In four weeks time he got another; He is a crufe auld canty chiel, An’ cares nae what the witches mutters He’ll never mair employ the deil, Nor his auld agent, Mary Butters; At day the tailor left his poft, Though he had feen no apparation Nae wizard grim nae witch nor ghoft, Though ftill he had a ftrong fuspicion That fome auld wizard wrinkled wife, Had caft her cantrips o’er poor brawney Caufe fhe and he did live in ftrife, An’ whare’s the man can blame poor Sawney; Wae fucks for our young laffes now, For who can read their mystic matters Or tell if their fweet hearts be true, The folk a run to Mary Butters; To tell what thief a horfe did fteal, In this fhe was a mere pretender An’ has nae art to raife the deil Like that auld wife, the witch of Endor If Mary Butters be a witch, Why but the people all fhould know it, An’ if fhe can the mufes touch I’m fure fhe’ll foon descry the poet, Her ain familiar aff fhe’ll fen’ Or paughlet wir a tu’ commiffion, To pour her vengeance on fhe men, That tantalises her condition.
‘An Diabhal Inti’ TG4 Documentary, Episode 05, First broadcast 12.04.22.
‘Representing Magic in Modern Ireland: Belief, History, and Culture’ Andrew Sneddon
Wander a short walk from the heart of Cork City and you might just happen across this fantastic gem and its wonderful avian denizens (I’m sure anyone who follows my photography page is driven demented by the sheer amount of photos of geese, swans and ducks as I have charted the growth of all this year’s hatchlings on the lough). The well-loved lough is a favourite spot for walkers and joggers, but I doubt many are aware of the fascinating legend that lies behind this natural spring fed pond. The earliest mention I could track down of this tale was circa 1825 when Thomas Crofton Croker was travelling around collecting tales and folklore. Chances are this legend might stretch back a little further, providing of course he didn’t make it up entirely after being inspired by seeing the lough. The story presents a number of motifs that are found in Irish literature dating back to the middle ages. I will briefly mention those at the end. First I will give a run down of the folktale.
Fadó, fadó (long ago) there was a great king called Corc whose fort was in the center of a valley where the lough now lies. Within the courtyard of this fort was a spring with the finest pure water to be found anywhere. People flocked from near and far to draw water from the well. This brought great concern to the king, as he feared his precious water would be all used up so he had a great wall constructed around it with a solid door, to which only he had a key. If he required water for himself, he would send his daughter to retrieve it for him.
One night, the king decided to have a great feast. Kings, princes and nobles from all the neighboring tuatha (petty kingdoms) were all in attendance and Corc personally selected the greatest filidh (poets) from near and far to regale his guests with praise poetry and to play their cruith (harp). Huge celebratory fires were lit, the tables were laden with the finest foods and everybody danced and drank. As the feast drew on, one of the lords in attendance rose to toast the king. “Sláinte (good health) to our great Rí (king). We do not want for the finest food or drink, but the one thing absent is some water”. You see, Corc had purposefully held this back in the hope someone would ask and he would be able to wow them with the well-renowned water that now lay hidden. “Water you shall have, and I challenge anyone present to find a finer source of water than this anywhere in the whole of Éireann (Ireland). “Daughter, fetch us some water le do thoil (please)”. The daughter, named Fíor Uisce (pure water, spring water) balked at being asked to do such a menial task in the presence of such illustrious company, so the king suggested that the fine prince that she had been dancing with all night go with her. Fíor Uisce and the prince delighted in this, so off they went. She retrieved the key and the prince carried the fine, heavy golden jug that Corc had specially made for this occasion and they made their way to the courtyard.
Upon opening the well-house door, Fíor Uisce leaned over the well to retrieve the water, but owing to the weight of the jug, she lost her balance and fell into the well. The prince tried his best to save her but the water burst forth from the well head with such force that he was forced to flee. The courtyard filled with such speed that by the time he made the relatively short journey back to the fort and spoke a single word to the king, he was up to his neck in water. The water continued to rise until the valley was full and it engulfed the fort, the outbuildings and the fine gardens and hence, the present day lough was formed.
But that was not the end of it. For the king was not drowned, nor were any of the guests. Fíor Uisce, the fair daughter of the king was also alive and every night following this, up to present day, the celebrations still continue beneath the surface of the lough, and it is said that it will continue until someone happens across the fine golden chalice that lies hidden beneath the surface. It is believed that this happened as judgement for shutting off the pure water from the poor people who relied on it. It is also said that on days where the waters are clear, that you can still see the buildings clearly beneath the water. So next time you are there keep an eye out for the buildings beneath the surface and the tell-tale glint of the gold vessel!
Sin é mo scéal-sa, má tá bréag ann bíodh! Ní mise a chum ná a cheap é ! (“that is my story, and if there is a lie, so be it! For it wasn’t me who composed it!)
So, with the tale out of the way, I will now touch upon some of the motifs present and any connection to history that I could find. A lot of the elements of this folktale can be found elsewhere in Irish literature. When looking for a real king, there was none by the name that I could link to a kingdom in Cork city, but there was a Corc (or Conall) mac Luigthig, who reigned in the 4th Century and is traditionally believed to have been the founder of the kingship of Cashel and the progenitor of many of the clans and septs of Munster. He was however said to have a son, Ciar from whom the Ui Mhic Ceir, an unimportant sept on the south side of Cork City, arose (and the lough is situated on the south side).
The “flooded kingdom” type motif occurs in a number of places. The dindsheanchas (Lore of places) tales of the goddesses Sínann and Boand(of which the Shannon and Boyne rivers are named respectively) tell of when they attempt to access otherworldly knowledge through a well, which subsequently gushes forth killing the goddesses. It is not unknown to find tales where buildings and communities still survive beneath the surface. There is even a very Christian version of this underwater world with otherworldly monasteries that are covered in far better detail in Professor John Carey’s article “Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries: The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel.
The golden chalice for collecting water brings to mind the tales that mention treasures hidden within otherworldly wells not to mention the archaeological record that shows votive deposits in bodies of water, and even at least one instance where ecclesiastical treasure was hidden within a holy well.
I hope you have enjoyed my recounting of this tale of one my favourite places. Should you want to read other versions of this tale, you can find the original version in Crofton Crokers “Irish Fairy Legends” or another version in Kate Corkery’s “Folk Tales of Cork”.
Below is my own copy of Crofton Croker from 1834 that I acquired recently
Social hierarchy was very much prevalent in early Irish society. You were either free (Saor) or unfree (Daor). Slaves obviously fall into the latter category and as a slave, you were considered an ambue (non-person) and had no protection against being killed or injured. The terms used in the texts are Mug for male slaves that were used for menial labour and Cumal for female slaves who were in turn used for household tasks. The Cumal was of great value, so much so that the term would later be used to denote a unit of currency or a specific size of land (1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver). These slaves could be people obtained as debt slaves, prisoners of war from raids into other Tuatha (petty kingdoms), or prisoners from raids on Britain (the most famous captive of which being Saint Patrick himself) . Even more abhorrent is what we find in the law text Gúbretha Caratniad, which implies that children may have been sold into slavery by their parents. The motivation behind this can only be speculated at, but it doesn’t lessen how horrific it is.
Another law text, Di Astud Chirt acus Dlighid, tells us that it was seen as an anti-social act for a king to release slaves as it was believed that it would entail cosmic/supernatural retribution in the form of crops failing and milk drying up as such slaves were an integral part of the kings prosperity. However, the law texts also claim that the king should have a freed slave (having previously been held captive by a rival king) as part of their bodyguards. Runaway slaves (élúdach) could not avail of sanctuary and could not be protected by anyone, even if they were high status or Nemed (privileged, sacred). Slaves could be hurt or killed by their master with no repercussion and any attack on them by others resulted in compensation being paid to the master, not the slave. Next I will cover hostages, who were in most cases in a completely different league to slaves when it came to status.
The material below regarding hostages is taken from the lecture “Hostages in Medieval Ireland” given by PHD candidate Philip Healy on the 27th Feb 2020 at University College Cork.
When looking at the manuscripts, we have numerous mentions of hostages throughout the heroic literature, the law tracts and the annals, especially covering the periods between the 7th century to the 12th century. These hostages were given for a variety of different reasons including:
Suriety for legal cases
Submission to subordinate kings
To secure political agreement
The major differences we see between slaves and hostages was that they were not mistreated and there is evidence to suggest that they retained their status, enjoyed the hospitality of the king and had freedom of movement within the Tuatha (people would not typically have any legal rights outside their own kingdom). The legal text Críth Gabhlach tells us how forfeited hostages may be fettered but more often than not they enjoyed meals at the high table between the king and filidh or brithim . The Senchas Már tells us that hostage giving in legal disputes was commonplace among the upper classes (the high cost of default is another piece of evidence in regard to this).
Between the years 600-1000 we see no evidence of any hostages being harmed, however between 1000-1200 we see that five hostages were killed. The reason for this is likely due to a general increase in violence and social upheaval. During this period we see an increase in mutilations, castrations and blindings.
The terms used when referring to hostages depend on the period we are looking at:
In 1324 Richard de Ledrede , the then bishop of Ossory , declared his diocese a hotbed of devil worshipers. Few knew the far reaching, dire consequences this declaration would have and the ripples it would send through the centuries. The woman at the center of all of this was Alice Kyteler, a wealthy woman from a Flemish merchant family. Her accumulated wealth over multiple marriages had led to the accusations of witchcraft in question.
Circa 40 years before the landmark case, Alice had married a wealthy merchant/moneylender and had a son. Following her husband’s death she married another wealthy man. He subsequently handed over his fortune to Alice’s son from the first marriage, much to the chagrin of his own children. This would later cause problems and ultimately become the impetus for the future accusations against her. Upon her third marriage, her son somehow benefitted financially again. Her final and fourth marriage was to a knight, Sir John de Poer. At this point, her accumulated wealth at the expense of her stepchildren as well as de Poer showing signs of arsenic poisoning (hair and fingernails falling out and emaciated) led to the suspicion of Alice and the accusations of witchcraft. The changing attitudes towards sorcery and witchcraft, especially on the part of the church, would have a dramatic effect on this case, as would the machinations of the highly cunning bishop at the epicenter of the whole ordeal.
It was only a few hundred years prior to this case, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that sorcery/witchcraft was beginning to be seen as an inversion of Christianity. The practice of which would have been treated as a misdemeanor before this change in attitude. In 1258 Pope Alexander legislated in favour of inquisitorial prosecution for sorcery due to it’s new connection to heresy. This allowed the church to institute torture as a method to procure confessions from suspected heretics, witches and sorcerers. This in turn gave the church more power than secular court in these regards. Before this, it lay on the accuser to furnish proof of guilt. These ‘crimes’ had usually been dealt with in English law as a petty offense. Inquisitorial prosecution, it seems, was introduced into this case by Bishop Ledrede, who likely picked up the practice from his stay at the court of Avignon, the then Papal seat. Ledrede had originally been sent to Ireland in the years leading up to the accusations of Kyteler by the Pope (who was known to be terrified of sorcery) because of his “zeal for reform and strict adherence to the law of the church”.
In total seven charges were brought against Alice, including:
Denying Christ and the Church.
Cutting up living animals and scattering them at crossroads* as offerings to a demon called “son of Art”. *Crossroads are understood to be liminal spaces and are often employed in magical rites
Stealing church keys and performing rituals inside the church at night.
In a skull of a thief, her and her accomplices placed the entrails of animals, the organs of a cockerel, nails cut from bodies, hair from the buttocks and used clothes from baby boys who had died before baptism. Using these ingredients, they were said to have made potions to kill people and to make people hate Christians.
It was claimed Alice had a familiar with whom she fornicated. It either appeared as a cat, a shaggy dog or a black man.
That she used sorcery to convince her husbands to give their wealth to her and her son, and also used sorcery to kill them.
Poisoning her latest husband.
Ledrede had used a law Ut Inguisitionis (1298) to force secular powers to obey the word of a Bishop. Luckily a prior of the Hospitalliers of St John, a relative of Alice’s first husband, stood up for her and put a spanner in the works. Ledrede was told that he would have to hold a public prosecution and that she would have to be formally ex-communicated before they could go ahead with the charges. Ledrede attempted to have the Prior arrested on charges of heresy (and for harbouring heretics) but the prior had some powerful acquaintances, in this case the Seneshal of Killkenny. The seneshal had Ledrede arrested for 17 days to prevent the arrest of the prior. Ledrede used this to his full advantage to start to swing public opinion in his favour. He placed an interdict on the diocese, meaning that no baptism, marriages and burials could take place. Given the strong belief in hell during this period, this was obviously of grave importance to the eternal souls of all parishioners. He also used his influence while incarcerated to give masses in full regalia from his cell. During this time, the seneshal put criers in each outlying town to see if anyone wanted to lodge complaints against Ledrede.
Every move on Ledrede’s part was carefully orchestrated for maximum effect. He left his cell in full high vestments. He turned up at the seneshal’s court, in full regalia holding the consecrated host before him (as any assault on him, would ultimately be an assault on Christ himself). He was not alone. In toe were Franciscans, Dominicans and an entire cathedral chapter. He also carried a decree concerning heretics. After forcing his way into the court, the seneshal asked him to get in the dock for questioning. He claimed that since he was holding the host, it would be like putting Jesus himself on trial, just like when he was tried by Pontius Pilate. Despite the best efforts of all involved, it was inevitable that public opinion would sway in the direction of the church and the bishop due to the constant attacks and insults. Upon seeing that public opinion was turning against her, Alice used her wealth to flee from Dublin and was never heard from again. Her not as wealthy associates and alleged co-conspirators were subsequently rounded up and arrested using a papal decree and under inquisitorial procedure, confessed. Unfortunately, only the poorest of these, Alice’s maidservant, Petronilla de Meath, bore the brunt of the whole thing. She was tortured, whipped and ultimately burnt at the stake (it was legal to torture under church law, but not secular), while all the others were released on payment of sureties. William Outlawe, the friar, was arrested and accused of heresy. He begged forgiveness and was released on the condition that he would pay penance in the form of saying multiple masses each day for a couple of years, and also by re-leading the roof of a church. He was later re-arrested for not carrying this penance out.
A quote from a Franciscan friar at the time, John Clyn, reads: “Moreover, even in olden days, it was neither seen nor heard of that anyone suffered the death penalty for heresy in Ireland”.
So, what had brought about this drastic change in attitude in Ireland that culminated in the barbaric death of a poor, young maidservant? In short, Ledrede, the man at the center of all of this. It is very likely that Ledrede himself introduced the connection of demonic forces and witchcraft to Ireland. It is no surprise that the landmark case found its way into a number of annal entries at the time. Many people, in a European context, believe that this case was a development “of a phenomenon which, with its distinctive characteristics of diabolism” gave rise to the great witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries (of course the influence of the Malleus Malificarum cannot be ignored either). Before the Kyteler case, these ideas had not really permeated beyond the Papal courts of Avignon. It was circa 1300 in France that learned circles started to disseminate the idea that a witch was connected to satanic sects and diabolical powers. To give further context to this, 17 years before this case, the King of France, Philip IV, had the Templar Order put to death on many similar charges and claims of diabolism. The pope of the time also fanned the flames by thinking his life was in danger from sorcery. Ledrede was appointed by the pope himself and had actually been present at court during the Templar trials. This of course is likely to have influenced his belief system and he is also likely to have had direct contact with the learned milieu who espoused the radical ideas of heresy.
Civil court up to the point of the case had seen witchcraft as a minor crime, punishable only in terms of damage done to the victim. The church was not interested because there was no link with religion. It was even believed that in order to control demons, a sorcerer have strong faith and a devout belief in god in order for it to work (c.f Carey, The Nature of Miracles in Early Irish Saint’s Lives for a similar tradition in how miracles worked).
It would come as no surprise to anyone that five years following the death of Petronilla de Meath, Richard de Ledrede had overplayed his hand and was finally exiled from Ireland. Unfortunately for Petronilla, it was too little too late. So give a little thought this Samhain to all the women over the centuries who were executed under the guise of being “witches”.
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
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.
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.
Fairies remain a popular interest to many people although not many know the true nature of these beings in an Irish context. Due to the destructive influence of popular culture, many people wrongfully assume that they are small, winged, harmless creatures. This is not the case and in truth, it is much more complicated than that. I have had many people refuse outright to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when I inform them of this, so I hope this article makes some of this clearer.
They may sometimes appear smaller than us, but certainly not minuscule like the tinkerbell-esque creatures people expect. They look just like us and certainly don’t have wings, but due to existing on another plane to us, are able to conceal themselves. They live lives like us for the most part. Below I will detail how they live in their society, their origin stories and other information. Fairy lore, a pervasive belief around Ireland offers us a fascinating glimpse at the Irish perception of the otherworld- an alternative realm parallel to our own but just beyond earthly existence and our own temporal sphere. Eddie Lenihan, arguably one of foremost experts on the fairies, would argue that there is considerable and respectable proof of their existence owing to the vast corpus of material available through the ages and in all this material they have been described in great detail ( and not once have they been depicted with wings!).
To start I will look at the naming conventions. The word fairy is the most Widely known and easily identifiable ,although it is not a suitable, nor respectful term to use as such (as it falsely equates them with English fairies who are closer to imps or the tinkerbell type). Nor is any form of FAE or FAERIE (from old French and latin respectively). Known in Irish by many names and circumlocutions, they are not usually named directly for fear of insulting or invoking them. Typically know as Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe (the people of the mounds), they could also be referred to as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine úaisle (the noble people), the fair folk, the other crowd, the people of the hills and so on. For the remainder of the article I will simply refer to them as sídhe or the other crowd.
Society, likes and dislikes
So how does their society work? They have amusements similar to ours: they like to dance, play music and play games. They have been known to play Gaelic football (never soccer), hurling, bowls and chess. In terms of the games they will sometimes illicit the help of some hapless human (who dare not refuse them) to referee or take part in the match. The need for human help is a common motif and they will often be spirited away to take part in the games or in some cases where human women must act as midwife to deliver babies for the sídhe.
They have specific dwellings and a number of features of the landscape are often identified as being the abode of the other crowd, such as ringforts (lios or rath in Irish, these are circular enclosured earthen dwellings mostly dating to the middle ages), tumuli, dolmens or lone trees known as fairy trees (traditionally hawthorn). These enclosures and suspected abodes are usually treated with extreme caution even to this day (and good luck trying to find someone willing to cut down a fairy tree). They will furiously protect their dwellings and woe betide to anyone stupid enough to mess with them. Death and destruction is all that typically awaits those who transgress. That being said, they can make good or bad neighbours depending on how they are treated. They can be belligerent, but are placatable. Their true dwellings, those that exist in the otherworld are typically conceal from our view, similar to the magical barrier, the fé fiada, that was said to conceal the mounds and hostels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
They have their own specific pathways and roads and they would travel from place to place. When building houses it was not unusual to mark out the shape of the house with willow rods or small stone cairns. This would be left overnight to see if the house was “in the way” of any of these fairy paths. The willow rods had been removed from the ground, or the cairn of stones was disturbed, it was believed that the house was in the way of a fairy path and the process would be repeated until the rods or stones are left untouched. Many tales tell of houses that were in the way with loud noises being heard in the house at night, crashing, doors slamming, houses collapsing and general bad luck within the household.
Like ourselves, they have likes and dislikes. They like things like gold, milk (the first milk, known as colostrum or beestings, is often given as an offering to the sídhe), tobacco and poitín (often given as an offering to them). Most things associated with them are of a particular time: they will ride horses, but not cars or any auto-mobiles, they fight with sticks or hurleys but never guns or knives. Most of their activities are associated with Gaelic culture or associated with the natural landscape. When it comes to their hates, there are a number of items. They hate iron: it is one of the main repellents used when trying to discourage the other crowd. You see this a lot when trying to protect babies from being stolen and replaced by fairy changelings. It also pops up a lot in terms of protection while churning. Iron is an age old deterrent against evil or supernatural forces and many cultures around the globe believed this and as a result blacksmiths and iron workers are usually revered or thought to possess special powers as a result of them working with the iron (there is an article focusing on blacksmiths and the supernatural here ). They also hate salt and you will often encounter it being used as protection when churning butter. Salt will be sprinkled on the lid of the churn, underneath or into the butter itself to protect the process from being interfered with by the sídhe. Salt rubbed on the head when venturing outside at Halloween was used to protect anyone outside after dark. They also have a dislike of anything dirty (such as messy houses), they have an aversion to Christianity (both of their origin stories play into this and it is a common theme of many folktales where the sídhe will try to get a human to question a priest as to why they can’t get into heaven). I will cover the origin stories below. They also hate running water and are unable to cross it. This is also a common feature of folktales where someone fleeing the wrath of the sídhe, will only escape through crossing a stream (or in a few cases leaving Ireland completely by ship!).
The other crowd are also more active at certain times of the yearly cycle (such as may day or Samhain) and also at certain points of the life cycle (such as at birth) so salt and iron were used, among other things, at these times to remain safe from any malevolent actions the sídhe might want to take against you. As I mentioned above, may people find it hard to believe that they are not harmless. I have spent hours trying to convince some people that it is not in their best interest to seek out the sídhe. Even slight transgressions have ended in death, maiming or with transgressor ending up being driven completely mad or catatonic. I should add a caveat here. They are not overtly evil. They just have their own (often mysterious) agenda. It just so happens that accounts and tales of people falling foul of them far outweigh the opposite. That however does not mean they can’t or don’t help people. As I mentioned above, they sometimes need human intervention (be that in a sporting event or delivering a baby) and for their help, the person will often be rewarded. They have bestowed powers of healing (such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle or a number of healing books said to have been given to certain people over time). They have also been known to have bestowed fairy music on musicians who have played for them at a party. In times of famine, they have sometimes given otherworldly cows (designated by their white body and red ears) with endless milk to certain communities (who often inevitably mess up by exploiting this gift).
As I mentioned above there are two main origin stories for what we now call the fairies. There is what could be termed the native origin story, and the Christian one.
Native: From ancient times it was believed that a supernatural race has been believed to have lived in the hills, tombs, beneath the sea or lakes or on far away islands. In the literature, these are traditionally know as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the old gods of Ireland (such as Lugh, the Dagda, Brighid etc). These were seen as living in the otherworld, parallel to our own, but concealed from view. So, when it comes to what I termed the “native” origin story, it is believed that the “fairies” are in fact the Tuatha Dé Dannan, albeit diminished in spiritual significance, power and physical stature following their defeat and banishment underground.
Christian: As most will know, the entirety of our myths and legends were first recorded by Christian clerics in monastic scriptorium. Unlike the usual modus operandi elsewhere in Europe to demonize the pagan past, Ireland instead opted for euhemerisation. Most stories were given a Christian slant, but this was to work the stories into a Christian framework and make them acceptable. Unfortunately this meant that some gods were turned to humans (such as queen Medbh, Finn Mac Cumhaill, Brighid etc) and some stories were corrupted but for the most part, they were recorded by Irish monks who had an interest in the pagan past and were, in a sense, sympathetic to it. This leads us to the origin of the fairies as being half-fallen angels, cast out of heaven for not picking a side during the rebellion. They remain, half-way between heaven and hell, in the sky, on the land and beneath the earth, cursed to never see heaven (or till judgement day in some cases). This christian explanation for the sídhe became popular in the middle ages, no doubt a means for resolving the tension between the native and Christian cosmologies. As such it is not unusual to have devout Christian who fervently believes in the other crowd. This clearly preserved the native tradition and it’s syncretism also gave the fairy faith a prominent place in Christian eschatology and cosmology.
When we think of healing today, the knee jerk response is to think of doctors, hospitals and prescribed medications, made up of all manner of chemicals that come with a long list of adverse side effects. That modern medicine we are all familiar with is a relatively new discipline and up until very recently in Ireland the average person would have sought medical help from the local wise woman (bean feasa), herbalist or someone who simply ‘had the cure’.
In the schools collection we are told the following by one informant “Long ago in Ireland the people used herbs to cure people and animals. They tell us there is a herb for every disease if only we knew it or could find it out” (NFSC, VOL.0141:410) . Sometimes these cures relied on a knowledge of herbs and other times its providence lay in the supernatural realm or simply through means we would consider as ‘magic’. Ireland has a vast corpus of medical manuscripts that survive from the middle ages showing its rich history of learning and medicine, but we are lacking in accounts of the everyday person who practiced healing. There are however, many comparable accounts found in the UK from the middle ages onwards.
We see comparable elements, for example, in the use of magical charms as a form of healing, a practice we know was popular in Ireland up until relatively recently and many of which are found in the schools collection. One such account from William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft” in 1608 tells us that “charming is in as great request as physic, and charmers more sought unto than physicians in time of need” (Thomas, 2003:209). Thomas (ibid:210) also mentions that with the “inadequacies of orthodox medical services left a large proportion of people dependent upon traditional folk medicine”. This also could be applied to Ireland. There has of course, since the establishment of orthodox medicine at least, been a propensity towards thinking that these practitioners of native healing were in some way less reliable than ‘educated’ doctors. Lady Gregory tells us of a saying in Irish, “An old woman without learning,it is she who will be doing charms” (Gregory, 1976:148). This association with formal learning betrays the centuries of knowledge amassed by these practitioners of native healing, a tradition passed orally through the ages. For the purpose of the essay I will be searching through the National Folklore Schools Collection to see what treatments that are available for Tuberculosis, often called consumption in Ireland and I will also be looking at the treatments and ‘cures’ for warts.
To begin I will focus on Tuberculosis (TB), known colloquially in Ireland as ‘Consumption’ or ‘wasting sickness. In Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century TB was amongst the worst of the ‘killer diseases in Ireland. Rates of infection had risen in Ireland even after rates had decreased in England and wales after the significance of contagion was recognised in the 1800’s and with many considering it to be a particularly Irish problem in the early twentieth century (Jones, 1999:8).
When looking at cures in the schools collection (hereafter NFSC) we see a range of treatments, as is usually the case, ranging from medicinal to magical. In terms of plant based cures for TB, the Mullein plant, scientific name Verbascum, pops up on numerous occasions. The extracts of this plant have been used as part of traditional medicine for hundreds of years around the globe (Akdem & Tatli, 2006:85). The efficacy of this in treating TB is no doubt due to its use as an expectorant and its mucolytic qualities. It is often used to treat respiratory ailments and has antimicrobial and immunomodulatory qualities (ibid,8). In terms of the NFSC we find a number of ways that it was used. We are told that It cures consumption (NFSC, VOL.0922:139) and that it can be found in good soil. In terms of preparing it we are told to boil it and drink the water (NFSC, VOL.0773:125-6).
Another plant based cure that is mentioned is the “marrow plant”. The informant mentions that it is a flower that grows in your garden that blooms in the month of October (NFSC, VOL.0665:108-9). I am unsure of the plant in question and there is no instruction on the preparation of the cure. Other forms of plant based medicine mentioned in the schools collection include cures involving the use of garlic. The following account mentions that garlic was supposed to cure “almost any disease”. The account goes into much greater detail than many others and displays some real knowledge in terms of healing. It claims that a few “grains” garlic per day while fasting is of great benefit to those suffering from consumption or other lung diseases. It recommends using “new milk”, colloquially referred to as “beestings” or colostrum, to boil garlic in. It also mentions that this cure is particularly efficacious when used by babies or delicate people (NFSC, VOL.0141:410). Bovine Colostrum is widely believed to be particularly beneficial to humans and it has been said that “colostrum from pasture-fed cows contains immunoglobulins specific to many human pathogens” (Buchan, Borissenko, Brooks & McConnell, 2001:255). The use of garlic in this case is most likely due to its anti-microbial, antibiotic, expectorant and immune boosting properties (Kellet, 2003:71).
Milk does feature in many of the cures, with varying ingredients being boiled in it. Many of the cures however are not simply cure-alls and must be taken at a certain time in the progression of the disease to be effective. We are told that boiling a dandelion leaf in milk was a cure but if it was not drunk before a certain point that it was not effective as a cure (NFSC, VOL.0109:405). Unfortunately we are not told what stage this is to be drank at, but we could surmise that it is in the early stages of the disease. Both dandelion and garlic boiled in milk is mentioned elsewhere as a preventative if drank regularly (NFSC, VOL.0787:280). In terms of the specific time the cure has to be taken, the following account (NFSC, VOL.037:0057) mentions that it is a “perfect cure” if taken in the early stages of consumption. The recipe involves boiling “Sugar, Candy, liquorice, whiskey, Sweet-stick, brown sugar, a small quantity of flax seed and meacan na gcaorach” until it forms a syrup. I am unfamiliar with the plant ‘meacan na gcaorach’ [sheep’s root?] but it is mentioned as being a “garden vegetable with yellow flowers and large green leaves” (possibly sheep sorrel?) .
The following cure does not have any basis in actual healing but instead relies on a form of transference or sympathetic magic, often referred to as piséogs. This particular type of magic can be found in many cultures but is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record. A prime example of this is ‘gathering the dew’ on may eve. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3). Other forms of this magic include gaining power over another by possessing a piece of hair or clothing as well as it being found in cures that involve “like curing like”, such as “the hair of the dog that bit you” (Hanna, 1909:96) or “whistling for the wind” (a factor that popped up numerous times in my own field work when interviewing fishermen). Another more common example in Irish sources is the practice of tying rags to a “clootie tree” at a holy well. As the rag rots so does the disease.
The curing of consumption in this account is of a similar nature to this. It involves putting an egg into an ants nest and as the egg is eaten by the ants, the sickness will disappear also (NFSC, Vol.0800:155). Another account similar to this mentions how old people used to say that if you carry a potato around in your pocket that it would cure consumption (NFSC,Vol.0386:158). The potato here supposedly drawing out the disease in an act of transference. The final cure I would like to look at in relation to consumption leaves unsure as to whether it falls into the category of medicinal or magical or both. The cure in this instance involves acquiring seven rusty nails and putting them into a pint of porter for seven days (NFSC, VOL.0525:002). The use of rusty nails in porter (with its inherent iron content) seems to point to a recipe that involves a high Iron content but the fact it has to be specifically seven nails for seven days seems to point to a magical element. The number seven features prominently in Irish sources (in both ancient literature as well as more modern folklore such as seventh son of seventh son) as well as in biblical numerology. Also of course the fact that in many places around the globe, Iron is considered to be “imbued with an air of magic” (Jennings, 2014:2), and appearing in many tales as a deterrent to fairies and other supernatural creatures. The fact that the account mentions that as the drink depletes that the consumption will go with it seems to also allude to the fact that there is some form of transference involved here also. I should also mention that one account I encountered put emphasis on the fact the cure in question relied on it being prepared by “an old family” in the district that were noted for “curing where others failed”. They would make cures from “simple herbs” that could cure “dangerous” diseases such as consumption (NFSC, VOL.0824:128). Certain families having specific cures is quite common in Irish sources such as the Keoghs having the cure for shingles (NFSC, VOL.0823:480).
The second series of cures I would like to cover are for Warts. These feature a crossover of ingredients as well as also having a mix of medicinal cures as well as relying on supernatural or magical means as a means of getting rid of them. Wells and ballaun stones (the water that gathers in the hollow such as the “hole of water” mentioned in NFSC, VOL.1076:20) are often used for the supernatural cures. It is important to note though that since many of these healing powers are seen as rooted in Christian traditions that the healing is seen as a miracle as opposed to some form or act of magic (zuchelli,2016:149).
A number of different methods of cure were collected by Andrew Taylor (NFSC, VOL.1116:234). He tells us that any wells dedicated to St Patrick will cure the warts. Here we see the magic/religion overlap. He also tells us how rubbing clay on them and throwing it after a funeral will get rid of the warts .The others mentioned by him on the other hand rely on an entirely magical means of curative power, such as rowing a boat with the outgoing tide. Another example, again of transference like those found in the cures for consumption, is sticking a pin in your warts and then sticking the pin into a grave. Among some local cures collected in Dublin (NFSC, VOL.0787:334) we find both plant based and magical remedies side by side. The “stuff like milk” from the stem is said to cure the warts but the account also mentions a means for ridding one’s self of the warts through sympathetic magic. This involves counting the number of warts and putting the corresponding number of stones in a bag and throwing it in a field. Whoever is unlucky enough to pick up the bag gets the warts and they will go from your hands.
Frances Gallagher (NFSC, VOL.1076:20) tells us that there are a “whole lot of cures” for warts. Most of the cures collected by her fall under the heading of the sympathetic magic that has been seen in a number of examples above. She also mentions the stone trick, but it is to be left in the middle of the road instead of in a field. She also recommends that the package they are in should be made attractive so as to attract someone to pick it up. She suggests however that ten stones be collected, one throw away and the remaining nine put in the package. Another cure mentioned by her suggests that the warts be rubbed on the gizzard of a hen and then bury it. As this rots the warts disappear.
An interesting mix of both the sympathetic magic and religion can be found in Leitrim (NFSC, VOL.0229:303) tells us that rubbing the warts with straw, say some prayers and then bury it. As the straw decays so will the warts. As with the cure for TB being held by a family or person, we get this also in the cure for warts. In an account by Mrs Mulryan (NFSC, VOL.0770:451), she tells us that in her locality there was someone by the name of John Rogers who had a charm that he would not tell to anyone. He only required to know the number of warts. Whether he was using the same sort of sympathetic magic as above, we could only speculate, but there are mentions elsewhere (NFSC, VOL.0326:316) that tell us that people had charms for giving warts to another.
These examples above are by no means an exhaustive list of the therapeutic modalities available for either the consumption/TB or for the removal or treatment of warts. It barely scratches the surfaces of the cures given in the schools collection. They do however show that certain elements pop up again and again in the accounts with varying degrees of complexity to the instructions. The examples given also provide a good mix of both practical plant based lore and a more magical approach to the problem.
Hanna, W (1909), Sympathetic Magic, Folklore, Vol.20, No.1, Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Jennings, P (2014), Blacksmith Gods: Myths, Magic & Folklore, Moon Books, Winchester, UK. Zuchelli, C (2016), Sacred stones of Ireland, Collins press, Cork.
Jones. G (1999), Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940, Cork University Press, Cork.
McConnell, M. A.; Buchan, G.; Borissenko, M. V.; Brooks, H. J. L. (2001). “A comparison of IgG and IgG1 activity in an early milk concentrate from non-immunised cows and a milk from hyperimmunised animals”. Food Research International. 34 (2–3): 255–261.
NFSC, VOL.0037:0057, Collector: Eibhlín Ni Ailledéa, múinteoir, Dunmore, Co. Galway, Informant: Edward Burke (74),farmer, Carrownaseer South, Co. Galway.
NFSC, VOL.0141:410, Collector: Annie Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, Informant: Patrick Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, School: Gort an Tuair, Gortatoor, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Áine Nic Oirealla.
NFSC, VOL.0525:002, Collector: John Creed, Domhnach Mór, luimrick, Informant: Patrick O’Connell, Teacher: Aingeal Nic Aodha Bhuidhe.
NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.