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.
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.
Glassie (1999:41) describes Material Culture as being “the tangible yield of human conduct”. The element of human conduct I would like to investigate below is dairy production, specifically the superstitions associated with it, as well as the methods for stealing or the prevention of stealing. Dairy was for a very long time, as far back as we can trace, a very important part of the economy, especially when looking at rural areas. Cream, milk and butter paid to Lord as part of food rents (see Fergus Kelly “Guide to Early Irish Law” chapter on clientship). Both Old and middle Irish sources mention butter and it appears to have been considered a high status luxury food that could only be given to you depending on your status. Kevin Danaher (1969:99) describes Ireland as a land “flowing with milk” and he mentions an account by an English soldier from 1690 says that the Irish were the “greatest lovers of milk” he had ever seen. He mentions how they “eat and drink it above twenty several sorts of ways”. It would come as no surprise then, with claims such as these, that there is a rich and colourful tradition of folklore attached to dairy production. Below I will look at some of these traditions in relation to dairy production, specifically the production of butter. As churning was a common household chore, as well as the butter being an important source of dairy, especially during winter months, it was of the utmost importance to do as much as possible to prevent otherworldly forces from stealing it, and also with the milk it comes from. Sometimes, when the butter did not ‘break’, supernatural interference was suspected as the reason for the milk not being turning into butter. In reality though, there were a number of reasons why butter would not come, ie temperature control, sterilisation issues and not separating the cream. Despite this, a number of tactics were adopted to help prevent this supernatural and malicious interference. For good luck, the lid of the churn could be spread with butter (unsalted) or have salt sprinkled on the lid to keep the fairies at bay. We also come across items being placed beneath the churn, such as hot coals or the shoe of an ass or horse (Iron and fire being common items of proven efficacy against supernatural forces and are well attested in the Irish corpus of folkloric material). There were also strict prohibitions against carrying out certain actions in the household as water not being allowed to leave the house, nor ashes be taken from the fire. Any person entering the house would have to “take a brash” (have a go off churning, to make sure they did not intend to steal any of the butter) and it forbidden to loan a churn (Rynne,1998:27). A number of these elements pop up in numerous accounts, a number of which can be seen below. There was a number of ways your milk or churn could be stolen. Either the cow was deprived of milk (by the evil eye overlooked, eyebitten) or the churn was ‘Blinked’ and the milk would yield no butter. Magic, ritual or medicine could also be used to cause this. Borrowing something from the house or byre such as burning turf, fire, freely given butter, a churn could allow people to place these enchantments and steal your butter or milk. They could also do this by putting something in the person’s house, such as butter, a butter substitute or metal implement which would enable them to magically transfer the profit to themselves.
In a country with a rich tradition relating to sacred stones (such as ballaun stones, ogham stones, stones circles etc), it is no surprise that an everyday function as important as butter making would make it into the lore concerning sacred stones. These fascinating monuments are the so-called “butter stones”. These peculiar items are, from all outward appearances, essentially ballaun stones. These however have butter, or more specifically, butter stealing origins attached to them. Since the nineteenth century, it has been surmised by some scholars that these were somehow a part of old dairies or involved in some folk magic practice to help with butter making. When the original use was lost ,then maybe the tales of transformation (that I will detail in a moment) then came into being to explain their unusual name (Zuchelli,2016:88). The tales of metamorphosis attached to them are similar to many folk tales of people being transformed, often into stone, generally for the transgression of some kind of geis or taboo. This of course is not unique to Ireland and is a common etiological tale explaining some feature of the landscape as having once been a person. Some examples of these butter stones here in Ireland are ‘St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps’ in Temple Feaghna, Co.Kerry and the ‘Butter Stone’ at St Peakaun’s Shrine in the Glen of Atherlow, Tipperary.
St Fiachna’s Butter Lumps: ( it is featured in the documentary here) Accounts from nineteenth century antiquarians tell us that people would visit the site around Easter times and turn the stones in the basin as the final ‘round’ on their pattern. The stones were considered to have healing properties and are also classified as ‘homing stones (meaning they will magically find their way back if taken) but local lore attributes there origin as ‘Butter stones’ to the sixth-century. Two different stories exist and we are told that the saint, Fiachna, either discovers that a women whom he had hired to work on his farm had been surreptitiously selling his butter at the market, or that an irate farmer complained about a woman who owned no cows but used charms to steal her neighbours profit. Whichever beginning you pick, the outcome is the same. Upon investigating the house of the woman he discovers her ill-gotten gains in the form of several rolls of butter. The vehement saint (hell hath no fury like an early Christian saint) turns the butter rolls and the wooden block they were on to stone (and later the women who is said to have been transformed into the nearby pillar stone), giving us the ‘Butter Lumps’ at the site today (ibid,87).
Butter Stone at Saint Peakaun’s Shrine: In older sources relating to this stone, we are told that the basins in the stone contained three, now lost, stones. One of these stones was said to be the Butter Stone. Newer sources now claim that the stone containing the basins, is itself the Butter Stone. The three distinctive depressions, the basins, are said to be from the fingers of a woman. The saint had visited a home of the woman who was engaged in butter making. He asked for food but was told nothing was available. The irate saint cursed the woman, turning the butter she was making into the stone, which still bears the print of her fingers (ibid:89).
“Gathering the Dew”
In a common folktale (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3), we are told of a priest who encounters ‘an old hag’, a common, well attested, antagonist in tales of this nature that will be more than familiar to anyone who has read any stories relating to ‘butter stealing’. A common technique used by these so-called ‘hags’ is using a rope to ‘gather the dew’. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target. In this particular rendition we are not informed of the exact material of the rope, such as the rope woven on Mayday eve from the mane of a stallion without a single white hair found in another tale (Jenkins,1991:310-11) .we are also told elsewhere that “A woman who had the power had a rope made of hair”(NFSC,Vol.1038:362). So, in this instance involving the priest and the hag, the hag is using rope (although not said to be specifically made from hair) and chanting the words “all to me” (meaning that all the butter of the person she is stealing from would come to her). Here we are reminded of the divide between the lay and ecclesiastical belief system that often pops up in folktales. Most lay people, especially rural inhabitants would at once spot the actions of the ‘hag’ and would have known immediately what she was doing. The priest absentmindedly and jokingly says “and half to me” in response as he overhears her while passing by, only to discover more butter that usual in his own dairy next morning when he wakes up. Upon investigation, much more is discovered in the woman’s house. Her guilt in this case lying on the fact he she only owned a male goat, “leaving little doubt of her evil doings”. The tale also mentions that the townspeople took action to prevent her from doing the same in future, but as ominous as that sounds we are not informed of what this action was. As to people ‘taking action’ against the nefarious forces looking to steal their profit, I will explain further below. I will first however go further into the use of the rope as a method of stealing.
The act of stealing through the gathering of dew using rope is attested in a number of sources and was evidently a very pervasive belief. The process was more or less enumerated above and it is almost always associated with “the dark arts” or witchcraft. In most examples we see the physical act of dragging the rope coupled with an incantation, or charm, to the tune of “come all to me”. In one account in the NFSC we are told how “ In Ireland long ago…there were many kinds of stories of witchcraft and rascality (sic) of this kind told. The people in the locality not only believe them but would swear by them” (NFSC:Vol.1042:69). In an account titled “ The black art”, collected by Henry Glassie (Glassie,1986:193-4), we are told by his informant, Hugh Nolan, that there were people who possessed this ‘black art’, which was “in the line of witchery” and was capable of taking milk from the cows. So, here we see that it was not only your butter that was in danger from being stolen, but that it could also be stolen at the source. Here again we see the same practice being employed, but it specifically states that it must be white, and in the shape of a rope. Hugh tells us how the milk would be transferred to the cows of the person carrying out the charm, and also that he believes that the rope was only “an accompaniment” to the spell, and that they needed “the charm of words that took the milk”. The exclusion of the charm here or the implication of it being unknown is no doubt just added to make the nature of the charm seem more esoteric and known only to those practitioners of these ‘dark arts’. He tells us of a case of how in his locality there was a person with only three cows that was producing more milk than another who had ten, clear evidence that they possessed this black art. These hags often had the ability to shapeshift into hares and in this guise we oft encounter them in folktales and accounts.
Hags as hares
This is a very old and persuasive belief and is by no means contained to just Ireland and is in fact found throughout Europe. In Ireland we have accounts of this dating back to the 12th century, given to us by the Cambro-Norman historian Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of wales) in his book “Topographia Hiberniae” (The Topography of Ireland). He says how it was believed in Ireland, Wales, Scotland about witches turning into hare to suckle the milk. This is mirrored in Irish sources, including in the laws. A 1586 (Brittania) account tells of “The Gaelic Irish believed that when a house was looked at through the shoulder-blade or bone of a sheep, and a spot or shadow appears in the middle of it , the owner of the house was a ‘wicked woman and witch’ who would next summer filtch away all their butter”. To counteract they would take some fire from the suspects house and look for “A hare amonst their heads of cattle on May-Day, they kill her, for they suppose she is some old trot , that would filch away their butter”. This also mentions a form counter-magic: taking the thatch from above the door of the person who is stealing your butter and then burning it. We also find an account from 1691 that mentions thatch but adds that anyone looking to “fetch fire” from them on May-Day was wicked— this of course follows through to modern day with the same belief found throughout the country. It is amazing to see the continuation of tradition, still fervently believed into the last century unchanged by modernity. As I mentioned, this phenomenon is not only found in Ireland but also throughout Europe. An interesting contrast is the Nordic tradition. The difference here is that instead of shapeshifting herself, the witch makes the creature. These “Milk-hares” were made by witches from various objects and can be sourced back to 15th century in church murals, witch trials and literature. In the Irish tradition the only way (in many cases) of injuring these shapeshifters is by shooting them with silver. If one were to follow the injured creature they would invariably find themselves following a blood trail to a house where they would find and injured or dead old woman with wounds matching where the hare had been shot (there is a modern account of this collected by Michael Fortune. I will add the video here. It can be found from 1:41 onwards)
(*note: Caution is advised when dealing with material from Lady Gregory and her friend W.B Yeats. The material below is found elsewhere in the folklore record so is likely genuine, but they are both prone to flights of fancy and prone to inventing Fakelore. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland is a reasonable resource due to the fact some of the material was actually collected by the author from people on her land, but it pays to be cautious).
In lady Gregory’s book Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, we get a short and concise section focusing on butter stealing. Here she tells us how to prevent “the others” (the good folk, daoine sídhe, fairies) from interfering with your work: “Sprinkle a few drops of holy water about the churn and put a coal of fire beneath it (that you should always do), as was always done in the old time, and the others will never touch it” (Gregory:247). In another account she is told of a woman who visited a wise woman to remedy the issue that day after day, no matter how hard she tried, she was unable to make butter. She was instructed to go to a running stream at sunrise and collect the water. After adding this to the milk while churning she ends up with rolls and rolls of butter, most likely her lost butter magically returning. Using water from a running stream often pops up in folklore and has many, often magical or healing properties, especially if it is taken from converging streams or streams that run on the boundaries of townlands. The fact it is collected at sunrise is also worth noting as this liminal time, not being either day or night, imbues the water with mystical properties (such as when morning dew is collected and believed to have healing capabilities). The final item in this section I would like to look at is the following quote: “There was a Burke and he knew how to get it (butter) back out of some Irish book that has disappeared since he died”. Now what seems to be inconsequential at first glance, stood out glaringly to me. This “Irish book” brings to mind accounts that I have read of magical healing books often given to people by the fairies. These books are invariably written in the Irish language and filled with esoteric and otherworldly as well as terrestrial healing methods. Sometimes these are passed down the family line but they often disappear upon the death of the person they had been gifted to. Next I will move on to what is probably the most macabre element attached to butter stealing lore, the dead hand.
One of the strangest traditions you are likely to come across in relation to butter stealing is without a doubt the dead hand/ hand of glory. This was, as you can imagine from the name, a preserved hand from a corpse. The milk was churned using this preserved hand by stirring the milk with it. Some source say it has to be done 8-9 times accompanied by spells. An account from Co Longford tells us that you need to mix some of your intended victims milk with your own in order for it to work. The proto-folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker gives an account (early 1800’s) of one of these macabre hand’s being produced as false evidence in a court against an old woman (luckily for her the judge found that she was being framed).
This so called “hand of glory”, is made by drying or smoking the hand of a corpse to preserve it and if you could procure the hand of unbaptised infant, this was believed to be the most powerful version of this horrific magical device. As hideous and unspeakable this eerie talisman is (especially when viewed though the lens of modernity) it was not always used for malicious reasons. The hand is efficacious in cures when applied to the afflicted part of the body (although I’m not sure how bad one would have to feel to allow a desiccated hand to be rubbed on them). Another interesting use for it was the belief that it could also be used by someone who was committing a crime in the belief that it would render them invisible or help them evade capture. There is an interesting account where two thieves were apprehended in 1831 at loughcrew with a hand in their possession. An interesting tidbit found in the National Folklore Schools collection says the following: “If you go to the churchyard and take up a dead hand, take it home and clean it and leave it hung up behind the door it will take twice as much butter off the churning as you would get otherwise” (NFSC Vol.0267:070). Luckily there were a number of proven methods to stop people from stealing your profit. A number of these methods will be addressed next.
To prevent your milk or butter from being stolen there were various safeguards you could employ to stop this from happening. People would have to be more vigilant on liminal days, such as mayday (described by Danaher as “a most important landmark in the Irish countryman’s year” (Danaher,1976:86)), when the threat of otherworldly forces was at it highest. It was a common practice of children on May eve to collect flowers to place on doorsteps, windowsills and in byres to protect the household and animals (ibid:86). These flowers can stop people with the power to ‘milk the dew’ by spreading them before the byre door on May-eve (NFSC, Vol.1038:362). These flowers were also tied, as a form of protection, to horns or tails of the cows or even to the churn dash itself (Danaher,1976:89). Hair can also be used for protection, with a hair spancel tied at the cow gap to prevent your cows being milked by fairies. Protection of the cows was also done by tying a red string to the tail after calving. This sort of protection was carried out because in many cases the cows of the people whose butter was stolen, went mad or got sick and died (Ní Bhradaigh, 1936:261).
Fire, salt and Iron are also Items that are efficacious in the prevention and nullification of these ill-boding forces, a factor that is not only confined to Ireland, but found in cultures across the globe. It would come as no surprise then that when looking at a profession that combines both fire and iron, that of a blacksmith, that they would feature in stories relating to the magical theft of butter or milk. Considering butter and butter making feature very prominently in Irish folklore it is no surprise that in my research I came across an account of a blacksmith who offered to help with “the cure” for butter stealing. The family in question were “black in the face” from trying to make butter. This cure involved the blacksmith having to make both a horse shoe and nails, both made by heating the iron in ‘different heats’ and placing them under the churn. The story then follows a typical formula of the person who was stealing the butter is found in the form of a hare. It ends with everybody in the town getting their butter back (NFSC,IML.185:367-9). I found the inclusion of consulting the blacksmith in this story to be fairly unique as usually these types of tales involve a person just heating a piece of Iron and putting it into the milk to harm the person stealing the butter. In a society where butter stealing was a very real fear, I feel it speaks volumes about the status of the blacksmith in society due to the fact that he was consulted on in this matter in a situation like this. In another case where a blacksmith is indirectly involved in the cure, we are told how “among the locality there appears to have been a cure”. This involved a complicated ritual that got the butter back if “Worked properly”. The shoes for two male donkeys were to be “produced” (most likely from a blacksmith) and heated in a splendid fire”. This fire could have only red hot coals, no black sods of turf and there was to be no smoke in the room. As well as this the windows needed to be blinded and the door bolted. Similar to other tales where iron is used to dispel the evil force, the heated iron was to be placed inside the milk. One of the brothers had to hold the churn in its place to stop it from “jumping from place to place” in the kitchen. The ritual is “spoiled” though due to the door being opened but similar to other stories of this nature, we see that there has been a consequence of the hot Iron being placed into the milk. This action often has a direct effect on the person who is stealing the butter, and in this instance we see an old woman in the river next to house, splashing herself with water to cool down due to the heat generated from putting the red hot iron into the milk, and it affecting her in turn. She is identified as ‘being in league with the devil’ and being the one responsible for stealing the butter (NFSC:Vol.1042:69).
Diagnosis/cure: the “witch” could be seen by wise man or victim by looking into a bowl of water.
There were 2 common rituals for the removal of the spell:
For the churn, it was linked to the hearth by the coulter and chains of the plough.
for milk supply of the beast, all openings of house blocked up. In a pot over the fire, new iron needles/pins placed into it with herbs and sometimes milk. Both these rituals were believe to bring the witch running in agony to make it stop begging that she will lift her own enchantment.
The connection to fire is also seen elsewhere with a prohibition on smoking and other lore associated with fire. I will address these next.
Smoking and fire related lore
In many areas there was a prohibition on smoking while the churning was taking place. The following examples illustrate this:
A man would not be let light his pipe whilst the woman of the house is churning (Volume 0095, Page 269). Mayo.
No one should smoke while churning (Volume 0705, Page 077). Meath.
If a person was making a churning and somebody was to go out smoking he was supposed to bring out the butter that would be in the churning with him. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030).
If a person comes in while you are churning and puts a coal in the his pipe and walks out without taking a hand at the churn, the churning will never be made until he comes back and puts back that coal under the churn. (NFSC Volume 0267, Page 070).
During the making of a churning, a live coal should not be taken from fire without being replaced by a [?] of turf. This is also to prevent the butter being taken. (NFSC Volume 0118, Page 48).
A few random pieces to finish
It is said that if a person puts a piece of a stick under the churn when churning it would keep the fairies from taking the butter. ( NFSC Volume 0705, Page 077).
You are not supposed to throw out water when making churning as it will bring the butter out with it. (NFSC Volume 0108, Page 030). *Proper disposal of water can be traced back to medieval times (cf . Eachtra Nerai, 12th century eachtra type tale and also the more modern practice of shouting “watch out” when throwing water out the door to alert and fairies in the vicinity so as not to anger them).
If there is thunder while the churning is made the butter will be white ( NFSC Volume 0112, Page 32).
In conclusion, we have seen just a brief selection of the lore attached to the everyday practice of dairy production. It is no surprise given the importance of both milk and butter to both the households economy and diet that there would be a wealth of superstitions relating to their production and that we would find a vast corpus of methods in preventing the stealing of these commodities, finding the culprits involved and the eventual return of the lost ‘profit’. The fact that these folk magic practices, whether they be the malicious ones for stealing or the apotropaic ones to avert the malevolent forces, remained in wide use up to the middle of the last century stands testament to very real belief people had in these methods. Thank you for making it to the end of a relatively lengthy piece. Don’t forget to follow on facebook to keep up to date @ https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/
Originally written as part of the Material Culture Module by Dr Clíona o Carroll of the UCC Folklore and Ethnology Department and handed in as class assignment.
Carey, J. (1999) A Single Ray of the Sun, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth.
Danaher, K. (1969), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier press, Cork.
Glassie, H. (1999) Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Gregory.A, Beliefs and Visions in the West of Ireland.
Jenkins, R. (1991), Witches and Fairies: Supernatural Aggression and Deviance among the Irish Peasantry, in P. Naráez (ed), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Location: Gortnacart Glebe, Co. Donegal.
NFC,IML.185:367-9, Patrick Fitzsimons (55), Postman and farmer, Rosehill, Mullagh, Co.Cavan, Collector: P.J.Gaynor, 27th of January 1942.
On New Year’s Day the old people gave an extra sheaf of corn to the horses and cows, to make them work better, and give more milk for the coming year. The old people never threw anything out on New Year’s Day, but they kept all the leavings of tea in a bucket at the foot of the dresser. They did this so as to have a plentiness for the coming year. The water for the day after New Year’s day was brought in before mid-night on New Year’s Day. If anybody went to the well after that time he was drowned. If a person met a red-haired woman on New Year’s Day, he would have bad luck during the year. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1034, Page 116
The first day in the new year is called New Year’s Day. It is a holiday of obligation, because it is the feast-day of the Circumcision of Our Lord.
Some people make new resolutions but they are generally broken before the year is out. It is said that whatever one does on New Year’s Day he will do it through the whole year.
It is the custom when people meet to each other a happy and prosperous New Year. On New Year’s Eve the Church bells, and the fog-horns of the boats and ships ring the old year out and the new year in at twelve o’clock.
There are some superstitions connected with New Year’s Day. Some people never throw out the ashes or the dish water because they say it will bring bad luck to the house.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0664, Page 251.
New Year Customs.
It would be very unlucky for a woman (especially a red-haired woman) to come in first on New Year’s Day. Bad luck for the year was certain. One of the boys of the house usually went out after twelve and returned again and wished everyone a Happy New Year saying
“Blow out the old,
Blow in the new,
Blow out the false
And blow in the true”
The ashes and sweepings were not thrown out on New Year’s Day or any water. People didn’t like to buy anything on that day – to put out any money at all on New Year’s day, they believed if they did, they would be spending during the year. If the wnd blew from the west on New Year’s Eve it was a good sign of the following year. If there is a flood in the (New Year’s Day), it was a sign of rising prices. It isn’t right to throw out water on New Year’s Night on Christmas Night or to go to the well after twelve o’clock on either night.
The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0117, Page 156.
In this locality there are many old customs connected with New Year’s Day and Little Christmas Day.
On New Year’s Day if a dark haired man enters your house first he brings good luck and you are supposed to give him a glass of wine or a leg of a turkey for bringing the good luck but if a girl enters your house first she brings bad luck.
If any person spends money on New Year’s Day they will be spending money the whole year round. On New Year’s Day if you meet a red haired woman you will have bad luck during the year and if you meet a red haired man you will have great luck. Before New Year’s Day each house should be cleaned and if this is not done the house will be dirty the whole year round. On New Year’s Day everyone is usually in time for Mass because if they are late they will whole year round.
On New Year’s Eve all church bells are rung to beat out the old year. On New Year’s Eve a procession is held in the town and pitch forks are carried with scooped turnips on the top of them in which a lighted candle is placed.
The 24th of July sees the feast day of Saint Declan of Ardmore, Co.Waterford. Declan was a pre-patrician saint, preaching the new religion and converting the pagan populace of Ardmore long before Saint Patrick ever set foot in Ireland. He was said to have set up his church around the spot where the 12th century “cathedral” and round tower now stand. Declan was a prince of the Deise tribe and had returned from Rome to convert people to the new religion. His supposed burial site, known as the oratory, stands nearby. A short walk from this site lies his holy well and the ruins of another church. It is here in a slightly more secluded spot, perched on a cliff, that Declan was said to have come to avoid the large crowds that were coming to his original church (this is a common motif when reading about saints. They often seek further seclusion or become hermits). His feast day was a very popular pilgrimage for centuries with thousands of people descending on the quaint seaside village to do the “rounds” of the pattern. The earliest accounts date to the 1600’s Like many patterns, the religious aspect was not the only thing to be found here. The beach was lined with tents with musicians and people selling drink. Heavy alcohol consumption was the norm after completing the rounds, a thing that left many of the 18th and 19th century observers (most of whom were protestant) aghast with what they were witnessing. Faction fighting was also a common feature at these pattern days, which had an equal effect on these observers. This sort of faction fighting was most common in areas such as mountain passes or areas where two townlands met. Here the factions from each district would ritualistically fight in an attempt to gain the luck of the saint for the year and carry it home with them. Despite being ritualistic in nature, injury often occurred. Below I will show the sites involved in the pattern and supplement it with some of the 19th century accounts. The pattern was revived in the last couple of decades and still draws thousands each year. Many of these patterns had died out due to church interference because the clergy were against the heavy drinking, debauchery, faction fighting and the holy well veneration (that was essentially a vestige of pagan practice).
This building is traditionally believed to have been the burial spot of the saint. If you peer in the window you can see a large hollow in the ground(see photo below). Out of this the clay was taken and used for all manner of cures. Due to its contact with the spot where the said was buried it was believed to have gained miraculous powers and was often ingested to provide a cure. It formed and important part of the”rounds” and was commented on in the old accounts. An old woman distributed or sold the clay to the pilgrims when they entered the oratory. The following account dates from 1841:
“22nd July, Arrived this evening at Ardmore, preparations already making for the due celebration of the Patron’s day; visited the dormitory of St. Declan; an old meagre figure had possession of the grave, in which she ate, drank, and slept, that none other might claim a right to it; one half of her only appeared above ground; the last supply of earth for the approaching demand, had just been put in; she recommended us strongly to take a portion in the name of God and the blessed Saint (on pronouncing the latter name she with due reverence dropped a low curtsey) as a preventive against fire, drowning, etc. etc, if eaten with due faith.
Of the clays efficacy against fire we read more later. The writer tells us :
9 o’clock – fire nearly subdued for want of fuel; here comes the old jezebel from the grave, covered with earth, half naked, and yellow as the clay of which she bears a portion, and is strewing in places the fire cannot reach, to show its virtue in destroying that devouring element.
The Round Tower and Cathedral
Although neither of these dates to the time of the saint they both feature strongly as part of the rounds/pattern. The round tower remains one of the finest and most complete examples of these characteristic towers that dot the Irish landscape. These conical towers, called Cloig Theach (bell towers) in the native tongue, are often mistakenly assumed to be of a defensive nature due to their doors being placed meters off the floor. This in fact is a structural feature as most of these towers were build without any real foundations to speak of. It is a testament to the builders of these awe inspiring monuments that many of these still stand when the buildings around them has long since crumbled. They often stand as status symbols in the most important ecclesiastical sites around the country. They served not only as landmarks but experimental archaeology has shown that ringing a hand bell from the top floor can be heard for miles around. In relation to the pattern observances of the feast day we are told the following:
“A few yards brought us to the far-famed round tower, the most perfect in Ireland; here again the devout pilgrims repeated prayers and told their beads, and knelt with the utmost humility, kissed the tower, broke off pieces which they carried away; then the whole crowd filed off to the chapel, which was open to receive them, and mass was celebrated in all due form; here the devotions of the day ended”.
The church, called the Cathedral despite its minuscule size, dates to around the 12th century and incorporates an array of design features such as the Romanesque arcading seen in the picture above featuring biblical scenes such as Adam and Eve and the judging of Solomon. Further Romaneque features can be found inside along with a pointed chancel arch. If you look close enough, crosses can be seen carved into the walls near the doorway that you enter through. Two Ogham stones can also be found within the church.
The Holy Well
The holy well comprises one of the main elements of the Pattern, as it quite often does at these kind of observances. I will cover the phenomenon of holy wells in a future article as these are a fascinating belief system that stems from an age old water cult with fascinating ties to pagan practice and belief. These fall well outside the standard doctrine and although associated with christian saints, were never officially sanctioned by the church.During the 19th Century attempts were made by the diocesan clergy to suppress pilgrimages/patterns with little effect. Pilgrimages did in fact decline but this was mostly due to the Famine and social change.
For those unfamiliar with holy wells, either drinking or topically applying the water can elicit cures. Quite often this cure can be for a specific body part such as for curing eye problems etc. There are some pretty graphic accounts of people dipping limbs affected by all manner of ailment into the water and then others drinking from it ( A fact I can even attest to seeing in the past 20 years). This particular well is especially effective in the treatment of eye problems but can be used for a multitude of symptoms. Similar to the account above of the old woman above distributing clay, It was not uncommon for women to distribute/ sell the water at these wells, as in the photo below of Declan’s well from the early 20th century (circa 1910).
Lord Walter Fitzgerald writing in the Journal of the Royal society of Antiquaries in 1856 had the following to say:
“The most celebrated well in this province for ‘rounds’ and miraculous cures. Its powers of healing are still frequently put to the test with all sorts of sprains and mutilations of the human body, especially on the patron day, which is held on the 24th July. There are also said to be three holy wells on the strand at Ardmore, which were formed by a miracle of St Declan, but these cannot be seen except at extreme low tides, and at low water mark; they are noted for curing inward complaints in those who are fortunate to glimpse of them at the propitious moment. At each of the wells mentioned here, except those on the strand, the visitor will find numerous coloured objects tied to the trees and briars in the neighbourhood.”
Further accounts can be found in Mr & Mrs halls writings from 1841 (as used previously above):
“On the brink stand the remnants of a chapel, said to be the first built in Ireland. On entering the gateway, on your right hand, is the well St. Declan blessed: a narrow doorway leads to it, a formidable figure had possession of it, and dealt out in pint mugs to those who paid; some drank it, some poured it on their limbs, their head, their backs, in the most devout manner, some claimed a second portion to bottle and carry home to sick relatives, or to preserve their house from fire; they then knelt down to the well, and said their prayers”
Above Is the stone visible in the old photo used at the beginning of the article. It lies at the gable end of the church ruin and as part of the rounds the crosses are carved into the stone as prayers are said (it is not unusual at other pilgrimages for the dust created from carving those crosses to be collected, added to water and consumed in the believe that it could also provide cures. Below are the ruins of the church near this stone and the well. Perched on the precipice of the cliff it offers stunning views of the bay below (The name Ardmore comes from the Irish Aird Mhór meaning “Great height”).
Saint Declans Stone
The last item I would like to mention is the boulder known locally as “Saint Declan’s Stone”. This stone forms an important part of the rounds and is believed to be efficacious in treating back pain and rheumatism by stooping down and crawling beneath it through the narrow aperture seen above. It was also circled a number of times on the knees while praying. The story of the stone is as follows: When the saint was returning from wales, he realised he had left his bell behind on a rock on the foreshore. He prayed to God and the stone started to float after him with the bell on top of it. Recognising the miracle he allowed the boulder to lead the way and decided that wherever it was to land he would set up his church. This of course landed on the beach of Ardmore where it still remains today, only accessible at low tide. The boulder is appears to be a glacial erratic as it is the only stone of its kind on the beach. This stone also features in the accounts from the 18th century:
“there the first scene began, and I counted 154 persons kneeling round the stone, fresh comers every moment succeeding those who had told their beads and said their prayers. I watched their motions as they approached the stone; they took off their hats, then lowly bowed their heads, and dropped their knees on the pointed rocks; here they repeated several prayers, telling over their beads; then solemnly drew near and reverentially kissed the informed (???) mass several times, then bumped their backs against it three times, drew back in awe, dropped again on their knees, repeating more prayers and silently retired, children in arms were pressed down till their little mouths touched the holy stone”.
That brings to a close this brief foray into the sites attributed to Saint Declan and his pattern day. Thank you for taking the time to read it and I hope you enjoyed it. If you enjoyed my photographs feel free to follow my Photography page on facebook (click here) and also my Folklore page (here). For the 19th century accounts above I used:
Mr. & Mrs. S.H. Hall. 1841. Ireland: Its Scenery, Character & C. London: How & Parsons (pp. 284-85)
In this article I will be focusing on a subject that is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record, the Evil Eye. This is not unique to Ireland and is found in many different cultures with accounts dating far back into antiquity. I’m sure many will be familiar with the Evil Eye pendants (called Nazar) or keyrings from Turkey and Egypt, that are still a popular souvenir choice for holiday makers. In the Irish context it is quite often mentioned in an ambiguous manner (such as an account or story simply mentioning that the person “had the Evil Eye”) with no explanation as to what it actually is. I have compiled the following accounts as they illustrate the nature of the Evil Eye and also give us good examples of how it can be counteracted. Lady Jane Francesca Wilde gives us a number of excellent examples in her book Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. These examples are mirrored in the later National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) accounts that encompass the rest of the examples provided herein.
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’.
“There are several modes in which the Evil Eye can act, some much more deadly than others. If certain persons are met the first thing in the morning, you will be unlucky for the whole of that day in all you do. If the evil-eyed comes in to rest, and looks fixedly on anything, on cattle or on a child, there is doom in the glance; a fatality which cannot be evaded except by a powerful counter-charm. But if the evil-eyed mutters a verse over a sleeping child, that child will assuredly die, for the incantation is of the devil, and no charm has power to resist it or turn away the evil. Sometimes the process of bewitching is effected by looking fixedly at the object, through nine fingers; especially is the magic fatal if the victim is seated by the fire in the evening when the moon is full. Therefore, to avoid being suspected of having the Evil Eye, it is necessary at once, when looking at a child, to say “God bless it.” And when passing a farmyard where the cows are collected for milking, to say, “The blessing of God be on you and on all your labours.” If this form is omitted, the worst results may be apprehended, and the people would be filled with terror and alarm, unless a counter-charm were not instantly employed” Lady wilde.
Lady Wilde, often known by her pen name Speranza, also tells us “There is nothing more dreaded by the people, nor considered more deadly in its effects, than the Evil Eye.It may strike at any moment unless the greatest precautions are taken, and even then there is no true help possible unless the fairy doctor is at once summoned to pronounce the mystic charm that can alone destroy the evil and fatal influence”.
The only way to counteract this power was through the use of a powerful counter charm. If the evil eye had been used against an animal, effectively rendering it useless, then a person has to hum the alphabet under the nose of the animal who has it. If the name of the person who cast the evil eye is known for sure, then humming the letters of their name will suffice in breaking the curse (NFSC,Vol.0221:628). Another description of this ritual goes into far greater detail and has much more Christian elements included in it. We are told that as well as writing the letters of the alphabet in their order on a sheet of paper, the sign of the Cross was made on this paper with the pen three times, the paper was then sprinkled with holy water and burned under the animal’s nose. Some of the ashes of the paper were put in the mouth of the affected animal and the cure was then complete (NFSC,Vol.0941:324). Special precautions to protect the animal from this malicious force are taken at the liminal, auspicious times of year such as May eve, due to the fact that supernatural forces were considered to be at their zenith. Red tags or strings were tied to the cow’s tails as a prevention against the Evil Eye but this can also be performed at the birth of the animal also (NFSC.Vol.0978:071). Another way of counteracting it was that the person to whom the animal belongs must cut a piece off the coat of the person who overlooked it and burn the cloth under the animals head (NFSC.Vol.0978:071). It could also be reversed by the person who cast it. One account tells how:
“ 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).
The person possessing the power is said to have gotten it through being born with it or it is said that people become possessed of the evil eye as babies if they are weaned of their mother’s milk and then given it again. This can be reversed by passing the baby under a green sod three times (NFSC,Vol.0221:628). Lady Wilde tells us how suspected persons were held in great suspicion, and they were recognised at once by certain signs. Men and women with dark lowering eyebrows are especially feared, and that “the handsome children are kept out of their path lest they might be overlooked by them” .Red hair was supposed to have the most malign influence, and it has even passed into a proverb: “Let not the eye of a red-haired woman rest on you.” Many of the people are unaware that their glance or frown has this evil power until some calamity results, and then they “strive not to look at any one full in the face, but to avert their eyes when speaking, lest misfortune might fall upon the person addressed”.
In the course of my research for this article I came across an interesting account of a man who possessed the evil eye. Following a number of accidents and misfortunes, seemingly of a fatal nature, the source of the accidents was traced back to the man, who had been present at all incidents (It should be noted that many people who possess the power are not inherently evil or intend to use their power maliciously). In an effort to avoid any further mishaps the community forced the man to wear an eye patch. What is interesting is the fact that we are given an example of his power being used for good. One day as the man was near the ruin of an old castle he encountered a crying boy. The boy was distressed because his pet pigeon was at the top of the ruin and could not be coaxed down. He took off the patch and stared intently at the pigeon. It fell to the ground and lay motionless, as if stunned; but there was no harm done to it and then the boy took it up and went his way.. Due to the limited scope of my research on the subject I am unable to confirm whether it is an isolated case where the power was used for good (I will include a link here for the Duchas.ie schools collection where you can read through the others if you wish).
We find two ancient accounts of the evil eye here in Ireland. The first is found in the mythological cycle of tales and relates to Balor of the evil eye, who was said to have a fortress on Tory Island. Balor was a king of the Formorians, the ancient inhabitants of Ireland (before the coming of the Tuatha Dé Danann). He is often described as a giant with a huge eye in the middle of his forehead this eye brought death and destruction on anyone he cast his gaze upon. He had gained this power from peering into a cauldron that contained a powerful spell that was being created by some druids. The vapours from the cauldron got into his eye when he looked inside which gave him the power of his deathly gaze. The most memorable instance of Balor using his eye is the story of his death at the battle of Maigh Tuireadh. In this famous battle between the Formorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann, Balor fell in battle at the hands of his own grandson, the pan-celtic god Lugh, when he trust his spear (or sling depending on the telling) through the eye of the giant. His eye was blown out the back of his head, turning his deadly gaze on his own men, destroying the forces of the Formorians. A piece of Dindseanchas (meaning lore of places) tells us that the place where his head fell and burned a hole in the ground, later filled with water and became known as “Lough na Suil” or “The Lake of the Eye”. Interestingly, this lake disappears every few years when it drains into a sink hole. Local mythology says that this happens to ensure that the atrocities of the battle may never be forgotten.
The only other ancient mention of the evil eye is that of a saint. Lady Gregory tells us “After Balor, the only other ancient instance of the fatal effects of the malefic Eye is narrated of St. Silan, who had a poisonous hair in his eyebrow that killed whoever looked first on him in the morning. All persons, therefore, who from long sickness, or sorrow, or the weariness that comes with years, were tired of life, used to try and come in the saint’s way, that so their sufferings might he ended by a quick and easy death. But another saint, the holy Molaise, hearing that St. Silan was coming to visit his church, resolved that no more deaths should happen by means of the poisoned hair. So he arose early in the morning, before any one was up, and went forth alone to meet St. Silan, and when he saw him coming along the path, he went boldly up and plucked out the fatal hair from his eyebrow, but in doing so he himself was struck by the venom, and immediately after fell down dead”.
Dogs have always been seen as not only loyal companions but also as protectors of both our homes and livestock and were historically used in times of war and also in helping with hunting. The majestic wolfhound, the oldest Irish breed was once a status symbol owned only by Kings and as their names suggests, used for hunting the wolves that once roamed our country. So, it is no surprise that with our close relationship with the hound, that it finds a prominent place in our Folklore, myths and legends. Both in Ireland and UK we share the belief that dogs are capable of seeing supernatural beings and I have many memories of being told that a dog was seeing a spirit when it was staring off into space intently, but was always assured it meant no harm if the dog was not scared. The belief that the dog could protect against the influences of the otherworld is by no means a new belief and in the Brehon laws we see that anyone who killed a dog belonging to a woman who was in labour, had to pay for a priest to stand over the woman and read the scriptures, day and night, until the labour was over to keep her safe from otherworldly influences (MacCoitir,2010:188).
Not only do we find that they could see spirits, or fairies, but it was also a belief that they themselves could become ghosts. We see an example of this in the National Folklore Schools collection (hereafter NFSC) in a story collected by Michéal Ó Gealbháin called “A Dog’s Ghost”. The story tells of how the informant once had a dog he was very attached to, as was the dog to him. One day as he was returning from a trip to Castlebar he seen the dog running up the road to meet him. As he drew closer the dog seemed to disappear into the bushes and would not come when he called him. Assuming the dog had just followed a rabbit he continued on home. Upon reaching the house he remarked to his wife how the dog would not come home when he called and that he would have to go and find him. His wife put down her knitting and placing a hand on either shoulder, said to him “You must be brave” and after a no doubt dramatic pause, said “The dog is dead”. He knew by the sorrowful look in her eyes that she was not joking and after following his wife to stables found the dog lying dead on the floor. The dog had passed away shortly after he had left for Castlebar earlier that morning. (NFSC, Vol:0095:167). This story brings to mind similar accounts found throughout Irish Folklore of the ‘fetch’ of a person appearing to loved ones around the time of their death.
In some areas of the country we find that a baying hound, called a gaidhrín caointeach replaced the infamous Bean Sídhe (banshee) as the herald of death for certain families such as the O’keeffe’s in West Cork. We also find a tradition/ variation in Ireland akin to the hounds of hell archetype where it is believed that these death hounds awaited the soul after death in so any morsels of bread would be thrown out in an effort to entice the dogs away as the person lay dying (MacCoitir,2010:95).
In terms of supernatural dogs, we also find a proliferation of accounts of monstrous black dogs, often encountered by people who wonder about too late at night (In fact a cursory glance at the duchas.ie page turns up well over 100 dog related entries, the vast majority of which are black dog stories). They are often spotted near Ringforts (often called rath or Lios), the medieval enclosure dwellings that dot the landscape. These monuments, as many will know, are considered the abode of the ‘Good people’, the fairies, and are still treated by many with respect and superstition or even fear. Eddie lenihan, the well respected Seanchaí and expert in fairy lore, tells us how these black dogs are the “frequenters and protectors” of fairy sites such as their dwellings and pathways. He tells us how the same dog, although not always a danger to people if left alone, can be seen over several generations in the same location and is often immobile and massive in size but just watches menacingly (lenihan,2003:89). Sometimes this ghostly black dog is connected with hidden treasure as we see in the following tale found in the NFSC: One evening as a boy was returning home from a fair, he met with a big black dog with “blazing eyes”. The dog leaped over a big gate into a bunch of nettles and disappeared. The boy recounted the story to his father and they both returned to the site with a shovel and after digging on the spot where the dog had vanished, found a box full of money (NFSC,Vol.0647:345). The black dog archetype is a migratory myth found in many lands outside of Ireland and is very popular in the British Isles but in the course my research for this article I came across an interesting find. In a story named “The Fairy Dog” in the NFSC we see an interesting account of a red dog (NFSC,Vol.0007:81). The colour red seems to me tosignify it as an otherworldly animal as we often find otherworldly cows and deer, usually white in color with red ears, so I believe in the case the colour red may be used to point out its otherworldly origins. At the very least it is interesting in the fact it varies from the usual black dog with burning red eyes. For any interested in the UK variation of the black dog mythos, I would suggest checking out the work of Mark Norman here: http://www.troybooks.co.uk/black-dog-folklore.html
When looking at Irish myth and folklore we find many instances of people transforming into animals. We see from some of our earliest literature that there was a druidic belief, something akin to reincarnation or rebirth where they thought that their ancestors “flew through the ages in the shape of birds”. This belief carried forward into the Christian era and we also see a multitude of instances of people who shapeshift in the form of one animal or another. We see long lived characters such as Tuán MacCaraill and Fintan son of Bochaire who survived thousands of years through shapeshifting into different animals and we also see similar events in the Lives of saints such as Saint Patrick and of course who could forget the children of Lir. So, it is no surprise considering the closeness and importance of humble dog, or Madra in Irish, that it would feature in similar shapeshifting stories. Two of these stories, found in the NFSC are due to enchantment by witches. In the “White Dog of the Valley” (NFSC,Vol.0442:071) we see a man who changes into a dog to steal the kings cattle and in “The Green Dog of the Woods” (NFSC,Vol.0222:023) we see a similar story when a man is under a spell that causes him to take on the form of a dog every evening.
Influence of Dogs on Names and Their Links With Heroes
We also see, because of the importance of dogs to the Irish, that they had an influence on Irish names. We see names such as Conn (such as Conn Céadcathach / Conn of the Hundred Battles) ,Conchobar (Conor) and Conall that derive from the word Cú/con meaning “hound, wolf” and of course one could not forget to mention the premier hero of the Irish mythological tradition, Cúchulainn. Originally named Setanta, he earned his name from killing the infamous, ferocious hound of the smith Culainn when arriving late to a dinner he was invited to by the king Conchubar,at the home of the smith. From that day forward he was known as Cúchulainn (the hound of Culainn) as he acted as protector in place of the hound till another could be trained to take his place. Because of his links with Dogs he also had a Geas (A taboo or obligation, often magically imposed) that forbid him from eating the flesh of a dog. Traditionally, the doom of heroes comes about due to their violation of their geas, either by accident, or by having multiple geasa and then being placed in a position where they have no option but to violate one geas in order to maintain another. For instance, The champion Cúchulainn came across three old crones roasting a hound on rowan spits. They asked him to partake in their humble meal, but there was a geas on Cúchulainn forbidding him to eat the flesh of the hound (his totem animal) and also against eating meat cooked over an open fire. Cúchulainn at first refused to eat the meat, but the crones persisted saying ‘you are too proud to eat an honest meal from a few old women but will feast on rich foods in the halls of chieftains and kings.’ Then Cúchulainn took the meat in his left hand – going against the double taboo and as soon as he ate the food he was paralyzed in the left side of his body, which hastened his inevitable demise in the forthcoming battle
We also see dogs feature in the Finnaíocht tradition of Irish mythology, that is the stories concerning Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn MacCool) and his roving warband, the Fianna. These legends tell us of Finn’s favourite dog Bran, a dog thought to possess great knowledge and sense who often helped Finn or saved him from danger. The Birth of both Bran and Sceoling (another hound of the Fianna) falls under the category of transformation above. Both were born to a queen who had been transformed into the form of a dog by a sorceress and who gave birth to them while in this form. In The Lay’s of Finn we find a poem that tells the story of Bran, with Fionn praising him (MacCoitir,2010:99).
This is but a short summary of how dogs factor in on Irish Folklore. I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the subject and I hope to bring many more segments to my animal folklore series in the future. If you would like to read some of the Schools collection for yourself follow this link to read the entries on dogs: http://www.duchas.ie/en/src?q=dog&t=CbesStory and don’t forget to follow my page on facebook : https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/
NFSC.Vol:0095:167, collector: Michéal Ó Gealbháin, Informant: Mr.Morony, Clogher, Co. Mayo.
NFSC,Vol.0647:345, Collector: Tomás Ó Dúnaighe, Informant: Tom Dwyer, Ballynamult, Co. Waterford.
NFSC,Vol.0007:81, Collector: Joseph King, Informant: Thomas King (50), Farmer, Roundstone, Co. Galway.
NFSC,Vol.0222:023, Collector: Joseph Quinn, Cloone, Co. Leitrim.
NFSC,Vol.0442:071, Collector: Nellie Doyle, Informant: Nóra Ní Shuilleabháin.
Lenihan, E, 2004. Meeting the Other Crowd. TarcherPerigee
MacCoitir.N,2010, Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends and Folklore, Collins press.
This article will be focusing on the blacksmith in Ireland and how the world of the supernatural is intrinsically bound up with this craftsman. Blacksmiths have for millennia been a member of high status in the community and this status survived in rural Ireland until the decline of the craft in modern times(Mac Cana, 1997:34). Their ability to turn raw materials such as iron ore or bog iron into usable tools and weapons made them seem like they were in possession of magic. Because of them working with iron, which is almost universally thought of as warding off evil, it is believed to imbue the smith with special powers or the ability to see or defeat evil. The suspicion of this power, perhaps mostly from the church is reflected in the 8th century hymn to protect people from the “spells of women, smiths and druids” (Kelly, 1988:62). We will see this opposition of the church reflected in a story below. They are often depicted as being of an unnatural size or have superhuman strength or stamina. Many folktales and mythological stories feature blacksmiths or blacksmithing gods showing the significance of the blacksmith in society. For this project I will be drawing mostly from the National Folklore Collection. I will also be using some examples from the Schools Collection as well as references from published books. My research is focused mostly, which the exception of one story, on the English language material I came across. I picked this subject as it is something I have had an interest in for a number of years and also I assumed that due to the fact that there was once a blacksmith in every town that there could possibly be an ample supply of interesting stories that would not only be interest the casual reader but would also broaden my own knowledge on the subject. I would like to begin by giving a brief overview of how the National Folklore Collection came into being and its importance.
In light of a quickly changing society, The Folklore of Ireland Society was set up in 1927 to document as much folk tradition as possible. Following this The Irish folklore Institute was set up in 1930. The government quickly realised that it would need a better equipped organisation and this was the impetus for the setting up of the Irish Folklore Commission in 1935. It was then that professional collectors, both full and part-time, travelled the length and breadth of country to record the native traditions. The collection is now made up of both the national collection (NFC) and also the schools collection (NFSC). The main collection ran from 1935-70 and the schools collection was carried out over the school year of 1937-8. Due to lack of man power and funding the collecting was not as effective as it could have been and many aspects of folk tradition were overlooked in favour of others. Irish speaking areas were favoured which is reflected in the larger portion of the collected material being in Irish. This makes it harder for any foreign scholarship to be carried out. Even though it was not as thorough as it could have been it still amounts to one of the largest ethnographic archives in the world and is ultimately an archive of national identity. For many years to come it will allow people to study the echoes of the past preserved within the archive.
Curing or Cursing
In the course of my research I noticed a bit of a trend. It would appear to be advantageous for all involved to stay on the good side of a blacksmith. It is a recurring theme referred to time and time again, in both the NFC and also in the schools collection, that the blacksmith is both capable of curing people or cursing them. In cursing it would appear that the anvil, one of the principle tools of the blacksmith, is instrumental in acting out the curse. This may have to be either facing a certain direction or rotated a certain direction, i.e Deiseal or Tuathal (clockwise or anti-clockwise).
Máire ní Carthaigh offers 2 Items told to her by her father on the subject, the first of which tells of how one goes about getting a curse placed on someone. She says that “If you want something to befall your neighbour, go to a blacksmith (and) get him to point the horn of the anvil to the east and to pronounce the curse”. The curse itself is not mentioned, which is usual, and neither is the repercussion of curse. The second story, called “The anvil curse” features the same sort of formula in relation to the pointing of the anvil to the East. This is more narrative based and is centred around 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).
A more malevolent version of the blacksmiths curse can be seen in the Schools Collection. The result of the curse can be seen in this tale, although unlike the previous tale the process of the curse is not revealed. In this account Séamus Ó hOighleáin tells us how it is believed that the blacksmith shares this ability with the miller and that “he could do any enemy to death by turning the anvil on him”. He mentions that the methodology is unknown, that “how he turned it or what were the word of the malediction is unknown” but the aftermath is clearly seen later in the tale. This also features a landlord that was found dead at the exact hour of the “turning of the anvil”. It expresses that his skin was all black and that there was no doubt that he had been “done to death by the curse” (NFSC,Vol 0119:507). It is interesting in this account that the curse is thought of as being a trade secret, adding to the air of mystery surrounding the blacksmith.
One would think that given their ability to curse and ultimately kill people that they would be avoided but they were also sought out for cures. Like elsewhere in folklore, i.e the 7th son of a 7th son, this healing ability seems to be more efficacious when performed by a seventh generation blacksmith. Although said to be rare these were seen as having “all sorts of cures” for many different ailments. (NFC,Iml:1457:561). In the course of my research I came across two instances related to healing where the blacksmith was successful where doctors had failed. One of these interestingly involved a seventh generation smith as mentioned above. The smith was said to be well known to have had “cures from herbs and arrowroot”. The focus on this narrative though is on the banishment of a changeling that was thought to be a sickly child. When the mother of the child goes to the smith for a cure after the doctors had failed he advises her to go home and say that the woods next to the house are on fire. Upon hearing this the “child” rises out of the cradle exclaiming that “me children will all be burned” and eventually the child was returned (NFC,Iml.1457:667-9). This is very similar to a tale offered up by John Gallivan (NFC,Iml.485:55-60) in Sligo, 90km away. This also involves a sickly child that doctors can do nothing for. The wits of the blacksmith once again prevail with the solution being the same. The husband runs in saying the fort is on fire and the changeling leaves to save his wife and children with the child being returned soon after. This tale however does not claim that the blacksmith has any other experience with herbalism or other cures. It was not the only fairy related tale I encountered. One tale attributes the skill of a blacksmith to the fairies, due to the fact he was on good terms with them (NFC, IML.485:188-9). This attribution of an exceptional skill to the fairies is not unknown elsewhere in Irish folklore. One of the only Irish language examples I translated deals with the same theme. A man on his deathbed, who was attended by two doctors that were unable to help him was healed by a blacksmith (NFC, Iml:1836:190-1). What I find interesting about this tale is that it includes a section where the priest attacks the blacksmith due to the fact he thinks that a priest should be better than a blacksmith at healing. This makes it seem like it is believed to be against the church. This was fairly unique in relation to the idea of the blacksmith being contra religion in regard to the religious themed stories I will talk of later, although it does echo the hymn guarding against the spells of smiths.
Considering butter and butter making feature very prominently in Irish folklore it is no
surprise that in my research I came across an account of a blacksmith who offered to help with “the cure” for butter stealing. The family in question were “black in the face” from trying to make butter. This cure involved the blacksmith having to make both a horse shoe and nails, both made by heating the iron in different heats and placing them under the churn. The story then follows a very typical formula of the person who was stealing the butter is found in the form of a hare. It ends with everybody in the town getting their butter back. (NFC,IML.185:367-9) I found the inclusion of consulting the blacksmith in this story to be fairly unique as usually these types of tales involve a person just heating a piece of Iron and putting it into the milk to harm the person stealing the butter. In a society where butter stealing was a very real fear, I feel it speaks volumes about the status of the blacksmith in society due to the fact that he is able to help in a situation like this.
Size and Strength
These topics were probably the most numerous in my research of the schools collection where it was second only to the practical side of blacksmithing. These examples often describe blacksmiths as being of a large size and capable of superhuman feats of strength. The “test of strength” motif seems to be very popular in relation to tales of blacksmiths. One such tale tells of a smith who could “lift a pony over his head” and is described as “over six feet tall with a very long beard”. I found the mention of the long beard to be interesting due to the fact that many depictions of blacksmith gods such as Vulcan (roman) and Hephaestus (Greek) are shown as bearded. Of course many of the later celtic versions of these gods took on similar appearances. Lifting the pony was not he only feat of strength mention here. During a raid by English troops, he was said to have picked up a huge boulder and threw it at the troops. The result was that it had left a huge hole in the wall (NFC,IML.1405:167-8). Lifting great weights seem to be the most common of these feats of strength. Pádraig Téidina offers three stories in the schools collection of a local smiths renowned for their strength. The first two concern the same smith named “Séan an Gabar”. Interestingly one of these also features the smith lifting a horse over his head (NFSC,Vol.0647:270). The second tale tells of how he was unequalled in terms of strength. It tells of how even at the age of thirteen, Séan an Gabar was able to carry half a hundred weight for a hundred yards with ease, to the astonishment of everyone (NFSC,Vol.0647:268). The final story he had to offer was in relation to a different smith also capable of superhuman feats of strength. In this instance he is able to lift two anvils with one hand over his head and pass them to his other hand (NFSC,Vol.0647:271). . The final 2 examples of this “test of strength” I wish to include are very similar to each other in some regard. In the first I would also like to bring to attention the fact that both the smiths involved in this contest are described as being “like giants” (NFC, IML.437:187-8). The similar aspects, involving the lighting of a pipe from a cinder placed on top of an anvil that is picked up and handed to the other can also be found in the tale “The blacksmith and the Horseman” found in Sean O Sullivan’s book “Folktales of Ireland” (O Sullivan,1966:253). The lifting of the anvil with one hand occurs again and again and is no doubt beyond the ability of any normal person.
Tales of a religious nature
These examples that follow were collected from blacksmiths and are of an etiological nature and are connected to either Jesus or the Blessed Virgin. The first explains why the jaws of a blacksmiths tongs are uneven due to the fact that he made a pin out of the top of the jaws for the Blessed Virgin, to wrap a cloak around Jesus. This tale offers an interesting link to “forge water”, i.e water from the trough also. This mentions that a blacksmith can replenish his stamina from washing his hands in the trough due to the Blessed Virgin blessing the water (NFC, IML.815:48-9). The act of the blacksmith washing his hands to regain strength is a question featured in “The Handbook of Irish Folklore”. Water from the trough is also seen in many cases to have curative properties such as for curing warts (NFC, IML.407:64). The second story offered by this informant tells of why the blacksmith is prosperous and lucky while the tin-smith or “tinker” is often a tramp with no permanent abode. The blacksmiths refusal to make nails for the crucifixion, while the Tinker was willing to do is the explanation for this (NFC, IML.815:50). A similar tale to this was offered up by another blacksmith. This states that there is a geis or taboo on blacksmiths to hammer a nail on Good Friday. Its states that both the blacksmith and the forge are lucky due to his refusal to make the crucifixion nails (NFC, IML.482:560).
The material I found seems to paint the blacksmith as much more than just a normal person. Their special status is reflected in the fact that they are consulted on supernatural matters such as the butter stealing and the banishment of changelings. The superhuman feats of strength and larger than life size of the blacksmiths mentioned add to this and almost show them as a quasi-mythical figure. In making him seem as something outside the normal realm, it in effect turns the blacksmith into a liminal figure. When you take into account that often forges were placed on the outskirts of villages (due to fire risk) this point becomes more valid, a liminal character in a liminal space so to speak. Overall I was happy with the examples I found in my research. I do believe that only sticking to the English material for the most part might have limited my results but I believe the material I found illustrates adequately that the life of the blacksmith was inherently bound up with the world of the supernatural
1.1: NFC,IML.80:283, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.
1.2: NFC,IML.80:286, Máire Ní Carthaigh (14), Lios Liath,Beil ath na Laugh, Co.Longphuirt, 1929/30.
1.3: NFSC,Vol.0119:507, Séamus Ó hOighleáin, Garryroe, Co.Mayo.