The Ship Sinking Witch Of Youghal

witch sink.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

 

Don’t forget to follow me on facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore/

https://www.facebook.com/ShaneBroderickPhotography/

Irish New Year Traditions

ImageProxy
The Photographic Collection, A015.07.00008
Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD.

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 Schools’ Collection, Volume 0207, Page 067.

 

References:

NFSC, Vol.0664:251.School: Kilcurry, Dundalk. Teacher: P. Ó Conaill. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5008834/4959599/5074099

NFSC, Vol.0117:156, School: Páirc Íseal, Location: Lowpark, Co. Mayo. Teacher: Sorcha Ní Dhumhnaigh.

NFSC:Vol.1034:116. COLLECTOR: Teresa Cassidy. Address: Drumbar, Co. Donegal. INFORMANT: Hugh Cassidy. Address: Drumbar, Co. Donegal. School: Clochar Nuala, Dún na nGall. Location: Donegal, Co. Donegal. Teacher: An tSr. Eanda le Muire. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428277/4390984/4462555

NFSC:Vol.0207:067, School: Drumshanbo (C), Location: Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim. Teacher: Margaret Flynn.