Fairies remain a popular interest to many people although not many know the true nature of these beings in an Irish context. Due to the destructive influence of popular culture, many people wrongfully assume that they are small, winged, harmless creatures. This is not the case and in truth, it is much more complicated than that. I have had many people refuse outright to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when I inform them of this, so I hope this article makes some of this clearer.
They may sometimes appear smaller than us, but certainly not minuscule like the tinkerbell-esque creatures people expect. They look just like us and certainly don’t have wings, but due to existing on another plane to us, are able to conceal themselves. They live lives like us for the most part. Below I will detail how they live in their society, their origin stories and other information. Fairy lore, a pervasive belief around Ireland offers us a fascinating glimpse at the Irish perception of the otherworld- an alternative realm parallel to our own but just beyond earthly existence and our own temporal sphere. Eddie Lenihan, arguably one of foremost experts on the fairies, would argue that there is considerable and respectable proof of their existence owing to the vast corpus of material available through the ages and in all this material they have been described in great detail ( and not once have they been depicted with wings!).
To start I will look at the naming conventions. The word fairy is the most Widely known and easily identifiable ,although it is not a suitable, nor respectful term to use as such (as it falsely equates them with English fairies who are closer to imps or the tinkerbell type). Nor is any form of FAE or FAERIE (from old French and latin respectively). Known in Irish by many names and circumlocutions, they are not usually named directly for fear of insulting or invoking them. Typically know as Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe (the people of the mounds), they could also be referred to as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine úaisle (the noble people), the fair folk, the other crowd, the people of the hills and so on. For the remainder of the article I will simply refer to them as sídhe or the other crowd.
Society, likes and dislikes
So how does their society work? They have amusements similar to ours: they like to dance, play music and play games. They have been known to play Gaelic football (never soccer), hurling, bowls and chess. In terms of the games they will sometimes illicit the help of some hapless human (who dare not refuse them) to referee or take part in the match. The need for human help is a common motif and they will often be spirited away to take part in the games or in some cases where human women must act as midwife to deliver babies for the sídhe.
They have specific dwellings and a number of features of the landscape are often identified as being the abode of the other crowd, such as ringforts (lios or rath in Irish, these are circular enclosured earthen dwellings mostly dating to the middle ages), tumuli, dolmens or lone trees known as fairy trees (traditionally hawthorn). These enclosures and suspected abodes are usually treated with extreme caution even to this day (and good luck trying to find someone willing to cut down a fairy tree). They will furiously protect their dwellings and woe betide to anyone stupid enough to mess with them. Death and destruction is all that typically awaits those who transgress. That being said, they can make good or bad neighbours depending on how they are treated. They can be belligerent, but are placatable. Their true dwellings, those that exist in the otherworld are typically conceal from our view, similar to the magical barrier, the fé fiada, that was said to conceal the mounds and hostels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
They have their own specific pathways and roads and they would travel from place to place. When building houses it was not unusual to mark out the shape of the house with willow rods or small stone cairns. This would be left overnight to see if the house was “in the way” of any of these fairy paths. The willow rods had been removed from the ground, or the cairn of stones was disturbed, it was believed that the house was in the way of a fairy path and the process would be repeated until the rods or stones are left untouched. Many tales tell of houses that were in the way with loud noises being heard in the house at night, crashing, doors slamming, houses collapsing and general bad luck within the household.
Like ourselves, they have likes and dislikes. They like things like gold, milk (the first milk, known as colostrum or beestings, is often given as an offering to the sídhe), tobacco and poitín (often given as an offering to them). Most things associated with them are of a particular time: they will ride horses, but not cars or any auto-mobiles, they fight with sticks or hurleys but never guns or knives. Most of their activities are associated with Gaelic culture or associated with the natural landscape. When it comes to their hates, there are a number of items. They hate iron: it is one of the main repellents used when trying to discourage the other crowd. You see this a lot when trying to protect babies from being stolen and replaced by fairy changelings. It also pops up a lot in terms of protection while churning. Iron is an age old deterrent against evil or supernatural forces and many cultures around the globe believed this and as a result blacksmiths and iron workers are usually revered or thought to possess special powers as a result of them working with the iron (there is an article focusing on blacksmiths and the supernatural here ). They also hate salt and you will often encounter it being used as protection when churning butter. Salt will be sprinkled on the lid of the churn, underneath or into the butter itself to protect the process from being interfered with by the sídhe. Salt rubbed on the head when venturing outside at Halloween was used to protect anyone outside after dark. They also have a dislike of anything dirty (such as messy houses), they have an aversion to Christianity (both of their origin stories play into this and it is a common theme of many folktales where the sídhe will try to get a human to question a priest as to why they can’t get into heaven). I will cover the origin stories below. They also hate running water and are unable to cross it. This is also a common feature of folktales where someone fleeing the wrath of the sídhe, will only escape through crossing a stream (or in a few cases leaving Ireland completely by ship!).
The other crowd are also more active at certain times of the yearly cycle (such as may day or Samhain) and also at certain points of the life cycle (such as at birth) so salt and iron were used, among other things, at these times to remain safe from any malevolent actions the sídhe might want to take against you. As I mentioned above, may people find it hard to believe that they are not harmless. I have spent hours trying to convince some people that it is not in their best interest to seek out the sídhe. Even slight transgressions have ended in death, maiming or with transgressor ending up being driven completely mad or catatonic. I should add a caveat here. They are not overtly evil. They just have their own (often mysterious) agenda. It just so happens that accounts and tales of people falling foul of them far outweigh the opposite. That however does not mean they can’t or don’t help people. As I mentioned above, they sometimes need human intervention (be that in a sporting event or delivering a baby) and for their help, the person will often be rewarded. They have bestowed powers of healing (such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle or a number of healing books said to have been given to certain people over time). They have also been known to have bestowed fairy music on musicians who have played for them at a party. In times of famine, they have sometimes given otherworldly cows (designated by their white body and red ears) with endless milk to certain communities (who often inevitably mess up by exploiting this gift).
As I mentioned above there are two main origin stories for what we now call the fairies. There is what could be termed the native origin story, and the Christian one.
Native: From ancient times it was believed that a supernatural race has been believed to have lived in the hills, tombs, beneath the sea or lakes or on far away islands. In the literature, these are traditionally know as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the old gods of Ireland (such as Lugh, the Dagda, Brighid etc). These were seen as living in the otherworld, parallel to our own, but concealed from view. So, when it comes to what I termed the “native” origin story, it is believed that the “fairies” are in fact the Tuatha Dé Dannan, albeit diminished in spiritual significance, power and physical stature following their defeat and banishment underground.
Christian: As most will know, the entirety of our myths and legends were first recorded by Christian clerics in monastic scriptorium. Unlike the usual modus operandi elsewhere in Europe to demonize the pagan past, Ireland instead opted for euhemerisation. Most stories were given a Christian slant, but this was to work the stories into a Christian framework and make them acceptable. Unfortunately this meant that some gods were turned to humans (such as queen Medbh, Finn Mac Cumhaill, Brighid etc) and some stories were corrupted but for the most part, they were recorded by Irish monks who had an interest in the pagan past and were, in a sense, sympathetic to it. This leads us to the origin of the fairies as being half-fallen angels, cast out of heaven for not picking a side during the rebellion. They remain, half-way between heaven and hell, in the sky, on the land and beneath the earth, cursed to never see heaven (or till judgement day in some cases). This christian explanation for the sídhe became popular in the middle ages, no doubt a means for resolving the tension between the native and Christian cosmologies. As such it is not unusual to have devout Christian who fervently believes in the other crowd. This clearly preserved the native tradition and it’s syncretism also gave the fairy faith a prominent place in Christian eschatology and cosmology.
When we think of healing today, the knee jerk response is to think of doctors, hospitals and prescribed medications, made up of all manner of chemicals that come with a long list of adverse side effects. That modern medicine we are all familiar with is a relatively new discipline and up until very recently in Ireland the average person would have sought medical help from the local wise woman (bean feasa), herbalist or someone who simply ‘had the cure’.
In the schools collection we are told the following by one informant “Long ago in Ireland the people used herbs to cure people and animals. They tell us there is a herb for every disease if only we knew it or could find it out” (NFSC, VOL.0141:410) . Sometimes these cures relied on a knowledge of herbs and other times its providence lay in the supernatural realm or simply through means we would consider as ‘magic’. Ireland has a vast corpus of medical manuscripts that survive from the middle ages showing its rich history of learning and medicine, but we are lacking in accounts of the everyday person who practiced healing. There are however, many comparable accounts found in the UK from the middle ages onwards.
We see comparable elements, for example, in the use of magical charms as a form of healing, a practice we know was popular in Ireland up until relatively recently and many of which are found in the schools collection. One such account from William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft” in 1608 tells us that “charming is in as great request as physic, and charmers more sought unto than physicians in time of need” (Thomas, 2003:209). Thomas (ibid:210) also mentions that with the “inadequacies of orthodox medical services left a large proportion of people dependent upon traditional folk medicine”. This also could be applied to Ireland. There has of course, since the establishment of orthodox medicine at least, been a propensity towards thinking that these practitioners of native healing were in some way less reliable than ‘educated’ doctors. Lady Gregory tells us of a saying in Irish, “An old woman without learning,it is she who will be doing charms” (Gregory, 1976:148). This association with formal learning betrays the centuries of knowledge amassed by these practitioners of native healing, a tradition passed orally through the ages. For the purpose of the essay I will be searching through the National Folklore Schools Collection to see what treatments that are available for Tuberculosis, often called consumption in Ireland and I will also be looking at the treatments and ‘cures’ for warts.
To begin I will focus on Tuberculosis (TB), known colloquially in Ireland as ‘Consumption’ or ‘wasting sickness. In Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century TB was amongst the worst of the ‘killer diseases in Ireland. Rates of infection had risen in Ireland even after rates had decreased in England and wales after the significance of contagion was recognised in the 1800’s and with many considering it to be a particularly Irish problem in the early twentieth century (Jones, 1999:8).
When looking at cures in the schools collection (hereafter NFSC) we see a range of treatments, as is usually the case, ranging from medicinal to magical. In terms of plant based cures for TB, the Mullein plant, scientific name Verbascum, pops up on numerous occasions. The extracts of this plant have been used as part of traditional medicine for hundreds of years around the globe (Akdem & Tatli, 2006:85). The efficacy of this in treating TB is no doubt due to its use as an expectorant and its mucolytic qualities. It is often used to treat respiratory ailments and has antimicrobial and immunomodulatory qualities (ibid,8). In terms of the NFSC we find a number of ways that it was used. We are told that It cures consumption (NFSC, VOL.0922:139) and that it can be found in good soil. In terms of preparing it we are told to boil it and drink the water (NFSC, VOL.0773:125-6).
Another plant based cure that is mentioned is the “marrow plant”. The informant mentions that it is a flower that grows in your garden that blooms in the month of October (NFSC, VOL.0665:108-9). I am unsure of the plant in question and there is no instruction on the preparation of the cure. Other forms of plant based medicine mentioned in the schools collection include cures involving the use of garlic. The following account mentions that garlic was supposed to cure “almost any disease”. The account goes into much greater detail than many others and displays some real knowledge in terms of healing. It claims that a few “grains” garlic per day while fasting is of great benefit to those suffering from consumption or other lung diseases. It recommends using “new milk”, colloquially referred to as “beestings” or colostrum, to boil garlic in. It also mentions that this cure is particularly efficacious when used by babies or delicate people (NFSC, VOL.0141:410). Bovine Colostrum is widely believed to be particularly beneficial to humans and it has been said that “colostrum from pasture-fed cows contains immunoglobulins specific to many human pathogens” (Buchan, Borissenko, Brooks & McConnell, 2001:255). The use of garlic in this case is most likely due to its anti-microbial, antibiotic, expectorant and immune boosting properties (Kellet, 2003:71).
Milk does feature in many of the cures, with varying ingredients being boiled in it. Many of the cures however are not simply cure-alls and must be taken at a certain time in the progression of the disease to be effective. We are told that boiling a dandelion leaf in milk was a cure but if it was not drunk before a certain point that it was not effective as a cure (NFSC, VOL.0109:405). Unfortunately we are not told what stage this is to be drank at, but we could surmise that it is in the early stages of the disease. Both dandelion and garlic boiled in milk is mentioned elsewhere as a preventative if drank regularly (NFSC, VOL.0787:280). In terms of the specific time the cure has to be taken, the following account (NFSC, VOL.037:0057) mentions that it is a “perfect cure” if taken in the early stages of consumption. The recipe involves boiling “Sugar, Candy, liquorice, whiskey, Sweet-stick, brown sugar, a small quantity of flax seed and meacan na gcaorach” until it forms a syrup. I am unfamiliar with the plant ‘meacan na gcaorach’ [sheep’s root?] but it is mentioned as being a “garden vegetable with yellow flowers and large green leaves” (possibly sheep sorrel?) .
The following cure does not have any basis in actual healing but instead relies on a form of transference or sympathetic magic, often referred to as piséogs. This particular type of magic can be found in many cultures but is found in abundance in the Irish folkloric record. A prime example of this is ‘gathering the dew’ on may eve. This form of sympathetic magic works by gathering the dew from the grass, while simultaneously stealing the ‘profit’ or butter from the intended target (NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3). Other forms of this magic include gaining power over another by possessing a piece of hair or clothing as well as it being found in cures that involve “like curing like”, such as “the hair of the dog that bit you” (Hanna, 1909:96) or “whistling for the wind” (a factor that popped up numerous times in my own field work when interviewing fishermen). Another more common example in Irish sources is the practice of tying rags to a “clootie tree” at a holy well. As the rag rots so does the disease.
The curing of consumption in this account is of a similar nature to this. It involves putting an egg into an ants nest and as the egg is eaten by the ants, the sickness will disappear also (NFSC, Vol.0800:155). Another account similar to this mentions how old people used to say that if you carry a potato around in your pocket that it would cure consumption (NFSC,Vol.0386:158). The potato here supposedly drawing out the disease in an act of transference. The final cure I would like to look at in relation to consumption leaves unsure as to whether it falls into the category of medicinal or magical or both. The cure in this instance involves acquiring seven rusty nails and putting them into a pint of porter for seven days (NFSC, VOL.0525:002). The use of rusty nails in porter (with its inherent iron content) seems to point to a recipe that involves a high Iron content but the fact it has to be specifically seven nails for seven days seems to point to a magical element. The number seven features prominently in Irish sources (in both ancient literature as well as more modern folklore such as seventh son of seventh son) as well as in biblical numerology. Also of course the fact that in many places around the globe, Iron is considered to be “imbued with an air of magic” (Jennings, 2014:2), and appearing in many tales as a deterrent to fairies and other supernatural creatures. The fact that the account mentions that as the drink depletes that the consumption will go with it seems to also allude to the fact that there is some form of transference involved here also. I should also mention that one account I encountered put emphasis on the fact the cure in question relied on it being prepared by “an old family” in the district that were noted for “curing where others failed”. They would make cures from “simple herbs” that could cure “dangerous” diseases such as consumption (NFSC, VOL.0824:128). Certain families having specific cures is quite common in Irish sources such as the Keoghs having the cure for shingles (NFSC, VOL.0823:480).
The second series of cures I would like to cover are for Warts. These feature a crossover of ingredients as well as also having a mix of medicinal cures as well as relying on supernatural or magical means as a means of getting rid of them. Wells and ballaun stones (the water that gathers in the hollow such as the “hole of water” mentioned in NFSC, VOL.1076:20) are often used for the supernatural cures. It is important to note though that since many of these healing powers are seen as rooted in Christian traditions that the healing is seen as a miracle as opposed to some form or act of magic (zuchelli,2016:149).
A number of different methods of cure were collected by Andrew Taylor (NFSC, VOL.1116:234). He tells us that any wells dedicated to St Patrick will cure the warts. Here we see the magic/religion overlap. He also tells us how rubbing clay on them and throwing it after a funeral will get rid of the warts .The others mentioned by him on the other hand rely on an entirely magical means of curative power, such as rowing a boat with the outgoing tide. Another example, again of transference like those found in the cures for consumption, is sticking a pin in your warts and then sticking the pin into a grave. Among some local cures collected in Dublin (NFSC, VOL.0787:334) we find both plant based and magical remedies side by side. The “stuff like milk” from the stem is said to cure the warts but the account also mentions a means for ridding one’s self of the warts through sympathetic magic. This involves counting the number of warts and putting the corresponding number of stones in a bag and throwing it in a field. Whoever is unlucky enough to pick up the bag gets the warts and they will go from your hands.
Frances Gallagher (NFSC, VOL.1076:20) tells us that there are a “whole lot of cures” for warts. Most of the cures collected by her fall under the heading of the sympathetic magic that has been seen in a number of examples above. She also mentions the stone trick, but it is to be left in the middle of the road instead of in a field. She also recommends that the package they are in should be made attractive so as to attract someone to pick it up. She suggests however that ten stones be collected, one throw away and the remaining nine put in the package. Another cure mentioned by her suggests that the warts be rubbed on the gizzard of a hen and then bury it. As this rots the warts disappear.
An interesting mix of both the sympathetic magic and religion can be found in Leitrim (NFSC, VOL.0229:303) tells us that rubbing the warts with straw, say some prayers and then bury it. As the straw decays so will the warts. As with the cure for TB being held by a family or person, we get this also in the cure for warts. In an account by Mrs Mulryan (NFSC, VOL.0770:451), she tells us that in her locality there was someone by the name of John Rogers who had a charm that he would not tell to anyone. He only required to know the number of warts. Whether he was using the same sort of sympathetic magic as above, we could only speculate, but there are mentions elsewhere (NFSC, VOL.0326:316) that tell us that people had charms for giving warts to another.
These examples above are by no means an exhaustive list of the therapeutic modalities available for either the consumption/TB or for the removal or treatment of warts. It barely scratches the surfaces of the cures given in the schools collection. They do however show that certain elements pop up again and again in the accounts with varying degrees of complexity to the instructions. The examples given also provide a good mix of both practical plant based lore and a more magical approach to the problem.
Hanna, W (1909), Sympathetic Magic, Folklore, Vol.20, No.1, Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Jennings, P (2014), Blacksmith Gods: Myths, Magic & Folklore, Moon Books, Winchester, UK. Zuchelli, C (2016), Sacred stones of Ireland, Collins press, Cork.
Jones. G (1999), Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland, 1650-1940, Cork University Press, Cork.
McConnell, M. A.; Buchan, G.; Borissenko, M. V.; Brooks, H. J. L. (2001). “A comparison of IgG and IgG1 activity in an early milk concentrate from non-immunised cows and a milk from hyperimmunised animals”. Food Research International. 34 (2–3): 255–261.
NFSC, VOL.0037:0057, Collector: Eibhlín Ni Ailledéa, múinteoir, Dunmore, Co. Galway, Informant: Edward Burke (74),farmer, Carrownaseer South, Co. Galway.
NFSC, VOL.0141:410, Collector: Annie Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, Informant: Patrick Munnelly, Gallowshill, Co.Mayo, School: Gort an Tuair, Gortatoor, Co. Mayo, Teacher: Áine Nic Oirealla.
NFSC, VOL.0525:002, Collector: John Creed, Domhnach Mór, luimrick, Informant: Patrick O’Connell, Teacher: Aingeal Nic Aodha Bhuidhe.
NFSC, Vol.0528:142-3, School: Mungraid (B.) Luimneach (roll number 14409), Location: Mungret, Co. Limerick, Teacher: Mrs B. Mulroy, Informant: Patrick Hartigan (50), Address: Clarina, Co. Limerick.
When one thinks of pilgrimage in Ireland, Croagh Patrick is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Multitudes of people still flock here on ‘Reek Sunday’, that is the last Sunday in July, to climb the mountain as a form of penance. The climb and pattern now take centre stage but in the past we see a much more varied event featuring both the sacred and the profane. Christian pilgrims have come here for centuries, the earliest recorded pilgrimage being recorded in 1113 (Corlett,1997:9) but veneration of the mountain seems to even predate Christianity and is mentioned by Máire MacNeill as being a possible site in the celebration of the festival of Lughnasa (MacNeill,1982:83), a factor which may have influenced the more profane aspects of the pilgrimage here. Her evidence for this lies in the fact of the date of the pilgrimage and also the fact that it is only one of many mountains climbed on the last Sunday in July. She identifies over 70 hills and mountains that were used in this manner, as well as a number of lakes and other outdoor areas where used as meeting places at or around the last Sunday in July. These outdoor gatherings were used for matchmaking as well as the usual fare of tests of strength and agility and general merry making. In the case of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, I will be looking at the accounts of two writers and their opinions on the pattern observances. It must be noted that these are historic accounts from the 1800’s and like many of these accounts they are mostly recorded by non-catholic outsiders who were hostile to the native practices they deemed as “popish” abominations.
In relation to the account by W.M Thackeray, he is even appalled by the sacred aspect. He likens the priest who resides over the proceedings to “worshippers of Moloch or Baal” due to them allowing people to perform what he terms “disgusting penances” (Thackeray,2005:207). He gives details of what the stations involve (i.e. the number of prayers to be said at each station, usually a prescribed number of Aves, Paters and Credos along with a ritual such as kissing a cross etc.) and tells of how the people were “suffering severe pain, wounded and bleeding in the knees and feet”. He can’t fathom how a God would want people to do this to themselves or how his representatives, i.e. the priests, would allow this to happen or encourage it (Thackeray,2005:208). As one could imagine with how shocked and disgusted he was with the religious aspect, he was just as descriptive and appalled by the more secular activities, what he describes as the “pleasures of the poor people”. Additionally, he tells us of all the tents set up on the foot of the mountain and the revelry attached to them. Here he tells us how when the praying is done up the mountain then the “dancing and love making” commenced at the foot of the mountain. A scene he describes as “dismal and half savage” as he had ever seen (Thackeray,2005:208). The carnivalesque atmosphere he describes at the foot of the mountain is more akin to a fair than a religious affair with people shouting and screaming to sell their wares and crowded, smoky tents filled with people. A stark contrast to the goings on up the mountain where people were “dragging their bleeding knees from altar to altar, flinging stones and muttering endless litanies” (Thackeray,2005:209).
We also get an account of the Croagh Patrick Pattern from Philip Dixon Hardy in his book “Holy Wells of Ireland”. Like Thackeray, he takes a very hard-line approach in his opposition to the behaviour of people at the gatherings. He refers to them as being the sources of “much of the irreligion, immorality and vice” that proliferate the country (Hardy, 1840: iii) and to him are the antithesis to proper Christian teachings and morals, especially considering that they are presided over by priests. He gives us a similar account to Thackeray in relation to the praying on bare knees but gives us a few more unusual rituals involved in the pattern. Interesting that these rituals fall well outside the Christian parameters. He tells us of how people throw bait into the well in an attempt to see fish in the well, for luck (Hardy,1840:59). This, of course, brings to mind the native, non-Christian tradition of the Tobar Segais (well of knowledge) and the Eo fios (fish/salmon of knowledge), this level of syncretism of native and Christian tradition must have made quite the impression on the observer. He also records that people leave offerings of cloth, among other things, tied to a tree (clootie tree/ rag bush) as well as the practice of leaving offerings of butter to the saint in the bog (Hardy,1840:60). Similar again to Thackeray he makes special note of the pipers, fiddlers and excessive drinking when referring to the profane facet of the pattern. We are told of “how all manner of debaucheries are counted and young people are corrupted” (Hardy,1840:60). He also includes an account from the work of Rev. James Page, entitled “Ireland: Its Evils Traced Back to Their Source”. Here we are told how people “jumped around like mad folks to the sound of the instruments” and people were “rolling around drunk and cursing as if there was no God” (Hardy,1840:62). This observer also mentions witnessing a practice that one would not think to find at a religious event, divination. He tells us of how women are in the corner reading tea leaves “deciding on the destiny of their daughters at home”. In fact, he is so shocked by it that he believes it to be “fostered by the father of lies himself” (Hardy,1840:62).
The following accounts are taken from The National Folklore Schools Collection. This entire collection has been digitised and is available online at www.duchas.ie. It consists of material collected by school children during the school year of 1937/8 (I have included links to the original manuscripts). They have the following to say about Croagh Patrick:
It is said that when the chapel was about to be built on Croagh Patrick the clergy who were in Wesport decided to build it in Murrisk to make the pilgrimage easier . When the men were cleaning the foundation a bell was heard ringing every evening. The sound came from the top of Croagh Patrick. So they ceased building the chapel there and built it at the top of the reek. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0151, Page 408. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428071/4375080/4460570.
There is a peculiar hill in County Mayo, The name of it is Croagh Patrick. In the days of old Patrick spent forty days and forty nights praying for the conversion of the Irish people. It is said that he prayed that the Irish people would never loose their faith once they got it. Every year on the last Sunday of July there is a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick. There are Masses being said on that hill from mid-night till twelve oclock the next day only at that particular. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428056/4373304/4467057. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0147, Page 537.
It was off Croagh Patrick that St Patrick was supposed to banish the serpents and to drive them out of Ireland. It is said that when St. Patrick banished the serpents from Croagh they fled into Lough Derg in Donegal and it is said the water of that lake has a brown colour ever since and that is why it is called “Loch Dearg”. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5215807/5213649/5242663. Volume 0137E, Page 02_014
The traditional story of Patrick’s 40 day fast on the mountain is that during the days spent on the holy mountain, he was harassed by demons disguised as blackbirds. The birds formed such dense clusters that turned the sky black. But according to this legend, Saint Patrick continued to pray and rang his bell (pictured here) as a proclamation of his faith. In answer to his prayers, an angel appeared and told him that all his petitions on behalf of the Irish people would be granted and they would retain their Christian faith until Judgement Day.
When St Patrick was praying and fasting on Croagh Patrick, a number of serpents came up out of a place called ‘log na Niúin’. These serpents tried to stick their poisonous tongues in this holy man. He fired his mass-bell after them and succeeded in putting them into a lake called ‘Loch na corraigh’.
It is said that a man was looking for sheep and he sat down to rest at this lake. A little woman appeared on a rock, changed into a serpent and dived into the lake. It is said that water horses are still to be found here and that some have appeared from time to time.
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Hardy, P.D (1840), The Holy Wells of Ireland, Hardy and Walker, Dublin.
MacNeill, M (1982), The Festival of Lughnasa, Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin.
Thackeray, W,M (2005), Sketchbook of Ireland in 1842, Nonsuch Publishing.
Turner, V (1995), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Foundations of Human Behavior). Reprint Edition. Aldine Transaction.
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.
The 23rd of June brings us St Johns eve, also known as Bonfire night (or bonefire due to the practice of burning bones in fires). In past it was known as Oiche teine chnáimh or Teine Féil’ Eóin. This was once a very popular observance across the country with large fires being kindled and tended over from sunset until late into the night. Prayers were said to obtain blessing on crops. Young and old gathered around fires to dance and many games were played. Men competed in casting weights and other feats of strength, speed and agility. In limerick, youths collected a large leaf with a strong stem called the “hocusfian”. They would proceed to strike each person they met with the leaf in the belief that they would protect those who were struck would be protected from illness and malicious evil forces for the coming year. These leaves were then burnt in the fire along with selected weeds considered troublesome in the hope that the fields would be protected from them for the coming year. Jumping the fires was also common and ashes from the fires were often spread in the fields ( The Year in Ireland, kevin Danaher).
The following examples of folklore are taken from The National Folklore Schools Collection, accessible online at Duchas.ie. Links are provided for each piece so you can view the original manuscript.
Bonfire night is a celebrated feast throughout the country. It is on the twenty third of June. The old people used to call it “Oidhche Fhéil Eoin”, but nowadays the people call it “Midsummer Night”.
The people always expect a change of weather at midsummer. If the weather is good up to midsummer they think that it will then change and that a bad harvest will follow. This year the weather is bad and the people are waiting anxiously for a change at midsummer because they think we will then have a good, dry, harvest.
The young people make preparations for bonfire night. They gather turf, sticks, shavings and fir. They light the fire a little after sundown. Generally there is a fire at every house and on a small hill a large fire is lighted. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428287/4391915/4478658
The White Cat The deep cave of Castle Cor situated about nine miles outside Mallow, contains many wonderful treasures, which are guarded by a white cat. This cat regains her human shape for a week every year at midsummer. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921815/4895088/5190298
This was that the fairies and witches were out on that night and they were riding on Broomsticks through the air, the fires are put up to keep them away.
It is said that the fairies on midsummer night come and they play sweet music and entice the people to come with them and take them to their caves and the people do not come back again.
24-6-38 One midsummer night about thirty years ago a man called Paddy O’Hara was coming down the flags on Dalkey Hill. He heard music coming from the next field. He went in to the field and listened to the music. He saw a white ring in the grass in the grass with fairies with dancing around it. When they saw him they beat him with rocks and sticks. The next morning he was found half dead in the field. The fairy ring was gone. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4428238/4387632/4462968
The fire is lit when it is getting dark. All the children dance, sing, and roar around it. The people also light a torch and follow the cattle with it and make the sign of the cross over them with it. Most bonfires are lit on the top of hills. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922368/4874900/5080725
Aeibhill, after being enchanted by her sister took up residence, as local tradition goes, in an underground palace also, situated at Castlecor, near Kanturk, Co. Cork, beneath an old cave hidden by trees. It is also said that she resumes her natural form for a week each year at midsummer, appearing as a beautiful maiden of twenty. She was regarded as the guardian spirit of the Dalcassian race, and Queen of the Fairies of North Munster. The King of Ireland, Brian Boru, is reported as saying on the evening of the Battle Clontarf, that Aeibhill came to him the previous night and told him he should fall that day. https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921885/4898841
Easter comes every year in the Spring. On the first Easter Sunday, Christ rose from the dead. It is said that the sun dances for joy on Easter morning. People eat a lot of eggs on EasterMorning. Children eat sweet Easter eggs. Some people get presents and Easter cards from their friends at Easter. Children who are going to school get holidays. People like new clothes at Easter. There is an old proverb about it. “Clothes at Easter, and food and drink at Christmas. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0775, Page 287.
People try to eat as many eggs as they can on Easter Sunday.There is an old rhyme at the Irish people about it:An egg for a gentleman,Two eggs for a ? man,Three eggs for a bog man. Bunty Gray, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0775, Page 287.
Taking three sups of Easter water in name of Holy Trinity. Easter water sprinkled in house and fields on May Eve. Drop of Easter water put in first mash of bran given to a cow after calving. Hair burned from cows udder with blessed candle when first milked after calving. Easter water put into first churn, into “sciollain”. Kept in house for seven years and there is then a cure in it. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0640, Page 39.
At Easter the people go around and collect Easter Eggs. They keep those eggs until Easter Sunday and then they cook them. On Easter Sunday morning some people get up very early to watch the sun dancing. The sun the moon and seven stars are supposed to dance on that morning. On good Friday the people do not look in a mirror because it is supposed to be unlucky. Most of the people like to be in the church at three o’clock on Good Friday. Maureen Mc Ardle, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0665, Page 280.
On Easter Sunday morning most people eat two eggs for their breakfast.
On that evening children gather together and light a fire outside in the fields. This fire is called cludog. Another custom is that a few days before easter the poor people send their children around through the country gathering eggs for easter. This fire is lighted in honour of Saint Patrick lighting his fire on the hill of slain [slane] on Easter Saturday. Also the lighting of the fire on Easter sunday is held in honour of our Lord [rising] from the dead,.
It [easter] is a great feast day in all countries. On the night before easter several of the people do not go to bed the way they would be able to see the sun and moon dancing. Bridget Claire, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1007, Page 261.
During Holy week some people go around gathering eggs, when they go into the houses they ask for an Easter Egg. On Easter Sunday morning the rising sun can be seen dancing on the wall and long ago the old people used to get up to see it dancing.
On Easter Saturday morning Holy water is blessed. People take some of it home as it is said when Easter holy water is in a house the house will never be burned. Eggs that are laid on Good Friday are put aside to be eaten for Easter Sunday. They are called Good Friday Eggs and anyone who eats one of these eggs will not be sick the whole year through. At three o’clock on Good Friday evening all catholics who can, go to the Chapel . It is said that they will get any request they ask from God if it is for their good, and if they deserve it.
Biddy McArdle who is dead now used to tell me that no food was eaten on Ash Wednesday or on Good Friday except nettle gruel, and she told us that on Easter Sunday five or six dozen of eggs would be boiled in a big pot and that every one who would come into the house would eat one. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0665, Page 278.
It is a common custom in this locality for children to make Easter houses. They are made during Holy Week of sods. Sods are placed on top of each other in a ring to form the walls. The walls are generally built to a height of about three feet. Groups of children co-operate in building them. A fireplace of stones is placed in the centre. The children light fires in these on Easter Monday and boil eggs there-on. The group of children who built the particular Easter house gather to have a meal-which includes the eggs-in their Easter-house. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 1088, Page 039.
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When it comes to Irish folk tradition I think it fair to say that one of the most iconic creatures that springs to mind is the Banshee (Bean Sídhe or Bean Sí). The core elements and descriptions have remained pretty much unchanged throughout time and you would be hard pressed to find any child or adult the length and breadth of Ireland that hasn’t heard of her, and ask any old timer and you are almost guaranteed to be regaled with a story of a personal encounter, or at the very least knowledge of someone they know having had an encounter with this denizen of the otherworld. The term Banshee, a term that is in use throughout Ireland in both urban and rural areas, and has been in common usage since around the 17th century (but accounts of the supernatural death messenger go much further back). The popularity of this name may owe something to literary sources. The name Bean sídhe comes from the old Irish ben side meaning “otherworldly woman” or “woman of the mounds” ( the word Sídhe can mean either “mound” or “otherworld”). Many people interpret it as meaning “fairy woman” but I would be inclined to agree with Patricia Lysaght in regard to this particular translation being problematic (although technically correct etymologically) due to there being many traits of the bean sídhe being completely different to the people we term “Fairies”. The Fairies, or daoine sídhe, are usually depicted as social creatures who live in communities and are often married with children. These communities can interact with humans in either a friendly or unfriendly manner and have even been known to have human lovers. The death messenger on the other hand is a solitary creature who is never seen as living in a community of “banshees”. She is never said to be married nor is there any accounts of her doing a “kind turn” for humans, despite not being particularly malevolent. There are many erroneous memes floating around with false etymologies of this name, for instance the that claims the word banshee comes from “bán Sí” meaning “white fairy” which is wrong on every level.
There are however other names or terms used for the Banshee such as “bean chaointe” (keening woman), “Badhb” (Bibe), “Babha” (bow) or any combination such as Bo chaointe. The name Badbh comes from a war goddess attested in early Irish literature as an announcer of death who took the form of a scald crow. While there is no tradition in living memory of the banshee appearing as a scald crow (lysaght,1996:106), the tradition remained that the scald crow is seen an omen of death. Another interesting connection between divine female figure and the Banshee may be seen if we look to areas (south east) where the banshee is known as the “Badhb”.
It is said that the Banshee takes the shape of a young girl with golden hair and dressed in a shimmering white garment. The banshee is still heard in this part of Clare. They say that it is the same Banshee that comes to the O’Briens always since the days of Brian Boru. Informant: Mr John Connery,60, Glennagross, Co. Clare, Collector: Bean Uí Mhórdha, Meelick, Co. Clare. NFSC,Vol.0597:339
Here we may very much be looking echoes of a goddess and this can be seen in descriptions of her physical appearance. While in most areas she is seen as on old haggard woman with white or grey hair, the Badhb area often reports her as being tall, youthful and beautiful with blonde hair and white clothes. This is a stark contrast to the old disheveled and diminished look reported elsewhere. This more “popular” disheveled look interestingly starts to come to the fore around the 17th century.
“The Banshee is supposed to be a little old woman who is crying”. INFORMANT: Elizabeth Field, Coultry, Co. Dublin. NFSC: Vol.0792:285
Does this point to the goddess figure diminishing in status around the time of 16th/17th century with the dispossession of the Gaelic chieftains with a vestige of this Celtic matriarchal deity surviving in the Badhb area? I would also argue that a reflex of a goddess may be seen in the fact that strong attention is paid to the male line of important ancient Gaelic families. This, to me, brings to mind a possible link to the sovereignty goddess although I will admit the argument doesn’t carry much weight.
Traditionally the Bean Sídhe was believed to follow the ancient Gaelic families of Ireland, those being names with “O” or “Mac”. There don’t seem to be any accounts of any being attached to families who came to Ireland after the 17th century but there are accounts of some Norman or Norse descendants and also with some families “who came with Cromwell” having their own Banshee. Of the latter we have an account collected by Eddie Lenihan: “ This story of the banshee only being for the O’s and Mac’s is not right. Not right. Because the Frosts had a banshee, and other families I know came in with Cromwell. Do you know the Frosts came into Ireland in front of the Cromwellian army playing music? “ (Lenihan, :204)
As mentioned above The banshee is generally heard and not seen although there are also many, often contradictory, accounts recorded of her appearance. The more common depiction of the often small aged woman with unbound, free flowing white or grey hair and black clothes are very reminiscent of what could be argued to be her human counterpart, the bean chaointe or keening woman. These women who dressed in black were generally of advanced years with all illustrations of them showing them with their hair unbound. If fact it is believed in some areas that the banshee was formerly a keening woman who had sinned or not performed her job well enough. As the banshee is often said to be combing her hair, this has been interpreted by some as announcing the work of the bean Bhán or washer woman in charge of the preparation of the body prior to being laid out. It has been interpreted by others as being reminiscent of the tearing of hair, an act universally associated with grief and mourning and also a key part of the demonstrative behaviour of the keening women.
As I mentioned previously, the banshee is quite often heard and not seen and her quintessential Cry or gol is one of the most characteristic traits associated with this otherworldly death messanger. This cry is often the only thing that is reported, such as in cork and Kerry where you do not get accounts of what she looks like. The cry is often compared to being the call of a wild animal but this is often dismissed due to the omni-directional nature of the scream, its ability to travel at great speed, its duration, and its repetition and loudness (Lysaght, 1996). The gol is similar to that of the mortal keening women in that it has no discernible words or distinguishable melody (The keeners lament consists of two parts the caoineadh which contains a verse and refrain and the gol). A number of different descriptions of the banshees Gol can be found and can be categorized in two groups in relation to the nature of the description:
Group (A): Cry, gol, wail, olagón, ochaón, lóg, lógaireacht, caoineadh, keen, moan. Sorrow and grief are the key elements of this group and are associated with the mourning and wailing sounds of the human keening women and as such may point to the banshee being the “supernatural counterpart” of human professional mourners (lysaght,1996:69)
Group (B): roar, scream, shriek, screech, scréach, béic, call glaoch, liú. Fear is the presiding element here and these are mostly found in the badbh area (as described earlier). Here we see more of a connection to the supernatural and non- human sphere, although we do find some of these descriptors being applied to keening especially in the case of those hostile to the practice.
It should also be mentioned that while the banshee is not overtly malevolent, there is a tradition of stories where she can be a force to be reckoned with. This of course only applies to people who steal or find her comb. To the person unlucky enough to find/ steal this will be followed or chased to their house where the banshee proceeds to bash at the door or walls of the house until it is returned. This is almost always invariably returned through a window while being held with and iron thongs (Iron being an age old deterrent against evil, which I covered in a previous post here). The tongs are often damaged, and it is understood that the arm would have been injured or torn off had they used their hand to turn the object. In one of these accounts the collector was brought to the ruin of a local house and showed the crack going up the gable end of the house which was explained as having being put there from the banshee trying to get her comb back from the occupant of the house at the time.
“A man took the comb of the Banshee and she began crying around this house all night. The next day the man went to priest and told him what he had done and he priest told the man to give the comb back to the Banshee when she’d come the next night and to give it to her with a thongs through the window. He did and she took half of the tongs with her as well. It was well for him that he did so, if not she would have broken his hand off”. INFORMANT:John Ryan, 48, Bannow Moor, Co. Wexford. COLLECTOR: Tomás Breatnach, Carrick, Co. Wexford , NFSC:VOL.0876:041.
When looking at the lifecycle in terms of folklore it cannot escape ones notice that many aspects of the life cycle have clearly defined gender roles. For the purpose of brevity in this essay I will focus on the death aspect of the lifecycle. I will focus on the rituals around death, namely the wake and how specific roles are gender specific, i.e. keening women (and the supernatural equivalent, the Bean Sí) and preparation of the body etc. Since the female roles are most prevalent according to death rituals I will briefly touch on the role of the Borekeen, the male master of ceremonies in relation to the games played at wakes, as well as some other male roles, to provide some balance. I will also be looking at a couple of paintings that depict wakes and also a photograph because I believe that these items show an interesting gender separation that illustrate the other points I have mentioned above.
When looking at folklore it is clearly evident that the important female roles, i.e. the Bean Feasa, Bean Bhán, Bean Chaointe and Bean Ghluine, are concerned with crisis points in the life cycle and are all insulated against the supernatural. In the case of the bean chaointe and the bean bhán, they are insulated against the malevolent power of death. We know that not all women were insulated in this fashion by the example of the the taboo for pregnant women to be present at a wake (Ó Crualaoich,1998:179)
Bean Chaointe/ keening women
The keen or lament was a central component in the rituals concerning death and from almost all the accounts passed down we can see that it was primarily a female role. The accounts of women performing laments far outweigh the number concerning men, in fact there are very few at all concerning men. In Irish Wake Amusements we get one of these rare accounts where a man composed a lament for his son (Ó Suilleabháin,1969:133). Angela Burke describes the lament or coaineadh as “a highly articulate tradition of women’s poetry” (Bourke,1988:287), a fact that is backed up by Patricia Lysaght when she says that lamentation was a “central element of the culture of women” (Lysaght,1997:65). Lysaght goes on to say that this part of the ritual was so important that messengers would be sent great distances to find keening women, not only for people of the community but also if a stranger happened to die in the community (Lysaght,1997:67). In effect the keener was a psychopomp and the keen itself originally served a ritual function to help the soul travel from the world of the living into the spirit world (Ó Madagáin,2006:81). As mentioned above most accounts point to it being almost solely the domain of women. The practice eventually began to receive opposition from the clergy and accounts from synods around the 17th century onwards always mention women as keeners with the exception of the diocese of Leighlin that mentions the hiring “of men and women” (O Suilleabháin,1969:139). The synod of Armagh (1670) mentions that no member of the clergy would attend a wake at which “female keeners cried or screamed” (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We also see similar at the Synod of Tuam (1660) and the Synod of Dublin (1670) where they mention how people were “hiring female keeners at wakes” and how they had to “bring an end to the wailing and screaming of female keeners” respectively (O Suilleabháin,1969:138). We cannot really tell with these older accounts if this was the norm, or if it was just the patriarchal nature of the church trying to stamp out the female aspect of the native tradition. We also see the male aspect trying to force itself into the funeral process in stories of clashes between the bean chaointe and the priests near the graveyard, which often erupted in violence, such as the priest attacking the keeners with a horsewhip (Ó Crualaoich,1998:154). Of course, this is not just male vs female but could also be looked at as ancestral vs popular religion. Although, that being said, many of the more modern accounts tell us exactly the same thing, that keeners were women. Kevin Danaher tells that the keen was performed by the “old women of the place who were skilled in the art” (Danaher,1962:175).
We can safely say from looking at the evidence that the transition of the soul/ spirit is in the hands of a human female agent but interestingly a female otherworld equivalent, the ‘banshee’, can be found in accounts throughout the country also. As the “bean sídhe” can be said to “sing” death into the community, the “bean chaointe” is seen to “sing” it out’ (Ó Crualaoich). There are a number of striking resemblances between the two that that back this theory up. We are told that the “gol” or cry was the most important constituent of the keen (Ó Madagáin,2006:84) and this bears striking resemblance to descriptions of the singular cry of the banshee. When looking at details of the banshee’s cry we see reports such as “mournful cry”, a “wailing, piercing cry” and “pitiful” (Lysaght,1967:104). The descriptions of this unnatural scream mirror those given of keening women and how they “shake the roof with their female crying and lamentation” (O suilleabháin,1969:134) and their “all unnatural screams” (O suilleabháin,1969:138). It is not just aural descriptions, but also physical that link these two together. Although the colour of her hair, and in some cases her age, changes, the bean sí is most often described as having long, often white, untied hair (lysaght,1967:348). This is strikingly similar to the keening women (who mostly consisted of older women and would most likely have had grey or white hair) and who wore their hair “dishevelled and unbound” (Norris: 1987:348) in a similar fashion. In many narratives of the bean sí she is not only described as crying but is also often told to be “tearing her hair” (Lysaght: 1967:104). This again is mirrored in the behaviour of her human counterpart where we are told that keeners “Beat their breasts, tear their hair and cry” (Ó Crualaoich,1998:150). The parallels between these two intrinsically connected females did not escape the keeners themselves. One informant claimed she was afraid that after death she might become a bean sí herself and described the bean sí as being “one of the oul criers” (Lysaght,1967:104). This lies in the belief that if a keener does not perform her job correctly that she is doomed to become a bean sí after death and is one of the origin myths for the bean sí.
Keening was not the only aspect of death that primarily lay in the hands of women. There was a taboo against the family members to touch the body after death (Ó Crualaoich,1990:152) and this job was once again in the hands of women who were insulated against the malevolent power of death. It was carried out by the women termed bean bháin, literally meaning white women (due to the white sheets used). Sean Ó Suilleabháin tells us that the laying out of the corpse was done by a few neighbouring women who have had previous experience in doing so (O Suilleabháin,1969:13) but he gives no indication that this was even a semi-professional role like the keeners. In another source we are told that it was the oldest woman in the townland who was in charge of washing and preparing the corpse (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). We can see these women are insulated from the supernatural forces from the fact that both the water and sheets that come in contact with the body can be used in cures. The bean bháin is able to cut triangle out of the grave cloth and dispense them as cures (Ó Crualaoich,1998:181). Women are also seen to be the ones who watch over the corpse for the duration of the wake, as the body is not to be left unattended at any point. One or two women usually stay at the side of the corpse (O Suilleabháin,1969:13). The only element of the preparation of the body that may be carried out by a man is in relation to shaving the corpse. If the person had a custom of shaving then it was carried out by another neighbour (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). Although this passage does not tell us specifically that it was a man who carried out the shaving, the wording of the passage seems to infer that it was a male neighbour. This however is not the only male role that is involved in this critical point in the life cycle.
Although the more spiritual and important matters are the domain of the female at this stage in the life cycle, this under no circumstance means that the male is cast aside and ignored or considered inconsequential. There are also clearly defined gender roles that are reserved for men. At least two men were sent out for the essential supplies needed for the wake (O Suilleabháin,1969:14). These supplies consisted of the food and drink to offer to people who come to pay their last respects. It was also down to these men to get the candles (usually 12) that were lit around the body. Other supplies included the tobacco, snuff and clay pipes that were a staple at wakes. The men sent to get these supplies would also buy either a coffin or the supplies to make the coffin.
The borekeen and wake games
It was only usual in most cases for wake games to be found at wakes of someone who had passed of natural cause or in old age. Young or tragic deaths were more sombre affairs and would not have seen this behaviour to the extent the others would have. As mentioned at the beginning these games and revelry were presided over by a male master of ceremonies, the borekeen. When death caused disruption in the community, the female was the agent ushering the soul into the otherworld, i.e. presiding over death and the male was the agent presiding over life, whose job it is to “reassert the continuing of vitality and the potential for renewal in the community” (Lysaght, 1997:65). As a result they were cosmologically opposed, (Ó Crualaoich,1990:147) in essence a balance or compliment to each other. As well as having a male figure presiding over the games, many of these games and pass times were male-centred. That is not to say that they were all just involving men, as there were many matchmaking type games played that involved both sexes, but most of the recorded games seem to involve just male participants. These were often in the form of feats of strength to show physical prowess and gain acclaim (O Suilleabháin,1969:38). Story telling was also a favourite at wakes, even the more solemn ones, and we are told how these stories were more often than not told by an elderly man (O Suilleabháin,1969:14), most likely a member of the community with some renown in telling stories. Similar to keening this sort of behaviour at wakes came up against opposition by the clergy who at the synod of Cashel and Emly (1720) thought “the purpose [of the wake] is being defeated when immodest games are carried on which suppress the memory of death in the minds of those present” (O Suilleabháin,1969:149). It is interesting that the reason they condemn these activities is in fact the core reason of their purpose: a coping mechanism to deal with impact of death among them. The merrymaking scene found at these wakes made it “as though such a thing as grief were not in the world “(Norris,1987:347). This function as a coping mechanism can also be said about keening. An account by Tom Ó Flatharthan tells us how whenever his mother became distressed, following the tragic death of her child, that she would keen him to release the emotional distress (Ó Madagáin, 2006:81).
There are a number of paintings whose subject matter is based around a wake that I thought were worthy of inclusion as many of the things seen within the painting are backed up by the accounts. They provide an interesting view on the gendered aspects of the wake and should not be overlooked. I have included three examples in the appendix: The Wake by N.Grogan (hereafter fig.1), The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton (hereafter Fig.2) and a photograph from the National Museum Archive of a funeral (hereafter Fig.3) and also (Fig.4) which is a drawing of what looks like keening women. I feel these best illustrate the evidence given so far. An element each share is the fact the coffin or corpse is surrounded by women. This is backed up in a number of the accounts (Oscar:1987:347, Ó Crualaoich,1990:150) and seems to have been an important aspect even up to modern times.
Fig.1: The Wake by N. Grogan
When looking at this painting we see many of the elements featured in the accounts that when viewed in term of gender, are quite interesting. Near the hearth we see women crowded together practicing what looks like divination. Although not exclusively practiced by women it was certainly very common for women to do so. The game being played first and centre has a mix of boys and girls as it is not one of the feats of strength type games favoured by men and boys. To the left we see a group playing pranks (pipe exploding) and directly below them seems to be a bit of matchmaking taking place (which ties into the continuity of life in the face of death mentioned above). Moving towards the back we see what looks like a group of men involved in storytelling and drinking. Behind that we see the corpse with all the handy work of the ban bhán: the candles, sheets hung up and the corpse wrapped in a shroud. Next to the body we see it is mostly surrounded by mostly women.
Fig.2: The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by F.W.Burton
Here we see a more solemn wake, absent games, because of a tragic death. We do however see the keening women in action. The exaggerated movements of the woman standing and the more reserved stance of the gentleman standing brings to mind an account where we are told “the womenfolk are more demonstrative than the men and much less reserved than the men” (O Suilleabháin,1969:38).
I included this simply because it shows a number of old women, most likely keeners, surrounding the coffins. Oscar tells us how “four or five aged females” surrounded the coffin (Oscar:1987:347) and another piece tells us how “The coffin was surrounded by a prodigious number of females who wept and chanted” (Ó Crualaoich,1990:150), both accounts describing an almost identical scenario to the photo.
This illustration fits in similar to Fig.2 above with the exaggerated movements and demonstrative behaviour of the women while lamenting and the men are more reserved.
The evidence provided above from both the written evidence passed down to us and also from the illustrations that the death aspect of the life cycle has clearly defined gender roles. Although there are elements of fluidity at rare occasions we see that the certain roles related to the rituals concerning death certainly favour certain genders. In the male capacity we see the borkeen and the men who fetch the supplies for the wake and in the female capacity we see the bean chaointe (and her supernatural counterpart, the bean sí) and the bean bhán all working together to help the spirit of the deceased pass into the next world and also to promote the continuity of life in the community.
Bourke.A (1988), The Irish Lament and the Grieving Process, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol.11, No.4.
Danaher.K (1962), In Ireland Long Ago, Mercier Press.
Lysaght.P (1976), Banshee Traditions in Béaloideas 1974-76, Iml.42/43, An Cumann le Béaloideas Eireann.
Lysaght.P (1988), Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland, Folklore 108.
Newell.V (1987), Reviewed Works: The Banshee: The Irish Supernatural Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.22, No.4.
Norris.L (1987), The Swanee Review: keening, Vol.95,No.4, Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ó Crualaoich.G (1990), Contest in the Cosmology and the Ritual of the Irish Merry Wake, Cosmo: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society, Vol.6, Edinburgh University Press.
Ó Crualaoich.G (1998), The Merry Wake in: Irish Popular culture 1650-1850, Ed. Donnolly.J & Miller.K, Irish Academic Press.
Ó Madagáin.B (2006), Keening and Other Old Irish Musics, Clo Iar-Chonnachta.
Ó Súilleabháin.S (1967), Irish Wake Amusements, Mercier Press.
Oscar (1835), The Dublin Penny Journal: The Wake, Vol.3, No.148.
Influence from the lecture notes (Photos and paintings sourced from powerpoint slides) of Dr Stiofán Ó Cadhla and originally handed in as a class essay for the Folklore and Gender module, Folklore and Ethnology Department, University College Cork.
For today’s sojourn in the world of Irish folklore I would like to cover what are generally termed “fairy bushes”. These can also be known by a number of different names and you may also encounter them named as noble bush, gentle bush or gentry bush. The favoured name was often lone or lonely bush due to fact of their solitary growth and are often found left unmolested in the middle of cultivated farmland and treated with reverence and respect, regardless of how much of an inconvenience it is to the farmer.
They are also referred to by the Irish name for a thorn, Sceach or anglicised versions such as skeag,skeog, skea, skeagh or skagh. It was only well into the 20th century when some people no longer started to fear calling them by the name “Fairy Bush”, similar to the fear of calling the fairies themselves by name (they were always referred to as names such as “The other crowd”, “Na daoine usaile“, “Na daoine maithe” or simply the Sídhe, among many others). Most often they are hawthorn but can sometimes be blackthorn, rowan, hollies or gnarled oaks can be associated with the supernatural.
Whitethorn (hawthorn) was considered a sacred tree. When it grows alone near the banks of stream, or on forts, it is considered to be the haunt and peculiar abode of the fairies, and as such is not to be disturbed without risk, sooner or later, of personal danger to the person so offending,William Gregory Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland (1902).
They are often thought to be somewhat different in appearance to their more ordinary counterparts. The variation depends on where you are in the country: they may have more thorns than normal or no thorns at all, they may never blossom, may continue to grow after being uprooted or may be discernible due to their unusual formation (more gnarled or with elongated trunks, exposed roots etc).
Similar to the monuments known as ringforts ( alternatively named rath or lios,) these bushes are said to be the otherworldly abode of the other crowd. It is not uncommon to to find them growing on these ringforts. There are a number of references in early Irish sources to Bile rátha (Sacred tree of the fort) and these were possibly a common feature of these forts/ enclosed dwelling places. The bushes were also considered to be an assembly point or points were opposing factions of the sídhe would meet to fight. There have even been accounts of a strange green or white substance being found around these particular bushes, believed to be blood from these quarrelling fairies. One of the most famous of these being the latoon bush in County Clare. This made the news in 1999 when it was set to be destroyed when a new motorway was being built through the area. The bush is said to be a marker in a fairy path and was the rendezvous point for Kerry fairies on their way to do battle with the Connacht fairies. The respected folklorist, storyteller and fairy expert Eddie Lenihan made the news by sending dire warnings that misfortune would follow not only the people who would cut it down but that it would also pose a danger to any motorists driving over the spot. In the end effort was made to build around the sacred tree, thus preserving one more vital piece of our sacred landscape.
The fairies have a strong bond with their trees and there have been instances where they have been heard mourning, crying and wailing when their trees have been cut down. They have also been witnessed pulling cut branches out of carts or fires. Trees marked for destruction have been known to disappear over night. Strange animal sightings near the bushes are not uncommon either. Twigs or fallen branches are often left untouched where they have fallen out of fear and respect. Misfortune often befell anyone who attempted to cut down the trees and number of accounts of this nature are to be found on the National Folklore Schools Collection. Some excerpts from these can be read below:
“It is said that a man named John Judge cut a fairy bush in Coolnaha and that all the hair fell off his head.It is said that if anyone cut a fairy bush, they would loose the hand which they would cut it with” (NFSC, Vol.0112:356).
“A man named Thomas Moorhead of Killakena went to cut a lone-bush or a fairy-bush, and with the first blow which he gave it with the axe, his nose began to bleed, and he got a pain in his head, and was confined to bed for three weeks afterwards”. (NFSC,Vol.0956:207).
“There is a fairy bush out on our hill and it is said that if you would dare break a leaf of it that something bad would happen you.
“In olden times it is said that (in olden times) a lot of fairies lived in under this bush and since that it got the name ,The Fairy Bush” (NFSC,Vol.1038:37).
People who transgress this taboo of interfering with these bushes may be met with a number of repercussions. The retaliation from the other crowd can range from thorns being left in your bed, waking up paralysed ,cuts becoming septic and requiring amputation, blinding being driven mad (many stories end with the transgressors ending up in a mental asylum) or even death. People are very careful when cutting down bushes to make sure they are not inhabited. A stone is often placed under or near the bush and if it is gone come morning, the bush is left alone as it thought to be inhabited by the good folk or is believed to be on a fairy path.. Music, strange noises or lights coming from them are often recorded from them also. For anyone who wishes to delve deeper into the lore of fairy trees, the good news is there is no shortage of material for you to read up on. There are many folktales focusing on the subject and I would also recommend reading The Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli and probably the best book out there on fairy encounters, Meeting the other crowdby Eddie lenihan or you can check out the National Folklore Schools Collection entries on the subject here.
The Sacred Trees of Ireland by Christine Zucchelli.
Meeting the other crowd by Eddie lenihan.
William Gregory Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland (1902)
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)