Irish Fishermen Craftsmen, Customs and Superstitions

Irish Folk Custom and Belief (Nósanna agus Piseoga na nGael) by Seán Ó Súilleabháin.

The Fisherman

Along the sea-coast and in the vicinity of lakes and rivers, fishing served to partially replace or supplement the food won from the land. As water was a quite different element from the land, embarking on it and catching fish in it were hedged around with taboos, as well as other beliefs and customs. There is room here to mention but a few.

If fishermen on their way to the water met a woman (still worse if she happened to be red-haired or barefoot), they knew instinctively that they would catch nothing that day, and generally returned home. It was similarly regarded as unlucky to meet a hare, a rabbit, a priest, or a fox. Indeed, one way of ensuring that a fisherman would have no luck was to say to him :

Sionnach ar do dhubhán,
Girrfhia or do bhaoite,
‘S nár mharbha’ tu non bhreac
Go Lá Fhéile Bríde.

(May there be a fox on your fishing hook,
and a hare on your bait,
and may you kill no fish until St. Brigid’s Day!)

Much discussion on the probable bases for these ill-omens has been published by European Scholars.

Fishermen had many taboos to cope with as well. While fishing at sea, they
were not supposed to mention a priest, a pig or a weasel (they had to be
spoken of as ‘the man with the white collar’, “cold irons” and “the noble
little old woman” respectively). So too when setting out for the fishing
grounds, they should not bail water out of the boat; three men of the same
name could not fish together; and no fisherman should smoke while at work.
And, at home in his own house, he had to take care that a fish bone was
never thrown into the fire.  Ill-luck was supposed to ensue if these or many
other taboos were broken.

Many beliefs and customs of a pre-christian character were also associated with endeavours to ensure good luck while fishing. A branch of rowan or furze was often taken out in the boat, or sprigs of them attached to the mens clothes. A green branch was also tied to the mast on May Morn for luck.

A live coal from the fire was thrown after a fisherman as he left the house to give him good luck. Eating the first egg laid by a hen was another supposedly beneficial action, as was the strewing of shell/fish in the four corners of the house on St. Brigid’s Day (a symbolic act to ensure a supply of fish each day during the fishing season). It was also believed that dipping a fishing-bait into water in which the flesh of a corr-iasc (crane-bird, noted for its ability to catch fish) had been boiled, or spitting on the bait would confer power on it.

Christianity gave rise to some very beautiful fishing customs: nets were lowered into the water in the name of God, Mary and St. Peter; the Rosary was generally recited in boats at sea at midnight, while the men waited to shoot or haul their nets; and as fishing boats passed welts and other places on shore which were deemed holy, the sails were lowered in salute.

Certain lakes and rivers were thought to be poor for fishing, ever since some saint or other had cursed them after being badly treated by fishermen there. Finally, there was a traditional taboo against fishing at sea on Saturday nights (this was probably due to the Church law regarding observance of the Sabbath). The Eve of the Feast of St. Martin (November 11) was a closed night, so far as fishing was concerned. John Boyle O’Reilly’s well known ballad about the drowning of many fishermen who ignored the taboo on the coast of Wexford is based on an historical occurrence. “The sea belongs to Martin on that night.”

Craftsmen

In former times, far more so than now, people depended on local craftsmen to supply them with goods and articles which they needed from time to time. There were thousands of blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, boat-builders, shoemakers nail makers, tailors (who went from house to house to work), manty-makers, thatchers, weavers, masons, millers, basket makers and other tradesmen, who were normal and familiar figures in rural communities. Each of these crafts had its own particular body of traditional custom and belief associated with it.

For want of space, I shall have to confine myself to the blacksmith as an example of a rural craftsman. Possibly because of the comparatively new metal (iron) which was his medium, he was looked upon as a man of extraordinary powers-this attribution to him may well have been derived from the time when iron was first introduced to this country, over 2000 years ago. It was the proud boast of the smith that he was the only tradesman who could make his own tools. In rural areas, at least, special tribute was paid to him in the form of the head of each beef or other animal killed for food (cuid an ghabba an ceann), as well as gifts of oats and straw. The smith was supposed to have power to cure diseases in man and animals – even forge- water was effective towards this end. He could banish evil spirits too. Above all, his curse was feared; woe betide anyone against whom the smith ” turned the anvil”.

It is sad to think that such a useful and colourful member of the community has almost completely disappeared from the rural scene. Neither the articles which he forged for so long, nor his special powers in other fields, are needed in our modern age.

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