The Farmer: Irish Folk Custom and Belief

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

The Farmer

In olden days in Ireland, hunting must have contributed substantially to the support of the people. It is now such a long time since the population became settled, rather than nomadic, however, that relatively little custom and belief concerning hunting has survived.

The land has for a long time been the man source of Irish food supplies. In early times, grain crops came to be extensively cultivated, to be followed by the potato a few hundred years ago. The fertility of the land, as well as the preservation of that fertility, were all important in the eyes of our ancient ancestors. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that a large body of folk custom and belief came to be associated with these two aspects of agriculture.

It was a general belief that the presence of a “fairy fort” or of a “fairy well” on a farm meant that the land would be fertile. To preserve this necessary quality, certain steps had to be taken : salt was sprinkled on a field before a crop was sown in it; so too was water in which a plough “sock” or coulter had been immersed (perhaps due to the belief that iron had special magical qualities). The christianisation of such customs as these can be seen in the later sprinkling on the land of holy water (blessed on Rogation Days, on Ascension Thursday or on Whit Sunday). When bonfires were lighted on May Eve or on St. John’s Eve (June 23), the farm would either be encircled with fire by taking burning reed/sheaves around it to ward off evil influences, or else some burning bushes or sticks from the fires were thrown over the fence into the fields where crops were growing; similarly, in the areas where the May-bush custom prevailed, branches from the bush were thrown among the crops. It was even believed that the fertility of a neighbour’s holding could be stolen from him by secreting eggs or raw meat (or the dead body of some animal) on his land – as these decayed, so did his prosperity by a process of sympathetic magic.

There is ample evidence from Ireland and Europe that dead bodies were not allowed to be taken for burial through the land of others; special laws were passed against this in several countries. The basic reason seems to have been the belief that the passage of a corpse brought ill-luck to land and crops.

There is not space in this booklet to enumerate the many customs and beliefs associated with the planting and care of crops. Let one suffice : it was deemed very unlucky to miss a line in a ridge when planting seed-potatoes, the whole crop and even the general prosperity of the farm might be threatened.

The securing of the harvest, no matter what the crops were was a crucial period of the agricultural year. It will not surprise us, therefore, that when this operation was completed, great celebrations took place. The spade was ceremonially placed in the fire to signify that it was no longer needed, once the potato crop had been dug. Even at the end of a long period of spinning, part of the spinning-wheel was similarly put into the fire. They would, however, be quickly rescued from the flames by the woman of the house, who was then expected to prepare a feast for the workers.
This celebration was known as the ’féil searra’ or ‘clabhsúr’ (closure), and included drinking as well as feasting, singing, dancing and storytelling. It was purely a happy social occasion and not at all based on any folk belief. So too was the cutting of the last sheaf of the grain-crop, which was known by such various names as the “church”, the “granny”, ‘an chaileach’ (the old woman) and ‘an luchtar’ (the bunch of sheaf. Sometimes the last sheaf was sent mischievously, to some neighbour who was slower at reaping his crop ; in most cases, however, it was taken home in triumph and placed on the beams of the kitchen during the feast, and harvest knots were woven from it later and worn by boys and girls.

Farm animals and their products helped also to balance the economy of rural communities in Ireland. These consisted mainly of cows and their produce, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, as well as poultry and bees. The many customs and beliefs connected with all of these cannot be dealt with in a booklet of the present size. I have, therefore, decided to confine my remarks to the main type of farm animal, the cow and her produce of milk and butter.

Almost all of the customs and beliefs in this field were concerned with the physical welfare of the cows and the warding off of diseases and other evils which might affect them harmfully. The cow-house or byre was built on a site which would not prevent the passage of fairies or encroach on their territory (mainly, the “fairy fort”). Crosses made of straw and other materials on St. Brigid’s Eve were hung in the cow-house or fixed to the doors and windows. It was hoped to protect the cows themselves by tying red ribbons to their tails or around their necks ; rings made of rowan were similarly applied for the same purpose. Cattle were driven across the dying flames of bonfires on May Eve and St. John’s Eve, or between two of these fires. So too they were forced to swim in a lake or river at certain times to avert illness and bad luck.

A goat was generally kept with herds of cows “to bring them luck”. I have heard this custom explained by saying that goats had the capacity for eating poisonous herbs without being fatally affected, which was not the case with cattle. Another animal which was regarded as lucky in a herd was a ‘maighdean bhuaile’ (a cow which had never borne a calf). Holy water was, of course, often sprinkled on livestock and scores of charms (apocryphal folk-prayers) were recited to avert or cure the many diseases from which they might suffer whether through natural causes or, as the folk often suspected through the evil eye of an unfriendly neighbour. The fairies too were blamed for causing animals to be “elf-shot”. This was due to the fact that ailing cows, with pierced hides might be found grazing near a place where small stone arrow-heads from ancient times were ofen found lying about ; the fairies were immediately blamed for having cast these weapons at the cows in an attempt to take them off into fairyland. One of the many remedies for “elf-shot” was to give the stricken animal a drink of water in which the “fairy arrows ” had been boiled.

As soon as a cow had calved, she was ceremoniously blessed with holy water and are, while the following prayer was recited three times :

Go mbeannaí Dia dhuit, a bhó!
Go mbeannaíthear faoi dhó do do laogh!
Go mbeannaí an triúr atá i bhflaitheas Dé,
Mar atá : An t-Athair agus an Mac agus an Spiorad Naomh!
Tar, a Mhuire, agus suidh ; tar, a Bhríd, agus bligh ;
Tar, a Naomh Mícheál Ard-aingeal, agus beannaigh an mart.
In ainm an Athar ages an Mhic ague an Spiorad Naofa,
Agus Amen, a Dhia.”

(God’s blessing on thee, O cow!
twice blest be thee, O calf!
May the Three who are in Heaven bless you :
the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!
Come, Mary, and sit down ; come, Brigid, and start milking;
come, Blessed Michael, the Archangel, and bless the beef
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen, O God.)

Although it was commonly accepted that the fairies who lived in the forts might need milk and take it from cows on the farm, this was not resented, as people wished to live in amity with their otherworld neighbours. Precautionary measures were directed more against evil-minded neighbours, who were liable to endeavour to steal one’s milk or butter “profit” (‘sochar an bhainne’) by magic means. Newly-calved cows stood in need of special protection, as their supply of milk was assured. Crushed flowers, such as marsh marigold, were rubbed to their udders, which were also singed with the flame of a blessed candle. The first steam of milk drawn from such a cow was allowed to fall on the ground ”for those who might need it” (the fairies, presumably), and then a cross was marked on the cow shank with some of her milk.

A charred sod of turf from the Midsummer bonfire was placed in the milk-house as protection. The greatest care was taken not to lose one’s milk-luck through negligence, as witness the following traditional taboos : don’t give away any milk on New Year’s Day, on May Day, on any Monday or on a Friday; don’t lend a milk-vessel; don’t take to fetch water from the well a vessel which is milk-stained; when such a vessel has been washed, do not throw the cleansing water into a river or stream ; don’t give milk to a neighbour unless salt has been put into it; don’t allow milk out of the house, if anybody is ill there.

It was a traditional custom never to drink milk on Good Friday; even the baby in the cradle, it is said had to cry three times on that day before milk was fed to it. Another old time custom, when goats were very numerous was to drink their milk in the belief that it cured tuberculosis. Ballykinlar in Co. Down and Goatstown in Co. Dublin were famous over a century ago in this regard and thousands of patients came there, even from Scotland to drink goats milk.

Farmers were constantly afraid in days gone by that their milk and butter “profit” could be stolen from them by evil minded hags, who either bailed a neighbour’s well or dragged a cloth over the dew of his fields on May Morn saying “Come all to me!” People sat up all night on May Eve to guard their wells and fields against such spells. It was believed in Ireland, as well as in many other countries that such human hags had the power of changing themselves into hares and sucking the milk from the udders of cows. These hares could be shot, so it was thought, only with a “silver bullet” (a pellet made from a florin which had a cross-device on one face).

Just as at calving-time, precautions had to be taken at churning-time against the evil intentions and wiles of others. In the old days, there were no creameries in rural areas and farmers churned their milk at home. The churn was deemed to be especially vulnerable to those who were thought to be disposed to steal the butter “profit”. Every effort was therefore made to guard it against such enemies : a live cinder was placed under the churn (many churns had charred bottoms in olden times), as well as an ass or horseshoe ; in other districts, nails of iron would be driven into the timber of the churn to protect it, or else a withy of rowan-tree was bound around it. The tongs were kept in the fire during the period of churning, and water or fire-ashes were not allowed out of the house until the operation had ended. So too, the fire was guarded : if anybody came to a house while churning was in progress and tried (by “reddening” his pipe or other, wise) to take live fire out of the house, he was prevented from doing so, and forced to take a “brash” (hand) at the churning before leaving-thus the churn and its butter were kept intact from harm. There were many other precautions which were normally taken on this important domestic occasion, but space does not allow of their mention here.

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