Category Archives: Irish Customs

Irish Proverbs: Women and Men


Beauty is only skin deep but nobody wants to be drowned

Elegance and beauty are the same thing when there’s a man after them

Always make sure she looks beautiful before breakfast as well as after dinner


Love is blind but the neighbours see through it

Love is like stirabout, it must be made fresh every day

Love at first sight often happens at twilight

If you live in my heart you live rent free

Old coals are easiest kindled

Sheeps eyes don’t see beyond the settle

If she has a mind of her own, there won’t be many with a mind for her

Wait till you’re 18 to marry and don’t be spoiling your growth

If a man is in love he’s no judge of beauty but when love wears off he’ll tell a woman about her warts


Men are like bagpipes: no sound comes from them until they’re full

A man is a man when his woman is a woman

A sea wind changes less often than the mind of a weak man

A man works hard for success and then squanders his time talking about it

No man can prosper without his womans leave


She mightn’t be much good to boil a pot of spuds, but she’d look lovely carrying them to the table

Women would drive you mad but the asylum would be a cold place without them

A jealous woamn would make trouble between two breast bones

There’s nothing that makes the windows (eyes) open like a fine doorful of a woman

Never be in a court or acastle without a woman to make your excuse

A Tyrone woman will never buy a rabbit without a head for fear it’s a cat

A woman and child are like a goat, if they’re not in trouble they’re coming out of it

It takes a woman to outwit the devil

An inch makes a world of differnce when it’s in a womans nose

Where comes a cow, there follows a woman

Where comes a woman, there follows trouble

Let her rant and rave as long as the sun is high and as long as she’s loving, close and tender when the sun sets

Scéal an Tobac: The Story of the Tobacco

“Do you know what I’m going to tell you? I heard that they’re going to stop people from smoking tobacco and not to soon for them, God knows, because people nowadays are smoking away like a chimney with a rook’s nest in it, and not one of them ever saying a prayer before lighting up!”

“No good can come of it, I tell you…..”

Scéal an Tobac (The story of the Tobacco)

A long time ago in my father’s time, there was a woman and she had only one son. When he came to age she sent him to college and made a priest of him. After his coming from the college he was a short little while at home; and he was one day walking out in the garden when there came a saint in the air over his head and spoke down to him, and told the priest that he himself and all who belonged to him were damned on account of his mother. (God
protect us all this night).

The priest asked him what was the crime his mother had committed, and the saint told him that she was smoking tobacco with twelve years and she never said the tobacco prayer in all that time.

“Bad enough!” says the priest, “is there anything at all down from heaven to set that right?” says the priest.

“There’s nothing but one thing alone” says he, “and this is it. When you go in to your mother tell her as I have told to you. And unless she shall be prepared to suffer the death that I’ll tell you, not a sight of the country of heaven will your mother or anyone of her family see for ever.”

“What death is it”? said the priest to him

“She must let you” says he, “carve every bit of her body as fine as
sneeshin.” (snuff)

The priest went into the house and a heavy load on his heart. He sat upon a chair and there was great grief to be seen on his face. His mother asked him what was on him, and what had happened to him since he went out.

“Ah, there’s nothing on me but a little weariness” says he. “Kindle the pipe for me mother,” says he, “I’d like to get a blast of tobacco.”

“I’ll kindle it and welcome”, says she, “I thought avourneen,” says she, “that you were not using tobacco.”

“Ah, maybe a whiff would take this weariness off me,” says he.

True was the story. She put a coal in the pipe, and after smoking enough of the pipe herself she handed it to the priest, but she never said the prayer. And that was the reason he had told her to kindle the pipe, hoping, do you know, that she would say the prayer, but she did not.

“Poor enough!” said the priest in his own mind.

The priest told her then as the saint had told him, and she threw herself on her two knees praying God and shedding tears, and said she “a hundred welcomes to the graces of God, and if it is the death that God has promised me I am satisfied to suffer it; go out now my son,” says she, “and when I’ll be ready for you to get to your work I’ll call you in.”

The priest went out fervently reading and praying to God.

The mother washed and cleaned herself. She got sheets and sharp knives ready for the work, and when she had everything prepared she called the priest to come in.

And as the priest turned around on his foot, the brightness came over his head again, and it said to him that all his family had found forgiveness for their sins, on account of the earnest repentance that his mother was after making, and the awful death that she was fully satisfied to suffer.

The priest came into the house, and a great joy in his heart, and his mother was stretched on the length of her back on the table, and sheets under her and over her, and her two hands stretched out from her, and she praying God, and two sharp knives by her side and, says the priest to her, “rise up mother,” says he, “I have got forgiveness from the King of the Graces, for our sins, and I beseech you now from this day out, do not forget to diligently offer up the tobacco prayer every time you use it.”

And true was the story. There was never a time from that day till the day that the priest’s mother went into the clay that she did not earnestly offer up the prayer to God and to the glorious Virgin.

And do you know that the old people throughout the country used to be offering up that same prayer daily, as long as a word of our Irish language remained alive on the green island of the saints.

Do you know what I’m going to tell you? The young people nowadays know nothing of the dangers of smoking without saying the tobacco prayer.


Here is a translation of the prayer from Irish as collected in the late
19th. century by John Mac Neill from a Co. Mayo peasant by the name of Miceál Mac Ruadhrí (Rogers)

Paidir i ndiadh an Tobac (The Prayer after Tobacco)

Eighteen fulls of the churchyard of Patrick, of the mantle of Brigit, and the holy tomb of Christ, of the palace of Rome, of the church of God, be with thy soul (and the soul of him above whose head was the tobacco and with the souls of the dead in Purgatory all together. (This was said only when the tobacco was taken and given at a wake).

May not more numerous be
The grains of sand by the sea,
Or the blades of grass on the lea,
Or the drops of dew on the tree,
Than the blessings on thy soul
And the souls of the dead with thee
And my soul when the life shall flee.

It is for God to give shelter, light, and the glory of the heavens to thesouls of the dead in Purgatory

©Vince Hearns March 2001

Mass Rock, Oughaval, Co. Laois (Queen’s Co.) Photographs

I’ve never seen a Mass Rock before and I saw that there was a path to the Mass Rock when I looked at the ‘Notice Board’ at Oughaval Woods, so, I decided let’s go that way and the dogs didn’t mind which way I went so long as they got a good walk!

On the path, we came across a ‘sign post’ for the Mass Rock and I have to say before I got to it I wondered if it would be marked at all!

Mass Rock sign, Oughaval Woods, Laois

Mass Rock sign, Oughaval Woods, Laois

It’s really a very nice walk.  The initial part is a bit hilly but after that there are only a few ups and downs.  I didn’t realise we were at the Rock and I thought Bambi had just found a stone that looked like it could hold Holy Water and then after taking a few photos of this, I looked up and realised I was actually there.

It is a beautiful setting in amongst the trees.  Here are the photographs.

People leave their thoughts or hopes or prayers for some ‘deed’ they would like ‘done’ – the recovery of a friend or a loved one would be the usual prayer, with these thoughts, they leave something like a rosary beads.  You can see some of these on the photo of the top of the Cross and even on the St. Bridget’s Cross.

Some Irish Superstitions

Some Irish Superstitions
Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal, ?1917
Henry Morris pp. 365-368

Superstition is generally regarded as the offspring of the religious instinct in man misled by ignorance. Few other human weakness’ have been so unsparingly and so unanimously denounced, and yet, it survives: the savage carries his charm, and the modern motorist or the regiment on the battlefield has its mascot. Above or behind probably a million doors in England the horseshoe will be found nailed up, and there is a general desire to avoid association with the unlucky number thirteen. Neither of these were Irish superstitions, but we are borrowing them, for to the anglicised Irish mind even superstition is respectable when it happens to be English. Irish superstitions on the other hand are rapidly dying out, not because they are superstitious, but because they are only Irish, and have no place in English social life.

Such however is not the point of this article. What I want to draw attention to is that some Irish superstitions, instead of being the offspring of ignorance, appear rather to be concealed wisdom.

An instance is the practice observed by the peasant woman in milking her cow. All the customs or beliefs quoted here were, I should state, current in my boyhood’s-days in Farney, Co. Monaghan, and no doubt in other parts of Ireland too. The peasant girl in Farney was taught to milk the first few ‘striogs’ or squirts out of each teat on to the ground. This was for the fairies invisibly flitting around, who were likely to make reprisals if this act of kindness was neglected. The same custom is also observed in Co. Donegal. I regarded this as very silly until I heard a learned professor explain in a lecture that there were many thousand times more microbes in the first milk drawn from the teats than in all the remaining milk the cow yielded.

This at once lifted the superstition and placed it on the throne of science, and suggested a train of investigation which goes to prove that many Irish superstitions have behind them shrewd observation and matured wisdom.

Now the old sage who prescribed in the beginning that the milk first drawn from the cow’s teats at each milking should not be used certainly knew nothing of the modern theory of bacteria. But he probably knew enough to be convinced. that this milk was neither clean nor wholesome, Had he preached this doctrine, however, to young rustic milkmaids, abounding in rude health, he should neither be believed nor obeyed. He knew this, and he also knew, the terrors the supernatural had, so he wisely warned his milkmaids that to propitiate the fairies this first milk should be given to them, and woe betide her who carelessly forgot, or had the temerity to refuse to carry out this observance: And so the housewife believed she was feeding the fairies when she was really preserving: herself and her family from unwholesome milk containing millions of bacteria.

Another custom of similar purpose was that at a meal any food that fell to the floor should not be lifted or used. The “good people” wanted it. It was an invisible fairy that plucked it from your hand. Let it go, if you are wise. Such was the belief, and it was very generally acted on. In times of want and scarcity if a large piece fell on the floor they compromised a bit by lifting it, breaking off a small portion which was thrown away, and the remainder eaten.

Now the old-world wisdom behind the custom was that peasants did not eat their meals in dining rooms with waxed and polished floors, but in kitchens with earthen floors which were highly septic. Food that fell on such a floor was not fit to be eaten. But a country youth, painfully conscious of a keen appetite, would not be restrained by such a plea. Modern science, with all its logic and soundness, fails to get its precepts observed by the young and thoughtless.

The patriarchs of the olden time were wiser in their generation, and did not believe in giving reasons to those not capable of understanding or appreciating them; but the simplest person knew and feared the fairies, hence the latter were pressed into service, and the tainted food remained uneaten.

Still another similar custom was that the housewife should never go to bed without having some clean water in the house for the use of the “good people.” And sometimes the poor tired woman, when she had just retired to rest, suddenly remembered that there was no clean water in the house. She got up; dressed, and going out in the dark to the well brought in a can of clean water. Then she went to bed again quite happy that she had escaped the fairies ill-will, which she had so nearly incurred. Well it is very unsafe-not to speak of bad housekeeping-to have no clean water in a house during the night. People living in towns with water taps every-where at hand can hardly realise what it means to have no fresh water in the house; with the well a furlong or more away. Should anyone suddenly get ill during the night he might be lost while water was being fetched from the well. But the chances were a million to one against such an occurrence. The certainty of the fairies being about left little room for chance, so the fresh water was got in: the superstition established a useful practice.

Some writers have shown, or at any rate argued, that the ‘púca’ (pooka) is a very modern Irish fairy, but modern or not he had to take a hand in the social economy. Nice ripe blackberries are sweet and palatable; but hungry boys and girls will eat blackberries that are neither sweet nor palatable. However, after ‘Oidhche Shamhna’ or Hallow Eve no blackberries are eaten. And why ? Because on that night the púca goes abroad and crawls over the blackberries covering them with an invisible slime, and where is the boy or girl who would eat a berry soiled with the púca’s slime. The fact seems to be that blackberries after that date are stale and unwholesome. But the púca’s slime is the great deterrent.

Young people ate fond of doing everything that is dangerous and wrong. One of those customs beloved of youth is walking backwards. It is not very wrong but it is highly dangerous, as a person walking backwards, not seeing where he is going, may fall into a dyke or pit or some other harmful place. Tell a child never to walk backwards and he is sure to practise it all the more when he believes you don’t see him. The old Irish people did not tell their juveniles not to walk backward because it was dangerous, but because it had the effect, or the same effect as cursing one’s father and mother. I remember well when I wondered how it could possibly have that effect, but youth has the gift of believing without seeing and so we refrained from walking backwards, simply because we did not wish to curse our parents.

After the fairies the next most potent agents for keeping the young and head-strong, and erring within bounds were the Christian saints, and of these Columcille was most dreaded. Even the most reckless quailed before the possibility of earning Columcille’s curse. It shows in what veneration he must have been held, when we find his name used so freely for this purpose. The wise people of old, looking around for the most potent preventive, could find none greater than Columcille’s curse, and this curse was greatest dreaded because Columcille was most highly venerated.

I shall not attempt to recount here all the things that Columcille is accredited with having cursed. Naturally most of these are things evil in them-selves, but some are things not intrinsically bad. For instance, he is said to have cursed anyone who should completely bake one side of a cake before the other side got a turn. The cakes common at this time were oat cakes, which were baked up-right before the fire. On one occasion, is it said, Columcille, weary and hungry, came into a house where a bannock of bread was being baked before the fire. Columcille asked for some of the bread. The woman replied she could not give it, as only one side was baked. Thereupon the saint left his curse with anyone who should ever again bake a cake in this manner. So the God-fearing housewife thence-forth regularly turned the bannock giving each side alternately to the fire. But the truth is that this is the only scientific way to do it. If one side is kept all the time to the fire until it is fully baked it contracts so much that the bannock becomes concave, like a deep saucer, and the other side can never be fully or uniformly baked: indeed the bannock is apt to break into pieces. Whereas if the two sides are turned alternately they contract equally, the bannock retains its flat shape, and can be perfectly and uniformly baked. All this argument, however, would be wasted on a rough or careless woman or servant, but Columcille’s curse made the worst of them attentive.

In exactly the same way he is said to have cursed anyone/who should let a well be polluted, and thus the saint’s supposed malediction has guarded the purity of thousands of wells, for the health of the people, for fifteen hundred years after he had laid down his weary pen, and said “Let Baithen write the rest.”

Another superstitious belief, that belongs very probably to the same category, is that a person who hears the cuckoo for the first time in any season, before he has broken his night’s fast, is sure to die during the course of that year, or before the cuckoo comes again. To this day I know people who entertain such a fear. To young people, or lazy people, who should be inclined to lie abed of mornings in that bright and busy time of year, here was a powerful incentive to get up early, and have breakfast over before the first notes of the “melodious cuckoo” were heard. And the habit, once formed, might well last throughout the whole summer, which, with the old Irish, lasted up till Samhain or 1st of November.

Taken in conjunction with so many other similar observances it is hard to think the belief ever had anything behind it other than the cunning of the elders of the people in taking advantage of the credulity and natural faith of simple folk, in order to train them in a good habit, which nature inclined them against.

This by no means exhausts the list, for a careful investigator and observer – in any district will find other similar beliefs, in all of which the end may be said to justify the means, or at any rate was regarded as a justification by those who originated them.

I will now mention another superstition of a wholly different kind and of quite a different interest. About a year ago I happened to be near Tuam in the County Galway, and I saw a young baby a couple of months old shown to a very old woman. The ‘cailleach’ took the child in her arms, and the first thing she did was to spit on it. I at once saw in this strange proceeding some superstitious observance, and I asked her to explain why she did it. She was rather taken aback at having been observed in the act, as she tried to do it covertly, but the only explanation I could extract. from her was that it was lucky and the right thing to do on first seeing any young baby. I inquired further and found that spitting on babies was also known as a custom in parts of Cork and Kerry , and that there it was accompanied by some formula of Irish words which I have not so far succeeded in obtaining.

Somewhat later in a book on Uganda I read that it is a custom with some of the tribes or races of that country when friends are meeting or parting to spit on one another. And the friendlier they are the more generous is the ceremony. “Spitting,” explains the author, “has a very different signification with the Masai from that which prevails with us. With them it expresses the greatest good will and the best of wishes. It takes the place of the compliments of the season, and you had better spit upon a damsel than kiss her.” Now it appears to be more than a probability that the old Galway woman’s spitting on the baby is the last remnant of the same custom still in full force in Uganda, which may have also existed among our own ancestors at one time, and which, having gone down before advancing civilization, has still been retained for babies, who of course cannot protest, by that most conservative type of human beings-old women.

But beyond the babies and old women everyone in Farney a generation ago used to spit on their right hands before shaking hands with one they wished to welcome. Handshaking was not as commonplace then as now: it was reserved for great occasions, such as welcoming strangers; or friends long absent, and the usual formula was first to spit on your hand just as you were about to offer it to the new-comer, and say “Musha leave it there, but its yourself that’s welcome,” or “but you’re a hundred thousand welcomes.” This custom is also observed in parts of Connacht. There are other examples also of spitting for luck or goodwill. A man in the fair on selling an animal usually gives back a coin for luck, called a “luck-penny,” and custom prescribes that he must spit on this coin. Some buyers would not accept it otherwise. It is common to hear at a fair “What luck-penny will you give me?” “Oh, I’ll spit on the usual shilling for you.”

Among card-players also it is quite common for players to spit on the “hand” of cards they get, as also on the money they stake on the game particularly, if it happens to be their last coin. It is but right to state that the spitting in all these cases is a mere convention, and is done with the expenditure of the smallest possible amount of saliva.

Most readers will also recall the instances in the New Testament where Our Lord used spittle in curing the man born blind, and the deaf mute. In doing this we may be sure He merely adopted some of the usages of the country and the time.

Two years ago in this JOURNAL I showed that we had here in Ireland remnants of customs still practised by the aborigines of Australia; and that certain words in Irish and in German pointed to once common customs in the Celtic and Teuton races.

All this goes to suggest the deep interest that lies hidden in these unnoticed and un-regarded, and now regularly despised beliefs, customs and observances, which carry us back to the infancy of the human race, when people now inhabiting different continents, and blackened or browned or whitened by different climes, once believed the same things, and practised common rites and ceremonies.

Bunratty Castle Theme Park, Co. Clare, Part I

These photographs were taken in the theme park at Bunratty Castle the day I was there with Cassie and Liz back in the summer of 2013.

I have too many photographs from the theme park so I am breaking them up into a few smaller sets and posting them over the next few weeks

This is the first cottage we went into. The different cottages had different styles in a manner of speaking, belonging to people of different ‘standards’ of life so to say.  This cottage would have belonged to people who were reasonably well off.  They had a dining room, bedrooms upstairs and downstairs.

The thatch with which the cottage was covered was lying outside to let people see what it looks like.

The lady coming out of the ‘dining room’ is Cassie.  I did try to make sure I wasn’t including her in any of the photos but I’m afraid I only had the one photo of the fireplace.

Daniel O’Connell and the Cow

Taken from Folktales of the Irish Countryside
By Kevin Danaher

Stories from Dick Denihan


It was always said that there was no fear of you in the court of law if you could get Daniel O’Connell to defend you. There was a story about a man that was brought up for stealing a cow, and at that time you could be hanged for stealing, or if you weren’t hanged you’d be transport ed for the rest of your natural life. And the man that was bringing the case against the poor man was Counsellor Goold, the same man who was the landlord of this parish And he was good friends with Daniel O’Connell, but they were always trying to get the better of each other in the court.

Well, the case came up, and Goold led off, accusing the poor man of the theft of the cow. ‘What age was the cow?’ says O’Connell. ‘It was a three year old,’ says Goold. ‘How would you know the like of that?’ says O’Connell. ‘Aren’t you just after buying a big estate of land of the Earl of Devon, and isn’t it land so bad that if you put a three year old beast on it, the poor creature would come out of it after a year only the size of a yearling, but with horns on her like a deer from the hills of Kerry! ‘Tis all nonsense, my lord,’ says he to the judge. ‘My friend, Mr Goold is a good and honest man, but he knows nothing about cattle. The case should be dismissed!’ And Goold got so flustered with all the fun and laughing in the court that he got all mixed up, and the judge dismissed the case.

They were going out of the court, and the poor man came up to O’Connell. And Goold was there, too, talking to O’Connell. And the poor man was full of thanks and praise for the man that saved him, and all excuses that he was so poor that he had nothing to offer O’Connell for getting him off free. ‘Of course you are innocent, you haven’t even the cow?’ says O’ConnelL He swore by this and by that that he hadn’t the cow and that he didn’t know anything about it. ‘Well,’ says O’Connell, ‘I’ll forgive you the costs of the case this time, for I can well understand how poor and how honest you are. But tell me this, now, especially when my good friend Mr Goold here knows so little about cattle. Suppose that myself or my friend Mr Goold wanted to steal a good cow, and we saw a big herd of them in a field on a winter’s night like last night. How would we know the best one?’ ‘Easy enough, sir,’ says the man, ‘all you have to do is to pick out the one that is the farthest out in the field from the hedge. Because that is the one that is the fattest and with the best condition. There’s no bother to it at all, then, only to drive her away, but of course you’ll have to have the arrangements made to sell her to a butcher before the daylight,’ says he. He was so delighted at the Counsellors talking to him that he gave himself away completely. But O’Connell and Goold only laughed. ‘There now, Thomas, my friend,’ says O’Connell, ‘is a man that could teach us both about cattle.’ ‘Every man to his trade,’ s

Irish Sagas, Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaín III

Tochmarc Étaíne 3 : The Wooing of Étaín 3
by Miles Dillon

The third story is in a form familiar to those of you who have heard folk-tales recited, or who have read Padraic Colum’s book, The King of Ireland’s Son. A stranger visits the hero and offers to play a game of cards (here it is a game of chess). The hero wins three times “but the stranger wins the last game, and lays a penalty on the hero.

I shall read you the opening of this story, following pretty closely the translation of Bergin and Best.

Another time on a lovely summer day, Eochaid Airem king of Tara arose and climbed the terrace of Tara to gaze over Mag Breg. It was radiant with flowers of every colour. As Eochaid looked around, he saw a strange warrior on the terrace before him. A purple tunic was about him, and his hair was golden yellow and reached to his shoulders. His eyes were bright blue. He had a spear in one hand, and a shield in the other with a white boss and ornament of gold.

Eochaid said “Welcome to the warrior whom we do not know.” “It is for that we have come” said the warrior (That is to say: ‘I come as a friend, not as an enemy’). “We know you not,” said Eochaid. “But I know you,” said the warrior. (Many of you will be reminded of the common episode in the folk-tales about the king of Ireland’s Son: Aithnionn tusa mise 7 ni aithnim-se thú). “What has brought you? ” said Eochaid. “To play chess with you,” said he … “The queen is asleep,” said Eochaid, “and it is in her house that the chess is.” “I have here,” said Midir’, ” a set of chess that is as good.” That was true: a silver board and golden men, and each corner of the board lit up by a precious stone, and the bag for the chessmen was of plaited links of bronze.’

They play three games of chess and Eochaid wins each time, and Midir gives him rich prizes. The fourth time they play for a stake to be named by the winner. Midir  wins the game, and the stake he claims is a kiss from Étaín. Eochaid was vexed at that, but he bade Midir come a month from that day to receive his prIze.

On the day appointed Eochaid had gathered his warriors around him and the doors were locked. But Midir appeared in the banqueting-hall. ‘What is promised is due,’ he said. He put his arms around Étaín and rose with her into the air and through the roof of the house; and they flew away in the form of two swans.

Eochaid and his men set out to recover Étaín, and attacked Bri Leíth, the fairy-mound which was Midir’s home. He appeared before them and promised to restore Étaín. The next morning fifty women appeared at Tara all like Étaín in form and dress, and Eochaid was in doubt which one to choose. The one he chose turned out to be not Étaín herself, but her daughter and his daughter too, another Étaín. She bore him a child, and the child was put out to die, as it was a child of incest. It was found by a herdsman and he and his wife reared the girl, and she prospered, for she was the daughter of a king and queen. Etarscéle became King of Ireland, and one day his people saw the herdsman’s child and told him of her beauty. She was Étaín reborn, and Etarscéle made her his wife, so that she was the mother of Conaire son of Etarscéle.

This brings us to the opening chapter of the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, a saga of the Ulster Cycle which you shall hear later on. I may conclude with the description of this young Étaín at the beginning of that story. I first learned of it from A.E. who told me of this wonderful description to illustrate what he called the incandescent imagination of Irish story-tellers:

He saw a woman at the edge of a well, and she a silver eomb with gold ornament. She was washing in a silver basin in which were four birds of gold, and bright little gems of purple carbuncle on the chasing of the basin. She wore a purple cloak of good fleece, held with silver brooches chased with gold, and a smock of green silk with gold embroidery. There were wonderful ornaments of animal design in gold and silver on her breast and shoulders. The sun shone upon her, so that the men saw the gold gleaming in the sunshine against the green silk. There were two golden tresses on her head, plaited in four, with a ball at the end of every lock. The color of her hair was like the flower of the iris in summer or like pure gold after it had been polished. She was undoing her hair to wash it, so that her arms were out from beneath her dress. White as the snow of one night were her hands, and her lovely cheeks were soft and even, red as the mountain foxglove. Her eyebrows were as black as a beetle’s back. Her teeth were like a shower of pearls. Her eyes were as blue as the hyacinth, her lips as red as Parthian leather. High, smooth, soft, and white were her shoulders, clear white her long fingers. Her hands were long. White as the foam of a wave was her side, long and slender, yielding, smooth, soft as wool. Her thighs were warm· and smooth and white; her knees small and round and hard and bright, Her shins were short and bright and straight. Her heels were even and lovely. If a rule had been laid upon her feet it would hardly have shown any imperfections in them, unless it should crease the flesh or the skin. The blushing light of the moon was in her noble face, a lofty pride in her smooth brow. The radiance of love was in her eyes ; the flush of pleasure on her cheeks, now red as a calf’s blood and changing again to snowy   whiteness. There was gentle dignity in her voice. Her step was firm and graceful. She had a walk of a queen. She was the fairest, loveliest, finest that men’s eyes had seen of all the women of the world. They thought she was of the fairies. Of her it was said:  “All are lovely till compared with Étaí.  All are fair till compared with Étaín.'”

Taken from Radioe Éireann.  Thomas Davis lectures.  IRISH SAGAS

Irish Sagas, Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaín II

Tochmarc Étaíne : The Wooing of Étaín 2
by Miles Dillon

The second story begins after the interval of a thousand years, when the Tuatha Dé Danann have retired into their fairy-mounds and the Gaels are established in Ireland. But we are still in a period of pure legend, so you must not expect any dates. The king of Ireland in this story was succeeded by a king whose son was killed in Da Derga’s Hostel shortly before the period of Cú Chulainn and the Ulster heroes, according to the learned tradition.

When Eochaid Airem became king of Ireland, the people refused to pay tribute to a king who had no queen. He sent out messengers to find the loveliest girl in Ireland, and they brought him Étaín  the daughter of Étar. Eochaid had a brother Ailill, and he fell sick for love of Étaín, and none could cure him. Eochaid went on his royal circuit of Ireland, leaving Étaín to care for Ailill, so that his grave might be dug, his lamentation made and his cattle slain. (The slaying of a dead man’s cattle is of some interest for the religious ideas of the pagan Irish).

One day, as they were together in the house, Ailill confessed to Étaín the cause of his sickness, and she said that she would gladly cure him with her love, but that it might not be in the house of the king. She made a tryst with him on the hill above the court. But at the hour appointed, a magic sleep came upon Ailill, and a man in the likeness of Ailill came in his stead to keep the tryst with Étaín. Three times this happened, and the third time Étaín protested that it was not with him that she had made the tryst. The stranger said : ‘It were fitter for you to come to me, for when you were Étaín daughter of Ailill, I was your husband.’ And he told her that he was Midir of Brí Leith, and that they had been parted by the sorcery of Fuamnach. He asked her to come away with him, and she refused to go without the consent of her husband, the king of Ireland.

That is the end of the second story.

Taken from Radio Éireann : Thomas Davis Lectures : Irish Sagas.  Published 1959

Irish Sagas, Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaín I

By Miles Dillon

WE SHALL TELL YOU in this series of Davis Lectures about Irish heroic literature, that is, about the old Irish sagas. They are indeed the most important part of early Irish prose literature, for we have no historians before Keating and Michael O’Clery, no orators, no dramatists, and the novel is a modern invention. We have plenty of. poetry of various kinds, and we have tales about visions of the Otherworld and about voyages in search of the Land of Youth, and we have the sagas. Poetry and legend are the substance of Irish literature.

The sagas fall into four cycles of tales: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, The Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle (or Cycles of the Kings, for there are a number of separate cycles with one or other of the early kings as its central figure). You shall hear where these tales are preserved and what they are about, and you shall hear a few of the sagas from each of the four cycles.

The oldest Irish manuscripts are in Latin and are copies of the Psalms and of the Gospels. The earliest of these Irish Latin manuscripts in existence is the Cathach of St. Columba, written towards the end of the sixth century. The Irish sagas are preserved in great folio manuscripts of vellum, of which the earliest surviving were written in the twelfth century. There are three important twelfth century manuscripts, the Book of Noughaval, commonly called the Book of Leinster, in Trinity College, the Book of the Dun Cow in the Royal Irish Academy, and a MS. the Irish title of which has been lost, listed as Rawlinson B 502, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Next in importance is the Yellow Book of Lecan, written towards the end of the 14th century and preserved in Trinity College. These are certainly copied from earlier manuscripts now lost, for the language of many of the sagas is as old as the ninth century, and Irish was being written as early as the sixth century, if we may judge from the very ancient language of some poems and law-tracts which survive.

The Mythological Cycle is the earliest in time, as it deals with heroes who were thought to have lived in Ireland before the coming of the Gaels. It is the chief source of knowledge of the religion of the pagan Irish. And very little is known about their religion. They believed in a happy Otherworld in the western sea where some of the gods dwell and which heroes sometimes were allowed to visit. It is not a heaven to which men go after death, but a happy island, Tir na nÓg, where there is no death or old age. Oisín went there with Niamh of the Golden Hair, and after three days he came back to Ireland to find that he had been away for three hundred years, and that all his companions were dead.

Besides this notion of an island (or islands) beyond the sea, there is a tradition that a race of supernatural beings inhabited Ireland before the coming of the Gaels, and that they withdrew into fairy-mounds all over the country where they still dwell, and whence they sometimes emerge to interfere in the affairs of men. These two traditions have become much confused, and we probably have to do with a blend of pre-Celtic and Celtic religious ideas. (It may be said in passing that there seem in Greece also to have been two mythologies, the gods of Homer, and others such as Demeter and Persephone, associated with agriculture, who play no part in heroic tradition.) A few of the names of these divine beings are good Celtic names, and evidently came in with the Celtic immigrants perhaps as early as 1000 B.C.

Chief of the gods is the Dagda (‘Good God ‘). Oengus is his son, and Boann (the river Boyne) is the mother of Oengus. Lug is another, and his name occurs in the place-name Lugdunum in various parts of Europe where Celts have dwelt. The common name for all is Tuatha Dé Danann, peoples of the goddess Danu, of whom nothing further is known. There is a British Don, who is probably the same divinity.

Alfred Nutt suggested that the association of the gods with earth-mounds (such as New Grange, which was the dwelling of Oengus) went back to a stage of nature-worship when rivers, trees, wells and mounds were worshipped. He went on to suggest a common origin for certain features of Greek and Irish mythology, specially the doctrine of re-birth, which was part of the cult of Dionysus and which you will notice in the story I am going to tell. For Étaín is re-born three times, first by falling into the cup of a mortal queen while she is bewitched in the form of a fly, and again as the daughter of Eochaid Airem “king of Ireland, while her mother is in the fairy-mound of Brí Leith, and finally as the daughter of this third Étaín.

Before I come to the story of Étaín in the Mythhological Cycle, let me tell you briefly about the other cycles of heroic tales or sagas. The Ulster Cycle is that of which Cú Chulainn is the central figure. King Conor Mac Nessa is king of Ulster and Maeve is queen of Connacht; the traditional date is the first century of the Christian era. These are the tales which Lady Gregory made into a book in her Cuchullin of Muirthemne, and which gave Yeats many themes for his plays and poems. The longest saga, and one which is epic in scale and temper, is the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge), the story of Cú Chulainn’s defense of Ulster, alone against the whole army of Queen Maeve. The noblest saga, and probably the finest in all Irish literature, is the story of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach. Then there is Bricriu’s Feast, full of interest and humour, and the story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig, in which champions contend for the hero’s portion at a feast, as we are told the Gaulish warriors used to do in Caesar’s time. These are the sagas we have chosen for discussion. There are many others that I would gladly have included.

The Fenian Cycle is later in time, being set in the reign of Cormac Mac Airt, who was supposed to have reigned at Tara in the third century. These are the tales of Fionn and Oisin and Caoilte, of Conán Maol and Goll Mac Morna, many of which may still be heard from story-tellers in the Gaeltacht. The Pursuit of Diarmuit and Gráinne is the Fenian love-story. And the last survivors of the Fenians are made to live on into St. Patrick’s time, so that we have a famous tale called The Colloquy of the Ancients (Acallam na Senórach) which Professor Gerard Murphy will tell you about.

And last come the Cycles of the Kings, from which we have found room for only two stories, one of them having to do with the birth of King Cormac Mac Airt and his accession to the Kingship of Tara (there is a parallel here to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus), the other a saga about a young queen married to an old husband and her love for her stepson. It is a motif which occurs in ancient Greek tradition, and which supplies the theme of T. C. Murray’s Autumn Fire. There are some seventy sagas in this Historical Cycle, some of them about legendary kings, many about historical persons, and they are not without moments of pathos and of humour. Some of them were made into poetry by Ferguson a hundred years ago, when there was more interest in these traditions than there is now.

A.E. once said: ‘We have often thought a book surpassing the Arabian Nights might be made by a writer of genius who would weld into a continuous narrative the tales of the Gods, the Fianna and the Red Branch, so full of beauty, mystery and magnificence that, as the raw material for romance, there is hardly anything to equal them in the legendary literature of other countries.’

The Wooing of Étaín is one of the two chief tales of the Mythological Cycle. (The other is The Battle of Moytura, which you shall hear about next time). It is in the Book of the Dun Cow, but owing to loss of leaves a great deal of it was missing, and scholars had made various attempts to supply the lost passages. Then some twenty years ago Dr. Best made an exciting discovery. He was examining the Irish manuscripts in the Phillipps Collection at Cheltenham, when he saw among them a gathering of parchment leaves which looked familiar, and he recognised it as part of the famous Yellow Book of Lecan. And these leaves, which are now in the National Library, contain the complete text of the Wooing of Étaín. It has since been published in Ériu xii.

The chief points that have been cleared up by the discovery of the complete text concern details of the relationship between various mythological persons, and I shall not discuss them. But one matter is worth mention because it gave rise to more than one false scent, and serves to show how hazardous it is to guess the answer to a problem in mythology. At a certain point in the story, as you shall hear,  Étaín was changed into a beautiful fly by the curse of a jealous wife, and in this form she was carried out to sea by the wind. Oengus rescued her and kept her in a glass cage which he carried about with him. He fed her with flowers. The passage describing her transformation is missing from the Book of the Dun Cow, which was the only manuscript known until Best discovered the lost leaves of the Yellow Book of Lecan.  Zimmer, indeed, made a shrewd guess at what must have happened in the missing part of the story. But other scholars gave rein to their imaginations. Sir John Rhys in his Arthurian Legend decided that Oengus was the Celtic Zeus, and Étaín the goddess of Dawn. ‘Her dwelling in the glass house which the god carried about with him seems to be a sort of picture of the expanse of the heavens lit up by the light of the sun.’ Alfred Nutt thought rather of Snow White in her glass coffin watched by the seven dwarfs. Roger Loomis seized upon the diet of flowers, and sought to equate Étaín with Persephone of Greek mythology, who was gathering flowers when she was carried off to Hades. Étaín, he says, is a flower-maiden and moon-maiden. It is now plain that Étaín had been changed into a fly, and the glass cage and the flowers are no longer a problem.

Now to the story, which dates from the ninth century in its present form. There are indeed three stories, but they form a sequence and appear as a sequence in the two manuscripts which contain them. There is a strange beauty here which perhaps no other Irish story shares. The temper of love is there, and the power of magic, and a happy ending. It is one story in three, as it were, a comedy in three acts. The Dagda became the lover of Boann, wife of EIcmar of the Brug (New Grange), and from their union was born Oengus. He was given in fosterage to Midir of Bri Leith (near Ardagh, Co. Longford). Later when Oengus had grown to be a man, and was in possession of the Brug, Midir came to visit him. While he was there he suffered an injury and he claimed in compensation the fairest maiden in Ireland, Étaín the daughter of Ailill. Oengus won her from her father for Midir with the Dagda’s help, by clearing twelve plains and making twelve rivers and giving her weight in gold and silver.

Midir returned home with the beautiful Étaín, but his first wife, Fuamnach, struck her with a magic quicken rod and turned her into a pool of water. The heat of the air and of the earth turned the water into a worm, and the worm became a purple fly of wonderl’ul size and beauty. I ts music was sweet, and the air was fragrant around it. The fly was always with Midir, and he knew that it was Étaín. Then Fuamnach drove her away by causing a magic wind which carried. her out on to the rocks and waves of the sea. For seven years she was in misery until she alighted one day on the breast of Oengus himself. For some time he carried her about in a sun-lit cage of crystal, but the jealous Fuamnach got to know of it and drove her away again. This time she came to rest on the roof of a house in Ulster, and fell into the cup of one of the women in the house, the wife of Étar who was an Ulster king. The woman swallowed the fly, and she was re-born as the daughter of Étar. It was a thousand and twelve years from the time of her birth as daughter of the fairy Ailill to the time of her birth in the house of Étar.

That is the end of the first story.

Psychic Phenomena: Haunted People, Part 2

Back | Psychic Phenomena: Haunted People, Part 1

So indeed is any first contact with the unexplored world of the psyche. To the sceptic, the whole episode may sound too melodramatic for words, totally unbelievable; and here again one has no scientific proof that the entity we called ‘Mary’ had any existence outside Mrs R’s own consciousness. Even the manifestation of the figure of a woman in the bedroom could have been a projected hallucination, of which we were all victims. But the evidence of the R. family; the testimony of friends and neighbours; the genuine fear which the sensittive Mrs R. exhibited; the intervention of a medium of solid professional reputation-all these things pointed to a not unntypical case of an earthbound entity seeking to be ‘rescued’ from the predicament in which it had found itself.

Mediums and clairvoyants, as well as members of Psychical Research and the Churches Fellowship for Psychical Study, can describe similar incidents; there have been many such cries for assistance.

Although it involved no ‘rescue circle’, a rather similar incident took place some ten years ago. The locale was a bungalow on the County Antrim coast. Again I was told of the manifestation by the person who had attracted the phenomena. A middle-aged woman had suffered a severe illness and she had taken the bungalow for a holiday with her family. Due to the nature of her illness and her subsequent restlessness, she slept alone, her husband occupying another room.

The room the invalid chose overlooked the sea, and was very comfortable as well as affording magnificent views. The rest of the family slept at the back of the house.

The wife retired early the first night and had scarcely got into bed, before she became aware that someone was trying to climb over her and get into the bed. ‘It was a solid body, and I lay petrified,’ she said, ‘I could tell from the limbs, that it was a woman, and she appeared to think that the bed lay in the opposite direction, for she lay across me’.

Needless to say, my informant scuttled out of bed to rouse the family, who clearly believed she had had a nightmare. To pacify her, the husband said he would pass the night in the bedroom. He did so, and also spent the following night there, and reported that nothing untoward had occurred. The woman assumed she had suffered from a nightmare and moved back into the room.

Once again she was forced to leave as, for the second time, ‘someone’ attempted to share the bed with her, and persisted in lying across the bed. Marks on the wall-paper showed that the bed had indeed lain alongside the wall and not with its head to the wall as it stood now. The unseen contendor for the bed, therefore, did not know that the furniture had been rearranged and, more important, the unfortunate woman whose rest was being disturbed could not possibly have known that the bed had been shifted because she had never been in the bungalow before, but, from the first she had insisted the ‘someone’ or ‘something’ had lain across the bed in the manner in which the furniture had originally been placed!

At last they shut up the room and used the rest of the house. There were no other disturbances, except that the wife complained of a sensation of terrible sadness that seemed to affect only her, and seemed to be coming from the seaward side of the house.

One other incident concerned the young son of the house, whose name was David. He came running into the back door of the house one morning, asking whether it was his mother or his grandmother who had called him from the front garden? Neither had left the kitchen or been out of sight of the other in the past hour. David insisted he had heard a woman wailing his name several times. He had crossed the road from the shore to see if he was wanted for a message.

In the meantime the husband had decided to do a little discreet investigation, and discovered two interesting facts:

The previous owner of the bungalow had lost his wife by drowning: Her body had been washed up almost opposite the house. After some weeks of living alone her husband had shut up the house and gone to live elsewhere. The door to the bedroom was always kept locked after the wife’s death and they had had a son called ‘David’ too.

Local people were reluctant to give more than the bare facts of the drowning incident, but one got the impression that there had been contributory causes of a somewhat tragic nature.

When the family returned to Belfast, they got in touch with me and the woman told me her story. She had never been aware of her psychic sensitivity before, and was distressed and upset by what had occurred. One aspect which worried her considerably, and which she had confided to no one, was her awareness of ‘thinking someone elses thoughts’ and an intense feeling of sadness and despair which was totally alien to her own personality. ‘I prayed for that woman,’ she said simply ‘for I felt she needed someone’.

Not all entities of this nature need help or reassurance themselves. Some make themselves known simply to help and comfort those they have left behind, across the barrier we call Death.

A mother told me of the loss of a dearly loved and only child. The child died at the age of four in a car accident, and this will always remain with me as a tender reminder that as the Song of Songs tells us, ‘Love is strong as Death’.

The stark tragedy of such a loss to a loving parent can only be dimly appreciated by an outsider. For months after the accident the grief-stricken mother would find her way to the child’s bedroom, and sit down among the scattered toys that she hadn’t the heart to put away. ‘And always’ she told me in half whisper, ‘always he’d be there. I’d smell a smell like fresh violets and feel his hand touch my face.’ She looked at me for any sign of disbelief on my face, then continued, “It was then I knew I hadn’t really lost John; I’d never really lose him.’

Of the curious and poignant sensations she experienced in her son’s bedroom, she had told no one, not even her husband, afraid,.-as so many people are- that he would smile at her fancies, and that some would-be kind person would try to explain her feeling away in the harsh light of reality and in so doing tear the last shreds of comfort from her. ‘I wonder, will he always be there?’ she asked me after we had sat awhile in silence, and that was a question I couldn’t answer. What I could say with some assurance was that, whether she continued to feel his actual bodily presence or not, her little son would be there for as long as it took Time to heal the Memory to hold back the door; and that John would go on to take his rightful place, leaving behind him not grief but recollection, and love too strong for tears. For in this inexact science of ours, as we probe into these vast and un-chartered realms, we know there is a place where facts end and faith begins.

Taken from “Psychic Phenomena in Ireland” By Sheila St. Clair Published by the Mercier Press
1972 No ISBN.