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Irish Folk Medicine: Colours and Blood

Continuation of Irish Folk Medicine: Transference Cures.


Colours are important in the practice of folk medicine. We all know of the virtues of red flannel. It is widely used to relieve backache. It may also be used to treat whooping cough. In this case it is applied to the chest of the sufferer; and, to have the full effect, it should be put on by the godfather of the patient. A piece of red thread may be tied around a sprain. This is especially useful if nine knots are tied on the thread. Some of you will have seen pieces of red cloth tied on the tails of cattle. This is done to protect them against dangerous fairies or against the evil eye, or against elf shot. Blackleg may be prevented by putting a stitch of red thread through the dewlap of the animal and leaving it in position. In Indo-European mythology red is a colour which resists or expels demons, and clearly these practices are part of this belief.

Yellow is also an important colour, and the use of yellow things to treat jaundice is widespread. The important thing to realise is that jaundice is a dramatic symptom, and in the great majority of cases it clears up satisfactorily. There is a shrewd distinction between the black jaundice which is not curable – it may be due to cancer of the pancreas – and the yellow jaundice which is curable. There is an old legend that if a jaundiced patient sees a yellowhammer, the bird will die and the patient will get better. In Sweden a roasted yellowhammer is eaten by the patient. Here all sorts of yellow flowers are used. Charlock, buttercups, corn marigold and the flowers of the yellow iris. Official medicine also used yellow flowers until the end of the eighteenth century, but, in addition, the patient was also given an emetic and was also purged, bled, and sweated. These measures were most uncomfortable, and probably made the patient worse. This heroic treatment was based on the theory that jaundice was due to obstruction of something somewhere, and the treatment was designed to relieve all obstructions. Here I would include the use of yellow flowers to treat liver fluke infestation in sheep. In addition to the others, yellow wall flowers, and the yellow head of the buachallan may be used. 

Blood is also used in folk medicine, and is another example of pre-christian magic medicine. The best known form of this is the use of Keogh’s blood for treatment of the shingles. A family named Keogh living near Two Mile House, Co. Kildare has this cure, which consists of rubbing some of the blood of the healer on the blisters. People come from all the neighbouring counties to have this cure made.

I have heard of a patient who was admitted to the Co. Hospital in Castlebar to have an infected arm amputated. Whilst there he was told of a woman who had the cure, so he left the hospital and went to her in the mountains of West Mayo. The lady was eighty years old, and said she was too old to make the cure but he persuaded her to try. She took some blood from her arm, mixed it with unsalted butter and dressed the hand with it. The hand healed quickly.

In a primitive society, blood would be thought of as the seat of life. The use of blood was forbidden in the Anglo-Saxon Penitentials. The intention may have been, in the beginning, that the healer shared some of his own life with the sufferer and in this way restored him to health. ‘ 

Continuation of Irish Folk Medicine: Introduction. ; Transference Cures

Published in Teathbha, The Journal of the Longford Historical Society.

Vol II. No. 1. July 1980


Irish Folk Medicine: Transference Cures

Continuation of Irish Folk Medicine: Introduction.

Transference Cures

These are probably the most common of all folk cures. The intention is to pass the disease on usually to a lower animal. Here is an example from Co. Meath. An old lady who thought she knew no Irish, went to visit the child of a neighbour, who had mumps. When she had seen the child she went quietly out to the yard, stood beside the pig sty, and was heard to say to the pig “A mhuic, A mhuic,  chugat an leicneach seo.” A slightly different version from Co. Westmeath is that the person saying the words must stand as tall as possible against the door post.

There are many other such examples, you probably know of the practice of putting the winkers of the donkey on the sufferer and leading him around the pigsty. This is usually used to treat mumps or whooping cough. The patient, wearing the winkers, may also be led to a south-flowing river, where he drinks the water directly from the stream. Another method is to lead him across the stream.

Warts may be treated in many ways; one method is for the patient to pick up pebbles, one for each wart and place them at a cross roads. The intention is that the person who picks up the pebbles will get the warts. Another example of a transference cure for whooping cough – it is only necessary to go to the curer and tell him about the case, and it is cured in this way.

You all know about different methods of treating warts in children. All the different methods may be classified, as washing cures, wasting cures, and transference cures. Here is another transference cure: The sufferer must touch the coat of a man who never saw his father. One may also bring the warts from the sufferer.

Washing may be done, in the water of many holy wells, or in the water found in a hollow in a stone. This is especially efficacious if come upon by the patient when he is not looking for it. Certain wells are famous; one at Clonard Co. Meath, and one at Clonmacnois. The use of forge water will also cure warts but there is a difficulty – the forge water must be stolen. Wasting cures are equally effective. Here the warts may be rubbed with a piece of bacon which must be stolen. A piece of raw meat may also be used, and then it is necessary that the meat be buried in clay. As the meat decays so will the warts. Another type of wasting cure is the use of a black snail to rub the warts. The snail is then impaled on a thorn, and as it shrivels and withers so will the warts.

And here is a method of treating warts in cattle from Lemanaghan in Co. Offaly.
The warts are bathed in the water of the saint’s well. Then some leaves are pulled from a tree beside the well and buried in the earth. As the leaves decay, so will the warts. This one combined both washing and wasting.

In the same neighbourhood there is a method of treating a burn which must be thousands of years old. The last man who had this cure, the late Larry Ruttledge, did not leave it to anyone. The person who wished to acquire the power to heal burns by licking them was told to go to a certain spot where he is likely to find an alp luachra this is the common water newt. He must pick it up and lick its back nine times and put it back on the ground. This had to be repeated on nine successive days and on the ninth day the alp luachra died. When the person seeking the cure returned to the same spot on the following day the dead alp was gone, and he then knew that he had acquired the power in his tongue.

Some other animals may be licked to acquire the power to heal burns. I have heard of frogs and leeches. In all cases the explanation given is that the tongue of the licker has acquired a poison from the animal and this poison is able to overcome the poison in the burn.

The idea of ability to get healing power from a lower animal is very old, and is found in Anglo-Saxon magic medicine. It may be worth mentioning that the Alp Luachra had a day of glory in the history of Irish medicine. On 26th May, 1684, Thomas Molyneux used it to demonstrate the circulation of the blood before the members of the Dublin Philosophical Society – probably the first time it was demonstrated in a reptile.(Minute book of the Society.).

Holy Well Photographs at : St. Gobnait’s, Ballyvourney, Cork ; St. Fintan’s, Cromogue, Laois (Queen’s Co.) ;  7 Holy Well’s, Killeigh, Offaly (King’s Co.)

Published in Teathbha, The Journal of the Longford Historical Society.

Vol II. No. 1. July 1980

Part III: Irish Folk Medicine: Colours and Blood

Irish Folk Medicine: Introduction

Published in Teathbha, The Journal of the Longford Historical Society.
Vol II. No. 1. July 1980



In the summer of 1939, I came home, radiating the glory of a newly acquired M.B. One Sunday afternoon, I was alone, a man called to see my mother. He was looking for a burn plaster, which she made, and clearly was not interested in my skill or lack of it. The plaster consisted of four parts by weight of mutton suet, and one part of bees wax. The fat was melted in a double saucepan and all the fibrous tissue removed. The bees’ wax was then added and blended smoothly with the fat. Strong linen bandages were then soaked in the liquid mixture, removed and allowed to harden. When required, one, two, or three thicknesses of the bandage are used to cover the bUrn, bandaged in position and must not be removed for the usual nine days. This is an excellent method of treating a burn. It provides a closed dressing and the high melting point of the mutton fat will ensure that the dressing will not be messy.

During the same summer, I heard of a young man who was suffering from sciatica.
He had consulted a lady who lived near where counties Louth, Meath, and Monaghan meet – some of her power was due to the place she lived – and was advised that the best treatment was bleeding. I was ignorant and proud and refused to bleed the lad, and I never got another chance. Later I learned that bleeding was advised as a treatment for sciatica in a famous medieval text book the Rosa Anglim, which was written by John of Gaddesden in the fourteenth century, and was very popular in mediaeval Irelande. (Rosa Anglica: Irish version Ed. W. Wulf. I.T.S.)

But my most enlightened case was that of a stout lady about 65 years old, a close friend of my family who complained of a severe pain in her right arm radiating down from her shoulder. I made the correct diagnosis – the pain was caused by pressure on the nerve roots as they came out of the spinal canal – and prescribed an analgesic. Unfortunately for the patient, and for me, the pain was not relieved, so her husband consulted a lady who made the cure. She applied a poultice, made of the leaves of Ranuculus Falamula. which had been macerated to the painful area. This is a powerful counter irritant and gave the patient considerable relief. Great blisters formed on the skin, and this was seen as removing water from the arm: the water was believed to be the cause of the pain. When the blisters began to dry up, the raw surface was treated with a preparation of “the healing ‘erb”. I was able to identify it as the slán lus, probable ribwort, and it soothed the tender surface of the arm. I must add that the lady’s husband was a gentleman, he gave me a Wedgwood vase and never again mentioned the case.

These few experiences taught me that Folk Medicine was a suitable subject for investigation, and I have been collecting and studying it ever since.

Folk medicine is a strange mixture. It can only be collected piecemeal, and in any collection cures will be found which are thousands of years old and others which are of the twentieth century. I propose to duscuss some of my own collection and show you some forms of treatment which are thousands of years old and go back to the Indo-European origin of the race. These practices include such things as transferring the disease, to the earth, to water, to a lower animal, or to another person. Some forms of treatment are recently derived from official medicine. Examples of these are the use of Carbon-tetra-chloride to treat liver fluke in sheep and the use of mercury ointment to treat some skin diseases.

Let me begin with a pilgrimage which I have made to a holy well in my native parish. The well is dedicated to St. Brigid, and the most popular day was of course the first of February, but it could be made on other days and was believed to cure toothache, headache, or sore eyes. Also the pilgrimage might be made on behalf of someone else. As one approached an old graveyard the rosary was said. The pilgrim then walked righthand three times around three ancient trees, saying some prayers. He then knelt before what was believed to be the face
of St. Brigid carved on a stone, where he prayed, and might leave some money or a few eggs.
When the stone was cleaned some years ago, it was found to be a corbel and the face had a beard.
It was, presumably from the medieval church. The pilgrim then walked along a lane, and across
three fields, to St. Brigid’s well where he again prayed, walked around the well three times,
righthand and drank some of the water.

These practices of walking righthand, around trees and wells, as well as the offering of eggs – the first fruits of the year – are all derived from the pre-christian religion of the Irish. I understand that similar practices around trees and wells can be seen in many parts of India as well as in some European countries. This is not to condemn such practices, which I would not presume to do, but to point out their origin.

Another very ancient practice is the use of clay to treat diseases. The earth was thought to be the great healer and the great source of life. In Connemara there is a striking cure for a disease called fiolun. Fiolun in the annals probably means the enlarged suppurating glands seen in bubonic plague and at present means any chronic ulcer. A synonym given for fiolun was lot. The sufferer was put into a hole and covered completely with clay – this was stressed.

More usually the clay was collected from special places and used as treatment. In the Parish of Templeport, in Co. Cavan, pilgrims visit St. Mogue’s Island and bring back some of the Saint’s clay. The clay has wonderful powers – it protects against fire and wind, and also cures sore eyes.

In the parish of Kilronan, pilgrims visit the well dedicated to St. Lassair. They drink the water from the well and some prayers are said. The clay is collected and taken home to be used to heal all sorts of diseases. Some pilgrims may crawl under the Saint’s flagstone, in order to be cured of back ache. A late life (or a late copy- of St. Lassair, written by an O’Duignan, a local scribe, describes the healing miracles of the Saint and the wonderful powers of the water of her well.(Eriu Volume V., p.73 et ff).

Two other more modern versions of the power of clay, may be given, also from the diocese of Ardagh. In the ruins of the Friary at Drumahaire, the grave of a Father Peter MacGovern is visited, and clay from his grave is used to heal diseases. Similarly the grave of Fr. John MacKeon, in the old graveyard at Kiltoghert, is visited and clay is taken to cure diseases. Cures similar to these, burying, passing under, or through holes in stones, and the use of clay, are found in the folk medicine of all the countries of western Europe.

Part II: Irish Folk Medicine: Transference Cures

The Wren Boys (Part II)

This is the day on which “the Wran-Boys” go their rounds. For a day or two previously the wren has been hunted over with stick or stone. Two or three of them are tied to a branch torn from a holly bush, which is decorated with coloured ribbons. On St. Stephans Day small parties of young boys carry one of these bushes about the country, and visit houses along the road, soliciting coin or eatables. At each house, they come to, the repeat a verse or two of a ‘song’ which commences:-

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze;
Though his body is small, his family is great,
So, if you please, your honour, give us a treat.

On Christmas Day I turned a spit;
I burned my finger: I feel it yet.
Up with the kettle, and down with the pan;
Give me some money to bury the wren.”

The song varies in different localities, but all versions appear disjointed, and in no way refer to St. Stephen’s Day, nor to the object of killing the wren.

In some cases, the wren-boys carry round little toy birds on a decorated bier, and they themselves have ribbons and coloured pieces of cloth pinned to their clothes.

If they receive no welcome at a house and are told to “be of out of that,” there is the danger of their burying one of the wrens opposite the hall-door, through which no luck would then enter for a twelvemonth. Eventually, at the end of the day, each wren is buried with a penny.

The origin of this custom is very doubtful, and as a rule, the old people cannot account for it except that they carried round the wren when they were ‘gossoons’ (young lads). One theory is that when the Danes were in Ireland, the Irish on a certain occasion had planned a night attack on their camp; they were silently creeping forward, and had, unperceived by the Danes’ sentries, reached to almost charging distance, when a flock of “scooter-wrens,” which had been disturbed and had flown on in front of them, lit on some drums ear the sentries, who were asleep, and by their twitters of alarm and their hopping about, awoke the sentries, who perceived their danger, and so aroused the camp in time to drive off the Irish with heavy loss.

Other versions of this tale place the date with the discomfiture of the Irish, from the same cause, at the time the Jacobites were endeavouring to withstand William III and his Orangemen in 1690.

Note: From The Journal of the Kildare Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. V., 1906-1908. Customs peculiar to certain days, formerly observed in County Kildare.

The Wren Boys (Part I)

“St. Stephen’s his day” is a red-letter event in the canaille calendar of Cork and neighbourhood. When the “wran-boys,” as they are locally termed, have captured a wren, the luckless bird is borne through the streets in a sort of triumphal progress, secured in a bush of holly or other evergreen, which is usually garnished with streamers of coloured ribbons, or variegated papers, according to the resources of tile exhibitors. In early morning the city resounds with the din of the wren-boys (which term, by the way, embraces matured manhood), who are making a house to house visitation, singing at each halt a chant, something as follows:-

“Mr. Blank is a worthy man,
And to his house we’ve brought the wran;
The wran, the wran that you may see
Is uarded by the holly-tree.

Sing holly, sing ivy, sing ivy, sing holly,
To keep a had Christmas it is but a folly;
For Christmas comes but once a year,
And when it comes it brings good cheer.

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen’s his Day was cot in the furze;
And though he is little, his family’s great,
So arise, good lady, and give us a trate.
Sing holly, sing ivy, etc.

Yet if you do fill it of the small,
It will not do for our boys at all;
But if you fill it of the best,
We hope in heaven your soul may rest.
Sing holly, sing ivy, etc.

This lyric, with its refrain, is long drawn out, and as its aim is the acquisition of largesse, the ballad does not fail to make eulogistic reference to the good cheer provided by the worthy master and mistress of the house, and their high reputation for hospitality during the festive season. Richard Dowden, mayor of Cork in I845, issued a proclamation during his mayoralty forbidding, on the score of cruelty, “the hunting of the little bird on St. Stephen’s day by all the idle fellows of the country,” a precedent which has never been followed by any of his successors in the civic chair. The origin of this brutal custom is not known. Professor Ridgeway, writing to the Academy, suggested the theory that the death of the wren symbolizes the death of winter; other correspondents of the same journal traced analogy between the Cork wren-boys and the Rhodian swallow-boys and the crow-boys of ancient Greece who went around with similar begging- songs. Goldsmith, while dealing elaborately with the superstitions connected with other birds, does not notice the custom ill his brief article on the wren; but the English General Vallancey, who spent a considerable time in Cork and the neighbourhood, and became an enthusiastic student of the Irish language and archaeology, asserts that the Druids regarded the wren as a sacred bird, which caused the early Christian missionaries to place it under ban, and issue an edict for its extermination. Windele, the Cork antiquary, however, assures us that Vallancey “dreamt things as visionary, and disported ill fancies as wild and incongruous, as any of the Irish Keatinges or O’Hallorans who had preceded him.” Another origin of the wren-slaughter is advanced in Hall’s “Ireland,” which contains a sketch of the St. Stephen’s Day ceremony by the distinguished Cork painter, Maclise. “ As to the origin of the whimsical but absurd and cruel custom,” writes Mr. Hall, “we have no data. A legend, however, is still current among the peasantry which may serve in some degree to elucidate it. In a grand assembly of all the birds of the air, it was determined that the sovereignty of the feathered tribe should be conferred upon the one who would fly highest. The favourite in the betting-book was, of course, the eagle, who at once, and in full confidence of victory, commenced his flight towards the sun; when he had vastly distanced all competitors, he proclaimed ill a mighty voice his monarchy over all things that had wings. Suddenly, however, the wren, who had secreted himself under the feathers Of the eagle’s crest, popped from his hiding-place, flew a few inches upwards and chirped out as loudly as he could, “Birds, look up, and behold your king.” In other parts of Ireland it seems the wren and robin find special favour. Mr.Watters of the Dublin University Zoological Society, asserts in his “Birds of Ireland” that the most heartless youngster who indulges in “practical ornithology” with the eggs and young of other birds, regards the redbreast as too sacred to be molested. “Wild and untutored,” he writes “ask him his reasons for allowing it to remain in safety, and in many parts of Ireland you are simply answered:
“The robin and the wren
Are God’s two holy men.”

Apparently a local variant of’ the Lancashire folk-rhyme:
“Cock Robin and Jenny Wren
Are God Almighty’s Cock and Hen.”

In view of the fine Corsican spirit in which the wren is annually done to death in the South of Ireland vendetta, it is needless to say that the rustic rhyme quoted by the Dublin ornithologist has no place ill the bird-lore of these parts. Nor does the pretty fiction of the robins forming a coverlet of leaves for the dead Babes in the Wood, so generally potent for their protection elsewhere, invest them with any peculiar sanctity in the eyes of the average Cork person.

Note: Taken from the Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society, 1894, Vol. III, p. 22.

Shrewd Observation and Wisdom

Written by Henry Morris.

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 th “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 Columcill’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 (Louth Archaeological & Historical Society) 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.

Note: Published as: “Some Irish Superstitions”. Journal of the Louth Archaeological & Historical Society, ?1917(pp 365-368).

Piltown Parish, Co. Kilkenny, 1874

1. Fidhuin – Fiddown, as the word is usually pronounced, means “The Wood of the Moat or Fortress.” The moat from which the name is derived is still to be seen to the north-west of the site where an old monastery stood. Of this monastery itself not the slightest vestige remains. It may be remarked that a very curiously sculpted holy water vase was found on the site of this monastery and that this vase is now used for its old purpose at Piltown.

Midui Mac Midgna is commemorated as Patron of Fidown (Martyrology of Tallagh). His feast is 23rd of March. Momedoc is another Patron whose feastday is May 18th (Martyrology of Donegal). Another is also Dothemnach; feast Oct. 1st.

Sir John Ponsonby, founder of the Bessborough family, is buried in the modern Protestant church of Fiddown. He was born in 1608 and died 1668. There is a monument to Father Denn who died in 1618. The Denns had a castle near the old monastery of Fiddown, of which townsland they were the owners. There is a monument in the church, or rather a slab, with an inscription in raised Gothic letters. The inscription runs thus “Hic sunt monumenta Edmundi Dalton, generosi de Cloncunney et Johana Denn………&c.

2. Tybroughny – Here there is a very ancient church, built in the Cyclopean fashion, having no interior division. Its patron is Modhomnog, whose feast is 13th February. There is also a holy well and the base of a beautifully-sculptured ancient Irish cross, with a stone having what is popularly believed to be the print of the saint’s knees impressed upon it.

3. Kilonerry – in Irish Kyleonessa. The old church and burial ground have totally disappeared. There are, however, a holy well, and a stone hollowed like a dish, which hollow is popularly believed to be the print of St. Patrick’s knees. There is also (according to the same popular belief) the print of one of the saint’s hands. Probably a St. Nessa was the patron, as there are many Irish saints of that name. There is a great cromelagh and cave a few yards to the east of the church. No memory of a ‘Pattern Day’.

4. White Church or TeaumpleGall. There are no vestiges of the ancient church, but a modern one has been built on its site. No old tombs, crosses or the like remain. There is however, a holy well called “Tubber Maura”, that is St. Mary’s well. It is to the west of the site of the old church, which church stood on a mound, and it is remarked that the earth is black in and around the site of it, which peculiarity arises from the fact that great numbers were buried there. The field in which the church stood is called ‘Parc-na-Teaumple’, that is to say ‘Field of the Church.’ A little to the east of this church is a huge cromleach, which St. Patrick is said to have thrown down with his crosier. There is an artificial cave near it, about thirty yards long, running in a zig zag direction.

5. Kilmacoliver. On the summit of Kilmacoliver Hill is a curious burial ground, whether pagan or Christian is hard to say. Near it, on the same hill, are curious figures cut into a large granite block. This block of stones, or rather this stone (for the figures are cut on only one) is looked on with great veneration by the people of the surrounding districts. In the valley under Kilmacoliver Hill stands the old ruined church of Kilkieran. Unfortunately the ruins have been much mutilated by the Osbornes of Kilmacoliver, who have erected on its site a family mausoleum. There are, however, a holy well and three most beautiful old Irish crosses in an almost perfect state. They were taken down at one time and somewhat injured, but they were put up again with great taste and judgement. The restoration was effected at the expense of the late Mrs. Walsh, of Fanningstown, and was superintended by the late good P.P. of Tullaroan, Rev. Matthew Brennan. There are also fragments of other ancient crosses in the old burial ground. The ‘pattern’ day is the Sunday before the feast of St. Michael, September 29th, which makes me think that St. Kieran of Clonmacnoise is the patron, for, according to the old style of dates, his feast would fall on the 21st of September, and his ‘pattern’ therefore would be held on the following Sunday. This corresponds exactly with the tradition amongst the people.

6. Ooning or Owning. There are there a holy well, and a very find old church, with its walls still standing almost uninjured. It was well built, and had a nave and a chancel. The barges of the gable are of cut stone. There are no old monuments; but there is a very ancient yew-tree now almost decayed. The Blessed Virgin is patroness; feast 15th August. Tradition tells that the church derived its name from Ona Walsh who founded it.

7. Kilmanahan. It means the church of St. Manahan, whence too, Kilmainham near Dublin. A parish in the barony of Granycastle, King’s County, is dedicated to this saint and called Lemanahan. His shrine is stil preserved, and was long in possession of a Mr. Cooke, of Birr, who exhibited it in Dublin at the great exhibition in 1853. His feast is on the 24th January. The remains of St. Manahan’s church, and also his well, are in a field about half a mile or so from Ooning. Nothing about the church, except merely its site, can now be known, as it is entirely cleared away. There is a fine old hawthorn near the holy well.

8. Tubbernabrone. There is here a very good well, with a great flow of water from it. Near too there was a moat, afterwards carried off to repair roads; also a holy well called ‘Tubbercailleeheen’ ‘The well of the little nun,’ famous for curing sore eyes. Its water gushed through an opening made in a stone which is fastened like a quern. Two more quern stones were found near it. The name is Irish is ‘well of the mill, or quern stones’

9. Kildalton or ‘Dalton’s Church’ gave name to the townsland now called Bessborough. In the front of the present mansion, to the right from the hall door its site now occupied by stables) stood the church of Kildalton. It was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. A great quantity of human bones was dug up when laying the foundation of the stables. Several fine monuments too were there; one only now remains, having a beautiful floriated cross carved in relief on it, but it is greatly damaged. The inscription runs thus: “Hic jacet Reddemundus……….mensis Febrii et Ellena Butler uxor jus quo………….pateus Sta Phe plora, suum quod eris…..quis quis es…..Thomas Otwae fecit hoc.” The name effaced after Reddeuundus was evidently Dalton. There are two small effigies of men in armour, one bearing the shield of Walsh. In connection with Kildalton, I may remark that Dr. William Dalton, Bishop of Ossory, and Rector of Kilkenny College in the reign of King James the Second, was son of Redmond Dalton, of Kildalton, now called Bessborough. He was forced into exile in 1698 and died in 1711. His sister was abbess of the royal convent of St. Dennis near Paris. He had relations in the French military service. His niece Anne Dalton, died in Thomastown in 1806 in her 80th year, and is buried with her father, Redmond Dalton, of Kildalton. In this connection, too, I may remark that the name Dalton was usually written Daton in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ‘l’ being mute in Norman-French names. The country people follow the old rule, and always pronounce it ‘Dawton’. Some pronounce it Daton, which appears not correct.

10. Templeorum, rightly Templeoran from Odhran, whose feast is 27th October. This saint is thought to be the patron. There is a holy well somewhat changed out of its original position by a man who was named M’Grath, and who was marked by ill-luck, therefore, it is said. Not a vestige of the ancient church remains; its site is occupied by the modern chapel. There was a ‘pattern day’ celebrated in former times, but th ecustom has long since been given up. Father Lalor – who composed the elegy on Father Kavanagh P.P. of Ballyragget is interred in the graveyard of Templeorum. Just outside the graveyard there stood a castle of the Walshes, concerning which is a curious legend, which I have not space to speak of here.

11. Mullenbeg – a townland adjoining Templeorum – had in it an ancient little church called ‘Teaumple Illan or Illam’. There are two Illaduns or Illans, in the callandars of Tallagh, and the Martyrology of Donegal. One is 10th June; the other 2nd February. People tell that they saw persons buried in this church. The site of the church is now converted to a garden and yields rich cabbage to a farmer named Shea. I forget whether or not there is a holy well.

Near Templeorum, about a mile to the south-east in a lonely spot is the foundation of a chapel, made use of in the time of persecution. It is called ‘Chapel-na-gour’ that is ‘The Chapel of the Goats’ the site of it being much frequented by these animals in former times.

12. Kilmour – the church here has totally disappeared, even its foundation being altogether taken away. There is no account of a patron, or means to determine to which of the Moaedougrs or Moegeues it was dedicated. There is a very beautiful holy well. No traditions.

13. Macullee Old Church dedicated to St. Canice, stands in the townland of Milltown. It was well built, but is now almost entirely ruined. It has a beautiful gothic door of cut stone, now shaken. No old monuments. There is a holy well famous for curing chest complaints, coughs, consumption &c. The pattern or pilgramage began at the moat of Milltown. In the same townland there is another holy well called ‘Tubber-na-Clogeen” or the “well of the little bell”. I cannot say why, but it is famous for curing sore eyes. On a hawthorn are usually seen votive offerings of rags &c., a thing usual in Ireland.

As supplementary to my notes of the ancient church of Piltown parish I will add the following:-
In Glenbower, in a lonely, yet lovely spot, are seen the marks of St. Patrick’s knees, crozier &c., imprinted on a stone. Near it is “Closh-an-affron” the “pit of the Mass” where Mass used to be celebrated in the days of persecution. It is well worth a visit. A very intelligent old man named Carey, saw the walls or part of the old church in Mullenbeg, called Teaumple Illan. He knew two persons named Neil to be buried there. The holy well at Kilnamanahan is called “Tubber-na-Teaumple”.

Fiddown – Among its patrons is reckoned Dotemnach, 1st October. Mialbran, abbot of Fiddown, died 980. Donnegall, abbot of Fiddown died 944. Colman, Bishop and Abbott of Fiddown, died 1073. Coillacassi Osraigheah died an abbot of Fiddown. These dates I take from the Annals of the Four Masters.

In the days of persecution, a Rector of Fiddown, named Shaw, concealed and strove to protect a priest, but was himself hunted to death in his own house.

Dr. M. Cox, Archbishop of Cashel, lived in Castletown house and had Father Lanigan P.P. of Piltown, a fewquent guest at his table. Rev. Mr. Lanigan died in 1770, and is buried in Owning. I give the date from memory, having no note of it. These two facts I think worthy of record.

Note: This description of the ecclesiastical sites of Piltown parish, its customs and some people was written in 1874.

PAROCHIAL PAPERS – By Very. Rev. Canon Moore, P.P.
(1) Thomastown (2) Rosbercon (3) Piltown (4) Johnstown
Published in the Transactions of the Ossory Archaeological Society, 1874, pp. 23-41

Birth and Babies

Conception could be prevented if an enemy tied a knot in a handkerchief at the time of marriage; no child would be born to that couple until the knot was loosed.

A pregnant woman had to avoid meeting a hare otherwise her child would be born with a hare-lip (séanas). If the woman on meeting the hare tore the hem of her clothes, she transferred the blemish to it, or, if she could catch the hare and tear it’s ear she could prevent the hare-lip.

A pregnant woman shouldn’t enter a graveyard in case she twisted her foot on a grave, then the child would be born with a clubfoot (cam reilge).

Pregnant women should not remain in a house while a corpse was being placed in the coffin, nor act as sponsor to a bride.

A child born after its father had died was destined to have special powers.

A child born at night would have the power of seeing ghosts and fairies; but one born on Sunday, at twelve noon or twelve midnight any day, or between twelve noon and twelve midnight would not have this power.

Whit Sunday was regarded as an unlucky time to be born; such a person would either be killed, or else was destined to kill; a live worm was crushed in such a baby’s hand soon after birth to make sure it would not kill.

Animals or humans born on May Day were said to be assured of good luck.

It was not considered a lucky omen to have three persons born in any house on the same month.

The fairies (Fairies – poem)were always trying to take away new born babies or nursing mothers, so there were customs to prevent this happening:
A cloth exposed on the eve of St. Brigid’s feast day was lucky and used on the mother and child. Oatmeal was given to the mother when the baby had been born, a piece of iron or a cinder (aingeal) concealed in the baby’s dress; the tongs placed across the cradle; unsalted butter was placed in the baby’s mouth; or a red ribbon was tied across the cradle.

Holy water was, of course, in later times regarded as the stongest method of preserving both mother and child.

Any woman in child-bed and babies who ailed and wasted away after a while, had been taken by the fairies who had left sickly changelings behind in their stead.

Children who died un-baptised were not buried in consecrated ground in olden times. In many parishes, there were special places, known as cillínigh (little graveyards – children’s burial grounds), for such burials, the little bodies were also laid to rest at boundaries, in the north side of graveyards or in any of several other places. Some of these are shown on the 6 inch ordnance survey maps of Ireland. (See O’Sullivan on the burial of Children. J.R.S.A.I. 1939.)

Stories are told, of deceased children returning later to meet the soul of their mother when she too died – the baptised children appeared as strong clear lights, while the un-baptised ones shone weakly.

Cathal Crovederg or “Charles of the Red Hand”

The ruins of Ballintober Castle are amongst the most magnificent in Connaught, and are memorable as the last strong- hold of the O’Conors. The castle, which stands on an elevated ridge by the road-side, above the little village of Ballintober, four miles from the town of Castlebar, consists of a quadrangular inclosure, 270 feet in length, and 230 feet in breadth, with four flanking towers, and one upon each side of the great entrance, the whole surrounded by a deep fosse, portions of which still retain water. Mr. Weld has remarked upon the strong resemblance which the towers of this castle bear to some of those in Wales. “No one tower, it is true,” he says, “is comparable to the Eagle Tower at Caernarvon. Nevertheless, the south-west tower at Ballintober is a superb piece of architecture, and, for its general effect, amongst the most imposing remains of antiquity that I can call to recollection in Ireland.” There are two localities of this name in Connaught: Baile-an-tobhair-Phaidraig, the town of the Well of St. Patrick, in Mayo, and Baile-an-tobhair-Brighde, that of St. Bridget, now under consideration.

This place is, among other things, memorable as the birth-place of the celebrated Cathal Crovederg, or “Charles the Red-Handed,” the illegitimate son of Turlough-More O’Conor, the brother of Roderick, and last of the Irish monarchs. About this prince, who was born in the latter end of the twelfth century, – and who, says the Ulster Annals, was “the best Irishman, from the time of Brien Boroma, for gentility and honour; the upholder, mighty and puissant, of the country; keeper of peace; rich and excellent,” there are many romantic tales and superstitious legends, still lingering with the people in the vicinity, which, were they woven into a novel, would far surpass most modern works of fiction. When we have a novelist not only acquainted with Irish history and antiquities, but possessing the power of fusing the ancient legend with the drama of modern life and impulse; making the feelings that influence the lover or the hero subservient to the chronicle; picturing the part, through the knowledge of the human heart at the present-then, and then only will Irish history be known and appreciated.

Cathal of the Red Hand was the son of a beautiful girl of very small stature, named Gearrog Ny-Moran, of the Muhall territory. When the queen heard what had occurred, she, like Sarah of old, commenced a bitter persecution against the king’s mistress, and had, as was customary at the time, recourse to witchcraft and Sorcery to prolong the sufferings of the unhappy maiden. Like Juno, before the birth of Hercules, she, with the assistance of a noted witch, set a charm, consisting of a bundle of elder rods, tied with a magic string, knotted with nine knots. This she hung up in her chamber and watched with great care. Stratagem, however, achieved what humanity could not induce. The queen, while walking on the terrace, was accosted by a female (the midwife disguised), who entreated alms for a poor women who had just been confined in the neighbouring village. On hearing who it was, she was so enraged, that she instantly rushed to her apartment, and cut the charm into pieces. The spell was broken, and the bond-woman’s child was born.

For several years after, the people protected Gearrog and her son from the jealous fury of the queen; and both were long harboured in the monasteries of Connaught. As time wore on, however, the Church was insufficient against the wrath of the offended queen, and Cathal was obliged to fly to a distant province, where, in the garb of a peasant, he supported himself by manual labour. At length the King of Connaught died; and the people declared they would have no monarch but his son, Cathal Crovederg, if he could be found. Heralds were sent forth, and proclamations issued, according to the fashion of the times, yet still no tidings of the elected king. One day, as harvest was drawing to its close, a Bollscaire, or herald, from the Court of Ballintober, entered a field in Leinster, where some of the peasantry were at work reaping rye, and told the oft-repeated tale of the missing monarch of Connaught. Cathal, who was among the reapers, heard the story, and stood for some minutes lost in reverie. He then, removing the cover with which he always concealed the mark, held up the red hand, and throwing down the reaping-hook, exclaimed- “Slan leath a corrain anois do’n cloideam” -i.e., “Farewell, sickle; now for the sword!” The Bollscaire recognizing him, both he, and the men who were along with him in the field, prostrated themselves before him, and proclaimed him King of Connaught. He was afterwards crowned at Carnfree, near Tulsk, by the chieftains and the coorbs of Sil-Murray, and “Cathal’s Farewell to the Rye” is a proverb and an air still well known in Roscommon and Galway.

From Wilde’s Superstitions of Ireland.

The Brehon Laws

Law was important in public and private life in ancient Ireland and the native legal system was in existence before the ninth century. The Danish, Anglo-Normans and English managed to disturb the native laws somewhat, but the Brehon Laws continued to be used till fully abolished in the seventeenth century.

In Ireland a judge was called a ‘brehon’ and so the native Irish law is known as the “Brehon Law”: but its proper designation is Fénechas i.e. the law of the Féine or Féne, or free land-tillers.

In the very early days every file or poet was also a brehon or judge and it is believed that the laws were written in verse. In later years then become a brehon a person had to go through a regular, well-defined course of study or training. A man who had been through this could set up as a brehon or a judge proper, a consulting lawyer, an advocate or a law-agent. A brehon also qualified as a shanachie or historian and the profession was held by a family through generations.

In very early times the brehon was regarded as a mysterious half-inspired person, and he could not deviate from justice. “”When the brehons deviated from the truth of nature there appeared blotches upon their cheeks.””

The brehons were a very influential class of men. Some were attached to chiefs and had free lands for their maintenance, which, like the profession itself, remained in the family for generations. Those not so attached lived simply on the fees of their profession and many eminent brehons became wealthy. The brehon’s fee (fola) was one twelfth, of the property in dispute, or of the fine in the case of an action for damages. He had to be very careful because he was accountable for his own mistakes.

The legal rules set forth in the Law Books were commonly very complicated and mixed up with a variety of technical terms; and many forms had to be gone through and many circumstances taken into account, all legally essential; so that no outsider could hope to master their intricacies. The brehons had the absolute interpretation of the laws in their hands. These law collections were all written in the oldest Irish dialect called the Bérla Feini, and this was so difficult that even some of those destined to become brehons had to be specially instructed in the language.

O’Donovan and Curry, two Irish scholars translated the laws in 5 printed volumes and it took them a life time to do this. The translation is not perfect.

From ‘A Social History of Ancient Ireland’, P. W. Joyce, Vol, I, 1913:

The Brehon Code formed a great body of civil, military and criminal law. It regulated the various ranks of society, from the king down to the slave, and it enumerated their several rights and privileges. It was was treason for English settlers to use the Brehon Code. English settlers living outside the Pale abandoned their own law and adopted the Brehon Code, to which they became quite as much attached to it as the Irish themselves, this included those of all classes. The Anglo-Irish lords of those times commonly kept brehons at their service in the same way as the native Irish chiefs. Even the Butlers, who of all the great Anglo-Irish families were least inclined to imitate the Irish adopted this Irish custom.