Category Archives: Irish Customs

Psychic Phenomena: Haunted People, Part 1

Most of us are familiar with incidents involving haunted houses, but, perhaps we are not so aware of the fact that it is often not so much the house as the person inside it who attracts the psychic manifestation.

Why do some people seem to have this power to attract phenomona? The question has always fascinated me. Is it because, whether conscious of their psychic sensitivity or not, they give off some form of sympathetic rediation causing them to become ‘psychic transmitters’? This degree of awareness and their power to evoke manifestations will of course vary from case to case.

Take the classic example of poltergeist activity in a house where a young person is living. Owing to adolescence and the unstable factors in his undeveloped psyche, such a young person might evoke formidable phenomena that might be quite senseless in their content. In another case the phenomonen, taking its cue from another sensitive, might be restrained and even beautiful in its demonstration. Now and then the other end of the scale, it could become the nightmare expression of a personality possessed by a powerful discarnate entity who would turn life into a waking hell.

This was the case with Mrs R … of Belfast. Three years ago I was called on to investigate a series of incidents in which she figured. Thanks to a telephone call from a journalist friend of mine I found myself wending my way across the city one dreary winter night. I arrived at a modern terrace house, the home of the woman who earlier in the day rung my friend in a state of restrained hysteria. A frightened and distraught woman whose home and very life had been ‘taken over’ by some unseen and menacing presence.

We were greeted by Mrs R … and her engineer husband, who having installed us in front of a blazing fire, proceeded to give us a blow-by-blow account of what had happened. Having arrived from England only a month before, the family had installed themselves very happily in their newly built home. It was in every respect ideal; close to Mr R’s work, school, and transport. Everything was normal for the first three weeks; then Mrs R … became aware that she was no longer alone in the house, after the others had gone out to work or school. At first she described it as merely ‘a feeling’ as though someone standing behind her. Then she began to feel a hand on her shoulder, and a distinct presence that followed her from room to room.

‘At first I thought it was my nerves,’ she said, ‘being away from home, and alone all day. But then I began to hear a voice; it spoke to me and called me by name, and I somehow got the feeling it was in terrible trouble.’

Mrs R … told me that she began feeling a great sense of sadness and misery, and other sensations and emotions totally foreign to her. As each day went by the unseen visitor made its presence felt more and more. Life became a nightmare. Mrs. R … knew neither sleep nor peace. At night the entity would come to her and wake her, and the children began to complain of seeing a shadowy figure in the bedroom. By day mysterious noises were heard, and objects were moved about. The modern light fittings began to behave in an extraordinary fashion switches were clicked into the ‘on’ position before the bewildered eyes of family and friends alike. Mr. R … , knew a great deal about electrical installation, examined the circuits and wiring, but found everything in order and could offer no satisfactory explanation for the manifestations he himself had witnessed.

After about three weeks of these occurrances, a friend told Mrs R…. of my research work, and, through another journalist, she was put in touch with me. We discussed the whole situation that first evening, but could think of no reason for the manifestation. Two isolated incidents occurred while we were there. Both my colleague and myself heard a distinct knocking on the front door. The husband also heard it but not Mrs R… The door was opened but there was no one there. Later my friend remarked that we could feel an area of cold between him and myself, and within a minute Mrs R … said in a very frightened voice, ‘It’s here! I can feel it’. We saw nothing, but we could see how frightened our hostess was.

Later Mrs R…. was to refer to the presence as ‘her’, and was quite convinced that it was female. The hand she felt on her shoulder was quite solid, she told us; young and soft like a girl’s hand. Feeling rather worried and helpless at my inabillity to help the frightened woman, I came away saying I would return later in the week. Then, I hoped, I could bring some help for the unhappy household.

An examination of the plan of the estate showed that, prior to the erection of the modern terrace houses, in one of which the R’s…’ lived, an old house had stood on the site. Nothing of moment had happened here; no crimes or incidents during the Troubles; no murder or any other violent incident had been reported in the area.

During the next fortnight I became a frequent visitor to Mrs R….. as the ghostly manifestations became more pronounced. The entity now communicated with Mrs R…. and told her its name was ‘May’ or ‘Mary’, and that it was afraid. It repeatedly urged Mrs R…. to pray for her, or alternatively asked for a priest. Mrs. R…. was not a Catholic, and as she was a stranger to the district, I undertook to locate the priest of the parish and, having explained the circumstances, to ask his help.

I explained my mission and my professional interest on helping the family. To my surprise the Reverend gentleman treated me with a degree of rudeness and arrogance that was far from my definition of Christian charity. In the conversation the only practical suggestion he saw fit to make was that Mrs. R … needed a head doctor, and so did I. As for the unhappy and disconsolate ‘Mary’ – well, the good father obviously considered that his cure of souls did not extend into that dimension. Let the entity shift for itself!

Fortunately, I found less orthodox but more understanding aid, in the shape of a local medium und her husband who were only too delighted to help.

After a long and trying session in Mrs R’….s bedroom, ‘Mary’ was persuaded to materialize and the medium extracted the whole pathetic story. It appears that ‘Mary’ had lived in the big house that had once occupied the ground where the new estate now stood. A dutiful, if fearful daughter of a father who, as she described him, must have been an unbending, bullying relic of Victorian repression. Eventually her father died, and ‘Mary’ herself had died soon afterwards, while still in her early twenties. She had hated and feared her father in life and she explained that she was frightened of meeting him in death.

This was why she had stayed close to the physical area she had known when alive, a tragic earthbound spirit, lonely and afraid. With the coming of the R….. family, she had felt a bond of sympathy between her and Mrs. R….. so she had clung to the only real friend she had ever known.

After long and difficult explanations, Mary was persuaded to leave her friend Mrs R….. alone, and strengthened by the prayers and heartfelt sympathy of the assembled company, she seemed happy to do so, her fears in part, at least, assuaged.

From that moment Mrs R. had no more problems, and shortly afterwards the whole family returned to England. I heard nothing more, but did ‘Mary’ keep her promise and leave the family alone, or did she follow them to another land?

Perhaps the most touching part of the story was Mrs. R’s…. insistence that neither I nor the medium should do anything to hurt ‘Mary’. ‘She came to me for help’, she insisted, ‘and I don’t want the poor lonely soul upset or frightened any more.’ A very heartwarming response from a woman who had suffered a great deal and feared at times for her sanity as a result of ‘Mary’s’ cries for help.

A curious, and to the uniniated, frightening experience!

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.

Forward | Psychic Phenomena: Haunted People, Part 2

Irish Fishermen Craftsmen, Customs and Superstitions

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

The Fisherman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Farmer: Irish Folk Custom and Belief

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

The Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Irish Customs.

Good Luck Charms in Foundations, Co. Monaghan

Items were buried in the foundations of the house and these were of two kinds: religious or superstitious. The main place for burial was under the foundation stone of a house. A new coin with the date of the year in which the house was built was the most favoured. A coin was supposed to bring prosperity, the owners of the house would never be without money. Again, the old English florin was considered very lucky with it’s ‘cross’ on one side. People liked to have a silver coin, those who were rich enough used a gold sovereign or a half sovereign.

As with other things, we can see customary items being buried in specific counties. In counties Offaly (King’s), Westmeath and Monaghan the people liked to place St. Benedict’s medals in the four corners of a house. A small piece of ‘Gartan clay’ -earth from St. Columcille’s sanctuary at Gartan was put into the foundations of many Donegal houses. Donegal people also used clay from Tory Island, another sanctuary of St. Columcille, the patron saint of Donegal. We are told that if this clay was in the foundations, the house would not go on fire.

Small containers of holy water have been recovered from foundations, written prayers or holy pictures in containers. Small pieces of iron in houses in Carncash, Co. Sligo; Emyvale, Co. Monaghan; Dualla, Co. Tipperary; in Inistiogue in Co. Kilkenny a horseshoe has been found; a piece of tobacco in Co. Monaghan and some whiskey in Kerrykeel, Co. Donegal. Only the people who put in their good luck charms know why they included what they did in their foundations, we can only guess.

Matchmaking in Ireland

This article was written about West Cork, but, we can take it that ‘Matchmaking’ was similar the country over.


The tradition of matchmaking reaches back a long way into the history of West Cork and its people. At a time when love matches were not the fashion and compulsory marriages – locally referred to with a fine turn of accuracy as ‘must marriages’ – unknown, the made match was generally in vogue. It was the belief of the people that matches were made in heaven even if some of them later produced a semblance of hell on earth.

There was in every locality a professional matchmaker or go-between who brought news of a match from a farmer’s daughter, marriageable by the standards Of the generation, half on the shelf by the standards of today. The news was brought with great tact and secrecy to some farmer’s son, who, usually at forty or more, was looking for.a wife. It made no difference that the two ‘young’ people might never have seen each other in their lives, and it made even less difference whether they liked or disliked each other when they eventually met.

What mattered was that the parents of both should agree about those weighty things on which the match must be based, the fortune to be paid to the prospective bride and the number of cows which the prospective bridegroom’s farm could feed. Negotiations were set afoot, and the matchmaking wrangle was normally carried out in a special room in one of the pubs in town with only the go-between in attendance to put forward split-the-difference suggestions at the right times and in the correct places.

Full agreement was never reached in the first session, but if, between generous applications of whiskey, some progress was made, then the next step was to fix a day ‘to walk the land’. That is, of course, that certain male relatives of the lady in question should visit the gentleman’s farm, taking stock of everything it contained, sometimes of things it did not contain, for it was not unknown that an obliging neighbour might lend a cow or two, even a field or two, for the occasion, to add an air of extra well-being to the place.

The farm duly walked, further negotiations began, and if the fortune was finally fixed and the transfer of the place from the father to the son, agreed, then the match was made. Many a match was not made, however, because twenty pounds, sometimes less than that, was between the bargainers and neither side would give way in an era when matchmaking differed only in species from a purchase or sale at the local fair. Both were based on bargaining and both depended on whether or not the bargain -makers reached a final agreement.

The match made and duly wet in the local pub, a date was set for the wedding, which by tradition took place in the bride’s local parish church and was carried out by her parish priest. The marriage ceremony was, in the eyes of the neighbours, the least important part of the occasion. Of much greater importance was the night that was to follow in the bridegroom’s home, an all-night affair at which nua gacha bidh abounded and seana gacha dighe overflowed. If everything was lavish it was a dacent wedding. If anything was less than lavish, it was a mane wedding, and a couple whose wedding was mane took years to live down the disgrace of it, as the couple at the Wedding Feast at Cana would have done if they lived in West Cork in our fathers’ time and their wine ran short.

A honeymoon-was unknown in the country at that time. The wedding night was spent at home, and so, late in the night when ‘joy was unconfined’ and good-will became uproarious, what wonder if the newly-weds stole quietly away, but not unobserved, in pursuit of their lawful occasions.

Gone is the matchmaking, gone the matchmaker. Gone, too,is the country wedding as we used to know it. Whatever reservations one might have about the matchmaking only fond memories can remain of the country wedding. With its full and plenty, its dancing and songs and general merriment, a dacent country wedding was an event to remember for the rest of your life. Perhaps it was not refined by more modern standards of refinement. Perhaps it was a little vulgar in its excess of eating and drinking; Perhaps it was rough and noisy and boisterous, frequently crude when men, and women, too, were ‘well·drunk’ as the Bible puts it. But it was’ always a happy occasion for people whose ideas of happiness did not exclude elements of over-eating or over-drinking, noise and a little touch of horse-playing now and then. Such people had few opportunities in their drab lives to eat, drink and make merry. When an opportunity like a dacent wedding presented itself, at least they were able to avail of it to the full, part of their enjoyment being that they could talk about it for months to come.

Weddings brought out in men and women a side that was normally hidden deeply away. Inarticulate by nature, that day, they became great conversationalists. Shy to sing, to recite or to dance, at the wedding each man sang or recited his party piece, and every man took the floor with more vigour, perhaps, than rhythm. At a wedding it in made no difference, for everybody was a singer, a reciter, a dancer on that great occasion.

Extracted from “In West Cork long ago” written by Flor Crowley, reprinted 1980.

ISBN 0 85342 600 7

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.