Rules and Pisheogs

There were lots of little ‘rules’ or pisheogs (sayings) related to the building of a house. A new house to replace an old one should never be built across the road from the old one. A room should never be built as an extension to the “west” of a house. Is fear nios treise na Dia a chuirfeadh faid siar as a theach (Only a man stronger than God would extend his house to the west. Although in county Westmeath it was said that it was unlucky to build on the north side of a house and in county Tipperary it was the south side was the unlucky side.

Do you realise that in learning about the customs and traditions and implements of a county, you may find hints as to where your ancestors came from? Different farming implements and other home made items had different designs or were made slightly differently in some cases from one county to another.

Now a house was supposed to be lucky, that was important. The home is where the heart is, the home is the heart of a family, the warmth found in a home cannot be compared to anything else. There were many customs associated with making the house or home a lucky place for all involved. Some went into the building of the house and some others were included after the house was built. There were two ways of bringing this luck. By prayers or blessings of some sort or other the blessings being ‘good-luck charms’ and some of these it is said, relate back to the pagan times, back to the times before Christianity came to Ireland, back to Celtic times.

Items were buried in the foundations of the house, 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 hosue 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.

The custom of putting a charm or some sort into the foundations of a house has been explained by some as a means of placating the spirit of the site, or, in the case of human or animal sacrifices to provide a spirit for the house. Then again, another explanation which rings true is that some of these items were laid in order to improve the sound in the building – to make sounds resonate better. This is quite acceptable when we think in terms of dancing and threshing activities. It is true that human skulls have been found at Ballinderry crannog and tradition says that St. Columcille’s brother Dobhran was buried alive to placate the spirits before a church could be built at Iona. Henry Morris records that when the Rev. Canon Meehan, P.P. of Keadue in Co. Roscommon was a young man in Co. Westmeath, no house would be built without some live animal being put under the foundation stone, a chicken, a kitten or a rabbit being common.

Of all the burying customs found about the country, that of burying horses or cows skulls was the most common. In the townland of Muckanstown on the Dublin-Meath border, horses skulls have been found under many floors and in one case up to ten skulls were found under the floorboards of one room alone. Many house in Ireland had a ‘flagstone’ in front of the fire (the hearth) and it was under this that a skull or skulls were most commonly buried. In some counties, (especially, Clare, Kerry, Limerick (Mahoonaghbeg) and Tipperary) an iron pot was buried and not a skull. A hole had been made in the clay and in it a small flat-bottomed oven pot was hung from two thin iron rods, which had been laid crossways over the hole. An irregularly shaped piece of iron plate had then been laid over the hole and the flagstone put in place. This flagstone measured about 8 feet by 4 feet, as was quite normal.

Whatever the reason for burying skulls and pots, the theory that it was done to help with resonation is most acceptable. The step dancers demonstrated their skills on the flagstone or hearthstone of any house and for this the sound of the steps was important.