We hear many stories in relation to the traditions or superstitions which the old folk practised or believed in . Most of these have to do with the house and the ‘luck’ of the house. Some houses were believed to be unlucky, and for the most part this was blamed on the choice of site or where the house was located.
Location was very important. First, there were practical considerations – was the house going to be conveniently located as regards a water supply or the public road? Or, was there going to be access to the farmers land? Most of all, a house could not be built in any place where it would interfere with the comings and goings of the ‘little people’, or those who had died. The house should never interfere with the goings on in the unseen world. Prehistoric earthworks and megalithic tombs were to be avoided, for these places were believed to be inhabited by the ancient spirits or the fairy people. Burial places old and new were not to be built on or too close to. We are told that there once was a house built for the clergy near a church in county Tipperary, but one room in this house encroached on the graveyard. The clergy who occupied that room suffered from bleeding ears until some wise person realised the error made in the building of the house. The bleeding stopped when that room was removed.
Old pathways were to be respected and not obstructed in any way, who knows, but it might be an old funeral path and to build on one of those would be disastrous. There were ‘wise’ people, who knew the ways of the unseen world, the ways of the fairies and these people were consulted when a new house was to be built. There were solutions though, for those house which were accidently built in the wrong place, sometimes these worked. If a house was on a fairy path, then you could have a front and a back door in line, and if you kept the doors open and a full bucket of water in the house at night, then the fairies and their cortege could move freely along their path, with water to satisfy them when they were thirsty. (There are some who say that this was only a folk tale told to remind people to have their buckets filled at night, many’s a person fell down the well or tripped and broke their leg while going about through the dark to fill that pail).
If you stopped the fairies passage or angered them in any way, then that meant trouble. The more you angered them the more trouble you brought on yourself. The fairies revenge could be ‘dire and swift’. Warnings begin in the form of furniture and utensils being thrown about the house or being moved about the place and noises in the night. But then, if you didn’t find out what it was you’d done to annoy the little people, and make amends matters got worse – much worse. Things were broken, first small things andthen more important articles of furniture and after that – well – after that it came the turn of the animals and the people. The animals would get sick or the people from the house would get sick and in the end, the house could burn down in a storm, or the crop would all be blighted, or the people and animals would die. Of course, there are those who tell us today about poltergeists and the likes, but they don’t know about fairies.
Before we go any farther, do you know anything about funeral paths? Or anything about the fairies? There’s one story, told by Anthony O’Neill from outside Foxford in Co. Mayo, and he swore that this happened.
He said that when he was a boy his father burned a kiln of lime one time, and set Anthony to mind it the second night. As he was sitting there minding his own business, he saw a funeral coming down the hill and there were two men carrying the coffin. So as they got closer to him, one of the men said “Who is to carry the coffin?” and the other put his hand on Anthony’s shoulder and said “Tis Anthony O’Neill” and they told him to carry it. Anthony refused but they made him do it anyway and the weight of the coffin nearly crushed him. So they led him through country he didn’t recognise and then they went into a graveyard and the two men began to dig a grave, and wouldn’t you know it but whatever or whoever was in that coffin struggled to get out. It scared the wits out of poor Anthony, and the men told him that if he let it out, then they’d put him in instead. They managed to finish their grave and put the coffin in and shovel earth on top of it. So then they took him to a house he didn’t know, and there was a big room in it and rows of tables along the walls. There were big dishes of stirabout and noggins of milk, and lots of people in the room eating and drinking, and everyone tried to persuade Anthony to eat some food, but a woman he knew called Anne Goulding was there, and she pinched him in the back to make sure he didn’t eat. But do you know what? The reason he didn’t eat was because he knew Anne Goulding and Anne Goulding was a woman who had died in child-birth and once he saw her he knew he wasn’t in the land of the living. Anthony got out of the house as fast as he could and found himself back in his own field with the kiln right in front of him. The fairies they take women who die in childbirth to nurse the babies they steal from humans. We’ll tell you all about that – eventually.
Back to the house – There were a few ways of deciding whether or not a site was suitable or whether it would displease the fairy people. One means was to lay four little bundles of corner stones or four sticks where each of the corners of the house would be and if these were still standing the next morning, then the building could go ahead. In west county Limerick, the people used to toss a coin in the air, usually a florin of the old kind (the one with a cross design on the reverse). If the coin landed with the cross facing upwards then everything was all right and the house could be built, but if the coin fell with the head up then another place was tried and on and on until the coin would fall with that cross facing upwards.
There was another test which was carried out as well, in this one, the people lit a fire on the site of the house ona day when the prevailing wind was blowing. Then, they’d make a decision as to whether or which the house could be built in that place, depending on the way that the smoke blew. Or else, in some places they’d just throw a cap in the air and watch the way it fell. Some would say that these were practical tests, to make sure the house wouldn’t be a smokey one, but don’t let that fool you – the fairies decided which way the wind would blow and if they didn’t want a house there, they made sure it blew the wrong way!