Fire and Luck

Some coals of fire from the old house were often taken into the new one, but the croch (chimney-crane for hanging cooking vessels) was always left behind. So too was the cat, and various tricks and restraints were employed to make sure the cat would not be brought, however, if it was sent to the new house a few days previously then that was acceptable in some places. A new cat straying in betokened the best of fortune, if it happened to be a black cat it was an extremely happy omen. . Sometimes also, a fragment of mortar from the old fireplace was laid upon or built into the new hearth.

In the past, the fire was physically and socially at the centre of the house. In very early houses (peasant cabins) it was literally in the centre of the floor. Turf-fires were the norm in most parts of rural Ireland, and they were smoored or banked (covered with ashes) each night . Some stories claim that many domestic fires remained burning for hundreds of years. “”To fail to keep your fire raked betokens bad luck””. If the hearth had to be repaired or cleaned then some of the old burning fire was set aside in a bucket in order to replace when the repairs had been done. It was a real indication of bad housewifery to have to go to a neighbour in the morning to ask for some burning embers had your fire died! No one liked letting a lighted coal out of a house “”for fear of giving luck away.”” On Candlemas day the fire could be completely doused after a bogdeal cipín had been lighted and from it the blessed candle. The hearth was cleaned out and a new fire set and re-lit using the blessed candle and this was kept going until the next candlemas day. A prayer such as the following was commonly recited when the live embers were being covered with ashes each night:
“”Coiglim an tine seo mar choigleann Críost cáidh;
Muire ar mbullach an tí, agus Bríd ina lár;
An t-ochtar ainglí is tréine I gCathair na nGrás
Ag cumhdach an tí seo’s a mhuintir thabhairt slán.””

“”I save this fire, as noble Christ saves;
Mary on top of the house, and Bridget in its centre;
The eight strongest Angels in Heaven
Preserving this house and keeping its people safe.””

The fire was kept burning or smouldering day and night and not allowed to go out completely but for one or two reasons. If a member of a family died outside the house, the fire was put out before the corpse was brought into the house. Or, when the corpse was brought to church to remain there overnight until burial, the fire was allowed to go out and not lit the following day. Another example of the deliberate allowing of the fire to go out was on the occasion of the ‘need-fire’ as described by Wood-Martin (Wood-Martin, W.G. ‘Elder Faiths: Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland (2 vols. 1902) I, 36.) as a remedy for a cattle disease all the fires in the townland were quenched, a fresh fire was then made by rubbing sticks together, the cattle were treated with smoke from this fire and the hearth fires re-lighted as soon as the remedy had been applied. It is said that this cusom appears to have been confined to a few places in Ulster where it probably spread from Scotland, however there are similar customs associated with May day celebrations which are through to go back to pagan times in which people jump through the fire.

The prosperity of the house and farm were through to be closely associated with the fire – the fire then had to be kept intact from evil-minde person, especially on May Day. The fire was symbolic of life, if someone from the house died the fire was allowed die and if there was someone sick in the house every effort was made to ensure that the fire did not die by accident!

Various objects were hung in a house or kept there to ensure good luck. A caul-clay from Tory island off the coast of Donegal, or house-leek (Sempervivum) would save the house from being burned and from lightening, this was grown on the roofs of thatched houses, or in specially made niches or nooks in or about the roofs or porches of houses covered with other materials. It is known by various names: ‘houseleek’ is widespread, but ‘roofleek’ occurs in parts of county Cork, ‘buachaill tí’ (houseboy) in Galway and Mayo, ‘luibh a’ tóiteáin’ in west Limerick and Kerry, ‘tóirpín’ in Clare and Tipperary, and waxplant in Offaly and Westmeath. It was also valued as a medicinal herb. Other plants grown on or about the roof of a house brought good luck and guard against fire, ‘stonecrop’ (Sedum acre) around Tramore, county Waterford and ‘snapdragon’ (Antirrhinum majus) in county Westmeath. The elder tree which grew near many houses, would protect them from lightening; the skin of a king-otter would avert general harm; there is seldom a town in Ireland where a horseshoe may not be found nailed over some house or dwelling, this was believed to bring good luck, although some believe that the shoe of an ass or donkey was much more lucky.

Take the following from a prescription in a medical manuscript of 1794
“”Gaibh cheithre crúgh fiorasail agus dein dhá leath do gach crúgh fiorasail dein dhá leath do gach crúigh dhiobh. Cuir lethchrúgh díobh ar an ttairsicc agus leathchrúigh dhíobh ar an bhfuinneoig agus mar sin leathchrúgh ar gach doras agus fuinneoig dá mbia at an tigh agus nochan tiocfaidh sioghbhradha ná deamhan aedhir isteach tarsa.””
(Take four shoes of an entire ass, and make two halves of each shoe. Put a half-shoe on the threshold, and a half shoe on the window, and thus a half shoe over each door and window that is in the house, and there shall come no fairy or demon of the air in across them.)

St. Brigid’s crosses (placed in parts of the house and outhouses on the 31st of January, the eve of her festival; blessed palm (usually fir, yew or similar evergreen) blessed in church as part of the liturgy on Palm Sunday, holy water (blessed on Easter Saturday) brought home and sprinkled in the house, the blood of an animal or fowl slaughtered at Martinmas and likewise sprinkled in the house or a black cock (which had it’s perch over a door inside) would ward off sorcery and harm by supernatural beings; a black cat, crickets or freak eggs (placed inside the roof of the house) would ensure luck for the house and bunches of yarrow collected on the eve of St. John (June 24th) as well as May flowers (but not Whitethorn), would keep illness and mis-fortune away. People were careful never to sweep out the floor dust on a Monday, lest they sweep out their luck as well.

In the everyday life of the household there were numerous omens pertaining to the luck of the house, and these are a selection:

It was considered very lucky if a bird or a honeybee flew into the house and great care had to be taken to capture the creature and release it or otherwise ensure that it left the house unhurt. On the other hand it was believed that if a frog or a worm came into the house it was very unlucky and should be killed. Bread or meal and salt should always be in the house. The hearth should be swept clean at night, but sweepings and ashes should never be taken from the house on a Monday. Dirty water should not be thrown after dark without calling out a warning to any of the fairy or spirit world who might be near the door; this applied specially to water used for cleaning the feet.

The person who enters the house by one of two doors must go out again by the same door. Whitethorn or elder blossoms must not be brought in. Inside the house no umbrella should be opened (or you’d bring rain) and no agricultural or other implement place on the shoulder.