Materials and Luck

Certain materials were considered unlucky and should not be used in building a house. Some types of white stones are included in this category (cloch scáil in Co. Kerry; cloch éibhir in Co.’s Galway and Mayo). A tale from Ballyferriter in the Dingle peninsula tells of a family who had nothing but bad luck until the ghost of a long dead grandfather appears to the head of the household and told him that a white stone was built into the house wall; once this stone was removed the families luck changed for the better. Some held that white stone’s attract lightening.

Also, the stones from an old ruined house could not be used in the building of any house although there was no objection to a house such as that being used as a byre or shed, and the stones from the walls of old houses could be unsed in erecting farm buildings. The use of stolen material would definitely bring bad luck!

A Galway tradition says that a stone which falls from the hands of a mason or his helpers, while they are at work on a wall must not be used in masonry, by fallingthe stone has become unlucky and if used may cause the wall to collapse. Should a wall fall down or scaffolding collapse, or any other untoward happening, while a house was being built then , doubts might arise as to whether the unseen-world had not in some way been offended, and a series of such minor disasters might even cause the abandonment of the building as something too dangerously unlucky to be continued.

Attainment of the highest point in the building often called for some special note or celebration. The highest point was generally considered to be either the top of the gable or the top of the main chinmey.

In northwest Connaught, the top of the gable was regarded as the highest point of the house and may have been because there were no stone chinmeystacks in many houses in the area in former times. The stone that crowns the gable was known as “”cloch an phréacháin”, the crow’s stone. When this was set in position the owner of the house called the workmen together and provided them with a drink of whiskey or póitín, or, at the very least, tea. In Louisburgh, County Mayo, the neighbours gathered on this occasion and were entertained by fiddlers. An informant from Co. Mayo reports: “”For some reason, which so far I have not found out the cloch phréacháin was never finished. The mason would leave some opening or space around it without finishing with mortar, he would deliberately use up the mortar so that he would not have sufficient to plaster around the stone, or if he had enough mortar he would, when the work was almost finished accidentally (mar dheadh!) tumble the bucket of mortar and say “”We must leave that!”” or some words to that effect.”” (From The Luck of the House, Information from Mr. Mícheál Mac Énrí, Bangor Erris, Co. Mayo.)

At Inistiogue in county Kilkenny, the mason marked a cross on the plaster of the highest point of the gable. A religious medal, a piece of blessed palm, or a little bottle of holy water, was tied to the ridge pole as soon as it was set in a number of places.

In some northern counties the custom was to erect a flag or a substitute for one when the building of a new house had reached the chimney stage. This reminded the owner that some incentives would speed up completion of the work. i.e. some refreshment or gratuity should be given to the builders. This custom was widely established in County Down, from where it appears to have spread to county Antrim, Derry and westwards to Fermanagh. Gailey (The thatched houses of Ulster, Gailey, Alan; Ulster Folklife, 7 (1961), 16-17: The Ulster Tradition, Folk Life, 2 (1964), 28-29) who recorded this custom in Ulster, concluded that it is of fairly recent origin in Ireland. The same Custom seems to have spread to other parts of the country. In Louth, a red flag was flown to indicate a victory for the men who were building the house and once it was up the owner treated the men.

An old shirt was hoisted on a pole in Sligo town, in Limerick an old piece of white cloth was tied on a stick like a flag and displayed on the highest point, and in Dublin an old pair of trousers was flown.

In other places where the main chimney was regarded as the highest point, the first fire was laid on the hearth, and the workers in places in Clare, Limerick and Tipperary expected to be treated to drinks or some other form of minor celebration. The same custom is reported from Beltra, county Sligo and Carrigtee, county Monaghan. From county Monaghan too we hear of the placing of a bone on top of the newly completed chimney.

From the Castleblayney district of county Monaghan we are told that ‘when a house was built up as far as the ridge board it was custom to have a party to celebrate the occasion. All the friends, family and neighbours were invited A night of feasting, dancing and story telling was spent. It was known as a ‘topping up party’. Another source from Monaghan says that this occurred when the wall-plate was reached.

Care was taken to begin the building of the house on a lucky day. Lucky days depended on local tradition, also in taking possession of a new house the timing was very important. This could not take place during Lent. It seems that Friday was a lucky day to move, and Monday in general an unlucky day, although there is an old saying which restricts this: “”a move to the north on Friday, to the south on Monday, or to the west on Tuesday never brought any luck in its train.”” While Dean Jonathan Swift says “”Friday and Childermas day are two cross days in the week and it is impossible to have good luck in either of them”” Irish tradition agrees with Dean Swift as regards Childermas Day: this is the 28th of December, the feast of the Holy Innocents, which in Irish is known as ‘Lá na Leanbh’ (Day of the Children), but also as Lá Crosta na Bliana, ‘the cross day of the year’ when no work of any kind should begin.