If we were we to believe the stories and old wives’ tales handed down to us by our grandmothers we would not be faulted for thinking that, at one time, Ireland was a land controlled by spirits and demons. Ireland is filled with tales concerning witches, warlocks, white ladies, fairies, and leprechauns. It seems that the earth, the air, and the sky, were peopled by these mysterious beings at one time. In every crumbling and desolate cottage on the uninhabited moorland or woodland lived a witch or warlock. Elsewhere, the margins of our beautiful loughs, the hearts of our silent and isolated glens, the recesses of our romantic mountain valleys, the mould covered walls of every ancient ruin, and the mystic circle of each hill-fort, were said to be the chosen to all sorts of strange, unearthly beings.
These beliefs were not just held to by the ignorant and uneducated peasantry. In fact, many who were well educated and moved in more enlightened circles within society were equally infected by such beliefs. There were very sensible and well-informed people in the land who turned a deaf ear to any voice of reason and the dictates of common sense. In fact, such people would more easily doubt the truth of the Holy Bible than the existence of supernatural beings influencing life. The stories of such beings had become so interwoven in the superstition of the entire people, and social system, that no event could happen to a person during their lifetime in which the ‘Good People’ were not implicated, either for good or evil.
If the head, or a member, of a leading family died, the wail of the banshee was sure to be heard in the twilight calling for the ‘Death Coach’ to come. Should a favourite child in a family be brought down by disease, it was believed that the beautiful, beloved child had been changed for a squalling, ravenous, and decrepit starveling. If a farmer’s cattle ailed, or his milk cows were not productive, it was likely that the cattle had been touched by the fairies or bewitched. Should your much beloved wife be suddenly taken away from you, it was alleged that the fairies were the culprits. They took her in her most kind, loving, and the most interesting persona, and left you a bland, unattractive, wooden person in her stead.
I can recollect clearly the thrill of fear, mingled with a certain amount of pleasure, with which I listened to the tales of a great aunt. It is over fifty years since that time, when my great aunt would visit and warm herself at my mother’s fireside. She would chat idly over a cup of sweet tea and speak to me about all the spiritual beings that she had knowledge of. She was an educated woman, and very pious, but she would sooner doubt herself than the existence of witches and fairies. Her mind and memory was a fountain of knowledge and a store-room of memories of those occasions when they had played a role in the life of her family. These stories I then began to believe in most implicitly, particularly because in many instances the people involved were also members of my own family. For instance, she told me the story of how her grandfather, one autumn morning, detected a large hare, which was in the act of milking one of his cows. He fired his gun at thief, wounding it, and when he tracked the blood trail left behind, he discovered that it was flowing from the thigh of an old woman who lived in a nearby ruin of a cabin.
This knowledgeable woman could also relate how an elder brother had surprised a leprechaun as he was in the middle of making a pair of shoes for his people. Her brother could describe his clothing down to the smallest detail, and how the leprechaun had escaped captivity by pretending to strike at my uncle’s eye with his awl. This tactic caused my uncle to wink just at that moment when he was in the act of seizing the creature, and thereby prevented him from gaining his fortune. She also told the story of a child which was taken from its mother’s arms one night while she slept. Luckily, the child was missed before he could be carried out of the house, through the key-hole, and on hearing the cries of the heartbroken parent the child was dropped to the floor without suffering any injury. It had never occurred to my great aunt that the child might have rolled out of the bed accidentally.
There was another tale that she would often tell me, and it would have been worse than heresy to doubt the truth of it, because she knew the parties involved very well. There was an honest, hardworking man called John M’Kinney, who lived in a nearby village. One night, reluctantly, he was obliged to leave his warm bed during “the witching hour”. He had almost forgotten something of importance that was needed the next day and he went immediately to fetch it. While he was on his way back home the silence of the night was disturbed by the strokes of an axe reverberating through a neighbouring area of woodland. As he stopped to listen, John heard some voices in conversation with each other. His curiosity caused him to draw up and listen to what was being said. It was then, when he distinctly heard the question asked, “What are you doing to-night?” and to his dismay the response was, “I’m making a wife for John M’Kinney.”
“Devil the bit of it!” said Jack, “you’ll make no wife for me, for I have enough trouble already. I think I’ll do very well with the one I have.” With these words John turned on his heels and rushed home, hardly drawing his breath until he had his wife held tightly in his arms. He gripped her so tightly it was almost a death-grip he had on her, and we would not loosen his hold until the crisis was over, and in this way he had foiled the plans of the fairies,
In years gone by the entire social system within Ireland was deeply pervaded by the idea of supernatural influence. As a consequence of this there was an indefinable aura of dread and fear, which hung like the ‘Sword of Damocles’ over the heads of all, and embittered their very lives. It is true that the evil was only imaginary, but not on that account any the less hurtful. Superstition is a mental malady is, therefore, very difficult to counteract or eradicate, and often led to a sense of real anxiety and distress among people. Just as the case of M’Kinstrey, whose ideas were filled with witchcraft and fairy freaks, never even thought that the noise and voices he had heard might be a practical joke played by some of his neighbours. As a consequence, therefore, he suffered all the feelings of suspense and trouble that warned that there was real danger nearby.
The spread of useful knowledge and the dissemination of sound education among all classes in our society have lately effected a great change in the intellectual powers of the people. Such encounters with the supernatural, like those described herein, are still sometimes used to “adorn a tale,” are now unheeded. In fact, there are few of my countrymen who would hold, even for a single moment, any belief in the absurd idea of evil creatures. Nevertheless, there are always some exceptions. These exceptions might include a few old women, who may be still haunted by the sprites of their younger days. In some remote districts of the country a belief in witchcraft certainly prevails among the local folk. But, most of these beliefs and fears have been ingrained by prejudices from youth, and they have been fostered and kept alive by the practices of con-men and others who say they can prevent the effects of these beings with counter-charms. These low-lives exist and continue to prosper because of the credulity of the public. In general, throughout Ireland, belief in witches, fairies, and the like is virtually defunct now.