Salt, as we all know, is useful for many purposes in life. But there are many applications for this preservative which are not known outside of the Irish community. For your sake and to remind those Irish who have forgotten many of their traditions in this modern world let me enlighten you as to some of the ‘Charms of Salt.’
You should never attend a funeral or a wake until you have taken the precaution of fortifying yourself against evil by eating a few grains of salt. At the same time, you should also take with you. If you do these things you will be safe. Neither the ‘evil eye’ of a neighbour, nor the tricks of spirits, who are forever on the alert to take advantage of those people who fail to provide themselves with protection against them.
Salt is also regarded as an infallible remedy for the traumatic effects that occur when one sees a ghost.
A pinch of salt is always put into milk that is given away and the woman of the house should never permit milk to be taken out of the premises unless this is done, whether the milk be sold or given free to a friend in need. One grain of salt will be enough, but if none were added it would result in a great misfortune of some kind befalling the dairy or the cow.
Young Pat Murphy, known to many as ‘Stitch’, went one day to the beach with an donkey to gather a load of seaweed. It was a beautiful May morning and because it was still early there were few people about. ‘Stitch’, however, was an industrious young man and was keen to have as much seaweed gathered as possible before any of the neighbours came upon the same place. Dressed well for the hard work ahead of him and armed with a strong cudgel he hastily urged his donkey, loaded with empty creels, down the boreen towards the sea.
It promised to be a good day for gathering seaweed and not a sound broke the stillness of that tranquil morning, except for the occasional whack of ‘Stitch’s’ cudgel as he urged the animal forward. Then, there was the gentle murmur of the waves as they lapped softly on the golden sandy beach before retiring quickly once again and, when ‘Stitch’ reached the beach he commanded the donkey to stop and stand still while he eagerly began to fill the creels. For a moment he raised his head from his work and looked out towards a ‘black rock’ that stood only a few yards out from shore. In a moment, his face went a deathly white, he staggered and reached out for the creels to support him, but he did not reach them and fell forward in a faint. He never made a sound but lay there for three of four minutes until Sean Rooney lifted him up. It still took him a moment or two to regain full consciousness and, when he did, he remembered what he had seen. In a feeble voice he spoke in terror, “Oh, Sean, did you see them?”
“What did I see, ‘Stitch’, and what in the name of God came over you?”
“The two women on the black rock! Sure, didn’t I see them as plain as day. God help us!” replied ‘Stitch’ as he tried to cling ever closer to Sean.
“God save us, ‘Stitch’, are you dreaming, or what?” said Sean.
“I’m not dreaming, or imagining anything, Sean! I saw her with my own eyes. The grandest lady that anyone has ever seen or heard about. She had a beautiful dress on her, upon which gold and silver decorations shone and sparkled in the sunshine. Hanging from her head and around her shoulders were the finest golden curls, framing the face of a young girl who was the image of an angel. And, on her head sat a golden crown that was covered in pearls and diamonds.”
“Well, ‘Stitch’, you will have no need to worry or fear what you have seen, for you will have nothing but good luck from this day onward,” Sean assured him.
“Sean, man dear, I don’t feel at all well after what I have seen. I am afraid that I am done for! The vision I saw took the very sight from my eyes.”
“Trust me,” Sean counselled him. “Don’t worry about it. What you have seen will never do you any harm.” His voice was calming but it did not inspire true confidence in what he said. Sean admitted to a neighbour, later, “I tried to keep the poor man’s spirits up, for God knows those spirits will be down for a while to come. It was, undoubtedly, the great lady herself that he had seen, the ‘Queen of the Sea’, and her beautiful daughter. Sure, I have only heard of them being seen once before, and the one who saw them never had a day’s luck after, until he died.”
The same was true of Pat ‘Stitch’ Murphy, for he was never the same after his experience.
When a cow becomes dull, refuses to take food, moans, and gives other indications of suffering peculiar pain, the conclusion at once arrived at is that “she’s shot,” or, as is expressed in Irish “tá sí cáithte.” The allusion is to the sídheóga, or fairies, and the belief is that they have shot the cow.
There are peculiar symptoms which proclaim unmistakably that the cow has been shot, the principal being swelling of the body and painful moaning. Only the village ‘Cow Doctor’, however, can tell definitely. I often saw these ‘handy men,’ as they are not unfrequently called, diagnosing, and helped them to perform the cure ceremony which, I venture to say, is one of the strangest ever recorded.
The doctor stands at one side of the cow, his assistant at the other. The assistant procures a pair of tongs and a red turf coal, and slightly burns the ‘sign of the cross’ on the hair of the cow’s side. He then hands the tongs across the cow’s body to the ‘doctor’, who burns similarly the ‘sign of the cross’ on the other side, after which he passes the tongs over the cow’s back to his assistant again. This is repeated three times, and the first and principal part of the ceremony is concluded by making the ‘sign of the cross’ with the coal on the cow’s nostrils.
The second part is rather in the nature of a ‘test’ than a ‘cure’. The doctor ‘measures’ the cow with his arm from ‘elbow’ to the ‘point’ of his fingers, beginning at the cow’s tail and going towards the horns. The ‘measurement’ is also repeated three times, and if the cow is to get better, the second measurement should be shorter than the first, and the third shorter than the second, etc. Should the ‘cure’ fail – and it never fails if the cow suffers from ‘shot’ and the doctor is called in time – the owner is requested, in order to prevent a fatal termination, to “Tabhair do Mhártan i,” which means, “Giver her to Martin,” meaning St. Martin. The invariably acquiesces, and then a ‘nick’ is cut in the animal’s ear. Blood flows and death is averted. The animal can never afterwards be sold but must be killed and eaten as a feast on St. Martin’s Eve, not necessarily for many years afterwards.
In the north of Ireland, the practice is somewhat different. The owner is not prohibited from selling the animal, and instead of giving it to ‘Martin’, some member of the family who is considered ‘lucky’ is presented with it. It is no uncommon thing to see several animals, particularly cows and sheep, at fairs with incisions in their ears, or a piece cut out. If there are many incisions it is regarded as a sign that the animal is of delicate constitution, with the result that there is a reduction in the price.
The number of incisions shows the number of times the animal was in danger of death.
In Ireland, even today, there are so many superstitions, rituals, and traditions in the day to day life of its people. This is especially true when it comes to the passing of dear friends and relatives, their funeral arrangements, and their final interment. These superstitions and traditions might vary slightly from family to family, but each holds strongly to their own. In fact, they hold so faithfully to their own family rituals that on occasions they can lead to anger and physical violence when different families come together to mourn in different ways.
When I was a young man my favourite way of spending my leisure-time was to take long walks through the countryside and sketch many of the interesting sites that I would come across. Over the years I had filled my artist’s sketch book with pictures of beautifully sited thatched cottages, old barns, ruins, and old churches. On one particular sunny day, I was sitting alone on a grassy embankment at the edge of the desolate graveyard and church in Drumm. In that beautifully quiet place, I became almost totally lost in my efforts to capture, on paper, that special scene that lay before me. Occasionally I would lift up my eyes from my sketchbook to look directly at the detail that was present in this interesting ruin which I was attempting to paint. It was also an opportunity wipe the perspiration from my brow, that was caused by the heat of the sun radiating down upon my head.
The quiet stillness that had prevailed all that particular day was suddenly broken by a faint and wild sound that was quite unlike anything I had ever heard before in my life. Admittedly, the strange sound startled me and caused me to stop my sketching for a moment or two. Alone in that graveyard I began to listen nervously, waiting for that strange sound to repeat itself. I didn’t have to wait awfully long for this weird, unearthly sound to vibrate through the still air of the evening once again. It was now even more loud than it had been at first and, as I listened to its strange vibration and tone, I decided that it could be likened to the sound made by many glasses, ringing and tinkling as they are crowded in together.
I stood up, rising from the place where I had been seated, and I began to search around for the possible source of this strange noise. There was not another body in my vicinity when, once again, this heart-chilling sound suddenly filled the air about me with its wild and wailing intonation. At first the sound reminded me somewhat of a tune being played upon an aged harp. When another burst of the sound came forth, it became quite obvious to me that it was the sound of many human voices that were being raised in lamentation somewhere close by. It was a loud, heart-chilling, wail of sorrow about which, before this occasion, I had only ever heard only rumours. Now, for the first time in my life I heard that wild and terrifying sound and shivered with cold fear. Those who read this tale, and who have already heard the same sound, will surely understand just how anxious I was when I heard it in the silence of that day in Drumm.
As my eyes scanned the area outside of the graveyard I could clearly see, in the light of that day, a crowd of local people, both male and female. In an orderly line they wound their way along a low path that led them toward the churchyard where I was standing, and among them the strong men carried the coffin of someone who was a dear departed friend or relative. As they came closer toward me, occasion I heard a loud and pitiful wail of sorrow that arose from the mourners in that crowd. The voices rang loudly, in a wild and startling unison, as they moved up the hill, until the sound gradually descended in its volume, finally becoming little more than a subdued wail. Diligently, these local people continued to carry their loved one’s body onward, but not in the same measured and solemn step as before. Now, they were moving in a much more rapid and irregular manner, almost as if the pain of their grief was hurrying them on to the graveside, which was the much hoped for culmination of all their efforts.
The overall effect of this large local rural funeral was, I must admit, certainly more impressive than any of the other funerals I had ever seen in my short life. There was truly little of the pomp and circumstance of other funerals I had observed, such as a hearse, or large commemorative wreaths. But, the equal of the pallbearers could never have been found as they steadily bore along the body of their dear departed friend on their shoulders in the stillness of evening until they reached the cemetery. The male friends and relatives of the deceased person carried the coffin into the interior of the ruin. There the women had gathered to continue their mourning for the dead, and half-a-dozen athletic young men immediately began to prepare a grave. I can honestly say that I have seldom seen men more full of activity. But, scarcely had the spade upturned the green sod of the burial-ground, than the loud peal of the pipes was heard at some distance. The young men paused in their work, and they turned their heads, as did all the bystanders, towards the point from where the sound appeared to originate.
As I looked up, I clearly observed that another funeral procession was winding its way slowly around the foot of the hill. Immediately the young men at the graveside returned to their work with greater effort than before. As the spades dug into the black soil anxious shouts from onlookers constantly encouraged them to complete their work as quickly as possible. Some of the more polite followers shouted, “For Jaysus sake, hurry boys, hurry.“
“Shift your big arse, Paddy!” others called.
Friends of some of the men shouted out to them, “Put your back into it, Mike! “
“If you could shift the sod as quick as you shift the ‘Guinness’, it would suit you better,” others laughed aloud.
By this time, the second funeral party, that was approaching, could see ahead of them that the churchyard to which they were going was already filled with people. Almost immediately this second funeral party quickened their pace, and their sounds of mourning rose more loudly in the morning air as they came nearer to the churchyard. Quite unexpectedly, a small detachment of men, carrying a variety of picks and spades, came forward out of the main party. Then, without warning, this group of armed men rushed headlong up the hill toward the churchyard, accompanied by loud shouting. At the same time an elderly woman, her eyes streaming with tears and her hair dishevelled, rushed wildly from the ruin where the first party had taken their coffin. Arms raised, she ran towards the young men who were digging at the ground with all their might and, passionately, she begged them to do their work more quickly. “Ahh Boys! Sure, you wouldn’t let them beat you to the job and have my sweet boy wandering about, alone on these long, dark nights. Please dig hard boys. Lay into it with all your power and gain, for yourselves, a sorrowful mother’s blessing for ensuring my wee Paddy will have rest.“
Standing among those men in her bedraggled appearance, and the intensity of her manner as she pleaded with them, I thought the poor woman was crazy. In fact, such was her condition, that I could barely make out what she was saying to the young men, and I was obliged to inquire off one of the bystanders if they could fill in the blank spaces.
“Are you asking me because you believe she is going crazy? ” said the person that I had asked, as he looked at me in a very puzzling manner. “Sure, I thought everyone knew the answer to that. Especially someone who looks as well learned as you. The poor woman doesn’t want her dead son to be walking about in the night, as he must, unless those boys are smart.“
“What do you mean, walking about in the night?” I asked him. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Whisht! whisht!” he urged me to be quiet. “Here they come now, and, in the name of God, they have Joe Gallagher at their head,” he said to me as he anxiously looked towards the advanced guard of the second funeral, which had now gained the summit of the hill. They quickly leaped over the boundary-ditch of the cemetery and advanced towards the group that surrounded the newly excavated grave, with rapid strides and a resolute air.
“Stop what you are doing there, I tell you!” shouted Joe Gallagher to those men who were working at opening the ground and were still using their implements with great energy.
“Stop it now, or it’ll be worse for you! Did you not hear me, Rooney?” said Gallagher again, as he laid his muscular hand on the arm of one of the young men who were digging, suddenly stopping him from continuing his work.
“Of course, I heard you, Gallagher,” said Rooney; “but I just chose not to listen to you.”
“Just you keep a civil tongue in your head, wee man” Gallagher warned him.
“By God, Gallagher, but you’re a brave man and very fond of giving people advice that you should listen to yourself,” Rooney retorted and, once again, plunged his spade into the earth.
“Didn’t I tell you to stop, you Gobshite?” Gallagher roared, “or, I’ll put my boot so far up your arse, Rooney, that you’ll be chewing leather for six months!”
“Get away out of this, Gallagher! What brings you here at all?” interrupted another of the men by the graveside. “Just looking for trouble is it?”
“Sure, what else would bring the likes of him here, but to cause mischief?” said a grey-haired man, who was standing just a couple of yards away from the graveside. “Sure, don’t you know by now that there’s always a quarrel whenever there’s a Gallagher about?”
“You may thank your grey hair, you old goat, that I don’t make you take those words back with some pain,” Gallagher told the old man as he glared at him.
“There was a time,” warned the old man, “when I had something more than just these grey hairs to make such as you respect me.” As he spoke the old man drew himself up with an air of great dignity. He wanted everyone to see that he was still a tall man and had retained a broad chest, which would bear the truth of the statement that he had made. There was a bright, but briefly lived flame, that was kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and his expression of pride and defiance quickly gave way to an expression of coldness and contempt toward Gallagher.
“Listen to me, old man, I’d have beaten you more stupid than you already are, even on the best day you ever had,” sneered Gallagher, with an impudent swagger.
“Don’t you believe it, Gallagher!” said a contemporary of the old man, who had known him in his younger days. “You have plenty of conceit, and a big mouth that you use to bully those weaker than you!“
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Rooney. “He’s a great man in his own mind. By God I could be a rich man if I could buy Gallagher at what I thought he was worth and sell him at what he thinks he’s worth.“
A loud, mocking laughter rose up among those gathered at the graveside, causing Gallagher’s agitation to increase tenfold. There was a deep darkness that came across the big man’s features, and Gallagher immediately took up a posture so threatening that a man standing close to me turned to his companion and told him, “By God, Eddie there’s going to be ‘wigs on the green’ before too long!“
It was a sad day when Tim Scanlan died. All his life he had been a labouring man, working hard in whatever work he could find, and receiving very little in remuneration for the effort he put in. But, Tim was well known and well liked in the district. Everyone agreed that his funeral would be an unusually large gathering and, most likely the biggest to be seen in many a year. Great crowds of people flocked to Tim’s wake, and there was a major effort undertaken to provide sufficient tea, cakes, sandwiches, whisky, beer, and tobacco for all who attended. As is common in these things, Tim’s widow occupied her post of honour at the head of the coffin, and gave an excellent display of grief for her dead husband. She wept bitterly on her own and, joined in loudly when the loud group wailing, or ‘keening’, was led by the older women. The widow was, however, young enough to have been the daughter of the dead husband. She had come to Tim’s house as a very young servant-girl, whom he had conveniently married and ruled over all these years past.
As the night wore on, the amount of whisky that had been drunk was beginning to tell on those wandering outside the room where Tim’s corpse lay. The crowd noise inside the house increased to a level where some began to complain that it was loud enough to wake the dead. Quite unexpectedly, and much to the consternation and amazement of every one present, the corpse gave a deep sigh and several loud groans, opened his eyes and struggled to bring himself up into a sitting posture in the coffin. When the startled company in the house had recovered from their shock, they helped lift poor Tim out of the coffin, and whisky was liberally poured down his throat. They wrapped Tim up well in warm blankets and helped to seat him in the big chair by the fire, where he gradually revived from the trance, or stupor, that had been mistaken for death. When the last of the guests had departed from the cabin, Tim, who was still propped up beside the fire, was left to the tender care of his wife. But, instead of coming near her husband, she chose to creep away quietly to cringe timidly in a dark corner behind his chair. From her hiding place she directed frightened glances at her husband, who had appeared to have been resurrected from death.
“Mary!” Tim called out to her in a stern voice. But, he did not get an answer.
“Are you there?” he asked as he peered around at her, his weak face quivering with anger.
“Yes, Tim, I’m here,” Mary’s voice faltered, but she did not stir an inch.
“’Bring me my stick”’
“Ah! No Tim! No! Sure you’ve never lifted your hand to me yet! And you’ll not do it now, surely, when you’ve come back from the dead in one piece.”
“Bring me my stick.”
The stick was brought to him, and down on her knees beside the big chair Tim’s cowering wife went. “Well you know what you deserve. You know, you young deceiver, that if I was to start this minute and beat you as black as a hearse, it would only serve you right, after the mean, dirty, and shameful thing you’ve done to me!”
“Aye, Tim! It’s true, it would!” sobbed the girl.
“Look at this!” gasped Tim, opening his funereal jacket to show an old and tattered shirt. “Just look at these rags! Look at what you dressed my poor corpse in, shaming me before all my neighbours and friends at the wake! And you knew, as well as I did, about the elegant brand-new shirt I’d bought to be buried in. It’s a special shirt that I wouldn’t have put on my back if I was still alive. No, not if I had to walk about naked! But, you knew that I had it stored in the chest there, and you begrudged it to my unfortunate corpse when I couldn’t speak up for myself!”
“Oh Tim, darling, forgive me!” cried Mary. “Forgive me this once, and on my two knees I promise that I will never, never do the likes of that again! I don’t know what came over me. Sure, may the good Lord save us, I think it was the devil who was guiding me when I went to get out that shirt. He tempted me, by whispering that it was a pity, and a sin, to put good clothing like that into the clay. Oh, how could I do it?”
“Now, listen to me, Mary,” said Tim as he raised the stick and laid it on her shoulder. She knew that he wouldn’t beat her even if he could with his trembling hands, but she pretended to wince and cower away from him. “You mind what I say to you. If you ever do something like this again, and dress me up in those indecent rags, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll haunt you!’
“Oh don’t do that, Tim! Please don’t!” shrieked Mary, her face as pale as ashes. “Kill me now, if that’s what you want, or do anything to me you like, but for the love of the blessed Virgin and all the Saints, keep you to your grave! I’ll put the new shirt on you. My two hands will starch it and make it as white as snow, after it being laid aside so long in the old chest. You’ll be a lovely corpse, never fear about that! And I’ll give you the greatest wake that ever a man had, even if I have to sell the pig, and part with every stick in the cabin to buy the tea and the whisky. I swear to you I will, on this blessed night, my darling man.”
“Well, mind that you do, or it will be all the worse for you. And now give me a drop of water to drink, and put a taste of that whisky through it, for I’m ready to faint with thirst and with weakness.”
Mary kept her promise to her husband. Never in the history of that parish was there such a wake was that given for Tim Scanlan. It all occurred very soon after the events described above. Poor Tim really did depart this life, and manner in which his corpse was laid out, with his “elegant brand-new shirt”, was the admiration of all beholders of all who saw it.