There are, in many parts of Ireland, certain bushes which are looked upon by the local people as being sacred to that most well-known species of inhabitants of the mystic world, the Sidhe, the Sheeogs (Fairies). There is no Irishman or Irishwoman who would do harm, or destroy, or interfere with, such bushes for any reason. There is one in Cillmartin that stands in the centre of a ploughed field, and many years ago I asked the question why it had not been removed to aid cultivation. I was quickly told that the farmer, who was English, could not get any man in the district to dig it up, out of the ground. At one time he sent for a nearby farm labourer, called Pat Cairn, whom he often employed at harvest time. Pat was instructed by the farmer to go immediately and clear out the old thorn tree that stood in the middle of ‘Big Field’.
“Ah, now, man dear,” said Pat, “You know I’d rather not have anything to do with the likes of that“
“Oh ! Stuff of nonsense, man, nonsense! Don’t be a silly clown! Really, what harm is there in cutting down an old thorn bush ? You’ll be well paid for your work and the entire job won’t take you more than ten minutes.”
“Well, now, I might as well tell you the truth, I wouldn’t cut that bush down even if you were to give me a hundred thousand pounds,” Pat told him emphatically.
“Get away out of this! You stupid superstitious idiot of a man!” the farmer exclaimed angrily, stamping his foot heavily on the ground. “I’ll just the bloody tree down by myself to-morrow.“
As planned, the farmer made his way to the ‘Big Field’ the very next morning, where several men who had already refused to undertake the job had gathered. “You men haven’t found the courage yet to uproot that old bush for me,” he said loudly to the gathered men.
Harry McFarland, who taught in the local village school, shook his head and told the Englishman, “Not yet, sir! Sure, only an eejit would dare to upset the ‘Good People’ and I’m no eejit!”
“By God! Even an intelligent man like yourself believes in such silly tales and would have the audacity to call me an idiot! Well we will soon see the truth of it,“
“Well, really sir, everyone here to whom you have spoken has assured you that it would not be ‘lucky’ for you to cut it! I would urge you, at this time, do not do this thing.”
” I’m surprised at you, who should know better, should allow such silly superstitions to enter into your head. Have you a hatchet about, that I can borrow ? “
“Indeed ? Bring the hatchet to me and I’ll make sure the tree is cut down, damn quick. Then, you will see just how little I care about your fairy-folk and their devilish spells.”
Harry managed to retrieve the hatchet and gave it to the farmer, who, accompanied by several of his farm labourers, immediately entered the field and approached the hawthorn bush, that stood about four feet high. The villagers were totally amazed at the foolish and daring deed that this English farmer was about to perform, and they kept a good distance back, terrified by the evil that they expected to fall upon him. ” Now then,” said the farmer, as he balanced the hatchet in his right hand, ” let me see what’s the best way to go about this.”
He walked around the bush twice, and then he walked back a few feet to a spot from where he could critically survey it. He cleared his throat loudly first, then took a good luck around him at the faces that were watching his every action. Then he spoke, “It is pretty after all! You know, I never even considered it before. But, by God, it’s quite an attractive addition to the field.” Turning to Harry McFarland he smiled warmly and spoke in a loud voice, “It’s really very pretty, Harry, and now that I have seen it in a new light, I think it would be a pity to cut it down. Instead, I’ll send down a gardener to-morrow, who will clip it and trim it nicely. Aye! yes, indeed, it would be a pity to dig it all up.” There was a huge sigh of relief from those that were standing around the scene, and then a hint of suppressed giggles as they turned away to hide the expression on their faces. They knew the truth of it. The farmer had “thought better of it,” and that he had suddenly realised that “caution was the better part of valour.” You have probably already concluded that the farmer’s idea of creating and ornament of the bush was nothing more than a pretence. I can assure you that the bush has never been trimmed, and there it remains, practically the same as it was over fifty years ago in its size and appearance.
In my sixty-five years of life I have been blessed to see many similar bushes in various parts of the country. One very particularly memorable specimen exists along the south shore of Lough Neagh where, many years ago, a substantial stone wall had to be built a narrow country road near the shore. But, in the line along which the wall had to be built, there grew a “fairy bush,” which the workmen refused to remove from the spot where it stood. Every request and promise of increased payment, and threats of job loss failed to move them. The men, point blank, would not touch the fairy bush. The result of all this was that the bush was left undisturbed in the centre of the wall and arched over it. This unusual position in the stonework has proved to be something of a local attraction, which has also frequently attracted the attention of visitors who pass that way.
Just while we are considering the subject of things that are sacred to the “wee folk”, we should look at “cairns,” or heaps of stones. I can recall one very remarkable incident that goes a long way toward supporting the belief among many rural Irish people that it is not right to take away, or utilise for building purposes, any of the stones in those “cairns.” Cathal Hughes was building himself a new house on the outskirts of the town. While making his plans, Cathal remembered that he had seen a beautifully suitable keystone in the “fairy cairn.” The same man had been told that it was not sensible or right to interfere with any of the stones in that heap. However, there was one stone that he had set his eyes upon, which was so well suited for his purposes that he tempted to take a chance. Cathal, therefore, took the stone from the cairn and inserted it in the wall of his new house. But, the first night that he slept in the house, or rather lay down to sleep, he was disturbed by a most mournful crying coming from the very corner in which he had placed the stone. All through that night, until dawn broke, that bitter and plaintive wail continued. Cathal decided he would remove the stone after breakfast, but some of his neighbours suggested that it would be a waste to take the wall away. In the faulty belief that he would not be annoyed any further, Cathal decided that he would postpone his decision to remove the stone until he was sure that the weird cries were at an end. Unfortunately, he had not long to wait, for on the second night of his stay in the new home, the crying, lower but more sorrowful, continued again until morning. This disturbance settled the matter as far as he was concerned. The stone was taken out and replaced on the cairn, while another less attractive stone was selected to fill the space that was left in the wall. With this the crying ceased, and Cathal swore loudly that he would never, ever, again meddle with the stones of the “fairy cairn”.
Ghosts? Sure, I know you don’t believe in them and neither did I at one time. I had read the books and heard the stories, but I would laugh at the very mention of a spectre, headless horseman, or a weeping woman in white. The Ghost of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas to come did nothing to change my mind and I would often make fun of those who believed in such fantasies. That was until one evening, about twenty-years ago when I had my first encounter with a ghost. We lived in one of those old Georgian-type terrace houses where every room seemed to have stairs leading into or leading out it. On the evening in question I was downstairs in the kitchen area, sorting out some dishes, when I was suddenly distracted by the appearance of a strange woman who walked down the stairs leading into the room. I didn’t know it then, but I was to see her many times after this first appearance. I had heard the footsteps echo on the stairs a few moments before I turned, but it did not worry me because I knew there were other people in the house. Then, when I turned to where I had heard the footsteps, I found myself looking at al tall, stout, elderly woman, who was wearing an old-fashioned bonnet on her head and a shawl over her shoulders. From under her bonnet her glittering, silver-grey hair was clearly visible, framing a face that had a warm, kind and welcoming expression. I could only just stand and gaze at her for what seemed to be five minutes but was probably more like twenty seconds. In the beginning there was not any feeling of fear but, gradually, as I stood looking at her in silence a feeling of discomfort touched me and increased until my body was filled with terror. Slowly, I stepped back and continued to retreat from the apparition until I could feel the cold, brick wall at my back. Then, as suddenly as she appeared, the apparition faded away. This terrible feeling of terror always overcame me on all the subsequent occasions that she visited me. I am sure the feeling was brought on by the sudden unexpectedness of her appearances, which numbered at least fifteen occasions. She appeared to me over the years in every room in the house, and at every hour of the day or night. The last occasion on which I was visited by that old woman was just over ten years ago and, on that particular evening, my husband and I had just returned from a concert of Irish Traditional music. As was normal for us, on such occasions, we sat in the living-room and talked about the music we had heard and the musicians who had performed for us. After a while, for some reason I am still not sure of, I got up from my chair and went to the living-room door, opened it and found the old lady standing before me. She was bent over slightly towards the door as if she had been listening to what we were talking about. Startled by her sudden appearance I called out loudly and, almost immediately, my husband was at my side. She had gone, and that was the last time I was to see her. I can recall that almost every time that the old woman appeared to me she expressed her strong dissatisfaction with any disorder or untidiness in the home. She also had a strong objection to anything that led to a change in the general routine of the household, particularly if guests were to spend the night in the house. Guests who spent the night in the house were shown the old lady’s disapproval by turning the chairs in their room downward to face the floor. I remember one occasion when my brother-in-law stayed with us that he had to return to his room to collect something he had forgotten. When he was coming downstairs again we could hear him muttering to himself angrily, “Jaysus! You people! What in the name of God have you been doing with the furniture? Sure, I’ve almost broken my bloody big toe stumbling over one of those chairs lying down on the floor!” Twice during that same day my husband and I had turned the chairs to their proper place and, therefore, his remarks about the chaos in his bedroom did not surprise either of us. We decided, however, that it would be better if we did not enlighten him about the cause of the disruption. At some time during the years the old lad visited our home everyone in the family had been disturbed by peculiar knocking sounds, which they heard in various rooms in the house. Most frequently the sound could be heard on the walls or doors, but occasionally they could be heard on the furniture, close to where we were sitting. Sometimes the knocking was loud enough that it could be heard in the house next door and, on one occasion, our neighbour asked my husband what he could be hammering at such strange hours of the day. But, I can also recall another strange and fairly frequent occurrence happening, which involved some fur coats that I kept in my wardrobe. I hardly ever wore the coats and occasionally I was conscious of an odour emanating from them. My husband told me many times that it was just my imagination but, nevertheless, I would take them out and lay them across two chairs in an adjacent room to air them. I am always particular about my clothes but, the first time that I laid the coats out, I found, to my surprise, one of the coats lying in one corner and the other in another corner. Neither of these fur coats had been handled with any care, but I did not suspect that some supernatural being was at work in this. Mary, a young girl that I employed to help me keep the house in order, was suspected and I asked her about it. She, however, assured me that she had not been in the room at all that particular day. Although I accepted what Mary had told me, I was determined to investigate the matter for myself. So, late one night I removed the furs and laid them out as usual before taking care to lock the door to the room as I left. Furthermore, as part of my investigation, I ensured that I was the first to enter the room the following morning. Once again, I discovered the furs had been disturbed and thrown across the room. It was a few years after the apparitions and activity stopped in the house that I heard about the strange history that this house hid. About a century beforehand a young bank manager in London was assigned to a new post in Ireland, and he arranged for a house to be made ready for himself and his family. As he had to remain in London a few days to tidy up some domestic and business issues he sent his wife and two young children, along with their nurse, ahead. When the new tenants arrived at the house they found an old cleaning woman in the house, but she left very soon after their arrival. As the mother and nurse settled in to the new house that day they discovered that several things were needed, and the nurse was sent to purchase them from a local shop. When she returned to the house she went to the mother and asked her if the children were alright. The mother told her that she believed they were fine and was puzzled as to why the nurse would ask such a question. When the nurse explained that she had seen two ghostly forms pass her on the door-step! The two women rushed up to the nursery and discovered that both of the children were still in their cots, but their throats were cut, and blood had poured from the wounds, soaking all the bedclothes. Despite an intense investigation by the police, the murderer was never brought to justice, and there was no motive ever discovered. Sadly, the unfortunate mother of those children went insane with grief and never recovered. I wondered if this was the cause of the strange and eerie feeling that lingered in the house many months after the old lady ceased to appear to me. Was there more than the spirit of that old woman still clinging to the house, including the two little children who had been so brutally murdered. Not unexpectedly, we decided not to stretch our luck any further, sold the house to a local developer and moved many miles from the area.
Superstition is, and will probably remain, one of the major characteristics of the Irish people. One of the greatest sources of superstition, however, and one which has been the most productive of what are styled “well-founded and authenticated stories of supernatural occurrences,” is that ever changing ‘monster’ that is known in all its forms by the title of “Remarkable or Curious Coincidences.”
When events, which are precisely similar in detail, occur, they are considered coincidental. Some may consider them to be remarkable, given that these events are usually simple and ordinary. But, if these precisely similar events were repeated then they were considered to be a wonder. Quite recently, I was given an excellent example of this when I heard mention of a particularly curious coincidence having occurred not far from my home. It was the story of three men having been found drowned at various times during one winter season. Each body was found in the same river, at virtually the same place, and each wore two shirts. From that time it became a very strong belief among the locals that wearing two shirts was very unlucky.
Some people would suggest, however, that those people who would allow themselves to be guided by such beliefs would find their lives very burdensome. To be guided in their actions by these observations would require them to be in a state of constant alertness for the rest of their lives. The following story will, for instance, demonstrate the necessity of a person getting to know the names of fellow travellers, in case anyone with the name of Paddy Murphy be among them.
There was a time when the children in a large inland town rarely if ever saw the sea, unless they went on a day excursion organised by a local church group. In many of these seaside resorts enterprising persons often organise boat trips for fishing, sight-seeing, or simply for the experience of being on the open water. This was such in a resort that was, at one time, reachable by train from our home town. On one September morning a small pleasure boat with forty-one persons on board set out to travel down the Lough to the sea. It was a windy day, but not stormy enough to give any concern. When the boat reached the middle of the Lough the boat was overturned and only one man was saved. This fortunate man was called Paddy Murphy, a passenger on an excursion from m home town. Less than ten years after this incident a similar fate befell the twenty-five passengers aboard a small excursion craft. Again, only one man survived the incident, and he was called Paddy Murphy.
There are people who put a lot of credence in such coincidences, while others have belief in such things at all. Some people who have heard this story actually fear to trust their lives on any kind of boat with any man called Paddy Murphy. A little local knowledge and calm reflection, however, would go quite a way to removing such apprehensions. There are very few, if any, events in this life that cannot be traced back to natural causes.
The name of Murphy is very common in my home town, and Patrick, shortened to Paddy, is of course a favourite Christian name throughout all Ireland. There is every possibility, therefore, that persons with the name of Murphy, and very possibly even Paddy Murphy, were lost amongst the passengers on each of those occasions. But, the fact that people from the same town were on the excursions on each of those days appears to have been overlooked, while the coincidence of the individual saved on each occasion being of the same name was recorded. The events could have been simply accounted for by the ordinary rules of calculating odds or chances. Where the name of Paddy Murphy was common, there was certainly a greater chance of a person of that name being saved than one of any other, and, as has been remarked previously, no notice was taken of just how many Paddy Murphys had perished in these events.
Those of you who may visit Ireland at some time might well hear tales that involve ‘Fetches’ and ‘Apparitions’ and, perhaps, this is an opportune time to give some explanation of what these things are. The ‘Fetch’ is supposed to be a mere shadow that resembles, in stature, features, and dress, a living person who is often seen suddenly and mysteriously by a very particular friend. If the ‘Fetch’ appears in the morning it means a happy, long life for the original is foretold.
The ‘Fetch’ is like a spirit, flitting here and there in the sight of humans, appearing to walk through the fields at a leisurely pace, often disappearing afterward through a gap or lane. The person that the ‘Fetch’ resembles is usually a man or a woman who is known to be succumbing to some mortal illness at the time and is quite unable to leave his or her bed. Whenever the ‘Fetch’ appears to be agitated, or makes eccentric movements, a painful death is said to be the fate of the already doomed original. Moreover, this shadowy phantom is said to make its appearance, simultaneously, to more than one person and in different places.
The tales of the ‘Fetch’ has been handed down through the generations by those who experienced the event. One such person was the Earl of Roscommon, a well-known poet in his day, who was born in Ireland in 1633. It has been said that he inexplicably had a forewarning of his father’s death while he was living in the town of Caen, in Normandy. It is known that similar forebodings were common among the early ‘Norse-men’, and it is very probable that it was from the early Viking settlers in Ireland that the story of the ‘Fetch’ originated. Among the Norse such forebodings were common and included many horrific apparitions and dreams, many of which can be heard among the traditions of the Hebridean Islanders.
As in Ireland these ‘Fetches’ adopted a strange mixture of superstition, which has been handed down from our pre-Viking ancestors, and those that have been transferred from those invading hordes that colonized many areas of this island. Much of these traditions seem to have disappeared in these modern times. But in, the most northern province of Ireland, Ulster there continues to be a trace of the belief in wild and horrific apparitions and shadowy ‘Fetches, especially in the more remote rural areas.
On the afternoon of 22nd April 1874 a lady called Biddy Early died in her small, two-roomed, mud-walled cottage that overlooked Lake Kilbarron, in Feakle, County Clare. Outside of Ireland she remains a virtual unknown, but in Ireland she was famous in her own lifetime, especially since her life story was first published in 1903. Since that time her reputation has grown, embellished with dark tales of witchcraft that continue to be associated with her. Such was the woman’s fame that in the 1970s attempts were made to secure funding for a newly renovated cottage on the site. These efforts, however, failed because no government agency would undertake its financial upkeep. Unfortunately, the old cottage fell into a state of ruin, in which it remains, while its former owner was buried in an unmarked grave.
Biddy’s fame for cures made the woman a household name throughout her long-life and, at some point in that long-life, she acquired a bottle made with dark glass, which contained an even darker, healing liquid. There are numerous tales from a wide variety of sources that attempt to tell the story of how she came into possession of that ‘magic bottle. They all agree, however, that its origin was with the ‘Good People’, for it was frequently used for the purposes of divining future events (Scrying). At the same time Biddy was famed for her mixing of herbal cures in this and other bottles that appeared to cure illness in animals as well as in people.
She would gather herbs and plants before sunrise, with the morning dew still shining upon them. It was widely believed by such curing women that the dew was a secretin of the light of dawn, which was a key element in the idea of eternal life. As she progressed through her later years it is claimed that Biddy became a cranky and absent-minded old woman. This attitude and the success of her potions led many to believe that she was practicing witchcraft from her small cottage. In fact, Biddy was a relatively generous woman who rarely accepted payment for her services, unless it was a gift of food. She did not, however, accept those who scorned her craft and did not believe in the ‘Good People.’
Biddy’s home became known as a place of great merriment and neighbours would frequently come to the house for a drink, in the knowledge that she always had a plentiful supply of donated poteen and other spirits. But these merry social gatherings also fell foul of the local quality folk, including the Catholic clergy, the medical profession, landlords, the police and the judiciary. They were already annoyed by the fact that Feakle already had a reputation for being the most superstitious places in Ireland, which was being strengthened every day by Biddy’s presence. At this time too, ‘Pishogues’ (Sorcerers) of various types were often employed to bring bad luck to a rival or enemy, and even today the practice still exists in parts of this island. In fact, ‘wise-women’ (Spéirbhean) such as Biddy, were often sought to help lift curses and bad-luck from the poor. These women would also be employed as special mediators to act in any disagreements that may arise with the fairies over the violation of their ancient land rights. It was a task for which Biddy was well qualified for it was said that she had spent some of her youth living among the fairies, or good people (Sidhe). In fact, there were some neighbours who insisted that Biddy, her brother and her only son, Paddy, were actually ‘Changelings’ or ‘Away with the Fairies.’
Biddy and her practices also came into conflict with the Catholic Church and the members of the medical profession. The powerful Catholic Church in Ireland was totally and vehemently opposed to many of the traditional arts because they believed them to be dangerous remnants of a pagan Ireland. The ability of the Church to oppose wise women like Biddy Early were severely restricted during the Penal times. But, after the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the church slowly began to re-emerge as a political power in the land. In many of the folktales that surround the person of Biddy Early there are many examples of confrontations with various clergymen. One story tells of a fiery young curate from County Tipperary who made his way to Biddy’s cottage to chastise her, only to find himself frozen in his saddle near Annasala Bridge. Only after he had taken back all the oaths that he had sworn to her and apologised the curate was released by using three blades of dry grass to strike the right shoulder of the curate’s horse with the trinitarian blessing – “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” In fact, it was said that Biddy always invoked the ‘Holy Trinity’ before handing over her remedies to the sick people. Furthermore, despite her difficulties with the clergy, she always advised those who visited her to listen to the advice of the priests and clergy.
One famous visitor to Biddy’s cottage was the ‘Great Emancipator’, Daniel O’Connell, who was the Member of Parliament for Clare. But, despite her popularity among the people, she found herself in conflict with medical people, which formed the basis for several stories associated with Biddy Early. It was said, for example, that she rented a cottage from a certain Doctor Murphy from Limerick, who wanted to evict her for non-payment of rent though it seems more likely that professional jealousy was the real reason. The policemen and Sheriff that were sent to evict her from the small cottage near Kilbarron Lake, were ordered by her to ‘Stay where you are.’ Rumour had it that the words were given to her in an apparition by her dead husband Pat. The men were rooted to the spot and it was two hours before she released them. But another version of the same story says that Biddy warned the men sent to evict her with the words, “Whoever is the first to put a bar to this house, he will remember it.” When one of the men put a crowbar between two stones in the wall he fell awkwardly and broke his thigh. Taking hold of their wounded colleague the men ran off in terror.
Doctor Murphy, however, would not be denied and he ensured that Biddy was forced into the Ennis Workhouse. Soon after this, Murphy’s own house in Limerick mysteriously caught fire and only a charred foot was recovered from the ruins in which the Doctor himself was trapped. It is said that Biddy warned him beforehand what his fate would be, and he refused to listen. But this was not Biddy’s last encounter with the medical profession. There was a Doctor Folan from Ennis who came to argue with Biddy but found that he could not find his way home although he knew that road well. Yet, in fairness to Biddy Early, she did not seek conflict and neither did she guarantee anyone a cure. In fact, it was not unknown for Biddy to refuse to see some patients if she felt that they were destined to die. In some cases, Biddy would give a potion to calm an anxious relative that, it is said, would break if death was inevitable. The whole idea of looking into the future was an integral part of the legend surrounding Biddy, and it wasn’t unknown for her to advise the local farmers about those stealing their or sheep and resolving family disputes.
From the historical record we know that the nineteenth century was a period of bitter agrarian violence in the County Clare. It was a time when gangs of desperate men roamed the land under the names of ‘White Boys’, ‘Ribbonmen’ and ‘Moonlighters’, seeking brutal revenge against the landlords for the large number of evictions that were happening. In 1816, Biddy was in service on the Carheen Estate, which belonged to a landlord called Sheehy. It appears that she was a participant in the raising of a petition against the raising of rents and she was given a court order to prepare for eviction from her home. In response, Biddy warned Sheehy that his bones would never lie in hallowed ground. Later, three of Sheehy’s tenants led by a man called Touhy killed the landlord and burned his house to the ground. Biddy, however, was able to advise the men that a potential witness for the Crown, a woman called Nell Canny, should not be harmed, as she might prove herself useful to them. Subsequently, Nell, who was a maid on the estate, spoke in court and told them it was her and not the accused men who had dropped hot coals on the grass the cottage. Later, in a case that involved the shooting to death of Alderman William Sheehy, brother of the same man killed by the Touhy gang, Biddy was able to advise the assassin to take a suitable escape route to America through Liscannor and Kilrush, which would avoid the ‘Peelers’ (Police). Biddy’s current husband at the time, Tom Flannery, was before the courts in 1860 for conspiracy in the same murder and lodged in Ennis gaol. The local press of the day named him and described him as being the husband of ‘The Witch’, Biddy Early. Because the chief culprits in the case had vanished the case against Tom Flannery was dropped.
There are rumours that in 1865 Biddy was tried for witchcraft, under an old law enacted in 1586. But this story has never been proved and Betty was certainly not convicted of any offence. Another surprise that she would play upon her neighbours was that before she died, in April 1874, she asked a neighbour man, Patrick Loughnane, to fetch a priest to her bedside who would give her the last rites. It is said that she asked the priest who attended her, Father Andrew Connellan, to throw her ‘magic bottle’ into a body of water that would later become known as ‘Biddy’s lake’.
Rumour has it that when this larger-than-life character died, twenty-seven priests attended her funeral. Furthermore, the next Sunday, the parish priest asked that all his parishioners should pray for the happy repose of the soul of Biddy Early and described her as a saintly woman. We wonder just what Biddy would have said if she had heard such a tribute.
For Further information you could consult the following:
E. Lenihan, “In search of Biddy Early”; Cork, 1987.
M. Ryan, “Biddy Early—wise woman of Clare”; Cork, 1978.
D. Stewart, “Biddy Early—famous ‘witch’ of Clare”, Parts I & II; Limerick Chronicle, 3rd and 10th October 1953.
In Irish folklore, there are many mysterious and frightening creatures from a dark world that roam this world unseen. They can be said to be the spirits of the dead, who are not yet ready to accept their final destiny, ‘eternal rest’. These spirits are the heralds of death, destruction, and evil. They are also the embodiment of Satan him/herself. The following are descriptions of some of these dark spirits.
The Devil is the personification of evil as it is conceived in many and various cultures and religious traditions, the ultimate hostile and destructive demon. Any attempt to give a general definition that will cover all traditions and cultures is virtually and describing it as “the manifestation of evil” is somewhat inadequate. We can only look at the devil through the images that the various cultures have developed as part of their mythology. As a result of independent development within each tradition, the devil is given many names and powers. Generally, however, it portrayed in colours of black, blue, or red, and portrayed as having horns on his head. But, not in every case. In Celtic tradition, there are two candidates for this post, i.e Cernunnos and Balor (Celtic Irish).
is the conventional name given in to depictions of the ‘Horned God’ of Celtic mythology. He was the Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and ruler of the underworld, whose name appears in many forms throughout the Celtic World. Cernunnos is usually depicted with the antlers of a stag, sometimes carrying a purse filled with coin, often seated cross-legged and often associated with animals and holding or wearing torcs. Unfortunately, not much is known about the god from literary sources, and details about his name, his followers or his significance in Celtic religion are unknown.
is a more likely candidate for being the Devil of Irish mythology. The name itself may come from the Common Celtic ‘Baleros’, which means “the deadly one”. In the ancient tales of Ireland, Balor was the tyrant king of the Fomorians, who were a group of supernatural beings.
Balor was said to be the son of ‘Buarainech’ and husband of ‘Cethlenn’, and deadly tyrant who oppresses the island of Ireland from his fortress on Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal, where there are features called Dún Bhalair (“Balor’s fortress”) and Túr Bhalair (“Balor’s tower”).
He is often described as a giant with a large eye that wreaks terrible destruction when it is opened. The story of ‘The Cath Maighe Tuireadh’ (“The Battle of Magh Tuireadh”) calls it a “destructive” and “poisonous” eye that no army can withstand and says that it takes four men to lift the eyelid. This great battle was said to be fought between the ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ against the ‘Fomorians’ by Lough Arrow in County Sligo.
In later folklore, he gained a reputation for being the bringer of drought, blight, and the scorching sun. This may have derived from the later traditions saying that – “He had a single eye in his forehead, a venomous fiery eye. There were always seven coverings over this eye. One by one Balar removed the coverings. With the first covering the bracken began to wither, with the second the grass became copper-coloured, with the third the woods and timber began to heat, with the fourth smoke came from the trees, with the fifth everything grew red, with the sixth it sparked. With the seventh, they were all set on fire, and the whole countryside was ablaze!“
Balor’s story tells us that he heard a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson and, to avoid such a fate, he locked his only daughter, Ethniu, in a tower on Tory Island to prevent her from becoming pregnant. Then, one day, Balor stole a magical cow of abundance, from Goibniu the smith, and took it to his fortress on Tory Island. Cian, who was guarding the cow for Goibniu, set out to retrieve the cow and, with the help of the druidess Biróg, he entered the tower, finding Ethniu and had intercourse with her. Angered by Cian, Balor seized him and put him to death. Then, when Ethniu gives birth to a son, Balor attempts to drown the child in the sea or has the child set adrift on the sea to die. The child, however, was saved by the sea god Manannán, who raises the child as his foster-son, whom he named Lugh. This child, Lugh, eventually becomes king of the ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and leads them in the Battle of Mag Tuireadh (Moytura) against the Fomorians, who are led into battle by Balor. Legend tells us that Lugh killed Balor by casting a spear made by crafted by Goibniu, or a sling stone, through his eye and that Balor’s eye destroyed the Fomorian army before Lugh finally beheaded Balor.
Another legend says that, when Balor was slain by Lugh, he fell face first into the ground and his deadly eye beam burned a hole into the earth. This great hole filled with water and became a lake which is now known as Loch na Súl (“Lake of the eye”) in County Sligo. There is yet another tradition, which claims that Balor was the grandson of Nét and that he met his death at Carn Uí Néit (“Cairn of Nét’s grandson”), which is known in English as Mizen Head.
The ‘Fear Gorta’ is only one part of a huge collection of Irish folklore, but it speaks directly to the suffering experienced during the ‘Great Potato Famine 91848-49)’. The striking image of wasted legs that is usually described in stories containing the ‘Fear Gorta’ may have been derived from the starvation conditions of the Irish peasantry during the ‘Potato Famine’. Even in these modern days the images and memories of the famine play a major part in psyche of the Irish people. Folk-stories help the people to come to an understanding of these terrible circumstances that affected the famine-stricken.
There are many stories within the archives of the ‘Irish Folklore Dep.’ In UCD which refer to the ‘Fear Gorta/ach’ as “The Hungry Grass” as well as the thin-legged spirit (Hungry Men). These stories were collected all over Ireland, but many came from the ‘Gaeltacht’ area (Irish Speaking) through the offices of the Irish Folklore Commission, after it began operations in 1935. It was a massive undertaking to salvage and preserve the nation’s folklore in written transcripts of sound recordings, and from questionnaires, etc. It was, however, among the more generalized collection of folklore that the stories of ‘Fear Gorta’ emerged.
In the various manuscripts, references to the ‘Fear Gorta’ come in the form of belief statements, extensive memories, or third-party accounts e.g.
“This account was given in 1941. The narrator feels that, however, horrible the current war is (WWII), Ireland’s most dreadful story is the ‘Great Famine’. But, the people themselves believe that the ‘Fear Gorta’ constituted their great suffering, and it was not just bad food, or the shortage of food. Treading on a certain spot, or area would result in sudden weakness; no strength in the hands or legs; and the knees bent and trembled, the victim fell, crippled and senseless, and would remain so until the food could be given – a bit of bread or a few grains. Many narratives are told about people who have had the experience.” (Iml. 81:90 (Clare))
All the stories agree on both components that make up the experience (sudden weakness and extreme hunger when crossing a particular spot) and its remedy (consumption of some form of food, no matter how small.) Some folklorists have referenced the ‘Fear Gorta’ as a talisman, which is mistaken. A Talisman is something that wards off ill-fortune. In this case food is not warding off ill-fortune but rather a remedy for the ill-fortune brought by the ‘Fear Gorta’.
There are two reasons frequently given in the archives as to how certain places might acquire the ‘Fear Gorta.’ The first reason usually involves not leaving crumbs of food on the ground after an outdoor meal or offering thanks to God after such a meal. The second reason is usually a certain patch of ground that has come into contact with a corpse. This may happen if someone rests a dead body on the ground on the way to a wake-house. This latter reason brings an association with death at specific places. The resting of a corpse on the way to a wake-house does not involve the act of dying and, therefore, has little to do with the tragedy and its consequences. At he same time, this particular belief does involve unnatural death, which introduces crises within the victim’s community.
Thanks is to be given to – Davis Deborah R. 1994. “Images and Meanings of Purgatory in Folk Expression: A Cultural Thanatology.” and Logan, Patrick. 1972. “Making the Cure: A Look at Irish Folk Medicine.” Talbot Press. Dublin.
Fairy Hound (Cu-sidhe)
According to Irish and Scottish folklore, the ‘Cù-sìdhe’ is described as being the size of a young bull, but with the appearance of a dog. It has a shaggy coat of fur, which is usually a dark-green colour, though it is occasionally white. The hound’s tail has been described as being long and either coiled up or braided. With paws as wide as a man’s hand, its form is very graceful, and always instantly distinguished from mortal, non-magical dogs by its bright red eyes and the red inner lining of its ears.
The ‘Fairy Hound’ is one of the most formidable enchanted beasts that can be occasionally met in lonely rural locations, where it makes its home among clefts of rocks and roams moors and woodlands where Ireland’s Fairy folk dwell. The ‘Cù-sìdhe’ was feared as a bringer of death and would appear to bear away the soul of a person to the afterlife. In this role, it holds a function similar to that of the ‘Bean Sidhe’ (Banshee) in Irish folklore. It was said that even the mere sight of one of these creatures would bring the observer bad luck while speaking or touching one usually meant certain death. If it is treated with sufficient courtesy and compassion, however, a fairy hound can occasionally bring the observer good fortune.
According to the tales of legend, the ‘Fairy Hound’ was capable of hunting silently, but would occasionally let out three terrifying barks, and only three. These barks could be heard for miles by those listening for it, even far out at sea, and those who heard the barking had to reach safety by the third bark, or they would be overcome with terror to the point of death. Some said that the baying was also a dire warning that nursing women should be locked up safely for fear the hound would abduct them and take them to a fairy fort to supply milk for the ‘Daoine-sidhe’.
At one time the wolf was an integral part of Ireland’s countryside and culture, but they are now extinct. Indeed, the last wild wolf in Ireland was said to have been killed in 1786, three hundred years after they were believed to have been wiped out in England, and a century after their disappearance in nearby Scotland. It is not surprising, therefore, that Wolves feature prominently in the mythology of Ireland. A mysterious creature called Airitech had three daughters, who appeared as werewolf-like creatures and were eventually killed by Cas Corach.
‘Mac Tire’ is the Irish word for wolf, literally meaning ‘The Son of the Country(side)’, keeping an association with its ability to transformation from a human being. Some consider this tradition not to be of native Irish and yet there are many references in Irish mythology to ‘lycanthropes’ and the changing from human form to other animal forms.
‘Faoladh’ and ‘Conroicht’ are both Irish words for “Werewolf” and, as you will learn, the Irish werewolf is a complex creature that is just as often helpful as it is deadly. Unlike other folk traditions, Irish werewolves were considered guardian spirits, who protected children, wounded men, and the lost.
The famous Norman historian of the 12th century, Gerald Cambrensis, wrote a topography of Ireland and described the Irish people as being barely civilised. He had, undoubtedly, a vivid imagination, believing Ireland was an exotic place where natural marvels were widespread. As a result, he told the most fantastic stories and presented them as fact. One such tale was “The Werewolves of Ossory”, which begins with a priest who travelled from Ulster to Meath. On this journey the priest and his companion were taking a rest by a fire, which they had lit in a clearing, when a wolf-like creature came upon them and began to talk. The wolf told them, “There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of ‘Natalis’, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their place, they return to their country and their former shape.”
The manner in which the wolf spoke to them gave them bot a sense of reassurance and they listened as the wolf explained that his female companion was dying, and that he wished to have the last rites from the priest. Unhesitatingly, the priest followed the wolf to the lair, where he saw the female wolf near to death. But he had serious doubts about administering the sacrament to an animal until the male wolf reached out, pulling off her wolfskin and revealing an old woman. He was content, now, to give her the last rites and she died peacefully. Happy with this outcome the wolf stayed with the priest and his companion all that night, talking. The priest, it is said, subsequently passed on this story to his bishop, who sent it all the way to Pope Urban III.
There is a variant of this story, which describes the pagan Irish mocking St. Patrick’s preaching by howling like wolves. Totally enraged by such behaviour the Irish Saint curses them all by changing them into wolves, or that he changed King Vereticus into a wolf.
Cambrensis also states, “The descendants of the wolf are in Ossory. They have a wonderful property. They transform themselves into wolves, and go forth in the form of wolves, and if they happen to be killed with flesh in their mouths, it is in the same condition that the bodies out of which they have come will be found; and they command their families not to remove their bodies, because if they were moved, they could never come into them again.”
In another text, ‘The Coir Anmann’, we hear of Shamans and other magicians who are able to send out their spirits, while they continue to lie as if they are dead, or asleep. “It says “ Laignech Fáelad, that is, he was the man that used to shift into fáelad, i.e. wolf-shapes. He and his offspring after him used to go, whenever they pleased, into the shapes of the wolves, and, after the custom of wolves, kill the herds. Wherefore he was called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf-shape.”
They were said to be fearsome warriors who, howling like wolves, fought for the ancient kings of Ireland, and were every bit as fierce and ferocious as the beasts whose shape they took. They, it is told, lived in remote areas, and unlike the werewolves of Ossory, they could turn into wolves whenever they wanted. There are tales that point out that these warriors would fight for any king who could pay their price, which was not measured in gold, but in the flesh of new-born babies.
They supposedly flourished during the reign of ‘Tigernmas’, who also followed Crom Cruach, according to the ‘Book of Leinster’ version of The Roll of Kings. ‘Tigernmas’ was a real king, who is famed for mining the first gold and introducing the art of working gold. The tales say, “… he died in Mag Slecht, in the great Assembly thereof, with three-fourths of the men of Ireland in his company, in worship of Crom Cruaich, the king-idol of Ireland; so that there escaped thence, in that fashion, not more than one-fourth of the men of Ireland; under Mag Slecht.”
In Irish folklore the ‘Fiann’ are well known as a group of landless young men and women, often sons of lords who had not yet inherited property. There are many stories about these brave bands, mainly in the ‘Fenian Cycle’ or Fianna ‘Fiannaíocht’, which relate the tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, and mentions bands of werewolves, and their relationship to witches, fighting off sorcerers who steal the grain and animals from the local farmers.
‘The Morrigan’ is the name given to the Goddess Morrigan, who is one of the triple Goddesses in Celtic mythology, and her name means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’. Representing ‘the circle of life’, she is associated with both birth and death, and being a shape-shifter she watches over the rivers, fresh water and lakes. In Irish mythology she is also described as being the Goddess of revenge, magic, priestesses, night, prophecy and witches.
‘The Morrigan’ is often depicted as a triple goddess, but this varies according to the source of research. But, in Celtic mythology, the number three has incredible significance and, occasionally, she is featured as one of three sisters, while on other occasions she is singular. In almost every artistic representation of the Goddess she is represented as being young, with long, flowing dark hair. Her clothing is black and sometimes very revealing, while she is sometimes cloaked so as not to show her face. Because ‘The Morrigan’ is a shape-shifter, she is often shown with one of the more common animal forms that she would assume, i.e. a crow or a raven. There are occasions when she is associated with horse symbolism and has been linked to ‘Epona’, the equine Goddess. There is one thing that is not disputed and that is, in every representation she is shown to be strikingly beautiful, and yet very intimidating.
It is difficult to find the exact origin of Morrigan in existing texts since much of Celtic mythology has either been destroyed or lost over the generations. But many say that she was part of the Tuatha de Danaan, a mythical race living in Ireland, who were descendants of the Goddess Danu, whose son, Dagda, was a powerful leader. While the story of ‘The Morrigan’s’ family is difficult to unravel, legend says that she was the daughter of Ernmas. She is supposed to have had several siblings, including Badb, Macha, Banba, Fohla and Eriu, while she and Dagda married and had a child. Other sources state that the pair only encountered each other on one occasion, and that, at a river. But the fruit of this encounter, or relationship, is said to have been a child, who was given the name Adair.
‘The Morrigan’ is known for her strengths, which include her ability to instil fear in those who opposed her, and she often helped to protect the people from invading armies by blowing a layer of fog over the land, thereby decreasing visibility. Although she did have some weaknesses, she is better known for her vindictiveness and her willingness to kill if she felt she was disrespected. She is forever linked to the festival of Samhain and is usually symbolically represented by a crow or raven.
Tommy Connolly told friends, “At the end of 1901 I took some time and went across the water to Ireland, where I spent time visiting a close relative who lived in a Square in the north side of Dublin. Several weeks later, in January 1902, my relative’s husband fell seriously ill. Over the next few nights I sat up with him until, at last, as his health appeared to improve, I decided to go to my bed and asked one of the house servants to call me if anything should happen. Tiredness quickly overcame me, and I soon fell asleep, but sometime later I was awakened again by a strong push on my left shoulder. Startled by this, I jumped up in the bed and asked, ‘Is there anything wrong?’ I didn’t get an answer to my question, but only received another push. Annoyed by this behaviour I angrily asked, ‘Can you not speak, and tell me if there is anything wrong!’ But there was still no answer, and I had a feeling that I was just going to get another push. It was then that I suddenly turned around and caught hold of a human hand, which felt plump, warm, and soft to my touch.
“’Who are you?’ I asked, but still I got no reply answer. Then, using every ounce of my strength I tried to pull the person towards me, but it was in vain. And yet, I told the person, ‘I will find out who you are!’ holding the hand tight in my right hand while, with my left, I felt the wrist and arm, enclosed, it appeared to me, in a tight-fitting sleeve of some type of winter material with a linen cuff. But when I got as far as the elbow all trace of an arm appeared to vanish. This shocked me greatly, and in my fright, I released my grip on the hand and, at that moment, I heard the clock strike two.
“If you included the mistress of the house, there were five women in that home, and I am certain that the hand did not belong to any one of them. Then, when I reported the event in the house, the servants exclaimed, ‘Ah, sure, it must have been old Aunt Betty, who lived for many years in that area of the house, and she was already a great age when she died over fifty years ago.’ It was only after learning this that I heard the same room in which I had felt the hand was believed to be haunted, for very curious noises and strange happenings had occurred, including bed clothes being torn off, furniture being thrown, etc. It was said that one lady got a slap in the face from an invisible hand, and when she lit her lamp, she saw something shadowy fall or jump off the bed.Afterwards, the lady’s brother, an army officer, slept in that same place for two nights, but preferred to seek a room in a hotel in which to sleep for a third night. He left the next morning without stating what he had seen or heard, but only shook his head saying he would never sleep there again. Following this, however, I spent several months in the house, sleeping in that same room, and I was never again disturbed in any way.“