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.
At the end of the nineteenth century the only good and reliable washerwomen that existed in England were women from our own ‘Emerald Isle’. It was often said that laundresses were “two a penny”, while real washerwomen were thin on the ground and all of them were Irish. What made them so valuable was that when an Irish Washerwoman promised to wash the muslin curtains as white as “a hound’s tooth”, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” she told the truth. But when she promised to “get them up like new” she usually fell short of her promise. In the vast majority of cases, the Irish Washerwoman often marred her own admirable washing abilities by a carelessness in the final process. She often made her starch in a hurry, though it required great patience in its blending. It had to be stirred incessantly, almost constant boiling, and in the cleanest of all large metal pots. Unfortunately, tradition and lack of education appeared to prevent her from accepting the superiority of powder over ‘laundry blue’, which was a household product that was used to improve the appearance of textiles, especially white fabrics. She would simply snatch the blue-bag, usually made from the “toe” of a stocking, from its storage place beside a shapeless lump of yellow soap, left over since the last wash. She would squeeze the bag into the starch, which she may have stirred with a dirty spoon. From that moment there could be no possibility of clear curtains, or clear anything.
“Biddy, these curtains were as white as snow before you starched them.” “That’s true, ma’am dear.” “They have now turned blue, Biddy.” “Not all over, ma’am.” “No, Biddy, not all over. But, here and there.” “Ah, get away with ye, ma’am, will ye? Sure, it’s not that I mean. There’s a hole that’s worked in the blue-bag, bad luck to it, and more blue than I wanted got out. Sure, didn’t the starch get lumpy and became all bollocksed up?” “It would not have got ‘lumpy’, Biddy, if it had been well blended.” “Sure, didn’t I blend it like butter; but I just left off stirring for a minute to look at the parade.” “Ah now, Biddy, an English laundress would not have stopped to look at a parade!” This remark by her mistress offended Biddy’s scruples and she went off in a “huff,” muttering to herself that if they didn’t “look after a parade, they’d follow behind it. English laundresses indeed! Sure, they haven’t the power in their elbow to wash white.” Biddy said all this, and more, for she was proud of being an Irishwoman, and wondered why anyone would prefer anything English to everything Irish. But, she knew that the fact remained that the actual labour necessary at the wash-tub is far better performed by the Irish than the English. But the order, neatness, and exactness required in “finishing off,” is better accomplished by the English than the Irish. This state of affairs, she accepted, was perfectly consistent with the national character of both nations. Biddy Mahony was said by many to be the most useful person that they knew, and she was fully aware of that fact. But, she knew it, and yet she never allowed herself to be presumptuous. It was not only as a washerwoman that her talent shone out, and she got through as much hard work as any other two women. Nevertheless, as she says herself often said, “the mistress always finds fault with my finishing touches.” But, although she was not young, she was still a fine-looking woman with a large mouth that was always ready with a smile. She had the features of a person filled shrewd good humour, her keen grey eyes were alive to everything around her, not resting for a moment, and filled with female cunning. The borders of her cap were always twice as deep as they needed to be and flapped untidily about her face. She wore a coloured handkerchief inside a dark blue spotted cotton gown, which wrapped loosely in front, where it was held in place the string of her apron. Biddy’s hands and wrists had the appearance of being half-boiled, which looked more painful than it really was. She did not use as much soda as an English laundress would, but she did not spare her personal exertions, and rubbed most unmercifully. Then, one bitter frosty winter’s day, Biddy was seen standing near the laundry window, stitching away with busily. “What are you doing, Biddy?” “Oh, never heed me, ma’am.” “Why, Biddy, what a state your left wrist is in! It is positively bleeding. In fact, it looks as if you have rubbed all the skin off.” “And aren’t I going to put a skin on it?” she said, smiling through the tears which had been drawn from her eyes by the pain she was suffering, in spite of her efforts to conceal them. In her hands she was holding a double piece of wash leather which she was sewing together so as to cover her torn flesh. Now, that was heroism, and Biddy was a heroine, without even knowing it. Like many others of her sex and country, her heroism is that of being a patient, self-denying character and does not show her true thoughts to others. She was an extraordinary patient person, who could bear a great quantity of abuse and unkindness and knew quite well that to a certain degree she was living in an enemy’s country. Half the bad opinion of the “low Irish,” as the English often insultingly termed them, arose from old national prejudices, while the other half was created by themselves, by often presenting themselves as being provokingly uproarious, and altogether heedless of the manners and opinions of those people among whom they live. This, however, was not the case with Biddy. She had a great deal of cunning and tact. While you thought she was only pulling out the strings of her apron, she was always alert, listening, and understanding, like a stalking cat. If she decided to make some kind of quiet joke about the peculiarities of her employers, there was nothing particularly vicious in it. After all Biddy’s betters often did the same and called it “teasing”. Unfortunately, however, the poor are not always judged on the same level as the rich. Among all the young servants in the house the Irish Washerwoman was always a favourite. She was cheerful, turned a cup to read someone’s fortune and usually, I am sorry to say, had half of a dirty and torn pack of cards in her pocket for the very same purpose. She would sing at her work, and through the wreath of curling steam that wound from the upraised skylight of the laundry, could be heard some old time-honoured melody, that in an instant brings the scenes and sounds of Ireland to the listener. She will soften the hearts of her listeners with “Danny Boy,” or “Noreen Bawn,” and then strike into “Galway Bay” or “St Patrick’s Day,” with the feeling and heart that only an Irish person can bring to the songs of the old country. The Old English servants regarded the Irish Washerwoman with deep suspicion. They thought she did too much work for the money she received, which reflected on attitude the “Missus” had toward their wages, and yet they were always ready enough to put their own “clothes” into the month’s wash, and expect Biddy to “pass them through the tub;” a favour she was always too wise to refuse. The upper classes were happy that the management of their households did not bring any temptation to thievery, which they believed existed in the homes of the Dublin gentry. They believed that servants in Ireland were allowed what was termed “breakfast money,” which meant that they were not to eat their employers’ food but were to ‘look out’ for themselves. Not surprisingly, such a restriction was considered to be the greatest possible inducement to picking and stealing. English gentry were happy to believe that their English servants had no need to steal the necessaries of life, because they were fed, and they were treated as human beings. As a consequence, they thought that there was not a fraction of the extravagance, the waste, and the pilfering that took place in Irish kitchens. They were too blind to see that it was the system rather than the servant that was the true problem. Meanwhile, washerwomen like Biddy continue to adjust to every modification of system in every house she goes to. The only thing she cannot bear to hear is her country and its people being abused, even when such abuse takes the form of a joke. In such circumstances the blood would rise and her cheeks flush with anger, and some years ago there was an occasion when Biddy answered in an appropriate way. One thing about the Irish that lifts them above others is their earnest love for their country when they are absent from it. Your polite, diplomatic Irishman might look a little disconcerted when you question his country, and with an oily, easy, musical swing of his voice asks innocently just how you knew he was Irish. They might even suggest, “that people cannot help their misfortunes.” The working-class Irish, however, will not be so pleasant, just as Biddy did when she was challenged as to her nationality. “Aren’t you the clever one, madam? I am Irish, sure, and my people before me, God be praised for it! I’d be a long and sorry to disgrace my country if I denied it, my lady. Fine men and women live in it as well as those who come out of it. Sure, it’s an awful pity that so many need to leave. It’s well enough for the likes of me to leave it, for I could do it no good. But, as to the gentry, the sod keeps them, and sure they might keep on the sod! Ye needn’t be afraid of me, my lady; I would do nothing to disgrace my country. I am not afraid of my character, or the work I do, for it’s all I have to be proud of in this wide world.” How much more respect does this attitude deserve in every right-thinking mind, than any mean attempt to conceal a fact of which we all, as well as poor Biddy, have a right to be proud! Biddy’s reply to someone of her own social stature might have received a much different reply such as – “Am I Irish? I am to be sure! Do ye think I’m going to deny my country, God bless it?! Truly I am proud to be born Irish and to be called Irish! I cannot think of anything else that I would want to be!” You should have a great deal of sympathy for poor Biddy, because her life has been one long-drawn scene of incessant, almost heart-rending labour. From the time she became eight years old, Biddy earned her own bread and it is a wonder that having endured such a hard life that Biddy retained her habitual cheerfulness. Every evening her hearty laughter could be heard echoing through the house, while she would treat the servants at every kitchen Christmas party with a lively Irish jig. But, one Christmas, Biddy was not as happy as she usually was. One of the pretty housemaids had, for the past two or three years, made it a regular request that Biddy should put her own wedding ring in the kitchen pudding. No one knew why Jenny continually made such a request because she never had the luck to find it in her slice of the pudding. But, she did. Christmas eve was always a merry night in the homes of ‘the Quality’. The cook, in her
kitchen, was puffed-up with her own importance and weighed her ingredients according to her recipe for “a one-pound or two-pound pudding.” She would inspect her larded turkey and pronounce her opinions upon the relative merits of the sirloin which was to be the “roast for the parlour,” and “the ribs” that were destined for the kitchen. Although she had a great deal of work to do, like all English cooks, she maintained a most sweet mood, because there was a great deal to eat. She looked proudly over the dozens of mince pies, the soup, the savoury fish, the huge bundles of celery, and the rotund barrel of oysters, in a manner that had to be seen to be believed. At the same time, the housemaid is equally busy in her department, while the groom smuggled in the mistletoe and the old butler slyly suspended from one of the bacon hooks in the ceiling before he kissed the cook beneath. The green-grocer’s boy would have been scolded for not bringing “red berries on all the holly.” Then the evening would be wound up with drinks, a half-gallon, of ale and hot elderberry wine, and a loud cheer would echo through the house when the clock struck twelve. In those times a family would be considered to be very poor if they had no meat, a few loaves of bread, and a few shillings, to distribute amongst some old pensioners on a Christmas Eve. In that particular household, Biddy had been a positive necessity for many Christmas days, and just as many Christmas eves. She was never told to come, because it was an understood thing. Biddy would ring the gate bell every twenty-fourth of December, at six o’clock, and even the English cook would return her national salutation of “God save all here,” with cordiality. Jenny, as I have said, was her great ally and had been found at least sixty husbands, in the tea cups, in as many months. One Christmas Eve morning, however, Biddy didn’t come to the house. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, and still the maids were not up and at their work. They didn’t know what time it was because Biddy had not rung the bell and the entire house was collapsing into a state of commotion. The cook, in her panic, declared, “How will it all end? Isn’t it always the way with those Irish. The dirty and ungrateful woman. Who is going to heat the water, boil the ham, look after the celery, butter the tins or hold the pudding cloth? “Or drop the ring in the kitchen pudding!” whimpered Jenny Instead of the usual clattering domestic bustle of old Christmas, everyone looked sulky, and, as usual when a household is not fully awake in the early morning, everything went wrong. The lady of the house was not at all pleased with what was happening, but she had promised herself that she would never speak to a servant when she was angry. Instead, she put on her fur coat, and set out to see what had become of the poor industrious Irish woman. She went to the place where Biddy lived on Gore Lane and made her way into the small cottage that the washerwoman rented. Although it was not a tidy house it was, nevertheless, clean. She found Biddy sitting over the embers of a dying fire and, instead of being greeted with the usual beaming smile, the washerwoman turned away from her and burst into tears. This was not what she had expected and the anger she had felt back at the house now disappeared entirely. Biddy had happily rid herself from the burden of a drunken husband several years ago, and she worked hard to support three little children without ever having thought once about sending them to a workhouse. She had people for whom she washed at their own houses, and even took in work at her small cottage. To help her in this task she employed a young girl called Lisa, whom she had taken in from the streets and saved her from ‘a fate worse than death’. Biddy had found Lisa starving on the streets and she brought fever amongst her children. At the same time Biddy lost much work through her charitable act but she nursed the young girl through her sickness, and never regretted having befriended a motherless child. People who demonstrate such charity to others deserve any praise they might receive, and Biddy acted like a mother to the girl. Turning to her employer Biddy began to explain her absence, and the cause of her tears, “I came home last night, as usual, more dead than alive, until I got sitting down with the children. As usual I put two or three potatoes on to heat on the stove and then, tired as I was, I thought I would iron out the few small items that Lisa had put in to wash. These included a clean cap and handkerchief, and the aprons for to-day, because you like to see me nice and presentable. My boy got a prize at school, where I took care to send him that he would get the education that makes the poor rich. Well, I noticed that Lisa’s hair was hanging in ringlets down her face, and I says to her, ‘My honey, if Annie was you, and she’s my own, I’d make her put up her hair plain. It’s the way the quality wears and I think it would be good enough for you Lisa.’ Then says she to me, ‘It might do for Annie, but for me it’s different because my mother was a tradeswoman.’ I tell you, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from hurting her feelings by telling her exactly what her mother was and bringing the blush of shame to the girl’s cheeks. “But I waited until our work was finished over, and, picking her out the two potatoes, and sharing, as I always did, my half pint of beer with her, I tried to reason with her. Then I looked across to where my three sleeping children were lying, little Jimmy’s cheek was blooming like a rose, on his prize book, which he had taken into bed with him, and I promised God that although my heart was drawn more to my own flesh and blood, I would look after her as I would them. “She didn’t answer me, but put the potatoes aside, and said, ‘Mother, go to bed.’ I let her call me mother,” continued Biddy, “it’s such a sweet sound, and doesn’t do any harm. Saying might have helped her not feel so alone in the world. The word can be a comfort to many a breaking heart, and can calm down many a wild one. As old as I am, I still miss my mother still! ‘Lisa,’ says I, ‘I’ve heard my own children’s prayers, why not kneel down dear and say your own?’ “‘My throat’s so sore,’ said she, ‘I can’t say them out aloud. Don’t you see I could not eat the potatoes?’ This was about half past twelve, and I had spoken to the police to give me a call at five. But when I awoke, the grey of the morning filled the room. I knew where I should be, and I quickly got dressed in my clothes. Then, hearing a policeman below the window, I said to him, ‘Please, could you tell me what time it is and why you didn’t call me?’ ‘It’s half past seven,’ says he, ‘and sure the girl, when she went out at half past five, said you were already up.’ ‘My God! What girl?’ I asked him, turning all over like a corpse, and then I missed my bonnet and shawl, and saw my box empty. Lisa had even taken the book from under the child’s cheek. But that wasn’t all. I’d have forgiven her for the loss of the clothes, and the bitter tears she caused my innocent child to cry. I’d even forgive her for making my heart grow older in half an hour, than it had grown in its whole life before, but my wedding ring, ma’am? That girl’s head often had this shoulder for its pillow, and I would throw this arm over her, so. Oh, ma’am, could you believe it? The girl stole my wedding ring off my hand, the very hand that had saved and slaved for her! The ring! Oh, there is many a tear I have shed on it, and many a time, when I’ve been next to starving, and it has glittered in my eyes, that I’ve been tempted to part with it, but I couldn’t. It had grown thin, like myself, with the hardship of the world, and yet when I’d look at it twisting on my poor wrinkled finger, I’d think of the times gone by, of him who had put it on, and would have kept his promise but for the temptation of drink, and what it leads to. In those times, when trouble would be crushing me into the earth, I’d think of what I once heard that a ring was a thing like eternity, having no beginning nor end. I would turn it, and turn it, and turn it and find comfort in believing that the little penance here was nothing in comparison to that without a beginning or an end that we were to go to hereafter. It might be in heaven, or it might, God forbid, be in the other place; and,” said poor Biddy, “I drew a great deal of consolation from that, and she knew it, the serpent. She that I shared my children’s food with, knew it, and, while I slept the heavy sleep of hard-work, she had the poison in her to rob me! She robbed me of the only treasure, barring the children, that I had in this world! I’m a great sinner; for I can’t say, God forgive her, nor I can I bring myself to work. The entire thing has driven me away from my duty and Jessie, the craythur, always laid ever so much store by that ring, on account of the little innocent charms. Altogether, this has been the worst Christmas day that ever came to me. Oh, sure, I wouldn’t have that girl’s heart in my breast for a golden crown, her ingratitude of beats the world!” Lisa’s actions were truly the most callous case of ingratitude that I have ever known. What a wretch she was to rob the only friend she ever had, while she slept in the very bed where she had been attended to, and cared for, so unceasingly. “She could have taken all that I had in the world, if only she had left me that ring” Biddy repeated continually, while she rocked herself backwards and forwards over the fire. “The little bit of money, the rags, and the child’s book. She could have had them all and I would not have cared a bit. I could have forgiven her from my heart, but I can’t forgive her for taking my ring. Not for taking my wedding ring!” This was not the end of it. The girl was soon traced and taken into custody by the police and, that same day Biddy was told she must go to the police station to identify the prisoner. “Me,” she exclaimed, “Sure, I never was in a police station before and don’t know what to say other than she took it.” In an English police court of the period an Irish case always created a bit of jollity. The magistrates would smile at each other, while the court reporter cut his pencil and arranged his note-book, and the clerk of the court would cover the lower part of his face with his hand, to conceal the smile that grew around his mouth. They watched, amused, as Biddy attempted an awkward curtsey before she began to speak. She began by wishing their honours a merry Christmas and plenty of them, before expressing her hope that they might continue to use the power of their office to do good until the end of their days. Then, when Biddy saw the creature whom she had cared for so long, in the custody of the police, she was completely overcome and mixed her evidence with so many pleas that the girl be shown mercy, that the magistrates were sensibly affected. Though there had only been a short time between Lisa’s running away and her capture, she had pawned the ring and spent all the money. There were, however, at least twenty people who extended their helping hand to the Irish Washerwoman with money to redeem the pledge. Poor Biddy had never been so rich before in all her life, but that did not help console her for the sadness she felt at the sentence that was passed upon Lisa and it was a long time before she was able to regain her usual spirits. She weakened, and she grieved, and when the spring began to advance a little, and the sun began to shine, her misery became quite troublesome. Biddy’s continual cry was, “for the poor sinful creature who was shut up among stone walls and would be sure to come out worse than she went in!” The old English cook lived to become thoroughly ashamed of the things she had both thought and said about Biddy, and Jenny held her up on every possible occasion as a being the ideal image of an Irish Washerwoman.
The number nine was a favourite number with the Celts and was used more frequently in ‘cure ceremonials’ than any other number.
Say that last night you went to your bed and in perfect health. When you awoke this morning, you find there is a lump or tumour on your face, or on some other part of your body. You had not felt any pain until you awoke, but now there is some pain, or is at least somewhat troublesome. You know now that some spirit of evil has touched you, and would you like to know the cure? Of course, you want the cure and, here it is!
Get nine pieces of iron, any articles will do, just make certain that they are made of iron. Then, “measure” the swelling with these irons, namely you make the sign of the cross with each on the “blighted” spot and throw the ninth iron over your head. There now, you are cured! praise be to God!
You don’t believe me, but I heard this story from an old lady called Mary. She told me, “My wee Bridie went to bed one night as well as ever she was. But, in the morning she had a lump on her cheek the size of a hen’s egg. To be honest, I paid little attention to it and thought it would be alright again before night time. I was thinking to myself that it had come on her suddenly and would suddenly disappear again. But the lump got worse and old Sadie from Ballinacorr came into the house about twelve o’clock. ‘In the name of God,’ said she, ‘what’s wrong with the little girl? God bless her !‘
‘There’s none of us that knows,’ says I.
‘And did you do anything for it?‘ says she.
‘I did not,’ says I, ‘for I hadn’t a clue what to do with it.‘
‘Well get nine irons,‘ says she, ‘and though you should have done it long ago, measure her.’
Well, we did, and she was all right within a very short time, and now for you!
” For inflammation of the eyelid, an equally remarkable use is made of the number nine. The sore, which usually assumes the form of a small round lump, tapering towards the top, is called a sty. To ‘cure’ it, take nine gooseberry pricks, or “stabs ” as they are called, and in succession ‘point’ first towards the eye, next towards the ground, and the final one was thrown over the left shoulder. I know a friend that once ‘doctored’ herself in the way that I have told you, and she got immediate relief.
Why the gooseberry “stabs” are the only ones which are effective I don’t know. In the same way I cannot explain ‘The Soot o’ Nine Pots’ being a sure remedy for many kinds of illness that can effect cattle. The one thing that I do know is that any number other than nine will not do. At one time someone suggested that the number was selected in honour of the ‘Nine Muses’, (Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope) but I believe this idea to be too fanciful to be seriously entertained. I believe it is sufficient for us to know that the directions for use are faithfully recorded and that we should use them in accordance with the precise directions that are contained in that great traditional and mystical list of medicines created by the Gaelic race since earliest times.
In my various readings and studies of Irish Traditions and Folklore I have picked up many useful notes on how best to behave. These notes refer to an ‘Irish Wake’, which is very solemn occasion, but also full of celebration that the soul of the dead person has gone to a much better place.
Consider these points:
Never use a short cut to bring a body home to the house of the church.
Stop the clocks in the ‘wake house’.
When fires go out, do not remove any ashes from the ‘wake house’.
Do not light a candle from the flame of another at a wake. If you cannot find a match or lighter, then light it at the fire.
Refuse no person a smoke at a wake, let them take at least a couple of draws.
Refuse no person a drink or a bite to eat but give out both liberally.
Don’t silence laughter, because it may be caused by humorous stories concerning the actions of the deceased.
Put a cloth over all mirrors in the house.
Besides the above there are several useful helpful tips and warnings about things that might just happen
A cock crowing at an unusual hour at night is a sign of trouble or death, while a hen crowing at any time is a much surer sign.
A dog crying round a house is also a sign of death in that house.
You should not look not in a looking-glass at night, and if you break a looking-glass, you’ll have no luck for seven years.
You should never brush a floor in the direction of the door, because if you do you sweep away all the luck that’s in the house.
Finally, other than something borrowed and something blue, a girl who is getting married should wear, on her wedding day, something that belongs to a married woman.
There is great luxuriance about Irish mythology, filled with Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Spirits and fantastic creatures of all sorts. This is particularly conspicuous when it comes to the history and characteristics of the ‘Fairy Folk’, more commonly known in Ireland as ‘The Good People.’ As with most mythological characters the origins of these people are confused and the subject of widespread debate. One popular belief concerning the origins of ‘The Fairy Folk’ suggests their beginnings are linked to a group of invaders known as the ‘Tuatha de Danann,’ which means “the people of the goddess Danu”, who were revered as gods by the native Irish. Over time, however, the ‘Tuatha de Danann’ succumbed to fresh invaders, who banished these so-called gods to the underground portion of Ireland. It is from this that people came to believe that fairies lived under the ground, and they came to be called ‘The Sidhe’ (pronounced: Shee).
Another popular belief, that may arise from after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, suggests that the ‘Fairy Folk’ were once angels and were so numerous that they formed a large part of the population in heaven. When Satan turned against God and gathered a host of angels around him in open rebellion, there were some who did not want to join in the war that followed. They were fearful of the consequences that might be visited upon them by the victor and, therefore, preferred to see who won the battle before taking sides. Then, when the rebellious angels were defeated and expelled from heaven, those angels who had stood aside and did nothing were also banished. The offence of these neutral angels was one of omission rather than rebellion and they were not consigned to an eternity in the pit of hell with Satan and his followers. They were, instead, sent to earth where they were to remain, but not without hope that they may receive a pardon on the last day and be re-admitted to heaven. They are, therefore, expected to be on best behaviour, but they do retain the power to do a great amount of harm. It is for this reason that they are feared and only spoken of in quiet among the rural Irish, even today.
Stories about the fairy folk have been heard from all parts of the world, and one of the most interesting and consistent things about them appears to be that they can shape shift and make themselves look like anyone or anything they wish. They are, however, believed to be smaller than humans, averaging a height of between three and four feet. Generally, within Irish folklore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are described as being slightly taller than people and very beautiful, with reports suggesting that some fairies, such as the ‘Irish Sidhe’, were typically of a height of seven feet tall. One report I read says, “Though, by nature, they’re not the length of your finger, they can make themselves the size of a tower when it pleases them, and have that ugliness that you’d faint with the looks of them, as knowing they can strike you dead on the spot, or change you into a dog, or a pig, or a unicorn, or any other dirty beast they please.“
These ‘Good People’ were often seen wearing clothes of red and green that depended upon the tribe to which they belonged and their rank within the tribe. Some were described as having green skin, while other sources describe them as looking much like humans but with a strange, ‘otherworldly’ aura about them. and the appearance of being either very young or very old to help in the perception of mortals to their wisdom. It is said that, generally, the people of the fairy hills were very pale and were usually finely dressed, but otherwise were human-like in their appearance. Stories say that the ‘Fairy Folk’ often appear wearing green, red or grey clothing, and may have blond or brown hair. They could be either male or female and could appear either alone or in groups. But, when it comes to their clothes, the records generally agree that young lady fairies wear pure white robes and usually allow their hair to flow loosely over their shoulders. Meanwhile, the more matronly fairies tie up their tresses in a coil on the top or back of the head and surrounding their temple with a golden band. The young gentlemen fairies wear green jackets, with white breeches and stockings. But, when a fairy of either sex has need of a cap or head-covering, they will use the flower of the foxglove. Within Irish folklore, however, the female fairies are known to appear with messages or warnings, while groups of male fairies would gather to play games of Hurling, for which they needed a single human player in order to have the game.
It has, in the past, been considered irreverent and bad luck to call the ‘Fairy Folk’ by that name, or simply ‘Fairies’, and the rural folk of Ireland became accustomed to creating more genteel substitutes such as ‘The Good People.’ Although this reluctance to use the term ‘Fairies’ seems to be relaxing in these modern days, there is still a widespread preference to use the substitute names instead. In this article we will try to remain with those terms that most people are familiar with, such as the ‘Wee Folk’ or the ‘Little People’. It is likely that such terms were derived as a means of minimising their power and influence, and as a description of their physical stature.
Many in the world have heard of the Irish ‘Leprechaun’ and consider them to be members of the ‘Fairy Folk’, but they are said by some to be unfit associates for the ‘Good People’. Nevertheless, the ‘Good People’ are a sociable community who always live in large societies with each member involved in a plan of work that is to the benefit of all. They own all their property, the kind and value of which is unknown, in common and are united in their desire to achieve any communal objective. But they are, however, divided into groups of evil or good, which are occasionally involved in night-time battles with each other. The male fairies are very familiar with every military role and, like most of Ireland’s population, are divided into various factions. But, unlike other the mortal factions, the objects of contention among the fairy factions is rarely known for definite. There is a report of a great battle among the fairies that occurred many years ago in County Kerry. One party of fairy warriors stood upon a Rath, while the opposing army of fairies stood on an unused and lonely graveyard. The only mortal to witness the encounter was Paddy O’Donoghue, who related what he saw as follows – “Sure, wasn’t I lying beside the road, being on my way home, weak and tired with all the walking I had done? There was a bright moon out that night, and I heard a noise like a million soldiers tramping on the road, so I rose up and looked, and the way ahead was full of little men. These creatures were just the length of my hand, with green coats on, and all stood in rows like one of those army regiments, each man with a pike on his shoulder and a shield on his arm.One was in the front, as if he was the general, walking with his chin up as proud as a peacock. By God, but I was terribly scared, and I prayed faster than ever I had done in my life, for they were far too close to me for comfort or convenience. But they all went by, not a single one of them turning his head to look at me at all, thanks be to God for that, and so, they left me. After they were completely gone, I was curious to see what they were after, so I followed them, a good bit behind them, and ready to jump and run like a hare at the least noise, for I was afraid that if they caught me, they’d make me a pig at once or change me into some kind of a beast. They marched into the field between the graveyard and the Rath, and there was another army there with red coats, from the graveyard, and the two armies had the biggest fight you’ve ever seen, the greens against the reds. After looking on for a bit, I got excited, for the greens were beating the reds badly, and I up and gave a yahoo and called out, ‘At them again! Don’t leave one of those blackguards untouched!’ And with that word, the sight left my eyes and I remember no more until morning, and there I was, lying on the road where I had seen them, as stiff as a crutch.”
They say that fairy bodies are not composed of flesh and bone like we mortals, but of a kind of ethereal substance whose true nature is unknown. They can be clearly seen by some, many reports of which have been recorded, but some observers also tell us that they can also be seen through as if looking through a mist. In Ireland there is a belief that the fairies have a white blood, which is spilled in those occasional night battles between different groups of which the only evidence appears to be the remains of an inexplicable white liquid (Fairy Blood). They have, of course, the power of being able to vanish from the sight of mortals and the fact that the air seems to be filled with their presence causes ordinary mortals to give them respect. There are reports of them being heard without being seen, especially when they travel through the air and are recognised by the humming noise like that made by swarms of bees. It must be said, however, that despite modern artistic interpretations of the ‘Fairy Folk’ there is no evidence as to them possessing wings. A certain Kerry man, called Barney Murphy, thought that they had wings for he had seen several a number of years ago that seemed to have long, semi-transparent pinions, “like them that grows on a dragon-fly,” described them. But Barney’s neighbours, however, contradicted his report by adamantly denying that the ‘Good People’ had wings, suggesting that at the time Barney saw the fairies he was too drunk to distinguish a pair of wings from a pair of legs, and so this evidence of fairy wings must remain in doubt.
Fairy lore allows us to divide the ‘Good People’ into two distinct categories, i.e. ‘Trooping Fairies’ or ‘Solitary Fairies’. The trooping fairies are a matriarchal society and they consider socialisation and status important within their community. Moreover, they can be further divided into those who are known to be good and those who are more disposed to be bad. The ‘Solitary Fairies’ obviously live alone, but they are known to attach themselves to a certain family or house. But, despite what type of fairy is present, it is often recommended that local people leave offerings outside their homes overnight as a means of appeasing them. Even if the food offered is still there the next morning the people believed that it was the fairies would have appreciated the thought at least.
The people had other means and methods to prevent bad things from happening to them, including the keeping of a few charms and talismans handy that might just work against fairy magic. Iron is the most well-known and effective element to ward off the fairy folk, though steel might prove to be a better weapon because it is a much purer form of iron. In Irish folklore it is known that the importance of Iron does not just lie in its ability to ward off the fairies. It is also known as a means of deterring ghosts, witches, and more supernatural beings. The sound of bells and whistling can also keep away fairies and, if you ever found yourself being chased by evil fairies, you could leap to safety by crossing running water. By throwing burning embers at the fairies you could drive them away from entering your house, and some people would sprinkle their clothes with oatmeal while also carrying some in their pockets to guard against the fairies approaching. Four leaf clovers have always been considered lucky and will break any fairy magic, or you could always plant a rowan tree outside your house, or as a last choice you could simply try any blessed religious item. But mortals should always remember that there are many reasons as to why you should not even think of offending the fairies. Stories have described how fairy folk, when they feel themselves offended might lift extremely heavy objects, leave your hair in terrible tangles, or even replace your child with one of their own, or a magical block of wood.
In the mythology of Ireland, we have learned that the ‘Good People’ are derived from ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and are the original inhabitants of the ‘hollow hills’. They are the beings most strongly associated with agriculture and the produce of the land, and those ‘hollow hills’ in which they live are believed to be the entrances to their land of the ‘Fairy Folk’, sometimes called ‘Fairyland’. The ‘Good People’ were just as likely to be connected to mysterious, otherworldly islands that usually appeared in the West to fishermen but could never be reached, as they were to the hills and mounds of Ireland itself. (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In Irish lore, the ‘Fairy Folk’ are everywhere. They live in the land, on the sea, and in the air. They are associated with the mounds and stone circles that litter the Irish landscape, as well as the multitude of watery places such as wells, springs, the sea and bogs, caverns, and strange swirls of wind, as well as specific trees, particularly lone Hawthorn trees.
It is also common belief in Ireland that the ‘Fairy Folk’ live in a parallel world to our own, into which mortals can accidentally enter through ‘Fairy Rings’. Although this other world may run in parallel to our own, time does not pass in the same way as it does in our mortal world. Tradition tells us that once a mortal enters this ‘Fairy Land’, there is almost no means of going back to their own world, and many Irish tales abound with stories concerning those people who were kidnapped by the ‘Fairy Folk’. Within these tales we can see that the concept of the ‘Fairy Land’ in Irish minds was just as complex as their beliefs about the ‘Fairy Folk’ that inhabited that land. On every occasion these ‘Fairy Lands’ were always described as being places of great beauty, wealth and peace. It is, therefore, not surprising to read in these stories that many mortals brought to such places did not want to leave until an overwhelming longing overtook them to see their families and homes. But, when these people did leave the ‘Fairy Land’ they would discover that hundreds of years had passed, and they would die and fade into dust as soon as they came in contact with mortality once again.
The ‘Good People’ are not confined just to their own realms, or the area around the entrances into those realms. Many stories reveal that they were able to go out into our world, occasionally appearing in local markets and fairs. Often, they would go unrecognized in such places, unless someone with the second sight saw them or they encountered someone who had previously dealt with them and still retained the ability to see them.
In the fairy lore of the Celts, the ‘Good People’ are described as being ruled by a monarchy and included a working class who were permitted to visit human markets and fairs in disguise, or were able to appear to farmers as people seeking to borrow something from them. When seen they were often riding on fine horses, coloured black, white or grey, and with hounds following. In older tales it is indicated that the deer in the forests are the cattle of the fairies. But it is on the quarter days Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa that the ‘Good People’ are said to be particularly active, moving from one hollow hill to another along long-established fairy roads. At Samhain and Bealtaine fairy influence is at its strongest and all mortals should take great care to avoid upsetting them. Bealtaine was known to be a time when the ‘Good People’ travelled the land, appearing as a stranger at the door of various houses asking for milk, or a coal from the fire. By giving these items to the ‘Good People’ it was said the household would have secured good luck for the year ahead. At Samhain, however, they are known to move from their summer to their winter homes in the hollow hills, and it is said that mortals face great danger if they come across them at night, for they are especially active between twilight and midnight. They travel in large bands and, although their parties are never seen in the daytime, there is little difficulty in following their line of march, for it has been reported that, “sure they make the most terrible little cloud of dust ever raised, and not a bit of wind causing it at all,” so that a fairy migration is sometimes the talk of the entire county.
The most malicious fairy host, an airborne tribe, are known to be most active at night, appearing as a wind that is very much feared by the country people. When this wind comes upon them the people avert their eyes from it and pray for safety, because they sometimes take people. These mortals are often taken great distances, where they may be kept forever, helping the ‘Good People’ as they carry out their mayhem and mischief throughout the country.
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are usually invisible to the eyes of mortal people, unless they wish for themselves to be seen, or the mortal has the gift of ‘second sight’. This ability to seem invisible is due to their power to deceive human senses by making one thing appear like another, such as making a handful of leaves being made to look like gold coins. Nevertheless, their movements along fairy paths and roads can be noticed by other means. The ‘Good People’ are known to ride out in procession, or ‘Fairy Raids’, which could prove to be dangerous to any mortal beings that they came across. As they ride out, they can create sudden whirlwinds or sudden blasts of wind, and they are known to present a threat to new brides, midwives and new-born babies.
The ‘Good People’ have the family relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and although it is said by some that fairy husbands and wives have as many little disagreements as are found in mortal households, “for, sure a woman’s tongue is longer than a man’s patience,” and “a husband is bound to be nagged incessantly day in and day out, for a woman’s jaw is sharpened on the devil’s grindstone,” yet opinions unfavourable to married happiness among the fairies are not generally well received. On the contrary, it is believed that married life in fairy circles is regulated on the basis of the absolute submission of the wife to the husband. This particular point was explained by a Donegal woman in this way, “They’re one, that’s the husband and the wife, but he’s more the one than she is.” Meanwhile, the love of children is one of the most prominent traits of fairy character, but as it manifests itself by stealing beautiful babes, replacing them by young ‘Leprechauns’ as changelings, the fairies are much dreaded by mothers along the west coast of Ireland, and they take many precautions against the ‘Fairy Folk’. Thefts of this kind now rarely occur, but at one time they were common, as “in them old days, you could see ten fairies where there isn’t one now, because they are leaving the country.“
A notable case of baby stealing occurred in the family of Termon MacGrath, who had a castle, now in picturesque ruins, on the shore of Lough Erne, in the County Donegal. The person telling the story was a ‘wise woman’ who lived in what was an apology for a cabin. It was, indeed, a thatched shed that had been placed against the precipitous side of the glen almost beneath the castle. The wretched shelter was nearly concealed from view by the overhanging branches of a large tree and by thick undergrowth, and seemed unfit for a pig-sty, but, though her surroundings were poor beyond description, ‘Old Meg,’ as her neighbour said, “knew a great deal about fairies and witches and could keep them from a baby better than any woman that ever drew breath.” Giving her a bit of tobacco, to enable her to take a draw of the pipe, quickly brought out the story. “It’s many years ago, that Termon MacGrath went, with all his army, to the war in the County of Tyrone, and while he was gone the baby was born and they called her Eva. She was her mother’s first, so she felt mighty uneasy in her mind about her, knowing that the ‘Good People’ always go after the first one that comes, and even more when it’s a girl they try harder to steal than when it’s a boy, because they believe that they’re easier to rear, although it’s me that doesn’t believe that one girl makes more trouble than do ten boys and isn’t as good.So, when the baby was born they sent out for an old witch of a widow who had set herself up as a wise woman, and she knew no more about doctoring than a pig, but they thought she could keep away the fairies, and that’s a job that takes one who tries to have no end of knowledge in the fairy folk. But the poor old woman did the best that she knew how, and so, God be good to her, she wasn’t to be blamed for that. But it’s the likes of her that put shame on them that have great knowledge of such things, for they make people think all wise women as ignorant as she is, herself. So she made the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead with ashes, and she told them to bite off its nails and not to cut them until nine weeks had passed, and she held a burning candle before its eyes, so it would do the deeds of light and not of darkness, and mixed sugar and salt and oil, and gave it to her, so that her life would be sweet and long preserved and go smooth, but the old widow forgot one thing. She didn’t put a lucky shamrock, that’s got four leaves, in a gospel and tie it around the baby’s neck with a thread pulled out of her gown, and not remembering to do this, all the rest was no good at all. Nor did she tell the mother not to take her eyes off the child until the ninth day, for after that the fairies couldn’t take her. So the nurse took the baby into the next room and laid it on the bed, and went away for a minute, but thinking that she heard it cry, back she came and there was the baby, bedclothes and all just going through the floor, being dragged away by the fairies.The nurse scratched and caught the clothes and the maid helped her, so that the two of them pulled with all their might and got the bedclothes up again, but while the child was out of sight, the fairies changed it and put a fairy child in its place, but the nurse didn’t know what the fairies had done, nor had the old witch, that shows she was an ignorant woman entirely. But the fairies took Eva away under the lake where they treated her wonderfully. Every night they gave her a dance, with the loveliest music that was ever heard, with big drums and little drums, and fiddles and pipes and trumpets, for such a band the ‘Good People’ do have when they give a dance. So she grew and the queen said she should have a husband among the fairies, but she fell in love with an old Leprechaun, and the queen, to prevent such a thing, let her walk on the shore of the lake where she met Darby O’Hoolighan and loved him and married him with the queen’s consent. The queen told her to tell him if he struck her three blows without a reason, she’d leave him and come back to the fairies. The queen gave her a great number of riches, sheep and pigs without number and more oxen than you could count in a week. So, she and Darby lived together as happy as two doves, and she hadn’t as much care as a blind piper’s dog, moreover, they had two boys as good looking as their mother and as strong as their father.
“One day, after they’d been married seventeen years, she and Darby were going to a wedding, and she was slow, so Darby told her for to hurry and gave her a slap on the shoulder with the palm of his hand, and she began to cry. He asked her what was wrong with her and she told him he’d struck her the first of the three blows. So, he was very sorry and said he’d be careful in the future, but it wasn’t more than a year after, when he was teaching one of the boys to use a stick, that she got behind him and got hit with the shillelagh. That was the second blow, and made her lose her temper, and they had a real quarrel. So, he got mad, saying that neither of the blows ought to be counted, for they were both accidental. So, he flung the stick against the wall, ‘Devil take the stick,’ he said, and went out quick, and the stick fell back from the wall and hit her on the head. ‘That’s the third,’ she said, and she kissed her sons and walked out. Then she called the cows in the field and they left their grazing and followed her; she called the oxen in the stalls and they stopped eating and came out; and she spoke to the calf that was hanging in the yard, that they’d killed that morning and it got down and came along. The lamb that was killed the day before, it came; and the pigs that were salted and hanging up to dry, they came, all after her in a string.Then she called to her things in the house, and the chairs walked out, and the tables, and the chest of drawers, and the boxes, all of them put out legs like beasts and came along, with the pots and pans, and gridiron, and buckets, and noggins, leaving the house as bare as an evicted tenant’s, and all after her to the lake, where they went under and disappeared, and haven’t been seen by man to this blessed day.
“Now, there’s some that say the story isn’t true, because, they say how would a woman do such a thing and go off that a way and take everything she had, just because her husband hit her by accident those three times. But those who say it forget that she was a young woman, even if she did have those boys I was telling you about, and faith, it’s no lie I’m saying, that it’s not in the power of the angels of God to be knowing what a young woman will be doing. After they get old, and losing their teeth, and their beauty goes, then they’re sober and get over those notions; but it takes a long time to make an old one out of a young wan.
“But she didn’t forget the boys she’d left, and once in a while she’d come to the edge of the lake when they were close by the bank and spoke with them, for even, if she was half a fairy, she’d a mother’s heart that the good God put in her bosom; and one time they saw her with little man along with her, that was a Leprechaun, as they knew by the look of him, and that makes me believe that the real reason for her leaving her husband was to get back the old Leprechaun she was in love with before she was married to Darby O’Hoolighan.”
The ‘Fairy Folk’ are known to have produced children with humans and in order to procreate they have a nasty habit of stealing a bride from her wedding to marry one of their own kind instead. At some later date they might even kidnap a midwife to assist the bride to deliver the child of her fairy husband. Their penchant for kidnapping new brides is believed to be a result of their low birth rate and the need to increase their population with human babies and women. There are some who mighty dispute this cause, but what other cause could there be for stealing brides and babies, for which they are famed.
Within Irish folklore there are ample stories concerning kidnapped midwives and musicians who are released back into their own world after an agreed time period. Normally, those mortals taken into the fairy realm can never return if the eat or drink anything while there, but this rule does not hold for those who are taken for a pre-determined time period. There are also stories of those who go to the ‘Good People’ for a single night of dancing and entertainment only to emerge the next morning to find that four, forty, or four hundred years have passed in the mortal world.
The fairies commonly made their homes only in raths and Tumuli of Pagan days in Ireland, and, for this reason, the raths are much dreaded, and after sundown are avoided by the ordinary peasant folk. Attempts have been made to remove some of these raths from the landscape, but the unwillingness of the local people to engage in the work, no matter what inducements may be offered to them, has generally resulted in the work being abandoned. It has been reported that on one of the islands in the Upper Lake of Killarney there is a rath, and the proprietor, finding it occupied too much ground, resolved to have it levelled to increase the arable surface of the field. The work was begun, but one morning, in the early dawn, as the laborers were crossing the lake on their way to the island, they saw a procession of about two hundred persons, dressed like monks, leave the island and proceed to the mainland, followed, as the workmen thought, by a long line of small, shining figures. The phenomenon might have been genuine, but a mirage is by no means an uncommon appearance in some parts of Ireland, nevertheless work on the rath was at once postponed indefinitely. Besides raths, old castles, deserted graveyards, ruined churches, secluded glens in the mountains, springs, lakes, and caves are all homes and resorts to fairies, as is very well known on Ireland’s west coast.
As we know, there are many fairy hills and raths that exist throughout the island of Ireland, and between them run fairy roads and paths which are also invisible to mortal eyes. It is traditional that people refuse to build on such roads and paths, because to do so will inevitably bring the builder bad-luck, and often death. It is not such a good idea to disturb the site of the ‘Good Peoples’’ home, and to dig into a fairy mound, or cut down a fairy tree, will certainly bring the disturber misfortune and, perhaps, death. Even in this modern, technologically advanced society that Ireland has become there is still a very strong belief in such things will participate in protests against many road plans if it interferes with fairy trees, raths or mounds. It is also a fact that heavy fines can be placed upon those people who would destroy or damage fairy mounds, even if they are on private property.
The ‘Good People’ can either bless or harm mortals with whom they come into contact, and their gifts could bring great blessings to those who receive them, or they can be simple illusions that become worthless by dawn. In the same way the ‘Fairy Wind’ can bring illness or cause injury to humans including a sudden cramp, or stitch that tradition says is caused by an invisible ‘shot’ from an arrow fired by a disgruntled fairy. In some cases, this ‘Fairy Shot’ might be used against cattle and would cause them to waste away after they are struck, but it was a power that could be granted to witches that are close to the ‘Good People.’ In fact, it was widely believed in Ireland that witches learned their magic arts, for good or bad, from the ‘Good People’ with whom they were believed to closely associate themselves. Such friends of the ‘Fairy Folk’ were, of course, privy taught special knowledge and things like magic and healing. A favoured musician, a harpist or piper, might be given greater skill or particularly good instrument. The main amusements of the fairies consist of music, dancing, and ball-playing. In music their skill exceeds that of men, while their dancing is perfect, the only drawback being the fact that it blights the grass, “fairy-rings” of dead grass, apparently caused by a peculiar fungous growth, being common in Ireland. Although their musical instruments are few, the fairies can use these few with wonderful skill. It is said that near Colooney, in County Sligo, there was a “Wise Woman,” whose grandmother’s aunt once witnessed a fairy ball, the music for which was furnished by an orchestra which the management had no doubt been at great pains and expense to secure and instruct. She stated, “It was the cutest sight alive. There was a place for them to stand on, and a wonderful big fiddle of the size you could sleep in it, that was played by a monstrous frog, and two little fiddles, that two kittens fiddled on, and two big drums, beaten by cats, and two trumpets, played by fat pigs. All around the fairies were dancing like angels, the fireflies giving them light to see by, and the moonbeams shining on the lake, for it was by the shore it was, and if you don’t believe it, the glen’s still there, that they call the ‘Fairy Glen’ to this day.”
The fairies do much singing, usually in chorus, and their songs were formerly more frequently heard than they are today. Even now a belated peasant, who has been at a wake, or is coming home from a fair, in passing a rath will sometimes hear the soft strains of their voices in the distance, and will hurry away before they discover his presence and be angry at the unwelcome intrusion on their privacy. When in unusually good spirits they will sometimes admit a mortal to their celebrations, but should he speak, the scene at once vanishes, he becomes insensible, and generally finds himself by the roadside the next morning, “with that degree of pains in his arms and legs and back, that if sixteen thousand devils were after him, he couldn’t move a toe to save his own soul, that’s what the fairies do by pinching and punching him for coming on them and speaking out loud.”
As previously stated, they might appear as a stranger seeking to borrow something, needing milk or coal from the fire, or be encountered alone in a field or wood, or on a road. Those mortals brave enough to seek them out might choose to sleep on fairy mounds, or raths, or rings, in the knowledge that it would result in either a blessing or madness.
Thankfully, there are a variety of charms to protect us against the ‘Fairy Folk’, which are far too numerous to get into any depth with here. One example of these is – to keep a new mother and her baby safe from the ‘fairies’ they would be given milk from a cow who had eaten a ‘bog-violet’ (mothan). A charm to force a fairy host into releasing anyone they may have taken is to throw the dust from the road, an iron knife, or your left shoe at them and say, “This is yours; that is mine!” (McNeill, M., The Silver Bough, Vol. 1; 1956). In those cases where a person is suffering from a bad fairy spell or curse, a ‘Fairy Doctor’ must be found, who is a person who has special knowledge of the fairies. These ‘Doctors’ are able to diagnose the exact cause and produce the appropriate charm, chant, or herb that will cure the unfortunate victim. Farmers, meanwhile, would tie a red ribbon on their cattle or horses as a means of keeping fairies away. Some would tie a rowan twig on to a cow’s tail, or lightly strike the animals with rowan or hazel switches to achieve the same aim. Just as rowan and red thread is known to protect things from fairies, there are other well-known protections, such as anything that is made of iron.
A means of maintaining good relations with the ‘Fairy Folk’ is to offer the gifts such as milk, butter, and bread left by the doorway, or at the roots of a ‘Fairy Tree’, as well as a small amount of whatever one is drinking poured out onto the ground. In some instances, milk might be thrown in the air for the fairies or butter buried near a bog as an offering to them. On holy days, it was customary for some people to offer a heavy porridge that was poured into a hole in the earth, or bread which could be left out, or tossed over the shoulder. Among other people it was customary, on Beltaine, to bleed live cattle and offer the blood collected to the fairies. These days people still make offerings to the ‘Good People’ in certain parts of Ireland which include milk, cream, bread or other baked goods, honey, and portions of meals, as well as alcohol.
In conclusion, it must be pointed out that there appears to be a long standing and complex association between the ‘Fairy Folk’ and the dead. In fact, the dead often appear among the ranks of the ‘Good People’, especially the newly dead. There is also evidence to suggest that better class of fairies are fond of human society and often act as guardians to those they love. In parts of Donegal and Galway they are believed to receive the souls of the dying and escort them to the gates of heaven although they are not allowed to enter with them. On this account, fairies love graves and graveyards, having often been seen walking to and fro among the grassy mounds. There are, indeed, some accounts of faction fights among the fairy bands at or shortly after a funeral, the question in dispute being whether the soul of the departed belonged to one or the other faction.
There are many stories within Irish folklore that feature someone seeing a person whom they thought to be dead. This is often explained by saying that the person in question had not died but was taken by the ‘Fairy Folk’ and a ‘Changeling’ left behind, which was buried in the person’s name. In many stories a person is believed to have died but appears, often in a dream, to a loved one and explains that they have been taken into ‘Fairy Land’ and can only be rescued in a certain way .This rescue plan usually involves the living person going to a crossroads at midnight when the ‘Fairy Raid’ will pass by and grabbing their loved one from the horse he or she is riding.
Giving honour and offerings to the ‘Fairy Folk’ is an important aspect of an Irish folklore customs and are traditions that we would all do well to continue in our modern, scientifically and technologically advanced world. The more kindly fairies often take great pleasure in assisting those who treat them with proper respect, and as the favours always take a practical form, there is sometimes a business value in the show of reverence for them. There was Barney Noonan, of the County Leitrim, for instance, who was described “And no better boy was in the county than Barney. He’d work as regular as a pump and liked a bit of a diversion as well as anybody when he had time for it. That, wasn’t often, to be sure, but he couldn’t be blamed for that, for he wasn’t rich enough by no manner of means to be celebrating regularly. He’d a great regard for the ‘Good People’, and when he went be the rath beyond his field, he’d pull off his cap and take the clay pipe out of his mouth, as polite as a dancing master, and say, ‘God save you, ladies and gentlemen,’ that the ‘Good People’ always heard though they never showed themselves to him.He had a bit of bog land, that the hay was on, and after cutting it, he left it to dry, and the sun came out beautiful and, in a day or so, the hay was as dry as powder and ready to put away. “So Barney was going to put it up, but, it being the day of the fair, he thought he’d take the calf and sell it, and so he did, and coming up with the boys, he stayed over his time, being hindered with the drinking and dancing and chatting-up the girls, so it was after dark when he got home and the night as black as a crow, the clouds gathering on the tops of the mountains likeevil spirits and creeping down into the glens like angels of destruction, and the wind howling like ten thousand Banshees, but Barney didn’t mind it all, being stupefied with the drink he’d had. So the hay never entered the head of him, but in he went and tumbled in bed and was snoring like a horse in two minutes, for he was a bachelor, God bless him, and had no wife to nag him and ask him where he’d been, and what he’d been at, and make him tell a hundred lies about not getting home before. So, it came on to thunder and lightning like all the evil demons in the universe were fighting with cannons in the sky, and by and by there was a clap loud enough to split your skull and Barney woke up.
“‘Damn it,’ says he to himself, ‘it’s going to rain and me hay on the ground. What will I do?’ says he. “So, he rolled over on the bed and looked out of a crack for to see if it was really raining. And there was the biggest crowd he had ever seen of little men and women. They’d built a row of fires from the cow-house to the bog and were coming in a string like the cows going home, each one with his two arms full of hay. Some were in the cow-house, receiving the hay; some were in the field, raking the hay together; and some were standing with their hands in their pockets as if they were the bosses, telling the rest for to make haste. And so, they did, for every one run like he was going for the doctor, and brought a load and hurried back for more.
“Barney looked through the crack at them, crossing himself every minute with admiration for the speed they had. ‘God be good to me,’ says he to himself, ‘It is not every young man in Leitrim that’s got haymakers like them,’ only he never spoke a word out loud, for he knew very well the ‘Good People’ wouldn’t like it. So, they brought in all the hay and put it in the house and then let the fires go out and made another big fire in front of the door and began to dance round it with the sweetest music Barney had ever heard.
“Now by this time he’d got up and feeling easy in his mind about the hay, began to be very merry. He looked on through the door at them dancing, and by and by they brought out a jug with little tumblers and began to drink something that they poured out of the jug. If Barney had the sense of a herring, he’d have kept still and let them drink their fill without opening the big mouth on him, being that he was as full as a goose himself and needed no more; but when he saw the jug and the tumblers and the fairies drinking away with all their might, he got mad and bellowed out like a bull, ‘A-a-h now, you little skites, is it drinking you are, and never giving a sup to a thirsty mortal that always treats you as well as he knows how,’ and immediately the fairies, and the fire, and the jug all went out of his sight, and he went to bed again in a temper. While he was lying there, he thought he heard talking and a secret revelry going on, but when he peeped out again, not a thing did he see but the black night and the rain coming down and each drop would fill a water glass. So, he went to sleep, contented that the hay was in, but not pleased that the ‘Good People’ would be pigs entirely, to be drinking under his eyes and not offer him a taste, no, not so much as a smell of the jug.
“In the morning up he gets and out to look at the hay and see if the fairies put it in right, for he says, ‘It’s a job they’re not used to.’ So, he looked in the cow-house and thought his eyes would leave him when there wasn’t a straw in the house at all. ‘Holy Moses,’ says he, ‘what have they done with it?’ and he couldn’t conceive what had happened to the hay. So he looked in the field and it was all there; bad luck to the bit of it had the fairies left in the house at all, but when he shouted at them, they got very angry and took all the hay back again to the bog, putting every straw where Barney laid it, and it was as wet as a drowned cat. But it was a lesson to him he never forgot, and I’ll guarantee you that the next time the fairies help him in with his hay he’ll keep still and let them drink themselves to death if they please without saying a word.” We should not forget or turn our backs on the ‘Fairy Realm’ that has existed side by side with our own for so many centuries. Honouring the ‘Fairy Folk’ prevents ill-luck befalling us and can bring us good luck and blessings. More importantly it helps us to create a reciprocal relationship between us and the ‘Fairy Folk’ that is based on respect and friendship. Nevertheless, it is never a bad idea to know the signs of fairy trouble and how to protect yourself against them or find a ‘Fairy Doctor’ or Wise Woman to help you.
But we must remember that the fairies are by no means so numerous these days as they used to be. It is said their demise began with the rapid spread of National Schools and Father Mathew’s Temperance movement throughout Ireland, for it is known “they hate learning and wisdom and are lovers of nature.” In a few remote districts, where the schools scarce, the ‘Good People’ are still to be found, and their doings are told to us with a childlike faith in the power of these first inhabitants of Ireland, for it seems to be agreed among many researchers that they were in the country long before the coming either of the Gael, or of the English oppressor. So it is, that we mortals humans have a long and complex relationship with the ‘Fairy Folk’ and we must always remember that they are just as present today as they have ever been.
Wedin, W., The Sí, the Tuatha de Danaan, and the Fairies in Yeats’s Early Works, 1998.
Any observer of Irish history must be reminded by the ruins of castles and abbeys, scattered throughout this nation, of the manner in which the poor of this land were continually exploited by their rulers. In his poem, ‘The Holy Wells’ the nationalist poet John de Jean Frazer argues that one thing cannot be stolen from those poor, and that is the water from a spring. He writes –
“And while night, noon, or morning meal no other plenty brings,
No beverage than the water-draught from old, spontaneous springs;
They, sure, may deem them holy wells, that yield from day to day,
One blessing which no tyrant hand can taint, or take away.”
(Hayes, Ballads of Ireland, P6)
He is praising the power of nature that, alone, sustains the poor and calls these springs, ‘Holy Wells’, and, thereby, links them to a popular religious practice by making them cultural objects. In the Ireland of Frazer’s day, the mid nineteenth century, religion, politics and economics are inseparable, since political authority, the historical suppression of Catholicism, and the control of the land were all by-products of Britain’s rule. In those days the ‘Holy Wells’ were not just places of spiritual sustenance, but also acted as sites of political resistance. Because the ‘Holy Wells’ are frequently found in the ruins of religious sites make them a part of Irish history and, therefore, a symbol of native Irish spirituality and their unquenchable spirit of freedom.
These ‘Holy Wells’ are often dedicated to unofficial and territorial ‘saints’ and preside over magical and wondrous landscapes that incorporate prehistoric sites, sacred trees, and stones as ‘stations’ for prayer. The structured visitations by devotees to these ‘stations’, moreover, were usually accompanied by liturgies that were unique to the physical attributes of each site. These visitations are commonly known as “Paying the Rounds” or “Rounding”, and in practice go against the views normally held concerning the process of pilgrimage.
A ‘Holy Well’ is a water source, most usually a spring, which is a site of religious devotion. These devotional sites may also take the form of a pond, or an entire lake, and are dedicated to an Irish saint. The devotees who visit these sacred sites believe that these waters have been blessed by this saint with a cure for a particular ailment such as, tuberculosis, whooping-cough, and sore eyes. ‘Holy Wells’, however, are not peculiar to Ireland since, in our world, the daily human’s need for water has encouraged a worldwide form of idolatry, and ‘Sacred Wells’ and springs can be found in every continent among a wide variety of cultures and faiths. Water, throughout the ages of the world, has been considered to be the source all possible existence and it is no surprise that early man venerated the sources of water. In Irish bogs, coastal wetlands, lakes and rivers there have been discoveries of stone-like material and human remains apparently deposited there as votive offerings to ancestral spirits, or the Gods. Votive offerings dating from the Iron Age in Ireland have been found at various ‘Holy Wells’ in current use, one of which is St. Anne’s Well at Randalstown, County Meath. (Raftery 1994;182f., 213).
The traditions around sacred water sources in Ireland had been in existence for many centuries prior to the arrival of Christianity, which quickly amalgamated these into Christian rituals which were peculiar to the native Irish. Early Christian missionaries encompassed the traditional beliefs of the people into their teachings and used pagan places of pilgrimage, including ‘Holy Wells’ and ‘Sacred Trees’, as centres for the new faith. In this manner the sacredness of sites and the desire of the native people to access their supernatural power through votive gifts continued unchanged. The sacred places retained their strong religious and spiritual qualities, which continued to inspire, while the presiding spirit now became and intercessor with the Christian God. Ireland continues to be unusual in Europe, in that visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ remains a regular part of Catholic parish life. Although this activity is not as common as it was forty years ago, each county in Ireland has ‘Holy Wells’ that continue to be sites of individual devotion and annual ‘Patterns’ (Patron Days), when the local communities gather for a well-side Mass to honour the saint associated with that well. It is also an opportunity for each person to identify with and renew their membership of that local community.
The visitation to ‘Holy Wells’ involves the devotee performing folk liturgies, or ‘Rounds’, which are prayers and other actions that are undertaken in a set order, and from which the pilgrim should not deviate. These practices are accepted by the pilgrims as being effective in obtaining the desired result because generations have repeated them, who would not have done if there was no successful conclusion.Although they may lack official sanction from the religious authorities, these folk liturgies often take place in the open air and are considered as being a means to grace (sacramental). For the most part the folk liturgies are highly structured and are much more focused on ‘magic and mystery’ than the official practices because, in these liturgies the ordinary people are able to express their understanding of venerating the saints and other blessed persons, pilgrimages, shrines, holy days, and religious assistance to the deceased. So, unsurprisingly, almost every organised faith has folk rituals that exist alongside, and occasionally in contravention of, what the official religious practitioners approve. These rituals, however, affirm the faith in the cultural context of a person’s community, family, or life experience. But place-specific ‘Rounding’ traditions at the ‘Holy Wells’ encourages the continued veneration of ‘Saints in the Irish Tradition’ who were never officially canonised, but whose stories and sacred landscapes add to local popular belief in the divine.
A proper visitation may require a devotee to make certain preliminary movements around the ‘Stations’, while reciting a set number of prayers in a prescribed order unique to the site. While individual prayer is usually considered to be non-liturgical, those individual devotees ‘Rounding the Stations’ are performing a folk liturgy. Praying at each ‘station’ and then at the well, or saying one set of prescribed prayers while walking around the well, constitutes one ’round’ in the pilgrimage. A single ’round’ might be sufficient for devotees engaged in meditative prayer, or a daily spiritual exercise, while those who pray for a special intention or specific petition might be required to undertake multiple ’rounds’. ‘Doing the Rounds’, therefore, can take hours to complete, or may be fulfilled in part on successive shorter visits. In these ways a ‘payment’ of prayers can be offered by a devotee to the well’s presiding saint in thanksgiving for interceding on the supplicant’s behalf, or directly to God. After these folk liturgies are completed they usually approach the well and may drink from the water, normally three sips, or dip their fingers in the water and bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, flicking the water around their bodies three times in the name of the Trinity, or anointing an ailing portion of the body. If, after performing the rounds, one sees a fish in the well it is taken as a sign that their request will be answered favourably.
“The Stations and The Pattern”
The ‘Rounding’ process is also known as ‘The Pattern’ and the course that a devotee follows is known in Irish as “An turas” (a journey or a pilgrimage). ‘Stations’ may take a variety of forms and trees are often used as ‘Stations’ because they are traditionally considered ‘sacred’ by the local community since time immemorial. The most common of well-side trees, the ‘Whitethorn’ (Hawthorn), Ash and Holly, are often called ‘Rag Trees’ because they receive rags and ribbons on their branches both as votive offerings and as ‘containers’ for the illness or anxiety that brought the devotee to the sacred site. These trees have come to perform the sacrificial act of bearing the devotees’ concerns, and further enabling the ‘Holy Well’ to offer them grace. To many the well-side tree is considered a ‘Station of Riddance’ in contrast to the giving waters of the well where the devotees linger for a while. Because ribbons or cloths, or other votives, tied or hung to the trees are thought to be the storage places of the angst and disease brought by devotees, and many well visitors are very careful not to touch those of others when they leave their own.
‘Stations’ may also include pre-Christian monuments such as megalithic court tombs, Ogham stones, or unusually formed stones. ‘Bullauns’, which are considered to be stone querns from the ‘Bronze Age’, also serve as ‘stations’ and are often called ‘wells’ themselves because they can hold rainwater and dew. ‘Mass Rocks’ from the ‘Penal Days’ and oddly formed boulders can serve as ‘stations’, which, in conjunction with the well, offer particular cures. Some wells lack any built structures or adornment and associated stations, if any, may be hard to locate without guidance from a local person, or the presence of the votives. Other ‘Holy Wells’, however, are located within large elaborate complexes, complete with signage that offer pilgrims optional directions for full or abbreviated ‘Rounds’.
The Irish Church prior to the Norman invasion and up to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held historical accounts of ‘Rounding’ and ‘Pattern Days’ that emphasised a penitential dimension about them that is much less prevalent today. The ‘Pattern Days’ of old were an annual cleansing with trembling, remorse, and fasting before ‘Rounds’ that were performed on bare knees, but were followed by an evening, or several days, of celebration and flamboyant sinning. Such things are not, of course, so common these days and the demise began with the emancipation of Catholics in 1829, when the focus of the Church fell on restoring the authority of the priest and the importance of Confession. The sites for such acts of devotion moved from the open air and into the church buildings. The ‘Great Famine’ saw the devotion to the official practices of the Church superseded the folk practices. Since those times, however, popular devotion at ‘Holy Wells’ and other sacred sites have regained some popularity, especially over the last few decades since ‘Vatican II’. Pilgrimages today are associated more with thanksgiving rather than with punishment. Many describe ‘Holy Wells’ not as places filled with guilt but as scenes of calming and restoration, where they feel thankful and very much at peace.
For many of those devotees who visit the ‘Holy Wells’ the ‘Rounding of the Stations’ is their offering. Less frequent visitors, or those pilgrims with a particular burden, might offer votives in addition to prayer, or they may a serve as a means of shortening the ‘stations’ by having to recite fewer prayers. The regular visitors might make a grand gesture of leaving a religious statue as a votive offering, or undertake to complete some renovation work on the site, while the less frequent or one-time visitor might leave a less valuable and impromptu gift. In all cases the depositing of the votive offering usually takes place near the end of the visit to the ‘Holy Well’ and is usually accompanied by an additional and personal prayer. As well as rags and ribbons, Rosary beads are common offerings, but a shell, pebble, button, shoelace, or anything that has been in with the visitor’s person is appropriate. Tokens that a specific to certain prayer requests are common, such as lighters from a smoker who is trying to quit the habit. To cope with anxiety sufferers might drive nails or coins into a well-side tree, but this practice can eventually lead to the death of the sacred tree. Those who leave worry and disease-infected offerings on the trees or by the side of the Well already feel that the environment in which they are praying is a ‘giving’ one, in which the natural or divine power within the site is provided to all visitors without condition,
Some estimates suggest the number of ‘Holy Wells’ in Ireland to be at least three-thousand, while others argue that this figure is an under-estimation. But many Wells have been lost and continue to be lost to man’s progress in farming techniques, stock raising, forestry, road-building and widening, and the building boom that began in the five or ten years prior to the new millenium. Destruction of the historic record in Ireland has been generally accelerated by those affluent sections of the community keen on developing rural areas of the country, and the loss of ‘Holy Wells’ has been a subject of contention in many areas. The disappearance of the Wells unless as a result of supernatural provocation, has more usually resulted because of the gradual erosion of local pilgrimage and place-lore. When the devotees stop visiting the site quickly falls into disrepair and the stories about the sacred place and its benevolent gifts disappear, causing the ‘Holy Well’, ‘Sacred Tree’, or ‘Sacred Stone’ to vanish from our memory and the record.
Rites of passage and events within the community become wound up in the stories of the sacred gathering places, and become associated with the presiding saint’s benevolence. Much of the conversation among the people at these Well gatherings tends to revolve around memories of community figures, which ties these sacred places to past generations and the older members of a community. In the last thirty years the social norms that dominated Irish society for generations fell apart with unexpected speed, especially among those devastated by years of investigations into child abuse by individual clerics and institutions run by religious orders. Many have abandoned the Church, or at least its buildings, with greater numbers undertaking regular engagement with the open air folk liturgies. Such has the popularity grown, in fact, that many priests throughout Ireland have renewed well-side gatherings in an effort to attract parishioners back into the congregation.
Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.
‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough – We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment; 3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach. It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.
Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap; 60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time. In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward. The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.
Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..
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.
You might not believe what I am about to tell you. In fact, I didn’t quite believe the story myself when I heard it first. My grandfather was already an old man when he told this story to me and he informed me that it was first told to him by his father. As was common to all my grandfather’s stories, this tale began with the introduction of a beautiful young woman. Yet, although Eileen Geary was a very beautiful young woman and every bachelor’s eye was attracted to her, it was not her undoubted good looks or the wealth that she had inherited from her father, that made her one of the most unusual people in the country. She was well known for her enjoyment of life, her great intelligence, and for her wit. But these talents were not what made Eileen unusual and set her aside from others. No, friends, what set Eileen apart was an ability that was strange and extremely rare among mortals, and she had inherited this from those who had gone before her. It was rumoured that it was from a maternal great-aunt, who had lived for over ninety years, Eileen had inherited the rare and amazing ability to see ghosts and to converse with them.
It will not surprise you to learn, I am certain, that because of this hidden talent, Miss Geary, had been visited by many spirits in her young life. Some of those that had appeared to her were among the most unpleasant spirits that you could ever imagine, and through these encounters, Eileen had developed a great ability to deal firmly with any of them. On the occasion about which my grandfather spoke, however, she was approached by a ghost spirit while paying a visit to ‘King John’s Castle’ in the north of the country. It was said, and Eileen was most likely aware, that the ruins of this old Norman castle were haunted by one of the most terrifying spectres in the entire country. It was renowned for appearing to people, covered in blood and carrying its own mangled head in his hands. There were also stories of the terrifying scream that accompanied the ghost and, it was said, those who had seen the ghost had also felt his tight grip around their neck.
It was early evening when Eileen began to wander in the ruins, by herself. Here and there were tall granite stone columns, walls and arches that led into rooms that were open to the elements. In one of these rooms, Eileen noticed a large, stone fireplace that she decided to have a closer look at. Then, as she approached this old hearth, a gut-wrenching scream filled the entire room and Eileen saw a horrifying, blood-soaked figure in ragged clothing approach her. But the young woman did not flinch and, standing her ground, she spoke to the spirit in a cold unemotional tone, “Would you take yourself away from me immediately. Neither your appearance nor your shenanigans frighten me in the least. For you to come into my presence and show yourself in such an unpleasant condition, covered in gore, is the height of bad manners.”
Silence immediately returned to the castle as the spirit stared at this young woman, not quite believing that he would be spoken to in such a way. A spirit with its reputation that could not reduce a mortal to a quivering mess of flesh in its presence had lost its reason for existence. In a state of deep humiliation, the once-terrifying ghost now dragged itself away, along the ruins of the castle hallway. Completely deflated by this encounter with Eileen Geary, as he slinked away, the ghost left a stain of blood in its track. This stain was still visible to observers when I was a teenager, and I understand it can still be seen to this day. Any of you who still doubt the truth of my grandfather’s tale is invited to visit this old castle yourself to see the bloody track with your own eyes.
The First of February is the feast of St. Bridget and on Eve of the feast the usual Irish dinner consisted of ‘bruitins’(mashed potatoes)in a wooden dish placed on a table, or in earlier days the “bare floor”. A hole for the butter was made in the centre of the ‘bruitins’, and, the butter placed there, with the hole being covered over with the hot ‘bruitins’ scooped out in making the hole.
All the family members were seated around the dish on the floor, or on stools if seated at the table. In more modern days some luxury came into the homes of the peasant Irish, which included “creepies” and chairs. In those days the majority would simply seat themselves on the broad chair from which they had risen. Indeed, in many an Irish home there was ‘Mammy’s’ seat and ‘Daddy’s seat’ upon which none but mammy and daddy would sit.
“While the butter was melting in the potatoes, the oldest woman in the house would go outside to “fetch in the brat Bhrighde”,(St. Bridget’s mantle), which is a rag of some kind of cloth that was placed on a bush outside the home several days previously. The old woman, having taken possession of the ‘brat’, comes to the door and, in Irish, says three times, “Get on your knees, and close your eyes, and let Blessed Bridget come in.” Those within the house would do what they were asked, and on the third repetition they would cry out simultaneously, “Come in, come in, and welcome.“
The old woman then carries the ‘brat’ into the house triumphantly and a piece of it is given to each family member. This piece of cloth is believed to be a protection from all kinds of misfortune or “ill-luck” for the next twelve months, and they reverently keep it close to them. This done, ‘Grace’ is said and followed by the opening of the hole in the potatoes.
This ritual is not just hearsay, for my Great-Uncle John had the good luck to attend one of these dinners many years ago when in the West of Ireland. Although I have never been personally present at such a ritual, John’s story told to me when just a small boy made a great impression because it was still fresh and vivid in John’ memory.