Irish Popular Superstitions

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER I...concluded

Repeal is dead; its ghost was last seen at Ballingarry, but vanished in smoke and a flash of fire; some say it is hid in a cave in Slievenamon; but I don't give in to that. O'Connellism was kilt by the young Irelanders, who blew themselves up with the infernal machine with which they had arranged to shoot Dan and the sodjers. Education, emigration, Queen's colleges, Cashel synods, stopping the Maynooth grant, discriminating rates, rates in aid, and other variations in the poor-laws; soil analysis, green crops, agricultural missionaries, model-farms, manufactories, rotatory parliaments, quakers, fisheries, suspension of the habeas corpus, ecclesiastical titles bills, waste land improvements, paying the priests and putting down the establishment, arming the Orangemen, and "Peel" plantations, with a thousand other speculations, schemes, and propositions, have each their advocates. One thing, however, is certain, the great bulk of the land in the west and south must change owners; sooner or later it must come into the market either in wholesale or retail, and now the sooner the better. But who will be the buyers?

Oh! Englishmen—English capital, that is what we want. "Just wait a bit;" we have been planted, replanted, and transplanted by the English and Scotch on several occasions, and in various ways; we are, it may now be said, undergoing the process of subsoil ploughing; the great bulk of the old population in the south and west is being put under the sod, and we sincerely trust the noxious weeds may be got rid of in the process. Let it, however, be remembered what the country gained by these various plantations: the "mere Irish" were driven like wolves into the wilds and fastnesses of Donegal and Connaught, without their condition being one iota improved in two centuries. The Cromwellian soldier has, in some instances, become the Tipperary murderer. At the Boyne this country changed masters, and the land its owners—the native Irish gentleman, the adherent of the Stuarts, was replaced by the victorious English captain or lieutenant, whose descendants are now some of the first to "go to the wall," although these persons obtained the fee of their estates merely on condition of their driving out the Celts; and as to the hired Scotch agriculturists, they never effected a single improvement outside their employer's demesne, or bettered the condition of the Irish farmer in any respect.

Well, no matter what comes, we'll lose the gintry, so we have made arrangement with Darby and some of our old Connaught acquaintances, aided by friends in the other provinces, to furnish us, from time to time, with a few particulars about the old customs and social antiquities of Ireland, especially such as have not already appeared, at any length, in print. It is possible, however, that we may frequently be found quoting inadvertently without acknowledgment, as the old newspapers and magazines constantly recorded instances of superstition; and the local histories also mention many such. It would be impossible, indeed, to say how often we are making use of, without acknowledgment, the numerous contributions afforded us by our country friends.

This is, as our readers, who have been able to follow us thus far, have already perceived, rather a discursive chapter, but so is our subject, which has been taken up like the sybil's leaves, disarranged, in rags and patches, as time, opportunity, or the immediate matter in hand invited. We have already alluded to the decay of the Irish language as one of the means by which our legends and superstitions are becoming obliterated. It is scarcely possible to conceive the rapidity with which this is being effected, or the means taken to bring it about. We may relate the following incident as characteristic of the love of learning, and the spread of education among the peasantry in the west of Ireland, as well as the means forcibly employed to expunge the Gaelic as a spoken language.

Some years ago we were benighted on a summer evening by the shores of Loch Ina, near the foot of those picturesque mountains, called the twelve pins of Benna-Beola, in Connemara. Our guide conducted us to a neighbouring village, where we were received for the night with that hospitality which has for ever been the characteristic of those wild mountaineers. While supper was preparing, and the potatoes laughing and steaming in the skieh [21] the children gathered round to have a look at the stranger, and one of them, a little boy about eight years of age, addressed a short sentence in Irish to his sister, but meeting the father's eye, he immediately cowered back, having, to all appearance, committed some heinous fault. The man called the child to him, said nothing, but drawing forth from its dress a little stick, commonly called a scoreen or tally, which was suspended by a string round the neck, put an additional notch in it with his penknife.

Upon our inquiring into the cause of this proceeding, we were told that it was done to prevent the child speaking Irish; for every time he attempted to do so a new nick was put in his tally, and when these amounted to a certain number, summary punishment was inflicted upon him by the schoolmaster. Every child in the village was similarly circumstanced, and whoever heard one of them speak a word of Irish was authorized to insert the fatal nick. We asked the father if he did not love the Irish language—indeed the man scarcely spoke any other; "I do," said he, his eye kindling with enthusiasm; "sure it is the talk of the ould country, and the ould times, the language of my father and all that's gone before me—the speech of these mountains, and lakes, and these glens, where I was bred and born; but you know," he continued, "the children must have larnin', and, as they tache no Irish in the National School, we must have recourse to this to instigate them to talk English." Upon further inquiry we found that the school alluded to was upwards of three miles distant, and that one of the able-bodied villagers escorted the children there each day, summer and winter, occasionally carrying the weak, and conducting the party with safety across the fords, and through some difficult passes which intervened. We have known a young man, who had assumed a very fine English accent, twitted with the circumstance of his having once carried the "score," by being told, "Arrah, leave off your English, 'tisn't so long since the beam was round your neck."

The fairy legends and traditions of the south of Ireland—the Cluricaune, the Merrow, the Duhallane, and the O'Donohues, &c., have been already faithfully described by Crofton Croker; but the subject is by no means exhausted, even in Munster; while a new set of elves, spirits, and goblin influences, with somewhat different ideas attached to each, pervade the west, particularly the counties of Mayo and Galway, and the isles which speckle the wild Atlantic along their shores—the group of Arran, Turk, Boffin, Innis Shark, Clare Island, Achill, and from Innis-Beagle to the far-famed Innis-Murray, opposite to the Sligo coast. Even when the legend common to the south or north is retained in these localities, it is in a new dress, with new dramatis personae, and entirely new scenery, machinery, decorations, and processions; thus, the story of Daniel O'Rourke is told upon a winter's night, by the laussogue's blaze,[22] in the Islands of Shark and Boffin, under the name of Terence O'Flaherty, as a warning to the stayers out late, by people who never heard of the "Munster Legends," to which we have alluded.[23] The phraseology of our Connaught story-teller is also different in many respects from that of the northern or Munsterman, as may be gleaned from this chapter.

But it is not in the west, or among what is termed the true Celtic population alone, that superstitions and mystic rites are still practised. We have fortune-tellers within the Circular-road of Dublin! and fairy doctors, of repute, living but a few miles from the metropolis. Not six months ago a man was transported for ten years for so far practising upon the credulity of a comfortable family in the county of Longford, as to obtain sums of money, by making them believe he was their deceased father, who was not dead, but only among the good people, and permitted to return occasionally to visit his friends. While we write, a country newspaper informs us of the body of a child having been disinterred at Oran, in the County Roscommon, and its arms cut off, to be employed in the performance of certain mystic rites. About a year ago a man in the county of Kerry roasted his child to death, under the impression that it was a fairy. He was not brought to trial, as the crown prosecutor mercifully looked upon him as insane.

Madness has either been assumed, or sworn to, as a means of getting off prisoners, on more than one occasion, to our own knowledge. We remember sitting, some years ago, beside a celebrated veteran prisoner's counsel, in a county town in Connaught, who was defending a man on his trial for murder, committed apparently without provocation, in the open day, and before a number of witnesses; the prisoner having, with a heavy spade, clove through the skull of his unresisting victim. The defence intended to be set up was, as usual, an alibi. Numbers of people were ready to come forward and swear he was not, and could not be, at the place specified in the indictment at all. As the trial proceeded, however, the sagacious lawyer, entrusted with the defence, at once saw that he had not a leg to stand on, and, turning abruptly to the prisoner's attorney, swore with an oath bigger than that taken by any of the witnesses, "He'll be hanged. Could you not prove him mad?"

"Oh! yes; 'mad as a March hare.' I'll get plenty of people to prove that," was the solicitor's ready reply.

"But did you ever know of his doing anything out of the way? Now, did you ever hear of his eating his shoes, or the likes of that?"

"Shoes? I'll get you a man that will swear he eat a new pair of brogues, nails and all."

"Well, then," said the barrister, "put him up; and let us get our dinner."

The attorney retired to look after his witnesses, while a prolonged cross-examination of one of the prosecutors then upon the table, enabled the "sharp practitioner" to alter his tactics and prepare for the defence. Accordingly, the very first witness produced for the defence swore to the insanity of the prisoner; and the intelligent jury believing in the truth of the brogue-eating, including the digestion of tips, heel-taps, sole-nails, squares, tacks, sprigs, hangups, pavours and sparables, acquitted the prisoner! He was about to be discharged from the dock, when the judge committed him to a lunatic asylum.

During a recent assizes, in one of the southern counties, a witness, who prevaricated not a little, was rather roughly interrogated in her cross-examination, as to the nature of an oath, and the awful consequences of breaking it. "Do you know, my good girl," thundered the crown lawyer, "what would happen to you if you perjured yourself?"

"Troth, I do well, sir," said she; "I wouldn't get my expinses."

There are certain types of superstition common to almost all countries in similar states of progress or civilization, and others which abound in nearly every condition of society; and strange to say, what was science—written, ackowledged, and accepted science—not more than two centuries ago, is now pronounced vulgar error and popular superstition. It would, no doubt, form a subject of great interest to trace back our traditional antiquities, and to compare them one with another—the German and Scandinavian with the Irish, Scotch, or English—those of the western and eastern continents generally, with the rites and ceremonies, or opinions, of which vestiges still exist among ourselves; when, indeed, strange affinities and similarities would be found to obtain among the North American Indians, and the Burmese and other Orientals, with those even yet practised in the Irish highlands and islands; but this would be a laborious task, and unsuited to the pages of our work, or to the popular elucidation of our fairy lore.

Of all superstitions, the medical lingers longest, perhaps, because the incentive to its existence must remain, while disease, real or imaginary—either that capable of relief, or totally incurable—continues to afflict mankind, and, therefore, in every country, no matter how civilized, the quack, the mountebank, the charm-worker, and the medico-religious impostor and nostrum-vendor, will find a gullable, payable public to prey upon. The only difference between the water-doctor living in his schloss, the mesmeriser practising in the lordly hall, or the cancer and the consumption curer of the count or duchess, spending five thousand a-year in advertisements, paid into the queen's exchequer, who drives his carriage and lives in Soho-square, and the "medicine man" of the Indian, or the "knowledgeable woman" of the half-savage islander, residing in a hut cut out of the side of a bog-hole, or formed in the cleft of a granite rock, is, that the former are almost invariably wilful impostors, and the latter frequently believe firmly in the efficacy of their art, and often refuse payment for its exercise.


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[21] Skiehogue, skib, skieh, the oval basket in which potatoes are strained.

[22] Fassogue, Lassogue, or sup—a piece of dry bog-deal used as a torch.

[23] The story of Daniel O'Rourke appeared many years before the publication of the Munster Legends, in a periodical called the "Dundee Repository."