Irish Popular Superstitions

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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Revolution in Irish Peasant's Life: its Causes and Effects—Obliteration of Superstitions—Introduction of Darby Doolin—Loss of the Gentry—the Irish Pantheon—Tenant's Rights and taxes—Demolition of the Popular and Rural Pastimes—The Ordnance Survey—Effect of the Potato Failure on the Popular Mind—Emigration and Patriotism—Who is to be the Buyer?—What we are, What we may be, and What we ought to be—The Way to Learn English—How to Prove a Man Mad—Quacks—The Last of the Superstitions.

BY the sarcasm of his Don Quixote, Cervantes, it is said, first threw ridicule upon the followers of Amadis de Gaul, checked the spirit of knight-errantry, and in fact sneered away the chivalry of Spain. No doubt the effect produced by that work was sudden and decisive; the period, however, was propitious; light was beginning to shine out from the surrounding darkness, and the people to whom the work was addressed were learned enough to read, and had sufficient wisdom and common sense to appreciate its value, and also wit quick and ready to perceive its point. Rapid as, it is said, was the spread of this revolution of opinion in the Peninsula, and, indeed, throughout civilized Europe generally, it was nothing, in comparison to that which has taken place, and is still going forward, in matters of belief, and popular prejudice, and national opinion, in Ireland.

The great convulsion which society of all grades here has lately experienced, the failure of the potato crop, pestilence, famine, and a most unparalleled extent of emigration, together with bankrupt landlords, pauperizing poor-laws, grinding officials, and decimating workhouses, have broken up the very foundations of social intercourse, have swept away the established theories of political economists, and uprooted many of our long-cherished opinions. In some places, all the domestic usages of life have been outraged; the tenderest bonds of kindred have been severed, some of the noblest and holiest feelings of human nature have been blotted from the heart, and many of the finest, yet firmest links which united the various classes in the community have been rudely burst asunder.

Even the ceremonial of religion has been neglected, and the very rites of sepulture, the most sacred and enduring of all the tributes of affection or respect, have been neglected or forgotten; the dead body has rotted where it fell, or formed a scanty meal for the famished dogs of the vicinity, or has been thrown, without prayer or mourning, into the adjoining ditch. The hum of the spinning-wheel has long since ceased to form an accompaniment to the colleen's song; and that song itself, so sweet and fresh in cabin, field, or byre, has scarcely left an echo in our glens, or among the hamlets of our land. The Shannaghie and the Callegh in the chimney corner, tell no more the tales and legends of other days. Unwaked, unkeened, the dead are buried, where Christian burial has at all been observed; and the ear no longer catches the mournful cadence of the wild Irish cry, wailing on the blast, rising up to us from the valleys, or floating along the winding river, when

"The skies, the fountains, every region near,
Seemed all one mutual cry."

The fire on the peasant's hearth was quenched, and its comforts banished, even before his roof-tree fell, while the remnant of the hardiest and most stalwart of the people crawl about, listless spectres, unable or unwilling to rise out of their despair. In this state of things, with depopulation the most terrific which any country ever experienced, on the one hand, and the spread of education, and the introduction of railroads, colleges, industrial and other educational schools, on the other,—together with the rapid decay of the Irish vernacular, in which most of our legends, romantic tales, ballads, and bardic annals, the vestiges of Pagan rites, and the relics of fairy charms were preserved,—-can superstition, or if superstitious belief, can superstitious practices continue to exist?

But these matters of popular belief and folks'-lore, these rites and legends, and superstitions, were after all, the poetry of the people, the bond that knit the peasant to the soil, and cheered and solaced many a cottier's fireside. Without these, on the one side, and without proper education and well-directed means of partaking of and enjoying its blessings, on the other, and without rational amusement besides, he will, and must, and has in many instances, already become a perfect brute. The rath which he revered has been, to our knowledge, ploughed up, the ancient thorn which he reverenced has been cut down, and the sacred well polluted, merely in order to uproot his prejudices, and efface his superstition. Has he been improved by such desecration of the landmarks of the past, objects which, independent of their natural beauty, are often the surest footprints of history? We fear not.

"Troth, sir," said Darby Doolin, an old Connaughtman of our acquaintance, when lately conversing upon the subject, "what betune them national boords, and godless colleges, and other sorts of larnin', and the loss of the pratey, and the sickness, and all the people that's goin' to 'Merica, and the crathurs that's forced to go into the workhouse, or is dyin' off in the ditches, and the clargy settin' their faces agin them, and tellin' the people not to give in to the likes, sarra wan of the Gintry (cross about us!) 'ill be found in the counthry, nor a word about them or their doin's in no time."

The reader must not from this suppose that our friend Darby in any way commiserated or sympathized with the bankrupt landed gentry, or felt "sore or sorry" that the landlord and the noble were, en masse, reduced to the same condition that the merchant, the trader, or the professional man, are, from day to day. Oh, no! These were not the people honest Darby alluded to. Small blame to him if he had but little personal acquaintance with such gentry; for "few of them ever stood in the street, or darkened the doors" of the cottages of his native village of Kilmucafaudeen. Darby Doolin's gentry were, a short time ago at least, resident, and transacted their own business without either attorney, money-broker, agent, keeper, driver, or pound-keeper; they seldom visited London, and much more rarely Paris, or the Brunnens of Nassau; and though reputedly lucky, were scarcely ever known to frequent the gambling-table or the horse-race, but lived "in pace and quietness at home, in the ould ancient habitations of the counthry," riding by night up and down upon the moonbeams, changing their residences or localities with the whirlwind; creeping into the russet acorn shells; sleeping in summer in the purple pendent bells of the foxglove or the wild campanula; quaffing the Maydew from the gossamer threads of the early morning, and living a merry, social life, singing, dancing, and playing, with wild Eolian music, by the streamlet's bank, upon the green hill side, or round the grassy fort. And though they neither canted nor dispossessed, never took nor demanded "male or malt," head-rent, quit-rent, crown-rent, dues or duties, county-cess, parish-cess, tithes, priest's dues, poor rates, rates in aid, driverage, poundage, nor murder-money;[1] employed neither sheriffs, magistrates, barony constables, bailiffs, keepers, drivers, auctioneers, tax-collectors, process-servers, guagers, spies, potteen-hussars, police, nor standing army; passed no promissory notes, and served neither notices to quit, ejectments, nor civil bills, they exacted from the people a reverence and a respect such as few potentates, civil, military, or ecclesiastical, could ever boast of.

In most of the leases made in the county of Galway, even twenty years ago,—and we believe the practice was common in other parts of Ireland also,—there was, besides the ordinary rent, a covenant for so many pullets, geese and turkeys, so many days' work in spring and harvest, and so many pounds of grey yarn thread. These remnants of the feudal system were termed "duties," The agent, the tithe-proctor, the driver also, and the pound-keeper, had each his dues. Independent of the ordinary legal fees of the latter functionary, there were others which he obtained in this wise. If a man's cow was in pound, and his family in want of its support, he went to the pound-keeper to get it back, until the day of the cant; instead of leaving it starving, and up to its middle in mud in the pound for a fortnight, he paid the fee. The cattle-jailer took out a piece of paper, the leaf of a book, or the back of a letter—anything, in fact, having printed or written characters upon it—laid it down on the road, and the owner of the beast taking it up, pledged himself upon it to deliver up the animal within the appointed time. Rarely, indeed, was the pledge ever known to be broken, although many a serious riot and attempt at rescue had been made on the first capture of the beast.

"True for you," says Darby, "they are going fast, that gentle race (the Lord be with them!) but sure you wouldn't have them wait, them that were always an out-door population, to be taken by the scruff of the neck and sent by the guardians and commissioners just to try their feet on the flure of the poor-house,[2] or be shot down like thrushes, as the boys at Ballingarry were. The good people are leaving us fast: nobody ever hears now the tic-tac of the leprechaun, or finds the cute little chap with his Frenchman's hat and yellow breeches, sated on a boochalaun bwee of a summer's morning, with lab-stone on knee, and hammer in hand, tick-tack, tick-tack, welting soles and lasting brogues for his elfin brethren. God be with the time when Donall-na-Trusslog (Daniel of the leaps), met the leprechaun one morning on Rahona bog, with the adhaster buidhe (golden bridle, which, whenever shaken, was found with the yellow steed attached to it) in the one hand, and the sporran-na-skillinge (the purse that was never without a shilling) in the other. He laid hold of him, and swore that he should never part, him till he had given up these treasures. 'Yarrah,' said the little fellow, 'what good is it for you to get them, when that fellow behind you will immediately take them from you?'

Daniel gave one of his sudden circuitous leaps, but on his turning again to the little fellow, he found, to his eternal grief, that he had scampered off, and was grinning at him from the spray of a bucky briar in the neighbouring hedgerow.

"Sure the children wouldn't know anything about the pooca but for the story of the blackberries after Michaelmas.[3] The warning voice of the banshee is mute; for there are but few of the 'rale ould stock' to mourn for now; the sheogue and the thivish are every year becoming scarcer; and even the harmless linane shie [4] is not talked about now-a-days, and does not hold discourse with e'er a fairy woman in the whole barony,—them that were as plenty as lumpers afore the yallow male came amongst us, and made us as wake and as small as a north country rushlight, or a ha'penny herring.[5] No lie to say the times are altered; sure the snow and the frost itself is lavin' us." Darby Doolin writes us word (for he is a mighty knowledgeable man, and fit to plade with a barrister;[6] that all the stories about the fairies and the pishogues are going fast, and will soon be lost to us and our heirs for ever.

The old forms and customs, too, are becoming obliterated; the festivals are unobserved, and the rustic festivities neglected or forgotten; the bowlings, the cakes and the prinkums [7] (the peasants' balls and routs), do not often take place when starvation and pestilence stalk over a country, many parts of which appear as if a destroying army had but recently passed through it. Such is the desolation which whole districts, of Connaught at least, at this moment present; entire villages being levelled to the ground, the fences broken, the land untilled and often unstocked, and miles of country lying idle and unproductive, without the face of a human being to be seen upon it. The hare has made its form on the hearth, and the lapwing wheels over the ruined cabin, The faction-fights, the hurlings, and the mains of cocks that used to be fought at Shrovetide and Easter, with such other innocent amusements, are past and gone these twenty years, and the mummers and May-boys left off when we were a gossoon no bigger than a pitcher. It was only, however, within those three years that the waits ceased to go their rounds upon the cold frosty mornings in our native village at Christmas; and although the "wran boys" still gather a few halfpence on St. Stephen's Day, we understand there wasn't a candle blessed in the chapel, nor a breedogue [8] seen in the barony where Kilmucafauden stands, last Candlemas Day; no, nor even a cock killed in every fifth house, in honour of St. Martin; and you'd step over the brosnach [9] of a bonfire that the childer lighted last St. John's Eve.

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[1] It is but too fully established that in most instances of agrarian murder, the whole townland was compelled to contribute to the price paid for the bloody deed, or heavily taxed to support the murderer, or pay his passage to America.

[2] We lately expostulated with one of our old beggars as to why she did not go into the poor-house—"Arrah, sure agra, I wouldn't be alive a week in it; I that's ate up with the rheumatics; troth, I went there the other day, jist to try my feet on the flure, and I wouldn't be alive in it a week," was the graphic reply.

[3] It is a popular belief—kept up probably to prevent children eating them when over ripe—that the pooca, as he rides over the country, defiles the blackberries at Michaelmas and Holly-eve.

[4] These various personages, and the ideas attached to them, will be explained during the course of these papers. The representation of the "The Lianhan Shee," as given by Carleton, in his "Traits and Stories," does not hold good in the west, where that familiar spirit is looked upon as a much more innoxious attendant of the fairy woman. The leprechaun, or clurichaun, as he is termed in Munster, and the banshee and phooka, or pooca, the Puck of Shakspeare, are already known, even to English readers. "The sheeogue is the true fairy; thivishes or thoushas (shadowy apparitions) are literally ghosts; and pisherogues, or pishogues, a term used both in the Irish manuscripts and in the vernacular, means properly witchcraft or enchantment.

[5] The laffeen scuddaun, or halfpenny herring, is often used as a term of insignificance.

[6] By the term "barrister," the Irishman does not mean a lawyer generally, but the county assistant barrister, who is held in great veneration. In Ireland we have the lawyer, the councillor, and the barrister.

[7] In Connaught, in former times, when a dance was held on a Sunday evening at a cross-roads, or any public place of resort, a large cake, like what is called a barnbrack, with a variety of apocryphal birds, fabulous fishes, and outlandish quadrupeds, such as are only known in heraldic zoology, raised in bold relief on its upper crust, was placed on the top of a churn-dash, and tied over with a clean white cloth; the staff of the churn-dash was then planted outside the door as a sign of the fun and amusement going on within. When they had danced and drank their fill, the likeliest boy took the prettiest colleen, and led her out to the cake, and placed it in her hands as Queen of the Feast; it was then divided among the guests, and the festivities continued. The word prinkum is sometimes used in the county Galway, to express a great rout or merry-making, in which dancing, courting, coshering, whisky-drinking, card-playing, fighting, and sometimes a little ribbonism, form the chief diversions.

[8] The breedogue was an image of St. Bridget, generally styled by the country girls "Miss Biddy." It was carried about on the 1st of February. As one of the objects of this little work is to record the "humours" and ceremonials of this and other like festivals, formerly observed in Ireland, it is unnecessary to enter further into their description in the notes to the present chapter.

[9] The term brosnach is generally applied to an armful or an apronful of sticks used for firing; it literally means a bundle of rotten sticks for firing. A brusna of furze is carried on the back.