The Catholics in Ireland

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VIII (19) | Start of Chapter

The Catholics in Ireland are the Catholics everywhere in some respects; in others they may have some shades of difference. Having always been placed under restrictions, they could not always appear free; and yet when these restrictions have been removed they have not taken undue advantage, as their enemies supposed they would. The removal of the penal laws did not make them insolent, but thankful that they again had the prospect of being ranked among the human family as human beings. That cord of fear by which they have been so long held is loosening, and they take liberties, that at times cause the priest to say that they are quite beyond his control, and he is often put down at the altar—that most sacred place, when he lays restrictions which are not congenial. Their superstitions too are fast vanishing; fairies and banshees have not the hold on the imagination as in former days; the holy wells, and bushes covered with rags and strings which had been dipped in the waters, to wash the believing diseased one, are now disappearing. This practice is not confined to the Catholics, either in Ireland or England, being practiced in the latter place to some extent now; but there is still a most fearful practice in the west part of Ireland, which a priest related in my hearing, and comforted our horror by saying, that he had caned the man most faithfully that morning, and it would never be repeated. The practice has been in use for ages, and is called the "Test of the Skull." It is this,—when a person is suspected of crime he is placed kneeling, and made to swear over the Bible that he is innocent, and then laying his hand on the skull, he invokes heaven that the sins of the person that owned that skull in life, with those of the seventh generations before and after him, might be visited on his head if he were guilty, and if this swearing was false, the skull was to haunt him incessantly day and night, to the end of his life. This horrid practice is so loudly spoken against, that it is performed with the greatest secrecy when it is done. It has extorted many a confession that nothing else would do, and is found a very useful experiment in incorrigible cases. The skull used is always the skull of the father, if the father be dead, which makes it mere terrific to the suspected one.

Superstitions of these kinds are prevalent more upon the sea-coasts and in the mountains, where the inhabitants are secluded from much intercourse; and sitting in their dark cabins, or climbing the crags upon the lofty mountains or cliffs hanging over the sea, they hear the constant roar of old ocean, or the hollow groaning of the wind, as it winds through the defiles and caves; and having no intelligent intercourse and no books, they conjure up all that imagination is capable of doing, and when it is conjured up and brought a few times before the mind, it is reality which is difficult to efface. Their fairy superstitions are not frightful, and go to show a very poetic turn, of which the mind of the Celt is quite capable. Fairies are always pretty, "light on the fut," and light on the wing, are pleasant and playful, particularly fond of children and babies, and often exchange them when the mother is gone or asleep, and many times she never knows the difference; frequently she has been heard to complain that a sicklier child has been put in her child's place, and sometimes blue eyes have been exchanged for gray. They never like to displease one of these gentry, lest she should be disposed to kill or injure the child. I found these ideas still lingering among the mountains, where some of them would not be willing to leave off red petticoats, because they kept the fairies from doing any little mischief which otherwise they might do. The "Angel's Whisper," too, has a foundation in real truth. It has long been supposed that a sleeping infant hears some pleasant thing whispered in its ear by the ministering angel that is always hovering near; and it is noticeable that the superstitions of the peasantry are more poetical than frightful, and they generally turn all supernatural appearances to a favorable account. But the famine changed their poetical romance into such fearful realities that no time was left to bestow on imagination.