The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 6/Irish Folk-Lore


[Reprinted from A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland, drawn from the communications of the Clergy, by William Shaw Mason. Dublin, London, and Edinburgh. 1814-1819. 8vo. 3 vols.]

(Continued from ante, Vol. v. p. 335.)

Kilmactige, county Sligo.

The sick bed is usually a wad of straw laid on the floor, near the fire, and sometimes on a bedstead, and let the weather be what it may there is a constant fire and abundance of smoke kept up, neither do they think of changing the poor creature's linen or bed-clothes. As soon as the breath has departed from a sick person the bed is carried out, and if there be high ground near the house it is there set on fire and consumed to ashes, whilst the air resounds with the doleful cries of the survivors, who use this ceremony for the purpose of notifying the departure of the deceased to the surrounding villages and warning them to give their attendance at the approaching wake and funeral.—(Vol. ii. p. 368.)

There are two holy wells, they are resorted to by the inhabitants who go there to pray and perform certain penances; these are either voluntary or imposed by the priest. . . . At one of these, called "Tubber Art," there used to be a large assemblage of people accompanied by tents, pipers, fiddlers, liquors, and everything necessary to celebrate the festival of the patron; but on account of the excesses committed there the priest put a stop to them Many of the people who frequent these wells will assure you that they possess a miraculous virtue, and perform the same cures on the blind, lame, and impotent folk who try them as the pool of Bethesda had formerly done.

The common people believe that their priests have a power of performing the like miracles by prayers and charms which they use; and they not only call on them when one of the family happens to be afflicted with sickness to perform "an office" as they call it for the sick person, but they also bring the priest to perform the same ceremony for a cow, horse, or a pig if any of these should be taken ill. They believe also that their clergy can cure the epilepsy or falling sickness, and they obtain from them what they called "Lour Oens," which means the Gospel of St. John, and consists of the first verse of that book written on a bit of paper, and sewed up in a small piece of cloth, sanctified by the priest's benediction and hung about the person's neck This, they believe, will preserve them from the complaint, and also protect them from the power of demons and witches, which they believe to have still the power of afflicting the human race with convulsions, madness, and similar maladies.—(Vol. ii. pp. 369-370.)

Kilkredane, county Clare.

There is a well in one of the cliffs here dedicated to Credan Neapha, "the Sanctified Credun"; it is remarkable for curing sore eyes and restoring rickety children to health, on which account great numbers of people resort to it in summer.—(Vol. ii. p. 435.)

Inniscattery, county Clare.

The traditionary account of Senanus at Kilrush is this:—He was born at Mologha, on the site of the present ruined church, which was erected in honour of him. Before he was baptised his mother took him in her arms early on a summer's morning, and, as she passed along, tasted some wild fruit, the child, to her utter astonishment, exclaimed, "Es much a lungan thu a vahir," "You have an early appetite, mother." The mother answered, "Shan a lavrin thu a laniv," "You have old talk, my child." The word "shan" (or old) was then adopted by the saint for his name. He desired his mother to pluck three rushes from a valley near her dwelling, where a lake sprang up, in which she baptised the child with a form of words prescribed by himself. To this day the lake remains, and is called Loughshanan.

Senanus and the monks of his abbey at Inniscattery were so strict as to make it a matter of conscience not so much as to look at a woman, and much less to suffer one to land on the island.

A stone upon which Senanus once knelt, and in which the print of his knee is still shown at the head of the creek of Kilrush, is still held in such veneration that every countryman who passes it bows, takes off his hat, or mutters a prayer as he goes along.

An ancient bell, said by O'Halloran and many others to belong to St. Senanus's altar, is still preserved by the descendants of the family of O'Kane in "the West"; and the spot on which it is averred that it fell from Heaven for the saint's use is shown at the cross between Kildimo and Farrihy, where an altar has been erected to commemorate the event. This relic of antiquity is covered by a strong coat of silver, firmly fastened to it, and ornamented by raised figures; it is in general use for the discovery of petty thefts and the clearance of characters. Many of the country people would not swear falsely on the "Golden Bell," as it is called, for they are taught from their infancy that the consequence would be instant death.[1]

The remains of the monument of Senanus are still to be seen in Scattery Island..... This is one of the most popular burial-places in the county. . . . The country people believe that all bodies buried in Shanakill, near Kilrush, are miraculously conveyed under the bed of the river into the holy ground of Inniscattery.—(Vol. ii. pp. 439440.)

The fishing-boats in use are the ancient Celtic coracles, or nivoges, a kind of basket-work covered with hides.—(Vol. ii. p. 451.)

The new year is opened with divine service in Kilrush. Young people expect "New Year's Gifts" to fill their "Christmas boxes." On the first of February the labour of Spring commences with the old adage, "On Candlemas Day throw candle and candlestick away." Shrove Tuesday is the greatest day in the year for weddings. The usual desert and supper on Shrove Tuesday is the pancake. Small pieces of them rolled up in a stocking and placed under a lover's pillow are found to be very efficacious in producing prophetic dreams (of future husbands).

On Easter Sunday every one in the union breakfasts on eggs and dines on fresh meat. Easter Monday is a great holiday here, and multitudes go into Scattery Island this day for the purpose of performing penance on their bare knees round the stony beach and holy well there.

On the 1st of April the old practice of fool-making is kept up here. On the 1st of May bushes are erected before the doors and decked with flowers. (It is worth observing that so tenacious are the native Irish in Ulster of their ancient customs that it is on the 1st of May, "old style," namely, the 11th day of that month, they put up their May-bushes and strew flowers round them.) On the night of the 23rd of June, being Midsummer eve, bonfires are kindled in all directions through the country, the young people dance round them, and some drive their cattle through them.

On the last day of October all the Hallowe'en tricks are played here in a manner similar to those in the mountains of Ulster or the highlands of Scotland.

Till within a few years, for some weeks before Christmas, a midnight procession with music took place at Kilrusb called "Waits," but this custom, with that of assembling in the Christmas holidays as mummers or wren-boys, and baiting a bull on St. Stephen's day, is now grown obsolete.

It was formerly usual here to make expensive entertainments at christenings. . . . The inhabitants marry at an early age. In "the West," a girl's first appearance at mass is well understood to be an intimation that her parents wish to receive proposals for her. Wakes and funerals here exhibit the mixture of grief and mirth which has been so often observed in other parts of Ireland. Dismal howlings are alternated with songs, plays, and ridiculous stories.—(Vol. ii. pp. 458-460.)

Ramoan, country Antrim.

During the summer months a singular appearance is seen on the coast, particularly near the causeway shore, resembling the Fata Morganna of Rhegio. Shadows resembling castles, ruins, and tall spires darted rapidly across the surface of the sea, which were instantly succeeded by appearances of trees, lengthened into considerable height; the shadows moved to the eastern part of the horizon, and at sunset totally disappeared. These phenomena have given rise to various romantic stories. A book, still extant, printed in 1748, and written by a person who resided near the Giants Causeway, gives a long account of an enchanted island annually seen floating along the Antrim coast which he calls the "Old Brazils." It is supposed by the peasants that a sod of Irish soil thrown on this island would give it stability; but though several fishing-boats have gone out at different times provided with the article, it has hitherto eluded their vigilance. —(Vol. ii. pp. 515-516.)

Whitechurch, county Wexford.

The only patron solemnity observed is that of Priest's Haggert, or Trinity Sunday.

The lower classes are uncommonly fond of dancing, and the young men of playing ball. They assemble in multitudes in the evenings of Sundays for these amusements.—(Vol. ii. p. 544.)

Ardclinis and Laid, county Antrim.

Near Cushendall is a small well called Tobordmony, or Sunday Well, which has its origin from being visited on that day for the cure of complaints chiefly of children. A little pebble is thrown into the well, and a pin stuck in a bit of cloth left beside it—thousands of these shreds may be seen there. . . . . There are some prejudices as to disturbing old thorn-trees. The curate has heard a man swear most solemnly that he has seen some hundreds of the "wee-folk" dancing round these trees, and told him he should suffer for meddling with them. There is also among them a superstitious opinion as to cow's milk blinked, so that it will not produce butter for several days' churnings until some old woman with a charm elves it away. Another relates to cows being elf-shot; and the inhabitants will show you the spot where you may feel a hole in the flesh, but not in the skin, where the cow has been struck; she gives no milk till relieved.—(Vol. iii. p. 27.)

Whenever a person dies in a townland no work is done till the body is interred.—(p. 28.)

Saint Peter's, Athlone, county Roscommon.

The ridiculous notions of the existence of fairies and witches obtain implicit belief in the minds of the ignorant who are extremely superstitious, and the number of absurd stories told on this subject among them, received with incredible avidity, repeated and believed, however inconsistent with reason and common sense, is hardly to be credited. . . . . . The collection of people called patterns, more properly denominated patrons, being originally assemblies of people met together with their priest for prayers, and the religious adoration to be paid to the Trinity who are considered the patrons of the places where these are held; at which there is necessarily some holy well or other local object tending to call forth the attendant's devotion. At these places are always erected booths or tents as in fairs for selling whiskey, beer, and ale, at which pipers and fiddlers do not fail to attend, and the remainder of the day and night (after their religious performance is over, and the priest withdrawn) is spent in singing, dancing, and drinking to excess Such places are frequently chosen for the scenes of pitched battles fought with cudgels by parties not only of parishes but of counties, set in formal array against each other to revenge some real or supposed injury.—(pp. 72-73.)

May bushes are set up at the doors of the peasants on the last day of April, and the eve of St. John the Baptist is as constantly celebrated with bonfires here as in any other part of Ireland. . . . . . . Flowers are gathered by the peasantry and strewed before their doors. . . . . . It is probably a joyous mode of ushering in the following day, the first of May, which is known to the Irish of the present day by the epithet Labaalteine, pronounced Lavalteena, that is the day of Baal's fire.—(p. 74.)

On the eve of St. Martin, on the 11th of November, every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other: those who are rich kill a cow or a sheep, others a goose or a turkey; while those who are poor and cannot procure an animal of greater value kill a hen or a cock, and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house, and this ceremonious performance is done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling when the sacrifice is made till the return of the same day the following year.—(pp. 75-76.)

Another custom or religious adoration is that of praying to the new moon the first time that luminary is seen after its change. Selden, de Diis Syriis, speaks of this, quoting a French author, and saying of the inhabitants of Ireland, "Se mettent a genoux en voyant la lune nouvelle, et disent en parlant a la lune; laisse nous ausi sains que tu nous as trouvé."—(p. 76.)

The barbarous custom, the Irish cry at wakes, is still kept up here in all its savage howl of discordant sounds.—(p. 77.)

[On Sunday] as soon as their public prayers are over they, as a matter of course, dedicate the remainder of it to ball-playing, hurling, and dancing. These dances are called cakes, on account of a large cake of 18 or 20 inches in diameter, which is laid on a circular board of nearly similar breadth elevated on a pole 6 or 8 feet high, or not unfrequently on a churn dish. In the spring and summer this cake is ornamented with garlands of the flowers of the season, and in the autumn crowned with apples fancifully ranged. When the dance was at an end this cake had in early days been usually given to the best female dancer, to be divided by her as she thought fit among the company; and the judgment was generally given, not in favour of the most graceful dancer, but of her who held out longest. But this mode of deciding who is to gain the cake has been changed for one less conducive to emulation in the exercise of such dances as the peasants indulge in . . . .; for the young fellow who has procured money enough for the occasion takes down the cake at any time of the evening he thinks fit, throws it into the lap of any girl he chooses to mark as his favourite, carries her and the cake into the public-house contiguous to which these dances are always held, where he treats the company after dividing the cake, and getting as many to join him as the strength of purse, inclination for drinking, and other sports or vices have attraction for; these spend the night in carousing to intoxication, and all the consequences of such uncontrolled dissipation.—(p. 107.) The production of illegitimate children [is] one of the lamentable consequences which flow from such Sunday meetings.—(p. 108.)

Ballyvoorney, county Cork.

The patron saint of this parish is called Abigail. The day appointed to be held in honour of her memory is 11th February, on which day a vast concourse of people assemble to form their religious or rather their superstitious rounds; they also meet here on WhitSunday and the day following to perform the same silly and absurd ceremonies. There are traditionary reports that many have received great benefit from the prayers and orisons offered at these times to the patrons.—(p. 116.)

Errigall-keroge, county Tyrone.

The custom [obtains] of lighting fires on the eve of St. John the Baptist. That of hanging rags on some wells is rather a general superstitious usage than a local custom.—(p. 161.)

The generality of the inhabitants attribute the building of the old parish church to a St. Kieran. They acknowledge three holy men of this name. The festival of one is on the 5th of March, of another on the 9th September, and that of the third undetermined. The extra-ordinary powers of that St. Kieran who built the church were little inferior to those of Orpheus and Amphion. Their influence extended to the moving of the very stones and arranging them into architectural order; while his only went so far as to provide the means of doing so. The saint possessed only one ox, which during the day drew the materials for the building, and in the evening was slaughtered to feed the workmen. There is a well at the foot of the hill on which the building is erected which still retains its character for miraculous powers. Into this well the bones of the ox were thrown each evening, and every following morning he appeared ready for his daily labour. One evening, however, when nothing but a small part of the eastern gable remained to be finished, one of the workmen, named McMahon, broke one of the shin-bones to get the marrow, and, though every care was taken to collect the splinters, the next morning the ox appeared with his leg broken, and totally incapable of continuing his share of the work. So melancholy a spectacle overcame the patience of the saint, and he prayed that the gable should never fall till it crushed a McMahon. Most part of it, however, is fallen; but enough remains to make every McMahon in the parish dread lest he should be the victim of its final ruin.—(pp. 161-162.)

Those who speak Irish when they would wish strongly to assert any fact use a phrase which signifies in English that to prove what they say they would venture their head into the Theim-orrim. This is said to have been an instrument used by one of the religious establishments of the country partly for the discovery and partly for the punishment of guilt. It was a kind of trap into which the suspected person put his head. If considered innocent, he was suffered to withdraw it in safety; but if guilty, the instrument strangled him or chopped off his head.—(pp. 164-165.)

Among the mountains the country people make use of dwelling-houses in several cases of sickness. These are small hovels partly scooped out of the side of a hill, and finished with rods with a very small entrance. In one of them, when heated like an oven with charred turf, the patient stretches himself upon some straw, and the entrance is closed up. He there lies in a state of violent perspiration, caused by the close heat. This operation is, as usual among the ignorant, considered a sovereign remedy against almost every disorder, but is chiefly used for rheumatic pains.—(p. 165.)

Holywood, county Down.

Amongst their other amusements, the game of shinny, as it is called by some, and common by others, is worthy of note. Common is derived from a Celtic word "com," which signifies "crooked," as it is played with a stick bent at its lower extremity, somewhat like a reaping-hook. The ball, which is struck to and fro, in which the whole amusement consists, is called nag or, in Irish, brig. It resembles the game called golf in Edinburgh. Christmas is the season when it is most generally played. It prevails all through Ireland, and in the highlands of Scotland.

The trundling of eggs, as it is called, is another amusement, which is common at Easter. For this purpose the eggs are boiled hard and dyed of different colours, and when they are thus prepared the sport consists in throwing and tumbling them along the ground, especially down a declivity, and gathering up the broken fragments to eat them. Formerly it was usual with the women and children to collect in large bodies for this purpose. They pursue this amusement in the vicinity of Belfast. Here it is generally confined to the younger classes. It is a curious circumstance that this sport is practised only by Presbyterians, though it is admitted that it is a very ancient usage, and was spread over the Russian empire and Greek islands long before the Reformation.— (pp. 207-208.)

The belief in witches and fairies is as firm as any article of their creed. When any person dies of a disease not generally known it is attributed to the influence of the former: and the latter imaginary personages are held in such reverence that their supposed places of haunt are guarded with the utmost sacred care. The fairy thorn, for instance, is often seen with an intrenchment, or barricade of stones erected around it, lest any persons, or even cattle, should injure this favoured spot of fayish revel.—(p. 208.)

Listerling, county Kilkenny.

There is a tradition that St. Mullen formerly resided in or near the moat of Listerling, and consecrated a well in its vicinity. The well is overshadowed by a fine old spreading hawthorn-tree, which the tradition says sprung from St. Mullen's walking-staff that he stuck down in that spot., . . The saint, having been disgusted with the conduct of the people who stole some articles from him, left them in displeasure, and removed to a place about two miles distant called Carrick-mullen (i.e. Mullen's Hill), now Mullinakill (i.e. Mullen's Church), from a church dedicated to him, the ruins of which still remain, and where his day, as patron saint, is annually celebrated on the Sunday after the feast of St. Bartholomew.— (p. 245.)

Rathcline, county Longford.

Veneration [is] paid to a well called St. Martin's, whither the poor at some times in the year go to pray.—(p. 291.)

Rathconrathy county Westmeath.

The only particular customs are (1st) its married women calling themselves by their maiden names; (2nd), wakes, which are productive of nothing but riot, intoxication, and indecent mirth; and (3rd), their crying at funerals.—(p. 303.)

Rosenallis, Queen's County.

Old superstitions are going out of use: even the funeral cry is laid aside. The people of Rearymore parish annually assemble on the 12th December at St. Fenian's well, to celebrate the festival of their patron saint. The well consists of three or four holes in the solid rocks, always full of water, and is surrounded by old hawthorns, which are religiously preserved by the natives. It is also customary for the common people to go round this well on their bare knees, by way of penance and mortification. On the return of the annual festival of St. Manman, the Roman Catholic clergyman performs a mass in the parish of St. Manman, which is attended by those who are to be interred in the burying-ground of that parish. The same custom prevails in the parish of Rearymore on the festival of St. Finyan.—(p. 322.)

Shruel, county Longford.

The new year, and the first day of the month or week, are considered the properest time for commencing any undertaking. No man removes to a new habitation on a Friday, because it is one of the cross days of the year, and "a Saturday flitting makes a short sitting." For a fortnight before Shrove Tuesday—the great day for weddings—it is the practice for persons in disguise to run through the street of Ballymahon from seven to nine or ten o'clock in the evenings, announcing intended marriages, or giving pretty broad hints for matchmaking in these words:—"Holloa, the bride—the bride, A. B. to C. D." &c.; their jokes some times prove true ones. On St. Patrick's-day every one in the parish wears a shamrogue, which is drowned at night in a flowing bowl. The first of April is observed here pretty much in the same way as its observance in London. On the first of May green bushes are planted opposite every door, and the pavement covered with flowers. On Midsummer-eve the bonfires are kindled with great regularity.

In the course of the summer several individuals make pilgrimages either to holy wells in the immediate neighbourhood of this parish, such as that of Killevally, or St. John's, in the county of Roscommon, opposite to the ruined church of Cashel; or else to the more distant but more celebrated shrine of Loughderg, in the county of Donegal, to which latter place many persons in affluent circumstances have been known to walk barefooted as an act of penance for their sins. On the 29th September (Michaelmas-day) hunting commences, and every family that can procure a goose has one dressed for dinner. Hallow-eve is observed on the last day of October, with the usual necromantic ceremonies, and the amusement concludes with a supper of granbree—that is, boiled wheat, buttered and sweetened.

For some weeks before Christmas, several musicians, generally pipers, serenade the inhabitants of Ballymahon about an hour or two before daybreak, calling out, in the intervals, the hour of the morning, and stating whether it is cold, wet, frosty or fine. This is called going about with "the waits"; and those who give themselves this trouble expect to be paid for it in the Christmas holidays, when they go about in the daylight playing a tune, and receiving the expected remuneration at every door. At this festive season the grown people, after feasting on their best fare, amuse themselves by dancing, blind-man's buff, questions and commands, and the relating or hearing legendary tales. The children make and paint circular crosses; expect Christmas-boxes from their friends as a reward for the exhibition of their proficiency in writing in what are called Christmas pieces. A large candle is lighted on Christmas night, laid on a table, and suffered to burn out. If it should happen by any means to be extinguished, or more particularly if it should (as has sometimes happened) go out without any visible cause, the untoward circumstance would be considered a prognostic of the death of the head of the family. St. Stephen's day is always spent in bull-baiting.

It is customary to give entertainments at christenings here. Protestants stand sponsors for Roman Catholic children, and vice versa. No woman thinks of taking any concern in her household affairs until she has been churched after childbirth. Marriages are the scenes of festivity and mirth; a bridesman and bridesmaid are indispensable attendants on this occasion; and the ceremony of "throwing the stocking" is too well known to need description. A fine day for the bringing home is reckoned an omen of good fortune, according to the popular adage:

"Happy is the bride that the sun shines on."

A similar proverb renders a wet day desirable for a funeral:

"Happy is the corpse that the rain rains on."

The wakes of all ranks of people here are conducted pretty much on the old Irish plan. The corpse is kept in for two nights during which time the Irish cry is seldom interrupted.

The funerals are generally attended by crowds, summoned by the bell of Ballymahon. Gravestones with crucifixes mark the respective burial-places. There is also another kind of monument here, viz. heaps of stones on the sides of the roads, marking the spot on which untimely deaths have occurred. Some of these are inclosed and planted with one or two ash-trees.—(pp. 346-350.)

Tracton Abbey, county Cork.

The great patron day is that of St. John, on 24th of June, on the eve of which innumerable fires are lighted on every hill, in the streets of every village, and at the meeting of every cross-road. On the festive day itself, and the subsequent week, myriads of persons of all ranks and ages flock to the holy well of St. Zonogue, where booths and tents are erected, and wondrous cures announced to be performed by this miraculous water.—(p. 472.)

Tintern, county Wexford.

St. Martin, whose day is kept on 11th November, is patron of the parish. On that day numbers of people perform pilgrimages to a weir dedicated to him; and there is a fair or market held on that day for which no patent has been granted.

The people . . . wear wisps of straw in their brogues; call women by their maiden names, and illegitimate children after their mother.

They are addicted to superstitious practices, and believe in apparitions; some believe in a warning voice, which is said to be heard when any of the Colclough family are near death. They always kill some animal on the eve of St. Martin's day; the very poor kill a cock or a hen. They never spin wool or flax on the afternoon of Saturday, or the eve of any holiday, and many will not yoke a plough after twelve o'clock on Saturday.— (pp. 491-492.)

Tullaroan, county Kilkenny.

The family spirit of clanship, descending lineally, and collaterally spreading itself, is particularly strong among the population of this parish Among the tribes of Galway this feeling is powerfully predominant, and in Scotland it is unnecessary to state that every man bearing the same name regards himself as a kinsman to his laird or chief. In Grace's county, Tullaroan, the feeling is not less strong and fixed. The patriotism of this sentiment was condensed by the compression of hostilities in the royal Milesian septs of FitzPatrick, who were placed close in their neighbourhood with every possible convenience for frequent battles. The tales of these exploits are the tales most dear to the descendants of the combatants engaged in these encounters, and they cannot remember one single occasion when they were worsted.—(p. 589, note.)

  1. The bell of Saint Evan, as reported in the survey of Kildare, had the same veneration attached to it; and a large wooden image at Saints Island, in Lough Ree, is used for the same purpose in the counties of Roscommon, Longford, and Westmeath.