Post by Graveyardbride on Mar 18, 2019 4:52:23 GMT -5
Old Irish Superstitions
The luck o’ the Irish may be internationally recognized, but when it comes to well-established local superstitions, there are as many bad omens as good – if not more. Old wives’ tales definitely aren’t believed by everyone, but still have a foothold in the national imagination, so don’t be surprised if your Irish host interrupts him/herself to salute a magpie, or seems more pleased than one would expect to have an itchy hand.
Superstitions were commonplace in rural Ireland in centuries past, as indeed they were all over Europe and a few are heeded to this day. Many such beliefs were based on fear and how to avoid the threat of evil forces, which could come from fairies, witches or the devil himself. Others suggested a sense of fatalism, leading to beliefs that if a certain event occurred on a particular day, there could be future consequences, which could be as mundane as weather predictions or as fatal as death itself. Many superstitions, however, related to solutions to everyday problems such as illness or injury, though very few had a scientific, or even logical, basis. One of the reasons so many of these random superstitions survived is because they are so vague they can be interpreted in whatever way the believer chooses. Everyone experiences a degree of both good and bad luck and if some prefer to attribute either to superstition, they are free to do so.
Back in the mid-1930s, primary schoolchildren in Ireland were assigned to collect folktales and stories of legends, customs and local history passed down from generation-to-generation in their families. Now known as the School’s Manuscript Collection, the project resulted in excess of a half-million pages of valuable material. The following is from an extensive collection of “Lucky and Unlucky Signs” collected by students:
If you put on your stockings inside-out, you will be lucky that day.
If you find a ha’penny (half-penny), keep it and it will bring you luck.
If a man is going to the fair and his wife throws an old shoe after him, he will have good luck.
If you spit onto the ground when walking underneath a ladder, you will have good luck.
It’s lucky to see a black cat.
If you find a horseshoe, spit on it and throw it over your head and you will have good luck.
It’s lucky to find a four-leafed clover.
When you see a white horse, spit on the ground and close your eyes and you will have good luck, but be sure to rub out the spit afterward.
It’s lucky for two magpies to land to your right.
If your tooth falls out, put it on your window-sill at night and if it is gone in the morning, you will have good luck.
If you see a white horse in the morning, you will have good luck.
If a male child is born in a family where both the father and grandfather are called John, if the new arrival is also called John, he will be unlucky throughout his life.
If a person comes in one door, they should go out the same door again, otherwise, they take the luck of the house with them when they go.
If you are going to the fair and the first person you see is a red-haired woman, if you don’t turn back, you’ll have back luck the rest of the day.
It’s unlucky to stir your tea or coffee counter-clockwise.
If you count the cars in a funeral procession, bad luck will befall you.
If you burn a pack of playing cards, bad luck will befall you.
It’s bad luck to light three cigarettes from the same match.
If you break a looking-glass, you’ll have seven years bad luck.
Knocking over your chair when you stand is a sign of bad luck.
It is unlucky to say “God bless” in reference to a dog or cat.
If a wedding party meets a funeral following the marriage ceremony, it will be an unlucky marriage.
If a cricket chirps on the hob, it is a sign of great misfortune.
If you meet a funeral and fail to walk three steps with it, you will have bad luck.
If you don’t bless yourself the first time you see a new moon, ill luck will befall you.
Sweeping the dust from the house on a Monday morning is sweeping the good luck from the house for the week.
It’s unlucky for three magpies to land to your left.
If the first person you meet in the morning is a red-haired woman or girl, you’ll have bad luck for the rest of the day.
If a weasel stands and stares you in the face, you will have bad luck.
There were superstitions for almost every event or occasion, including death, illness, visitors, holidays and other specific days, and others that don’t fit into a specific category:
If you pick the flowers of a white thorn bush and carry them home, you will die.
If there are two lights burning in the same room for two nights in succession, someone in the house will die.
When a donkey brays in the middle of the night, it signifies a tinker is dead.
A picture falling from a wall foretells a death.
Health and Cures: In times when medical care was virtually nonexistent, people placed great store in nature and the cures it could offer:
Wearing an iron ring on your right fourth finger will ward off rheumatism.
If you have a fever, go to the seashore when the tide is coming in. When the tide goes out again, it will take the infection and fever with it.
To prevent infection from a dog bite, have a seventh son touch your hand. (Seventh sons were believed to have special powers and the powers were even greater in the seventh son of a seventh son.)
Specific Days/Times of the Year:
Pinch, punch, first of the month! (In Medieval times, people believed witches were allergic to salt and it would diminish their powers. Thus, “pinch” is the pinching of salt and “punch” is to banish the witch.)
If you cut your hair during Lent, it won’t grow.
If you pick bluebells on May Eve, you will have bad luck during the entire month of May.
St. Swithin’s Day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s Day if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.
(St. Swithin’s Day is July 15)
If the wind is from the southeast on St. Martin’s Day (November 11), it will remain so until Candlemas (February 2), foretelling a mild, snow-free winter.
A Christmas candle in the window of an Irish home traditionally signified the holy family would be welcomed and served as a general symbol of hospitality. Interrupting the hospitality by allowing the Christmas light to go out is still considered bad luck by many.
If the Christmas candles do not burn straight on Christmas Eve, there will be bad luck in the house during the coming year.
If a candle doesn’t burn in your window throughout Christmas, expect bad luck the following year.
If you abstain from meat on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), you will have no infectious diseases during the following year.
If a sod of turf falls from the fire, it is a sign someone is coming to your house.
If you drop a fork, you will have company.
If a knife falls to the floor, you will have a gentleman visitor. If you drop a fork, your visitor will be a lady.
An itchy nose is a sign someone is talking about you.
If you hurt a leprechaun, the devil will restrain you with chains and curse you.
A whistling woman or a crowing hen, there is neither luck nor grace in the house they are in.
An itchy palm is a sign money is coming your way.
A robin near your backdoor is a good omen.
If you look in the mirror too often, you’ll see the devil looking over your shoulder.
If a girl doesn’t cover her head when she goes to Mass, her hair will fall out.
If you step over a person lying on the floor, that person will grow no more.
Finding a hairpin means money is coming your way.
When sparks fly from the fire, it’s a sign you will soon come into money.
Giving something sharp to a friend will “cut” (sever) the friendship.
If you’re in the habit of spilling milk, you will marry a drunkard.
If you take the last crust of bread off a plate, you are going to be an old maid or bachelor, so don’t be greedy.
If you see a load of hay, make a wish, but don’t look at the load again or it won’t come true.
Irish soda bread has a cross cut into the top to let the devil out. (Soda bread was traditionally a staple of many Irish households because it could be easily made from basic, cheap ingredients – flour, sour milk and baking soda – in a bastible pot suspended over the home fire, thus there was no need for an oven. To this day, a cross is cut through the top of the bread before baking – the practical reason, of course, is to facilitate even cooking, but the more spiritual and traditional interpretation was that the cross let the devil out.)
If the palm of your hand itches, you’re about to come into money.
If your right ear is hot, it is a sign someone is going to scold you.
If you see a tea-leaf floating on top of your tea, you will receive a letter.
If your nose is itchy, it is a sign someone is speaking ill of you.
If two people wash their hands in the same water and fail to spit into the washbasin, they’ll have a fight.
When your nose is itchy, it’s a sign of a fight to come.
Seeing a single magpie means sorrow is coming your way.
If you say “rabbits” three times before going to sleep and three times when you awaken, you will have a pleasant surprise before the week ends.
Two moles on your arm means you won’t die by drowning.
If you meet a funeral, you should turn back and walk at least four steps with the mourners.
Spilling salt at the table means you’ll have a fight.
If scissors fall onto the floor, you’re in for a disappointment.
Fairies: Today, thanks to Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths of Cottingley, we usually think of fairies as friendly little winged-creatures, but this wasn’t always the case. In ancient Ireland, as recently as the late 19th century, many considered them malevolent, dangerous beings who led people astray and stole children, as evidenced by the “The Stolen Child,” a poem by W.B. Yeats, first published in December 1886 in the Irish Monthly. It was generally believed fairies were at their most malicious during the month of May as indicated in some of the following superstitions:
If you pick a flower on May Eve, the fairies will come and take you away with them.
Disturb a fairy fort, particularly at the beginning of the month of May, at your peril. (The term “fairy fort” refers to a variety of earth remnants found across Ireland that some believe to be the home of fairies or “the little people.” As sweet as the name sounds, fairies were not to be disturbed and revenge for any upheaval could range from sleepless nights to death, causing many farmers to refrain from disturbing any fairy forts on their land.)
Cutting or damaging a fairy tree will bring a lifetime of bad luck. (Like fairy forts, farmers also gave fairy trees a wide berth. The fairy tree is usually a hawthorn or an ash tree, but what makes them special is their location: A Fairy tree stands alone in a field or beside the road and there are stones around some of them to protect the trees, but no one knows who put them there.)
Travelers who fear being misled by fairies should whistle as they walk.
Ringing bells will repel fairies
Fairy-repellant herbs include St. John’s Wort and red verbena.
Daises protect children against fairies.
Objects made of iron will keep fairies at bay.
The Burning of Bridget Cleary. As recently as 1895, it was suspected Bridget Boland Cleary, a 26-year-old woman in County Tipperary, had been taken by the fairies. When her cousin, Johanna Burke, arrived at Bridget’s home on March 14, 1895, the poor woman was being held down and force-fed a concoction of milk and herbs. Michael Cleary, age 35, was convinced his wife was a malevolent changeling, i.e., a duplicate left in her place when she was abducted by the evil creatures of the fairy realm.
The following day, the woman was said to be “wild and deranged, especially while they were treating her” and when she begged her husband to let her be, he responded by emptying the contents of a chamber pot over her head. The poor woman was then forced to eat three pieces of bread and jam while being questioned. She answered twice, but when she failed to answer the third time, her tormenters pulled her from the bed and held her in a sitting position over the slow-burning embers in the kitchen fireplace. On another occasion, Michael Cleary threw his wife to the floor and mounted her, with one knee on her chest and his hand on her throat, in an attempt to make her swallow. He then grabbed a hot stick from the fire and held it close to her mouth.
Finally, Michael Cleary stripped poor Bridget to her chemise, doused her in lamp oil a number of times and set her alight, all the while crying, “It is not my wife! I am not going to keep an old witch in place of my wife, so I must get back my wife.” (It was believed once the changeling died, the family member would return astride a white horse.) Over Johanna Burke’s protests, he continued, “It is not Bridget I am burning! You will soon see her go up the chimney.”
Mrs. Cleary’s burned body was taken from the house and buried in a shallow grave and when the authorities learned of the atrocity, 10 people were arrested and charged with her murder. The case was so sensational and widely-reported, it reached not only London, but across the seas to continental Europe, America and Australia. Eight of the 10 were taken to trial and when charging the jury, the judge said, “This most extraordinary case demonstrated a degree of darkness in the mind, not just of one person, but of several – a moral darkness, even religious darkness, the disclosure of which had come with surprise on many persons.”
The charge against Michael Cleary was reduced to manslaughter and he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. Seven others were convicted of wounding Bridget Cleary, receiving sentences ranging from six months to five years.
Sources: Irish Archaeology; Kate Phelan, Culture Trip, February 7, 2018; Irish Central, November 25, 2016; The Daily Edge, September 23, 2017; The National Folklore Collection; Ireland Calling; The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story by Angela Bourke; and Dean Ruxton, "The story of the last 'witch' burned alive in Ireland," Irish Times, November 24, 2016.