Fairy Beliefs - Irish Folklore
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
By THE REV. JOHN O'HANLON.
IN the following collection only a few Irish legends, acquired from tradition, have been produced by the writer. They are introduced in a garb and shape adopted without any literary pretension.
The ancient and early settlers of Ireland, called Tuatha de Danaans, are thought to have been the first professors of Druidism; but they are certainly known to have been adepts in the arts of sorcery and magic. It is said they were transformed into fairies at some remote period, and consigned to subterranean habitations, under green hillsides, raths, cairns, and tumuli. In Brittany, also, a country which held many ancient usages and practices common in our own, trolds and spirits, with dwarfs and fairies, popular myths of old, haunt the woods, rocks, streams, and fountains. The raths of Ireland must have been very numerous in former times, as proved, not only because of the number yet remaining, but also from the fact that the compound—Rath, Raw, Rah, Ray, or Ra—is found connected with the nomenclature of more than one thousand different localities in this island. Here the spirit-people love to congregate, but difficult it must prove to collect perfectly authentic accounts of their social economy, amusements, and pursuits.
Music heard beside these raths on a fine evening, often induces mortals to linger with delight, although danger may be incurred by listening to such syren melody. Benevolence is sometimes exercised towards mortals by the fairies, who are said to cure men and women of infirmities and diseases, or who are thought to remove deformities or disagreeable misfortunes. They often communicate supernatural power to mortals, and invisibly assist them. Again, these creatures are found of a malevolent and mischievous disposition ; frequently abducting mortals to serve some selfish or degrading purpose, paralyzing their energies and prospects of worldly happiness, or leaving a long inheritance of sickness and sorrow on afflicted individuals and families. A libation of cow's beestheens—some of the thick new milk given after calving—when poured on the rath, is believed to appease the anger of offended fairies.
The Irish word pronounced shee is the usual generic name applied to that denomination of supernatural creatures known in the sister Kingdoms as fairies, elves, or pixies. The fare shee is known as the man-fairy; the ban-shee is recognised as the woman-fairy ; sometimes we have the term mna-shee (" women fairies "), used with peculiar diminutions known in the Irish language. The Fear-sighes are chiefly alluded to in ancient legendary-lore; and the Bean-sighes are usually known as a distinctive class of imaginary beings when wailing for anticipated deaths. In the fairy soldier troops, only men appear ; among the moonlight or fairy palace revellers, fine-dressed lords and ladies are indiscriminately mingled in social enjoyments. Within their luxurious halls, songs and strains of ravishing music and rhythm are heard, which transport with a delicious enthusiasm the souls of mortals, and tingle on the ear with melodious cadenzas that long haunt the memory and imagination.
Evening is the time usually selected for fairy migrations from raths and dells ; it is also the favourite juncture for indulging in their peculiar pastimes and revels. In his "Songs of the Pixies," Cole-ridge attributes a like propensity to the Devonshire "race of beings invisibly small, and harmless or friendly to man -
The summer or autumn nights were selected by our Irish fairies as most appropriate occasions for congregating their dancing-parties in secluded vales near runnel banks, whilst the gurgling water trickles along its sheltered course. Sometimes they sport beside a lake or river, near old ivied castles, or oftentimes within the gloomy precincts of some graveyard, under the walls of its ruined church, or over lonely tombs of the dead. Harvest-time is remarkable for affording frequent glimpses of our Irish fairies. They are, however, very jealous of mortal intrusion, and commonly proceed to wreak vengeance on all unbidden interlopers at their revels. The wild harmonies of zephyr breezes are supposed to be the murmuring musical voices of fairies on their travels. Although elfin sports may continue during night, the first glow of morning is a signal for instant departure to their raths, deep caverns, rocky crevices, or old cairns, where their fabled dwellings are carefully concealed from the eye of mortal. On alighting at, or departing from, a particular spot, their rapid motion through air creates a noise somewhat resembling the loud humming of bees when swarming from a hive. Sometimes what is called sheegaoithe (Anglicé, "a whirlwind "), is supposed to have been raised by the passing fairy host.
Those strange sounds caused by crackling furze-blossoms, are attributed to fairy presence. They shelter beneath clumps of gorse-thickets, love the scent of their flowers, and mark out beaten tracks through the wiry grass growing round their roots; they sip ambrosial dew from out the yellow cup leafed blossoms ; they also suck dew-drops from other leaves and flowers. In his ballad of "Tren the Fairy," Joyce happily alludes to such a practice.
Francis Davis, " The Belfast Man," has recorded in his " Fairy Serenade " social customs of Sheogues in the eastern parts of Ulster. Having regard to the light-footed, ethereal dancing-groups of dwarfish beings, when delicately touching the green grass it is supposed they scarcely shake off these dew-drops during their wildest evolutions. Filled with a passionate eagerness for music and revelry, they indulge whole nights, without intermission or weariness, in their favourite exercises and recreations, lightly gliding in trails or circles through varied postures and figures. The fairies are generally represented as habited in green, or sometimes in white, silver spangled raiment, with high-peaked and wide-brimmed scarlet caps on their heads. By moonlight they are often seen under the shade of oak-trees, dancing on or around large globular fungi or umbrella-shaped mushrooms.
In the south of Ireland, especially, every parish has its grassy-green and fairy thorn, where it is supposed these elves hold their meetings and dance their rounds. In Ulster, also, the hawthorn seems associated with fairy revels, as may be gleaned from a beautiful northern ballad of Samuel Ferguson, "The Fairy Thorn;" there a fairy host is introduced as issuing from every side around an en-chanted hawthorn.
The Whitehaven coal-miners used to fancy they often found little mining tools and implements, belonging to a " swart fairy of the mine," in their dark subterranean chambers (Pennant's "Tour in Scotland," vol. ii., p. 49). The Germans, it appears, believed in two classes of gnomes—the one species fierce and malevolent, the other gentle and harmless. These creatures appeared like little old men, about two feet in height, wandering through lodes and chambers of mines. Although apparently busily engaged in cutting ore, heaping it in vessels, and turning windlasses, they were in reality doing nothing. Except provoked, however, no harm occurred to the miners with whom they associated (Agricola, "De Animantibus Subterraneis "). Rarely do we find our native fairies devoted to any industrial pursuits, except those lighter and occasional indoor occupations which serve to engage and amuse the merry Irish maiden or thrifty housewife.
It is only at a distance the fairies appear graceful in figure or handsome in countenance, but their costumes are always of rich material or fine texture. They frequently change their shapes ; they suddenly appear, and as suddenly vanish. These elves, on a near inspection, are generally found to be old, withered, bent, and having very ugly features, especially the men. Female fairies are endowed with characteristics of rare beauty in several instances ; and to such beings most marked attentions are always paid by the diminutive lords of their affections.
Fairies are generally thought by the peasantry to partake of a mixed human and spiritual nature. Their bodies are presumed to be immaterial, or at least of some almost impalpable substance. They are animated with feelings of benevolence or resentment, ac-cording to circumstances. Although invisible to men, particularly during day, they hear and see all that takes place among mortals in which they have any especial concern. Hence the peasantry are always anxious to secure their good opinion and kind offices, and to propitiate or avert their anger by civil conversation and practices. Fairies are always mentioned with respect and reserve. It is also considered inhuman to strain potatoes or spill hot water on or over the threshold of a door, as thousands of spirits are supposed to congregate invisibly at such a spot, and to suffer from that infliction. Before drinking, a peasant would often spill a small portion of his draught on the ground as a complimentary libation to the "good people."
The common people have formed some ill-defined belief that the fairies are like the fallen angels, driven out from bliss and condemned to wander on earth until the day of judgment. Campion, " The Kilkenny Man," has versified the fall of these elves from their previous high estate. The fairies are said to doubt regarding their own future state, although they have hopes of being restored to happiness. An intermixture of good and evil balances their actions and motives, and their passions are often vindictive, as their inclinations are frequently humane and generous. They wage desperate battles with opposing bands, and they meet, like knights of old, armed cap-à-pie, for such encounters. The air bristles with their spears and flashing swords, and their helmets and red coats gleam in the bright sunshine during the progress of these engagements.
No opinion was more prevalent among the peasantry than that of fairy abduction, practised by the elfin tribe. Young and lovely children were the special objects of desire; and often when these had been snatched away from the parental home, old, emaciated, decrepit, and ugly fairies were left in their stead. These latter are called changelings. In the Scottish highlands, midwives were accustomed to give a small spoonful of whisky, mixed with earth, to newly-born children as their first food ; this was no doubt intended as a preservative from some preternatural spell. Highland babes are carefully watched and guarded until after their christening is over, lest they should be abducted or changed for fairy deformities. The Irish peasant-mother entertained similar fears for her newly born child, especially when it presented a very attractive appearance. But children alone were not the only persons subject to such species of forced exile. Mortal women, recently confined, were also abducted, to suckle the children conveyed to fairyland; and in some cases they were required to nurse fairy-horn infants. On this subject we have many popular tales and traditions current ; whilst our ancient or modern literature abounds with allusions to such incidents.
Edward Walsh has written a beautiful ballad, "The Fairy Nurse," relating to a girl who had been led into the fairy fort of Lisroe, where she saw her little brother, who had died a week before, laid in a rich cradle, and rocked to sleep by a fairy woman.
Our well-known writer, Dr. Anster, has composed a very agreeable ballad founded on this superstition ; but it is quite evident he has mistaken the popular traditions and opinions on this selected poetic subject, as would appear from the concluding stanzas :
"Oh, it cannot be my own sweet boy,
"The dirge for the dead will be sung for me,
The peasantry never supposed the abducted child was laid in mother earth when taken away from its former home ; but they imagined it lived in fairy realms, condemned, however, reluctantly to endure, if not enjoy, all the vicissitudes of 'a constrained exile from earth and heaven. In this state, when not returned to its parents once more, existence was prolonged to an indefinite period.
Sometimes, supposed changelings were removed from the peasants' cabin on a clean shovel, and were placed on the centre of a dung-hill ; parents meantime believing that their true children would be restored to them after a long absence. Certain prayers were muttered by the fairy-man or fairy-woman directing this strange operation. Some Irish verses were usually chanted during this process, of which the following may be deemed a correct translation :
"Fairy men and women all,
When such words had been recited, the assistants retired within an adjoining cottage, closing its door carefully and awaiting the issue, whilst some additional prayers were repeated. Any noise of the elements or of a passing vehicle was then supposed to have been caused by the approach and departure of a fairy host. Afterwards, the door being opened, these impostors confidently declared the true child had been replaced. This poor emaciated being was then brought into the cabin, and its deluded parents were told their child would not long survive. As such an event usually accorded with the prediction, it only confirmed a belief in the imposture, and added to the established reputation of that particular fairy-man or fairy-woman among the humbler classes.
I have been told of a circumstance occurring—one, too, in which the names of parties and places were mentioned--regarding a respect-able farmer's family, on whom a changeling had been imposed, and in the following manner. A beautiful and healthy infant, sleeping with its mother, was thought to have been rudely snatched from her arms during the night : for, with the morning's dawn, a deformed and withered-looking old creature appeared instead. The child was doubt-less attacked with some paralytic disease, which, thus had suddenly changed its appearance. However, the parents, with all their friends and neighbours, were persuaded the child had been carried off to fairy land, whilst a fairy had been left to supply its place. The poor mother found this weakling, whom she still continued suckling, waste away her own strength, and she seemed fast falling into decline. The child became remarkably peevish, would not look on " man nor mortial," and its piercing screams sounded so unearthly, that it was agreed on all sides the services of a fairy-woman would be required to recover the lost one. This matter was arranged with the greatest secrecy, lest it should come to the knowledge of the poor deformed creature, whose flesh became completely shrivelled and whose limbs had shrunk to the most attenuated dimensions. With her usual exorcisms and charms, the fairy woman employed put the supposed changeling on a shovel, and afterwards left him on the dung-heap before the farm-house offices, whilst he offered every resistance possible, and screamed with terrific cries. To the great delight of the mother and her friends, when going outside expecting the return of their lost darling, it lay on the same unsavoury dunghill--ruddy, plump, and smiling sweetly as of yore, the old man having altogether disappeared. So far as my recollection of this story serves me, the child lived some time afterwards, yet died before it had attained the age of reason.
The Irish fairy-man or fairy-woman was supposed to hold some mysterious sort of communication with the denizens of moats or raths. In some cases it was rumoured that they had been changelings originally; and as they usually lived a solitary and retired life, no ordinary share of mystery shrouded their motions. These impostors professed a familiar acquaintance with all secrets—past, present, and future : the cure of most diseases affecting man and beasts ; the discovery and restoration of lost goods ; a description and detection of the thief if property had been stolen ; fortune-telling, and a know-ledge regarding all matters of personal concern ; causing cream to produce butter in greater abundance : whilst they often took care to impress on ignorant minds an opinion that their friendship would be desirable to prevent the certain evil effects of fairy resentment. Even in times very remote such influence was regarded as fatal to the individual against whom it had been exercised. Thus, for instance, Muirchertach Mac Earca is reported in our traditions and annals to have been drowned in a tub of wine, at the house called Cleteach, near Tara, on November Eve, A.D. 527. This action is said to have been effected through the agency of a fairy-woman.
Camden tells us that when the Irishman of his day happened to fall, he sprang up again, and turned round three times to the right ; he then took a sword or knife, and dug the soil, taking up the turf, because it was thought the earth reflected his shadow to him. This strange action was owing to the belief in a spirit dwelling under the earth. If the man fell sick within two or three days afterwards, a woman skilled in those matters was sent to the spot, when she said, " I call thee, P., from the east, west, south, and north ; from the groves, woods, rivers, marshes; fairies red, white, red, black,"etc. After uttering certain short prayers, she returned home to the sick person to discover if he were affected with a sickness called the " Esane," which was supposed to be inflicted on him by the fairies. She whispered in his ear a short prayer, with the "Pater poster," and put some burning coals into a cup of clear water. We are told that she then formed a better judgment regarding the cause of this disorder than most physicians. (See Gough's " Camden," vol. iii., p. 668 ; edit. 1789.)
Within the present century, one of these fairy-women, who was named Moll Anthony, lived near the Red Hills at the Chair of Kildare--an antiquarian object of curiosity within the county bearing such a name. Her reputation as a possessor of supernatural know-ledge and divination drew crowds of distant visitors to her daily, and from the most remote parts of Ireland. In various instances they were furnished with a bottle containing some supposed curative liquid, and directed to return homewards without falling asleep on their journey. This bottle was filled with water, darkly coloured by a decoction of herbs, gathered with certain incantations near a rath that afforded the customary materia medica of fairy-doctors for the cure of a special disease on which consultation was required. The most accomplished and skilful member of the medical faculty seldom received a more remunerative fee for his services on behalf of a patient than the wise woman of the Red Hills pocketed from her credulous dupes. At one time a young woman had been directed to return with the magic draught to her sick relative's house : she was especially cautioned to keep her eyes open along the way. Over-come with fatigue, however, and probably feverish with anxiety and excitement, the young person was obliged to rest by the roadside. Wearied nature soon began to claim her usual requirement of "balmy sleep." No sooner had the girl dozed off into dreamy unconsciousness, than one of the ugliest beings imagination had ever created appeared to her disordered fancies ; and with wrinkled visage, the spectre seemed ready to clutch her in his extended arms. With a loud scream she bounded to her feet ; and through terror would doubtless have left the curative potion behind, had she not already taken the precaution of securing it within her bosom. The rude monitor of her obligation was supposed to have been a friend among the sheogues. I knew the person thus supposed to have been warned, and who in old age related this adventure. After the death of Moll Anthony, her daughter followed the same profession, but never enjoyed a like celebrity.
Sometimes the fairy-man, also called a " charmer," or " cow-doctor," undertakes to remove fairy influences from sick cattle, by some prepared herbs and strange nostrums performed at a spring-well. He will not allow any one to approach during the progress of his operations. In the west of Ireland, cows are often driven into certain springs or loughs, reputed holy, in order to restore the usual supply of dairy-milk and butter, supposed to have been supernaturally abstracted. Fresh butter is thrown into the water as a necessary part of the incantation.
As an illustration of the fairy-man's professional pursuits, once only had I the opportunity afforded me of witnessing some mysterious quackery practised by a noted sheogue doctor called " Paddy the Dash," and sometimes " Paddy the Cow-doctor." This individual was thought to hold friendly communication with the "Good-people." His cabin adjoined one of their raths. Paddy received his cognomen from a peculiar stammering or defect of articulation, that obliged him to jerk out his words at irregular intervals and with violent gesticulation. An old woman had fallen into a decline; and the necromancer's process of treatment was considered desirable in this particular case. Having some knowledge of these circumstances,, a group of young friends, with Paddy's grace especial, had been admitted to the patient's sick-chamber. Separated by a partition-wall from the principal apartment, this chamber served for all the other purposes of this poor family. We were but " wee-bit bodies" at the time ; and have only an indistinct recollection of Paddy drawing out of his cota more pocket a large black bottle with two or three packages of brown paper, containing dried herbs and a hunch of boughelawns, or boliauns, on which the fairies are said to ride occasionally through the air. The herbs and tops of the boughelawns were put in a porringer filled with water that had been left simmering on the kitchen-fire ; afterwards followed some unaccountable flourishes over the sick woman, then some strokes on her back and forehead, with three shakes, " In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," when helped to an upright sitting posture by the female friends assisting. Holy water had, I think, been used during this sort of necromancy, and sprinkled on the sick person. The patient's face, hands and feet were finally bathed with the warm mixture contained in a porringer, before the more earnest-looking and bewildered attendants left her apartment. I well recollect, to Paddy's great displeasure, the junior portion of the spectators could scarcely restrain their hilarity at the oddity of his enunciations and his strange method of conducting the proceedings.
Herbs and plants, in raths or dells, are collected with various kinds of mummery, and used for charms and cures by " Bone-setters," or " Fairy-doctors." The herbs are considered specially impregnated by some mysterious fairy influence efficacious for the healing art. Sometimes " knowledgeable old women," as they are termed by our peasantry, venture on the exercise of charms, without exciting any great degree of confidence in a fortunate result, either in their own or in the minds of others. An herb, or a bit of burnt sod, taken from the bonfire of St. John's night, in Midsummer, is often sewed up in the clothes of women; this serves as a charm against fairy plots and abduction.
Changelings are known to have an inclination for certain grotesque pranks. The fairy child often procures and yokes a set of bag-pipes on his arms. He sits up in the cradle, and performs a variety of fine airs with great hilarity and many strange grimaces. When he plays lively jigs, reels, and hornpipes, inmates of the cottage are often set insanely dancing, and greatly against their inclination : this sort of forced exercise usually continues until they are ready to sink with fatigue. Notwithstanding all his hilarious whims and oddities, the changeling was always regarded as an unwelcome family intruder. Sometimes a fairy-child was thrown across the hearth-fire to eject him. He then vanished up the open chimney, with expressions of vengeance, curses, and all manner çf ill names, directed against the family that had so long and unwillingly harboured him. Children, however, are not the solely abducted denizens of raths. The fairies take a fancy to the instrumentation of accomplished pipers, or other famous musicians, who are abducted to subterranean or subaqueous habitations These sons of melody are kept engaged in furnishing music to finely dressed little gentlemen and ladies, until almost dead with fatigue, although refreshments are liberally dispensed by these sprites. The musician generally finds himself ejected from fairy realms before morning. Sometimes he is invited to- remain with his entertainers, but he usually prefers returning to the land of the living. His fairy hosts often take away the old pipes or instrument, bestowing a much more perfect and sweeter-toned one in its stead. The reputation of having been abducted to elfin-land, and thus rewarded, is sure to establish or extend the musician's practice and resources.
Midwives are taken away to the fairy-raths on pillions, with fairy-horsemen conducting them to their invisible abodes. If these women partake of any food or drink, to which they are pressingly invited, as well by persuasion as by the luxurious repasts prepared, a spell of detention is placed on them; they cannot return again to their homes. Elves are less liberal in bestowing gold or silver as a reward ; and such bounty when offered is found to be illusive. We are told that money obtained from fairies usually turns into round slates, dry leaves, old bones, or something equally worthless.
Ointment obtained by midwives to anoint fairy children, if rubbed to the eye of mortal, will enable such person to see the prosaic skeleton of fairy illusions in underground halls and palaces. Old friends and neighbours are often discovered amongst the sheoges [sic] in this manner. Fairies during their revels also become visible to the eye thus anointed. If a mortal makes any sign of recognition or exclamation, one of the sprites may ask, " Do you see me ?" When answered in the affirmative, he asks, " With which eye ?" When rightly informed, the fairy thrusts a finger or sometimes puffs his breath into that eye, and thus blinds the incautious person.
Amongst myths of Irish fable may be included the following. A superstition prevailed amongst the peasantry that certain people are born with an evil eye, through some mysterious and magic influence. It is supposed that the possessor has power to injure those on whom a glance may be directed. The victims of this baneful influence usually pine away and die, if no counteracting charm be provided to remove this threatened danger. Thus, in olden times, Balor the Dane, who lived on Tory Island, is said to have blasted the bleak islands of Scotland with his "evil eye." Rather than meet an evil eye, people were accustomed to turn back or diverge from the course of their journey, and especially to avoid the habitation of its possessor. It appears such a superstition prevailed amongst the Greeks in the time of St. Chrysostom, who tells us that, in order to divert the evil eye, some persons wrote on their hands the names of several rivers, whilst others used salt, tallow, and ashes for a like purpose. We are also assured that the modern Greeks employ a combination of garlic, cloves, talismans, and other charms, which are hung around the necks of their infants to effect the same object. Alluding to this evil-eye superstition in the West of Ireland, Lady Morgan, in her interesting novel, " The Wild Irish Girl," erroneously supposed that the priests suspend a gospel, which she calls a consecrated charm, around the necks of children, to frustrate its dangerous effects. The gospel is not usually so placed by any priest, neither is it consecrated nor used for such a purpose. In Turkey and in Egypt, ignorant mothers use talismans to prevent all injurious effects from the evil eye of some envious person, who is supposed to have bewitched their emaciated or diseased children. In certain parts of Hindostan, likewise, the women are especially desirous to touch the garments of a widow about to devote herself to death on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. They consider this act as sufficient protection from the evil eye, and one in its own nature highly meritorious.
A circle made round a place with holy water will, it is thought, ward off fairy intrusion. This practice is often adopted by persons who wish to dig for money about a rath, or by those who take their stand within it, at a certain pass, to draw any spell-bound friend from a state of durance. Fairy women point out the person thus detained by some token or peculiarity of dress, indicated to the living relative when the fairy troop sweeps past this spot. If you meet the fairies, it is said, on All Hallows Eve, and throw the dust taken from under your feet at them, they will be obliged to surrender any captive human being belonging to their company. A sudden whisk of wind rustling near the face is supposed to indicate the near passage of elves, and proximate danger to the person, even when escaping the effects of a fairy stroke.
The flint arrow-heads, of which so many have been collected in different parts of Ireland, and preserved in our antiquarian museums, are supposed by the commonalty to have been shot at cattle, which are objects of aversion to the fairies. This is one of their peculiar sports. The flints are popularly called "elf arrows," despite the different nomenclature and theory of our most distinguished antiquaries. What the peasants call an " elf arrow " was frequently set in silver, and worn about the neck. It was used as an amulet to preserve the person from an elf-shot (Vallancey's " Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus," No. xiii.). Small and oddly shaped smoking instruments sometimes found, and termed " Dane's pipes," are thought to have been dropped by the "good. people " in a variety of instances. Shoes' are also lost on their travels. It is thought to be very lucky to find a fairy's shoe of tiny shape and mould, and to keep it concealed from the eye of mortal. If seen by a third person the luck vanishes. Many other antique objects are supposed by rustics to have been forgotten by the " wee people." These articles are unfortunately often destroyed to avert the dreaded consequences of retaining property that might afterwards be discovered or claimed by their supposed previous owners.
Strange creations of fancy have an imaginary existence. The Merrow, or as it is written in Irish Moruadh, or Moruach, is a sort of fantastic sea-nymph, corresponding with the prevailing conception of the mermaid, which is supposed to partake of the nature and form of a human being from the head to the waist, and thence to the extremities covered with greenish-coloured scales, having the appearance of a fish. These creatures are said to partake of a modest, affectionate, gentle, and beneficent disposition. The word appears a compound of muir, "the sea," and oigh, "a maid." These marine objects of the imagination are also called by the Irish Muir-gheilt, Samhghubha, Murdhucha'n, and Suire. They would seem to have basked around our shores from a remote period ; for, according to bardic chroniclers, when the Milesian ships bore onwards in quest of a friendly harbour to our coasts, the Suire, or sea-nymphs, played around them on their passage. The Merrow was capable of attachment to human beings, and is reported to have intermarried and lived with them for years in succession. Some allegory is probably concealed under the fiction of certain families on the coast of Ire-land being partly descended from these marine creatures. Natural instincts are, however, found to prevail over love. The Merrow usually feels desirous of returning to her former companions under the sea waves. She is represented as the daughter of a king, whose gorgeous palace lies deep beneath the ocean. Sometimes the mermaidens live under our Irish lakes.
Mermaidens are said to allure youths of mortal mould to follow them beneath the waves, where they afterwards live in some en-chanted state. The Merrows wear a cohuleen druith, or " little charmed cap," used for diving beneath the water. If this be lost or stolen they have no power to return beneath "the waters of the vasty deep." The Merrow has soft white webs beneath her fingers. She is often seen with a comb, parting her long green hair on either side of the head. Strange to say, the Merrow is sometimes a water-man, and in this case deformed. The female Merrow is represented as beautiful in features. Merrow-men are said to keep the souls of drowned fishermen and sailors under cages at the bottom of the sea. Merrow music is sometimes heard, coming up from the lowest depths of ocean, and sometimes floating over the surface. An old tract contained in the "Book of Lecain," states that a king of the Formorians, when sailing over the Ictian sea, was seduced by the music of mermaids, until he came within reach of these syrens. They tore his limbs asunder, and scattered them on the waves. From O'Donovan's " Annals of the Four Masters," vol. i., A.D. 887, we take this curious entry : " A mermaid was cast ashore by the sea in the country of Alba. One hundred and ninety-five feet was her length, eighteen feet was the length of her hair, seven feet was the length of the fingers of her hand, seven feet also was the length of her nose ; she was whiter than the swan all over." Hence it would seem that the Merrows were thought to have attained extraordinary large proportions ; if, indeed, this be not the actual record of a fact illustrating the natural history of our coasts.
In Miss Brooke's "Reliques of Irish Poetry" (published in Dublin by Bonham, 1789, 4to.) the valour of the Finian heroes is celebrated on behalf of a mariner lady, in the poem of Moira Borb. The chiefs met her coming into a harbour from the waves, over which her bark swiftly glided. Her beauty was faultless, and on being questioned as to her parentage by the son of Combal, she replies :
" Truth, O great chief ! my artless story frames ;
Miss Brooke tells us in a note that she has not rendered this stanza literally, as she found it difficult to interpret the Irish words, as me ingean rig fo tuinn. They may be translated, "1 am the daughter of the king under waves." Or the last words may be rendered "king of waves," or "king of ton" (in the genitive tuin), literally "a wave ;" but it may also mean some country anciently bearing that name. It may even be a metaphorical phrase, implying either an island or some of the low countries.
The Banshee, or " white woman," is sometimes called the Shee Frogh, or " house fairy." She is represented as a small, shrivelled old woman, with long white hair. In one of Edward Walsh's translated Irish songs,
" The Banshee bright, of form Elysian,"
is represented as a most beautiful woman ; but she may probably be regarded as the fairy queen, for in a vision she leads the imaginative Irish bard, John McDonnell, through all the principal elfin haunts of Ireland. In Brittany there is a female fairy sprite, called the Cornigann, who is thought to have been formerly a Druidess, and who is said to hate the sight of a priest or holy water. She sometimes falls in love with mortals, and carries off healthy children, replacing them by changelings. From one of the five legends related in Taylor's " Ballads and Songs of Brittany " (published by Macmillan and Co., London, and translated from the Barsaz Breiz of Vicompte Hersart de la Villemarqué), the following picture of this sprite is presented. The incident recorded bears some affinity to the personal habits of the Irish banshee.
" The Corrigaun sat by the fountain fair
In some instances the banshee is believed to have been the ghost of some person who had formerly suffered violence from a progenitor of the family, and who repeats her vengeful wail from a particular spot, to announce approaching death to his descendants. Whether a friend or an enemy of the family to which her warning has been conveyed seems undefined and uncertain. Her cry often comes from a spring, river, or lake, with which her name is connected. In the traditions of the Scottish Highlands there is mention often made of the Roc/etch Glas, or avenging "grey spectre." It was supposed to appear on the eve of some great impending calamity to the descendants of that chief, who had been guilty in taking the life of a fellow-creature.
A beautiful and affecting tale, " The Banshee," occurs in " The Legends of Connaught" (published by John Cumming, Dublin, 1839, 8vo.), where a living creature and a maniac had been thoughtlessly fired upon and killed by a soldier, under the impression that she had been a supernatural being of the Banshee species. In this particular instance, it does not appear that the characteristic figure and voice of the Banshee had been discovered, as Crofton Croker's lines would seem to indicate their unmistakable identity:
"'Twas the banshee's lonely wailing ;
The Fetch—a well-known Irish superstition--claims some affinity with the Highlander's "second sight." The Fetch is supposed to be a mere shadow, resembling in stature, features, and dress a living person, and often mysteriously or suddenly seen by a very particular friend. If it appears in the morning, a happy longevity for the original is confidently predicted ; but if it be seen in the evening, immediate dissolution of the living prototype is anticipated. Spirit-like, it flits before the sight, seeming to walk leisurely through the fields, often disappearing through a gap or lane. The person it resembles is usually known at the time to be labouring under some mortal illness, and unable to leave his or her bed. When the Fetch appears agitated, or eccentric in its motions, a violent or painful death is indicated for the doomed prototype. The Phantom is also said to make its appearance at the same time, and in the same place, to more than one person, as I have heard related in a particular instance,. What the Irish call "Fetches," the English designate " Doubles." It is supposed, likewise, that individuals may behold their own Fetches. The Irish novelist and poet, John Banim, has written both a novel and a ballad on this subject. Somewhat analagous to the Highland seer's gift of second sight, especially in reference to approaching doom, Aubrey tells us that a well-known poet, the Earl of Roscommon, who was born in Ireland 1633, had some preternatural knowledge of his father's death whilst residing at Caen in Normandy. Such forebodings were recognised by the early Northmen, and it is probable their origin amongst the people of these islands had been derived from a Scandinavian source. They were oftentimes invested with circumstances of peculiar horror, according to Northern traditions, which were also transferred to the Hebride islanders. These latter adopted a strange admixture of superstition from their former independent ancestors and the invading pirate hordes' that colonized their exposed and defenceless shores. The second sight, or peculiar divination of the Highlanders, is aptly pourtrayed by Collins in his beautiful ode on Scotland's popular superstitions.
Another master of English verse, the poet Gray, has rendered his ode of "The Fatal Sisters" from a Norse composition, having reference to the battle of Clontarf. On the day of this battle—Good Friday, and not Christmas Day, as stated by the poet—a native of Caithness, in Scotland, saw a number of persons on horseback, and at a distance. They were riding full-speed towards a hill, which they seemed to enter. Curiosity led him to follow them, when he saw twelve gigantic female figures all employed in weaving. This ode: in question was sung by them at the same time. Having finished it, their web was torn in twelve pieces. Six of the fatal sisters galloped on black steeds to the north, and as many to the south. Each took, her own portion of the web. These were known as Valkyriur, or female divinities, the servants of Odin, or Woden, the Gothic god of war. They are said to choose the slain on the field of battle, whilst mounted on their steeds, and with drawn swords in their hands, over the heads of the combatants. After the battle, departed heroes were conducted by them to Valhalla, the hall of Odin, or paradise of the brave. Here these sisters served them with horns of mead and ale.
The Phooka is supposed to appear in the shape of a dusky and. large animal, resembling a horse or a pony.. Sometimes it is seen like a monstrous bull with eyes and nostrils gleaming fire. It has also been mentally conceived under the shape of a large eagle, or rather like the great-winged Roc, which carried Sinbad the sailor on his airy course. The Phooka's appearance is especially to be looked for on All Hallow's Eve. Woe betide the mortal who ventures abroad after dusk, and in lonely places, at that particular time ! The Phooka usually steals in a noiseless manner from behind, and if he once succeeds by inserting the head between a mortal's legs, the unhappy individual is at once whisked off his feet, to find himself astride on the hobgoblin's back. Then up to the moon he ascends, or he descends, perhaps, to the bottom of the lake, or he flies over the ocean; jumping from the highest precipices to the lowest depths; crossing mountains, streams, and glens; and frequently traversing realms of space to the most remote countries of the world. This is accomplished in the course of a single night, and to the rider's extreme discomfort. The Phooka is sometimes called the Gruagach (or "hairy spirit "). Its mischievous pranks are well illustrated in The Fairy Rath of Lough Innin "—a metrical composition of Alexander Henry; as also in the very beautiful poem, "Alice and Una," by Denis Florence MacCarthy. Several localities in Ireland appear to have received their nomenclature from some supposed connection with this much dreaded monster. In the county of Cork there are two castles at places called Can-ig Phooka, or the Phooka's Rock. One of these adjoins Doneraile, and the other lies near Macroom. The celebrated waterfall of Ponla Phooka, or the "Phooka's Cavern," in the county of Wicklow, must have had some connections in tradition with the sprite so well known in Irish fairy mythology. There is also a noted landmark, or cairn, and a natural cave, at a place called Clopoke, in the Queen's County. I find that one of the topo-graphical staff engaged on the Irish Ordnance Survey renders the name of this townland by Clock a Phuca, the "Stone of the Phooka."
The bog-sprite appears in the shape of a distant light which often presents objects distorted and misplaced to the traveller's gaze, until he is led into a swamp or pool of water, when he sinks and is lost. The Hanoverian "Tuckbold," and the English "Will-o'-the-Wisp," partake of the same ignis fatuus description. In England this object is called "Elf-fire." In Collins' "Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland," he alludes to this glinting phantom of the moors. It is supposed that this Jack-o'Lantern, as he is often called, lures the mortal into a muddy hollow, where the water will rise around him on every side, precluding all chance of escape. The perturbed motions of this departed mortal are further described by Collins.
The Lenauntshee is an Irish sprite, implacable in resentment, and unalterable in friendship. Mr. O'Daly has rendered the Irish word Leananshee "a familiar sprite," in an interesting collection of "Irish Songs," published at Kilkenny in 1843. When a peasant may find himself overmatched in a party or faction fight, and yet maintain the struggle against considerable odds, it is supposed the Lenauntshee affords invisible aid, and deals out blows for him with scientific skill.
Denis Florence MacCarthy has poetically idealized the Lianhann Shee as a superior and an intellectual spirit, addressing other guardian spirits who may be considered as presiding over the ordinary duties and enjoyments of life. His poem appears in the October number of the Dublin University Magazine for 1851. This spirit is supposed to form a particular attachment for men, to whom it appears in the shape of a young and beautiful female. Whoever falls under the spells of this fairy cannot marry; for although invisible to a third party, she has a strong fascination for the person to whom she becomes attached, and she will not leave his presence for several years. As the mortal reciprocates this affection, she instructs and rewards him by communicating a knowledge of music, the art of healing, fairy mysteries, and various other accomplishments. Mr,. Carleton has made this spirit the subject of a popular Irish story.
There is an island said to be far out on the verge of the Atlantic's horizon, beyond the groups of the Arran Islands, and commonly hid from mortal sight. The story runs that a peasant, attracted by its tempting appearance,
" In the breeze of the Orient, loosened his sail,"
but on directing his course westwards, this island seemed to recede as he advanced, until a rising tempest submerged his bark, when
"Night fell on the deep, amidst tempest and spray,
It is very probable a belief in the existence of this fabled island comes down from a very remote period, and gave rise to the traditionary transatlantic voyage of St. Brendan of Clonfert, called also the Navigator. This holy and adventurous man is said to have passed seven Easters away from Ireland, having landed on a distant island. The adventures of this monastic navigator and his companions have been most exquisitely described in Denis Florence MacCarthy's "Voyage of St. Brendan." There is yet extant, in the Royal Irish Academy, a very curious folio vellum MS. on medical subjects, in Latin and Irish. When purchased many years ago in the west of Ireland, it was traditionally believed that one Morough O'Ley, a resident of Connemara, sometime in the seventeenth century, having been transported by supernatural means to the enchanted island of O'Brasil, there received a full knowledge of all diseases and their cure, together with this MS. to direct him in medical practice. The O'Leys, or O'Lees, were for a long time physicians to the O'Flaherties, and did not fail to increase their hereditary and professional ability by the acquisition of this treatise.
In a very rare publication called "The Ulster Miscellany," printed in 1753, there is an ingenious satire, entitled "A Voyage to O'Brazeel, a sub-marine Island, lying West off the Coast of Ireland." It is doubtless modelled on the design of Dean Swift's voyages to Lilliput and Brobdignag. The mode of descent to O'Brazeel is represented as very peculiar. The island itself is described as flecked with mellowed, well-distributed light; covered with beautiful landscapes; providing corn, fruit, trees, grass, and flowers; abounding in streams, fountains, flocks, and herds, fertile fields and pastures; with a happy state of society, religion, and government. The Firbolgs and Formorian colonists of Ireland, for the most part sea-faring men, are thought to have placed their Elysium in the ocean. It went by the various names of I Breasail ("the Island of Breasal "); Oilean na m-Beo ("the Island of the Living"); I na Beatha ("the Island of Life "). The Firbolgs are also supposed to have had their residence under the waters of our lakes. A different account is given regarding other races and classes inhabiting Ireland. The Tuatha de Danans and the Druids are said to have held their seminaries in caves and secluded subterranean abodes. Hence their Elysium was naturally situated under the earth. In Southey's poem of "Madoc," first part, § xi., allusion is made to certain Green Islands over the Western Ocean, whither "the sons of Gavran " and " Merlin with his band of Bards" sailed. Thence they were not known to have returned.
Flath-innis, otherwise known as the Noble Island, is said by Macpherson to lie in the Western Ocean., but surrounded by tempests. Within the island, every prospect denotes the paradise of the virtuous sons of Druids, who enjoy pleasures of their own, but are excluded from the Christian's heaven. Certain practised incantations cause this fabled land to appear. Departed persons, in the midst of their peculiar happy state, were warmly attached to their former country and living friends. Among the ancient Celts, females were said to have passed to the Fortunate Islands. This enchanted country, called Hy-Breasil, or O'Brazil, signified the Royal Island, according to General Vallancey's interpretation. It is said to have been the paradise of the pagan Irish.
There are certain localities in Ireland where the fargorthac, or hungry-grass, grows. This is supposed to be enchanted. It causes people, when crossing over it, to take sudden weaknesses, especially after a long journey. The fit of hunger coming on them is sometimes so excessive that they find themselves unable to pass these particular spots. If relief be not afforded by some companion or casual passenger, death immediately ensues under such circumstances. When recovering from the weakness, people often fall into a poor state of health. A bit of oaten-cake is thought to be the best anti-dote for the hungry-grass affection. In Ireland, Grose relates that the fairies frequently left bannocks, or oaten-cakes, in the way of travellers. If the latter did not partake of this food, something of an unlucky nature was likely to happen to them. Maxwell, in his humorous sketches, "Wild Sports of the West," alludes to the faragurtha, or " hungry-disease," which is attributed to various causes. Some are of opinion that it is attributable to fairy influences ; others affirm it is contracted by passing a spot where a corpse has lain; and many assert it is owing to the traveller putting his foot on some poisonous plant.
The Dublin University Magazine for April, 1856, contains a tale by William Carleton, called "Fair Gurtha, or the Hungry-Grass." This superstition is supposed to have nothing analogous to it in other countries. It is said that when an al fresco meal is partaken of on a certain spot, if the fragments be not thrown to the fairies, a crop of hungry-grass will grow there ; and whoever passes over it, must fall into such a weak state that death will ensue if he be not relieved. A certain spectre, only skin and bone, and miserably clad, is thought to wander through Ireland, at particular seasons, in the shape of a travelling mendicant. He is called Fear Gurtha, or the Man of Hunger; and whoever gives him relief will enjoy unfailing prosperity, even during the worse periods of famine and death, which are sure to follow immediately after his appearance. The uncharitable will be found amongst the most miserable, sufferers, on the approach of such wide-spread national calamities.
Subaqueous cities are supposed to lie under the surface of nearly all Irish lakes. This belief was probably originated from frequently recurring optical deceptions,' owing to the shadows of overhanging mountains and clouds being fantastically reflected from the unruffled surface of the loughs. Most of the Irish lakes are said to have sprung from magic wells, that bubbled up at certain times, until they filled the basins of the valleys. On this subject there is a ballad, by W. M. Downes, referring to the origin of Killarney.
Among the O'Longan MSS., belonging to the Royal Irish Academy, there is a copy of a tract, usually entitled Saltair na Muic (see O'Curry's Catalogue, vol. ii., p. 483), The Saltar, or Psaltar of the Pig." This contains a legend regarding Caon Comrac, an ancient Bishop of Clonmacnoise, and mentions an enchanted or a miraculous monastery and people, buried under the surface of Lough Ree in the river Shannon. With almost every lake throughout Ireland some remarkable and highly poetic legend is connected.
Certain places and personages are named in Irish popular traditions, and have even found a record in our native literature. These have reference to celebrated mythic chiefs or females and fairy haunts. There is a very curious tract in the " Book of Lecan" which throws much traditional light on the origin of fairy hills, fairy chiefs, and fairyism in Ireland. Also in the " Book of Lismore" we find a list of all the Irish fairy chiefs. Both these MSS., valuable for many historic tracts therein contained, are preserved in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.
Manahan is a fabled king of fairyland, and the ruler of a happy kingdom. With his fair daughters Aine and Aeife he sails often round the headlands of Inishowen. Among some of our fine romantic legends, we are told that whilst Bran MacFearbhall, a king of Ire-land, was one day alone and near his palace, he heard the most ravishing strain of fairy music, which at last lulled him to sleep. On awaking he found the silver branch of a tree by his side. This he brought to the lords and ladies of his court. Among them appeared a strange lady, who invited the monarch to a fairyland of happiness. The silver branch then passed from his hand into this lady's, and on the following morning, with a company of thirty persons, he sailed out on the ocean. After a voyage of a few days he landed on an island inhabited only by women, of whom this strange lady appeared to be the chieftainess. Here he remained several ages before returning to his own palace, near Lough Foyle. Among the females of an ideal world, we find Sidheng was a fairy damsel, who is said to have presented Finn MacCool with a battle-stone, to which a chain of gold was attached. With this weapon he was rendered invincible against his enemies on the field. Ounaheencha, a fairy queen of the ocean, was accustomed to sail round the coasts of Clare and Kerry, in quest of handsome young men, who were captured and conducted to her cave.
Brigh Leith was anciently a famous fairy mount in Westmeath. In Irish legendary tales we have also an account of a fairy chief from Siabh Fuaid, who was accustomed to set all the company at Tara asleep by the sweetness of his music during the annual assemblies. He then set fire to the palace. This chief, named Aillen MacMidhna, was afterwards killed by Finn MacCumhal.
Bodb was a fairy potentate who, with his daughters, lived within Sidh-ar-Femhin, a hill or fairy mansion on the plain of Cashel. To this subterranean residence a famous old harper named Cliach is said to have obtained access by playing his harp near the spot, until the ground opened and admitted him to the fairy realm. Every seventh May morning, Ior, a fairy chief, steered his bark through Loch Cluthair. And the fairy fleet of the south was often seen by fishermen sailing round the Fastnet Rock and Carrigeen a Dhoolig. In Irish traditions we find Fiachna MacRaetach and Eochaidh MacSal mentioned as rival chiefs among the Sidhe, or fairy men. Ilbhreac was the fairy chief of Eas Roc, now Ballyshannon. There was a celebrated Sidhe mansion at this place. In a rath on the road-side between Cork and Youghall it is believed that a fairy chieftain named Knop holds his court. Sometimes music and merriment are heard from within this fort, and travellers often observe strange lights around it.
The White Shee, or " fairy queen," has a recognised pre-eminence over others of her sex. Cleena, the fairy queen of South Munster, is said to reside within her invisible palace at Carrig Cleena, near Fermoy, co. Cork. There is a Cliodhna, written in Irish Tonn Chliodna, or " The Wave of Cleena." This latter designation is applied to the loud roaring surges in the harbour of Glandore, in a southern part of this same county. There are sea-worn caverns, hollowed out of the rocks on this coast, from which the waves loudly resound, with a deep monotonous roar. In the calm of night these moaning surges are most impressive, producing sensations of fear or melancholy. There is extant an Irish poem on the derivation of Tonn Clidhna, or " Clidhna's Wave," off the Cork coast. Allusion is made to the Fairy Queen of Munster by Edward Walsh, in his ballad entitled " O'Donovan's Daughter."
There is a king of fairies in Munster called Donn Firineach, or " Donn the Truth-Teller," or Truthful, who is said to live in the romantic hill of Cnockfirinn, co. Limerick. Donn, in Irish, has the English signification of "dun," or " brown-coloured." He is said originally to have been one of the sons of the celebrated Milesius, who came from Spain to colonize Ireland. This Donn is thought to have been shipwrecked, with all his mariners, on the coast of Munster. Among the old " Irish popular songs," so faithfully and expressively rendered into English metre by Edward Walsh (published by McGlashan, 21, D'Olier Street, Dublin, 1847) we find the Duan na Saoirse, or " Song of Freedom," by the anonymous author, the Man-genre Sugach. In this, Donn is personified and introduced as requiring the bard to proclaim that the hour had arrived for making a bold effort to restore the Stuart dynasty.
Our most remarkable dells are reputed the favourite haunts of fairies, and these are often denominated the "gentle places." Fairies are also partial to the " banks and braes " of purling rivulets. The fairies often perch like cocks and hens on the couples of Irish cabins, to enjoy the clamour and diversion at marriage feasts, christenings, or other merry meetings. Old cairns are also held to be sacred to the "good people," and it would be considered unlucky to remove these remnants of antiquities, for that very reason.
The fairies are often heard and seen hunting, with sound of horns, cry of dogs, tramp of horses, cracking of whips and " tally-ho " of huntsmen. Rushes and bouliauns often turn to horses when the fairies get astride on them, as they usually do when about to migrate in a body or troupe, from one place to another. Over hedges and ditches, walls and fences, brakes and briers, hills and valleys, lakes and rivers they sweep with incredible velocity and airy lightness. Allingham alludes in one of his ballads to these fairy pastimes.
During moonlight the fairies are often seen by mortals flitting in shadowy troops, between the eye and the mildly beaming nightly orb. They are especially fond of revelling at midnight. Wild strains of unearthly music are heard at this time by an ingle nook, lonely rath, green hillside, or tangled wood.
Ancient and solitary hawthorns, generally called " monument bushes," are held in great veneration by the commonalty, and it would be considered profanation to destroy them, or even to remove any of their branches. The fairies frequent the site of these bushes, and are often seen flitting amongst their branches. Unbaptized children and abortions are generally buried under " monument bushes ;" and probably, owing to this circumstance, such names have been given them. It is also remarkable that when interments of this kind take place in consecrated churches in Ireland the graves are always dug on the north side of the cemetery, apart from those deceased persons who have been baptized. "Monument bushes " are found, for the most part, in the centre of road-crossings. They are some-times seen by the roadside, but detached from adjoining fences. Often grouped together in gnarled and fantastic shapes, they present a picturesque and beautiful view to the passenger, especially when flowered over with hawthorn blossoms. Ghosts were occasionally conjured up before the excited imagination of the credulous or timid when passing those objects by night.
Certain writers on Irish superstitions represent unbaptized children as sitting blindfolded within fairy moats, the peasantry supposing such souls "go into nought." An idea somewhat similar may be found in the beautiful metrical tale of " Evangeline," by Longfellow where we have introduced, among the Contes of an Arcadian village notary, allusion to
"The white létiche, the ghost of a child 'who unchristened
I am convinced, however, that this belief can by no means be general, even amongst the most unenlightened of our peasantry. All of those with whom I have at any time conversed on this subject believe that unbaptized infants suffer "the pain of loss," in accordance with the doctrine and teaching of the Catholic Church. In other words, such persons are regarded as deprived of God's beatific vision, although not subject to the more extreme sufferings of those who have lost the grace of baptismal innocence.
The following memorial custom in reference to the dead appears to have come down from a remote period : when a person has been murdered, or has died by a sudden death on the roadside, our peasantry when passing carry a stone, which they throw on that spot where the dead body was found, as a mark of respect. An accumulation of stones thus heaped together soon forms a pretty considerable pile. The hat is also taken off by those passing by, and a prayer is usually offered for the repose of the departed. Ni curfated me leach an der Cairne. "I would not even throw a stone on your grave," is an expression used by the Irish peasantry to denote bitter enmity towards any person thus addressed.
To the early Druids many of our later Irish writers have attributed a knowledge of the use of charms, magic, necromancy, enchantments, and the black art. We may find a variety of accounts regarding Druids and Druidism, in the late Professor O'Curry's copy of the " Book of Lismore " (see vol. ii., p. 558, of this learned Irish scholar's Catalogue of Irish MSS. contained in the Royal Irish Academy). And in the national depository, which contains a copy of the same MS., we may discover a paper treating on the offices, laws, privileges, and social habits of the Druids. (This was written by the late Ed-ward O'Reilly, and is dated Harold's Cross, Feb. 4, 1824.) Much of the matter contained in it is, however, of a purely speculative kind. According to some accounts, the Irish Druids were accustomed to utter certain mysterious and rhapsodical speeches, in an extemporaneous manner ; and several of these reputed improvisos have been preserved by our scribes.
On Hallow Eve, in the Highlands of Scotland, a bunch of broom is fastened round a pole, and this combustible material is set on fire after dusk. The bearer, attended by a great crowd, runs through or round the village. Afterwards, flinging his burden down, a great quantity of faggots and inflammatory matter is heaped on the burning embers, until a great bonfire is kindled, which illuminates the place surrounding. This practice is a supposed relic of Druidism ; for the old Gallic councils forbid Christians faces preferre, whilst the accensores facularum were condemned to capital punishment, this being estimated a sort of demonaical sacrifice (Borlase, "Antiquities of Cornwall," p. 131). I have not been able to ascertain whether any similar custom prevailed in Ireland.
Among the traditions referring to Druidic or Pagan incantations, practices, magic and diablerie, the following are on record :
On the first of May the Druids drove cattle through the Bael fires, in order to preserve such animals from disorders during the remainder of that year. This pagan custom was lately practised in Munster and Connaught, when the farmers and peasants burned wisps of straw near their cattle through a like motive. The old Irish used in former times a certain ointment compounded of herbs and butter, made on May Day or on the festival day of the Holy Cross. This was intended to prevent bees from deserting their hives. Since the Druidic times Irish spring wells are said to have been invested with some sacred character. To desecrate a holy spring is considered profanity, and likely to cause it to become dry or to remove far away from its first position ; severe chastisement is believed to be oftentimes visited on the wanton delinquent.
Irish traditions mention a wonderful ring, by which the upright judge, Moran, tested guilt and innocence. It is also mentioned in the Brehon laws as being one of the ordeals of ancient Ireland.
The old Irish had some acquaintance with astrology. There is yet extant an anonymous poem of twenty-eight verses, describing the qualities of persons born on each day of the week. We find also some recipes or charms to be used as antidotes against diseases or accidents preserved in writing and found in the Irish MS. collection of the National Academy, Dublin.
The transmigration of certain remarkable persons from one animal or object to another is frequently found in the relations of our early Irish bards; and this would appear to have formed a part of our pagan ancestors' religious creed. (According to a prevailing popular notion, witches are often found metamorphosed into rabbits or black cats, and chased by huntsmen under such disguises.)
Among the Highland traditions we are informed that crystal gems, sometimes set in silver, are called Clach Bhuai, or " the powerful stone "—rectè Buadhach. Another sort of amulet is called Glein Naidr, or " the adder stone." Some necromancy is connected with the possession of these relics; for it is believed they ensure good luck for the owner. In certain cases the Highlander was known to travel over one hundred miles, bringing water with him, in which the Clach Bhuai was to be dipped. These were supposed to have been the magical gems or stones used by the Druids, and which, when inspected by a chaste boy, would enable him to see an apparition in them so as to foretell future events. (See Pennant's " Tour in Scot-land, 1769," vol. i., pp. 101, 102 ; 1774, third edition.) I have not been able to discover if a similar custom ever prevailed in Ireland.
As an instance of diablerie forming part of our pagan superstitions, the following account remains on record. Two women are spoken of in some ancient tracts, who are said to have come over from Scot-land for the express purpose of subjecting Cormac MacArt, monarch of Ireland, to the influences of demonism. The publication of the Irish Brehon Laws will doubtless throw a considerable light on our more ancient customs, superstitions, habits, and traditions. [See Note 1.]
The Irish, like the ancient Romans, paid especial atttention to lucky and unlucky days. Augustus the Pious never went abroad on that day succeeding Nundinæ, nor did he undertake any serious business on the Nonæ, in order to avoid an unlucky omen. It was considered unlucky by the Irish to get married during the month of May. The ancient Romans had a like superstition against entering the matrimonial state at this period. In the Highlands of Scotland the 3rd of May was called la Meat-karma na bleanagh, or "the dismal day." It was considered unlucky to begin any affair of consequence on that particular day.
The following couplet is often quoted, and much importance is attached to it by the country people :
"Happy is the bride that the sun shines on ;
Among the strange customs and observations of the Irish people, the following deserve to be noted. A horseshoe is nailed on the threshold of the peasant's cabin, and cloves of wild garlic are planted on thatch over the door for good-luck. It is regarded as unlucky to find a pin with the point turned towards you ; but is considered a lucky circumstance to find a crooked pin. Whoever breaks a looking-glass is supposed to incur some future calamity; on this superstition an appropriate ballad, called "The Doom of the Mirror," has been written by B. Simmons. A red-haired woman, if met first in the morning, be-tokens something unlucky falling out during the day. To pluck a fairy hawthorn-tree is supposed to be extremely dangerous and rash, as it provokes elfin resentment and bodes ill-luck. It is considered lucky to see magpies in even numbers but it is unlucky to find them in odd numbers. It is deemed unlucky to build a house on the usually travelled path, where sheeoges or fairies pass. The occupant is said to merit their vengeance, and he will suffer evil consequences by the wreck of his property or by the premature death of his stock. Disasters often happen to members of his family; and sometimes, by his own maiming or sudden disease, they are deprived of the means of support.
The following practices or superstitions are probably referable to Pagan times. The old custom of dressing the May-bush with gar-lands and wild-flowers, whilst placing it on a dungheap or before their doors, is ,now rarely witnessed. The poet Furlong used to witness the " May sports," as he tells us in the Dublin and London Magazine for 1825-1828.
When a stranger comes into a farm-house whilst a churning takes place, if a hand be not given to the well-plied dash by this visitant, it is supposed the butter will be abstracted in some mysterious manner. Even the upper classes will not refuse a share in this labour, as a matter of courtesy and consideration towards the residents' feelings and to prevent ill-luck.
Churning before sunrise upon May-morning is an especial object with the " gude wife," and to accomplish this matter it is necessary to arrive at an early hour. An ass's old shoe is sometimes nailed to the bottom of a churn-dash ; coals of fire and some salt are placed under the churn, and a scrap of charmed writing is also inserted between the hoops and staves. A branch or sapling of rowan-tree or mountain-ash, called " Crankeeran" by the Irish, and considered to have been endowed with miraculous properties, was cut on May-eve, and twisted round the churn before the labour of churning commenced. The usages were supposed to influence favourably the product of a large quantity of butter. Lads and lasses alternately toiled with patient, good-humoured perseverance and great bodily energy to bring the first lumps of butter through the opening of a churn-lid. This operation was always regarded as a sort of domestic festivity.
General Valiancy, alluding to All-Hallows Eve, which he identifies with the Oidhche Shamhna, or Vigil of Saman, makes mention of prevailing usages then in vogue among the Irish peasantry. One of their practices was to assemble with sticks and clubs, going about from one house to another, collecting money, bread, cake, butter, cheese, eggs, etc., for a feast. They demand such viands in the name of St. Columbkille, desiring their patrons to lay aside the fatted calf and to bring forth the black sheep. Verses were repeated in honour of this solemnity. The good women were employed in kneading and baking the griddle-cake and in making candles. The latter were sent from house to house in the neighbourhood, and were lighted on the next day, which was dedicated to Saman. Before these candles the recipients prayed, or were supposed to pray, for the donor. Every cottage or farm-house abounded in the best viands its owners could afford. Apples and nuts were devoured in abundance. The nut-shells were burned on a dean part of the hearth, and many strange predictions were announced from the appearance of the ashes. Cabbages were torn up from the root by boys and girls blindfolded, about the hour of twelve o'clock at midnight. Their heads and stalks were supposed to indicate the physical and mental peculiarities, tidiness, slovenliness, etc., of a future husband or wife. Hempseed was sown by the maidens, and they believed that if they looked behind, the apparition would be seen of a man intended to be their future spouse. They hung a chemise before the fire at the close of these ceremonies. They set up as watchers during the night, but concealed in a corner of the room, or looking through the keyhole of a closed door. They supposed that an apparition of the man intended for their future husband would come down through the chimney, and be seen turning the garment. They used to throw a ball of yarn out through a window, and wind it on a reel kept inside of the house. They supposed that by repeating a Paternoster backwards and looking out of the window they would see his sith or apparition. Boys, and sometimes girls, would dive head and shoulders into a tub filled with water, endeavouring to bring up an apple cast therein with the mouth. Apples and lighted candles were stuck on cross-sticks, suspended by cords from the roof or couples, and the former swung round in rapid motion by an unwinding of the line. During this motion, the peasant endeavoured to catch an apple with his mouth, avoiding the flame if possible. These and many other superstitious ceremonies, which are said to have been relics of Druidic rites, were observed at this time. Valiancy thought they would never be eradicated while the name of Saman would be permitted to remain ; but this name and these ceremonies are already falling into oblivion.
Sometimes girls take a riddle and collect a quantity of thrashed grain, which they winnow, believing they shall see a future spouse before their work is ended. It is also customary to place three plates be-fore a person blindfolded, who is led towards them. One of the plates contains water, another earth, and the third meal. If the person puts his hand in the water, it indicates that he shall live longer than a year ; if in the earth, it is thought he will die before the close of a year; if in the meal, it betokens the attainment of wealth.
Collcannon is prepared at this time by mashing and boiling together potatoes, cabbage, turnips, and parsnips, with salt and pepper. A lump of butter is placed on the top of the dish, which is eaten without any other condiment.
Young females go out at midnight and cast a ball of yarn into the bottom of a lime-kiln, whilst holding on by a thread. If the girl wind on, and if nothing hold the yarn, it is a sign the winder will die unmarried. If she feel it pulled from her, she asks : " Who pulls my yarn ?" when it is supposed her future husband will give his name or appear to her. Sometimes a demon will approach instead, and this latter event indicates that her death is not far distant. As in certain parts of Normandy at the present day, it is supposed the possession of a dead hand, burned and reduced to ashes, will produce certain effects; such charm or witchcraft appears to have had some influence over the superstitious imaginations of our peasantry. The dead hand was usually kept 'for the practice of certain incantations alike repugnant to reason and religion. These customs are almost extinct, and were considered too closely allied with diablerie and magic to be used by any except the most unchristian practitioners.
Among some Irish superstitions and customs which cannot be referred to any distinct heading, and the origin of which it might be equally difficult to define, the following are still prevalent in most districts of Ireland. A dog or horse, and more especially a mare, often sees a spirit, when the ghost is invisible to a human eye. Spirits cannot cross running water. Whoever can find fern-seeds will be able to render himself invisible whenever he chooses. It is also supposed that if the root of fern be cut transversely, the initial letter of a chief's name will be found, and to him it is thought the land on which this plant grew formerly belonged.
It is believed that whoever will go out on Easter Sunday morning at an early hour, may observe the sun dancing on the surface of a lake or river.
No supposition is more general than the opinion that gold or silver may be found under nearly all the raths, cairns, or old castles throughout this island. It is always a difficult task to exhume buried treasure, for some preternatural guardian or other will be found on the alert. This treasure is usually deposited in " a crock ;" but when an attempt is made to lift it some awful Gorgon or monster appears on the defensive and offensive. Sometimes a rushing wind sweeps over the plain, or from the opening made, with, destructive force, carrying away the gold-seeker's hat or spade, or even in various in-stances the adventurer himself, who is deposited with broken bones or a paralysed frame at a respectful distance from the object of his quest.
On the banks of a northern river, and near a small eminence, is a beautiful green plot, on which two large moss covered stones, over 600 feet apart, are shown. It is said two immense "crocks" of gold lie buried under these conspicuous landmarks, and that various at-tempts have been made to dig around and beneath them. In all those instances, when a persistent effort had been made, a monk appeared in full habit, with a cross in his hand, to warn off sacrilegious offenders. It had been intended, so say the legend-mongers, to erect near this spot a church, equal in its dimensions and beauty to St. Peter's at Rome. The contents of one "crock" were destined to erect such a structure, and those of the other were intended for its complete decoration.
Islain Ceallmhuin, the fortune-teller, or literally " the humble oracle," is a person to whose predictions much importance is attached by the young and unmarried. This pretender to a foreknowledge of future events was generally a female, who led a sort of wandering life, and made occasional rounds through a pretty considerable district, over which her reputation prevailed. Such was especially the case in the southern parts of Ireland ; but in the northern province men followed this vocation, and we find in Charles Gavan Duffy's spirited ballad entitled Innis-Eoghain allusion made to these seers, supposed to have been gifted with the prophetic " second sight." They are there designated " Spaemen "—tantamount to " diviners." The women fortune-tellers are called " Spæwives," and were usually consulted by foolish young people, on the probabilities or future contingencies of a married life. They were supposed to have a supernatural knowledge of family secrets, which they often acquired by ordinary means ; and thus were enabled to predict or direct, as occasion served, for those credulous dupes that sought their counsel.
Towards the close of the last century and beginning of the present, a certain roving character, called the prophecy-man, was often hospitably entertained in houses of Irish cottagers and farmers. He was supposed to be well versed in all ancient traditions of the country, and especially able to explain or unravel many of those prophecies referred to Saints Patrick, Brigid, and Columbkille, or to other Irish saints.
There are various local legends current among the peasantry living in the vicinity of old ruined churches and monasteries. These usually have reference to celebrated miracles wrought by their patron saints. In many instances such traditions have been found recorded in the acts or lives of saints yet extant. As a specimen of the once favourite popular traditions, the following have been extracted from yet unpublished MS. accounts :
St. Patrick came on a visit to Tara, at the request of King Leaghaire's queen, for the purpose of curing her son Lughaidh of a disease which gave him a voracious appetite. Whilst at dinner Lughaidh seized a large piece of bread and thrust it into his mouth, but it stopped in his throat and choked him to death. Patrick prayed to God for him. Michael the Archangel came in the shape of a bird, and drew up the piece of bread, besides a spoon he had swallowed, with his bill. St. Patrick is supposed to have composed a quatrain on this occasion, in which he ordered St. Michael's spoon and St. Michael's bit to be given by each person. It declares a woe against him who would eat a meal without giving a tithe of it to God and a bit to St. Michael.
When St. Mochuda was in the habit of touching anything greasy with his hands, he usually rubbed them on his shoes. Having resolved on abandoning the monastery in Rathan, he wished to go on a foreign pilgrimage, lest he might become vain of the character he had acquired at home. He went to St. Comgall of Bangor and told his design. After he had sat down, and his shoes had been removed, St. Comgall said : " Come out of that shoe, thou devil V' " It is not amiss that he has met you," said the devil, " because I would not allow him to remain two nights in one place, for the partiality he has shown to his own shoes above those of his own congregation."
St. Brendan, son of Finnlogh, was at his church in Dubhdhoira, now supposed to be Doora, near Ennis in Thomond. His nearest neighbour on the north was Dobharchu, from whom are descended the Ui Dobharchon, now the O'Liddys. Dobharchu had a grass-field or meadow near Loch Lir. Brendan's oxen went there to graze : Dobharchu killed these oxen, and this matter was told to St. Brendan. " If God permit," said St. Brendan, " may he be transformed into a real Dobharchu," i.e., an otter. Some time afterwards Dobharchu went to look at the meadow ; a trout sprang up in the lake before him ; he caught it with a hook, struck a fire, and then roasted it. He then went to take a drink at the lake, into which he fell, and was immediately transformed into an otter, owing to St. Brendan's imprecation. Dobharchu's son, Cuchuan, afterwards came on a fishing excursion to the lake, but his father cautioned him against this practice. Four Irish quatrains are extant which contain this prohibitory admonition.
The bardic fictions usually classed under the denomination of Ossianic or Fenian poems. are yet preserved in the Irish language; but for the most part they bear intrinsic evidence of their origin and composition referring to no very remote period. Doubtless, in many instances, they have been interpolated or amended by more modern Irish rhymers or transcribers. Numberless copies, with various readings, exist in MSS. belonging to individuals and public institutions. Specimens of these poems have been published by the Ossianic Society, founded in 1853 by Mr. Hardiman, Mr. O'Flanigan, and others. Whilst illustrating a rude state of social habits, usages, and modes of thought, they oftentimes present interesting evidences of inventive power and graphic description. In the Irish language, these lengthened compositions were often recited from memory, and transmitted in this manner from father to son through many successive generations. Even in the wilds of Connemara, in the remote glens of Ulster, and through the mountainous districts of Munster, such bardic fyttes are yet recited. Throughout the province of Leinster, these fireside contes have fallen into desuetude since the beginning of the present century.