A Day At Maghera, Co. Londonderry
( Originally Published 1913 )
ONE fine morning last August I found myself in the quaint old town of Maghera. My first visit was to the post-office, where I bought some picture-cards, and inquired my way to Killelagh Church, the Cromlech, and the Sweat-house, as it is called, where formerly people indulged in a vapour-bath to cure rheumatism and other complaints. I was told to follow the main street. This I did, and when I came to the outskirts of the town I tried to get a guide, and spoke to a boy at one of the cottages. He, however, knew very little, but fortunately saw an elderly man coming down the road, who consented to show me the way, and proved an excellent guide. His name is Daniel McKenna, a coach-builder by trade. His father, who was teacher in Maghera National School for thirty-five years, knew Irish well, and I understand gave Dr. Joyce information in regard to some of the place-names in Co. Derry. Taking a road which led in a north-westerly direction, we came to the Cromlech, and a few yards farther on saw the old Church of Killelagh.
My guide pointed out that the doorstep was much worn, doubtless by the feet of those who during many centuries had passed over it ; he showed me, too, the strong walls, and said the mortar had been cemented with the blood of bullocks. This probably recalls an ancient custom, when an animal—in still earlier times it might be a human being—was slain to propitiate or drive away the evil spirits and secure the stability of the building. A similar tradition exists in regard to Roughan Castle, the stronghold of Phelim O'Neill, in Co. Tyrone.
Leaving Killelagh Church, we continued our walk, and I asked my guide about the customs and traditions of the country. He told me that on Hallow Eve Night salt is put on the heads of children to protect them from the fairies. These fairies, or wee folk, are about three feet in height, some not so tall; they are of different races or tribes, and have pitched battles at the Pecht's graveyard.
In " My Schools and Schoolmasters " (chap. x., pp. 222-223, ed. 1854, Hugh Miller describes the goblin who haunted Craig House, near Cromarty Firth, as a " grey-headed, grey-bearded, little old man," and the apparition was thus explained by a herdboy: " Oh ! they're saying it's the spirit of the man that was killed on the foundation-stone just after it was laid, and then built intil the wa' by the masons, that he might keep the castle by coming back again ; and they're saying that a' the verra auld houses in the kintra had murderit men builded intil them in that way, and that they have a' o' them this bogie,"
This is a place covered with rough mounds and very rough stones, and is looked on as a great playground of the fairies ; people passing through it are often led astray by them. The Pechts, or Picts, were described to me as having long black hair, which grew in tufts; they were small people, about four feet six inches in height, thick set, nearly as broad as they were long, strong in arms and shoulders, and with very large feet. When a shower of rain came on, they would stand on their heads and shelter themselves under their feet. Some years ago I was told a similar story in Co. Antrim of the Pechts lying down and using their feet as umbrellas.*
I regretted we had not time to visit a large fort we passed on the way to Ballyknock Farmhouse. Here we left the road, and, passing through some fields, came to the old Sweat-house. As you will see from the photograph kindly given to me by Mr. Lytle of Maghera, the entrance is on the side of a bank. It is a much more primitive structure than those at the Struel Wells, near Downpatrick. No mortar has been used in its construction, and I should say it is an old souterrain, or part of a souterrain. The following are rough measurements:
Height of entrance 2 feet.
Width of entrance 15 inches
Height of interior 5 feet 5 inches.
Width of interior 3 feet.
Length of interior 9 feet.
This building, as already mentioned, was used by those suffering from rheumatism, and near the entrance is a well in which the patients bathed to complete the cure.
While we were resting I asked about rush crosses, which are put up in many cottages at Maghera, and, gathering some rushes, Daniel McKenna showed me how they were made. He told me that on St. Bridget's Eve, January 31, children are sent out to pull rushes, which must not be cut with a knife. When these rushes are brought in, the family gather round the fire and make the crosses, which are sprinkled with holy water. The wife or eldest daughter prepares tea and pancakes, and the plate of pancakes is laid on the top of the rush cross. Prayers are said, and the family partake of St. Bridget's supper. The crosses are hung up over doors and beds to bring good luck. In former times sowans or flummery was eaten instead of pancakes. I have heard of similar customs in other places. At Tobermore those who bring in the rushes ask at the door, " May St. Bridget come in ?" " Yes, she may," is the answer. The rushes are put on a rail under the table while the family partake of tea. Afterwards the crosses are made, and, as at Maghera, hung up over doors and beds.*
This custom probably comes to us from pre- . Christian times. The cross in its varied forms is a very ancient symbol, sometimes representing the sun, sometimes the four winds of heaven. Schlieman discovered it on the pottery of the Troad; it is found in Egypt, India, China, and Japan, and among the people of the Bronze Period it appears frequently on pottery, jewellery, and coins.
Now, St. Bridget had a pagan predecessor, Brigit, a poetess of the Tuatha de Danann, and whom we may perhaps regard as a female Apollo. Cormac, in his " Glossary," tells us she was a daughter of the Dagda and a goddess whom all poets adored, and whose two sisters were Brigit the physician and Brigit the smith. Probably the three sisters represent the same divine or semi-divine person whom we may identify with the British goddess Brigantia and the Gaulish Brigindo.
May we not see, then, in these rush crosses a very ancient symbol, used in pagan times, and which was probably consecrated by early Christian missionaries, and given a new significance ?
The harvest knots or bows are connected with another old custom which was, until recently, observed at Maghera. When the harvest was gathered in, the last handful of oats, the corn of this country, was left standing. It was plaited in three parts and tied at the top, and was called by the Irish name " luchter." The reapers stood at some distance, and threw their sickles at the luchter, and the man who cut it was exempt from paying his share of the feast. Daniel McKenna told me he had seen some fine sickles broken in trying to hit the luchter. It was afterwards carried home; the young girls plaited harvest knots and put them in their hair, while the lads wore them in their caps and buttonholes. A dance followed the feast. The knots, with the ears of corn attached, are, I am told, the true old Irish type, while it is thought that the smaller ones were made after a pattern brought from England by the harvest reapers on their return home. I heard of the same custom at Portstewart and also in the Valley of the Roe, where the last sheaf of oats was called the " hare," and the throwing of the sickles was termed the " churn." In some places the last sheaf itself was called the " churn," but by whatever name it was known the man who hit it was regarded as the victor, and was given the best seat at the feast, or a reward of some kind. An old woman above ninety years of age repeated to me a song about the churn, or kirn, and she and many others remember well the custom and the feast which followed, when both whisky and tea were served.
In some districts the last sheaf is termed the " Cailleagh,"* or old wife.
A similar custom in Devonshire has been described by Mr. Pearse Chope in the London Devonian Year Book for 191o, p. 127. Here corn is wheat, and a sheaf of the finest ears, termed the " neck," is carried by one of the men to an elevated spot ; the reapers form themselves into a ring, and each man holding his hook above his head, they all join in " the weird cry, ' A neck ! a neck a neck ! We ha' un ! we ha' un ! we ha' un !' This is repeated several times, with the occasional variation : A neck ! a neck ! a neck ! God sa' un ! God sa' un ! God sa' un !' After this ceremony the man with the neck has to run to the kitchen, and get it there dry, while the maids wait with buckets and pitchers of water to souse' him and the neck." Mr. Chope adds that in most cases the neck is more or less in the form of a woman, and undoubtedly represented the spirit of the harvest, and that " the main idea of the ceremony seems to have been that in cutting the corn the spirit was gradually driven into the last handful. . . . As it was needful to cut the corn and bury the seed, so it was necessary to kill the corn spirit in order that it might rise again in fresh youth and vigour in the coming crop."
I think we may safely assume that the Irish churn had a similar origin, and that in throwing the sickles the aim of the ancient reapers was to kill the spirit of the corn.
We have seen that in the North of Ireland the last sheaf is frequently termed the " hare," and in many other countries the corn spirit takes the form of an animal. In his recent volumes of the Golden Bough, entitled " Spirits of the Corn and the Wild," Dr. Frazer mentions many animals, such as the wolf, goat, fox, dog, bull, cow, horse, hare, which represent the corn spirit lurking in the last patch of standing corn. He tells us that " at harvest a number of wild animals, such as hares, rabbits, and partridges, are commonly driven by the progress of the reaping into the last patch of standing corn, and make their escape from it as it is being cut down. . . . Now, primitive man, to whom magical changes of shape seem perfectly credible, finds it most natural that the spirit of the corn, driven from his home in the ripe grain, should make his escape in the form of the animal, which is seen to rush out of the last patch of corn as it falls under the scythe of the reaper."
To return to Maghera. The morning passed swiftly as I listened to my guide's description of these old customs, and it was after two o'clock when I said good-bye to him at his cottage, and found myself again in the main street of Maghera. I now wished to visit the Fort of Dunglady, and after a refreshing cup of tea, engaged a car. The driver knew the country well, and, going uphill and downhill, we passed through the village of Culnady, and were soon close to this fine fort. A few minutes' walk, and I stood on the outer rampart, and gazed across the inner circles at the cattle grazing on the central enclosure.
This fort was visited in 1902 by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, when a very interesting paper, written by Miss Jane Clark of Kilrea, was read. She mentions that Dr. O'Donovan considered this fort one of the most interesting he had met with; not so magnificent as the Dun of Keltar at Downpatrick, but much better fortified, and states that a map of the time of Charles I. represents Dunglady Fort as a prominent object, and shows three houses built upon it, one of considerable size. Quoting from an unpublished letter of Mr. J. Stokes, she refers to the triple rampart, which makes the diameter of the whole to be three hundred and thirty feet. There was formerly a draw well in the middle of the fort, and at one time it was used as a burial-ground by members of the Society of Friends. Miss Clark also referred to a smaller fort at Culnady, which had been demolished. The two mounds in the centre of this rath had been formed of earth on a stone foundation.
A rapid drive brought me back to Maghera in time for a short visit to the ruins of the Church of St. Lurach, popularly known in the district as St. Lowry. There is a curious sculpture of the Crucifixion over the west doorway, which is shown in the sketch of this doorway by Petrie in Lord Dunraven's " Notes on Irish Architecture."
I must now conclude this account of my visit to Maghera, but may I mention that farther north there are other interesting antiquities ? The large cromlech, called the Broadstone, is some miles from Kilrea. There are several forts in the neighbourhood of that town, which draws its supply of water from a fairy well.