Nines

The magic number of the Celts

The number nine was a favourite number with the Celts and was used more frequently in ‘cure ceremonials’ than any other number.

Say that last night you went to your bed and in perfect health. When you awoke this morning, you find there is a lump or tumour on your face, or on some other part of your body. You had not felt any pain until you awoke, but now there is some pain, or is at least somewhat troublesome. You know now that some spirit of evil has touched you, and would you like to know the cure? Of course, you want the cure and, here it is!

Get nine pieces of iron, any articles will do, just make certain that they are made of iron. Then, “measure” the swelling with these irons, namely you make the sign of the cross with each on the “blighted” spot and throw the ninth iron over your head. There now, you are cured! praise be to God!

You don’t believe me, but I heard this story from an old lady called Mary. She told me, “My wee Bridie went to bed one night as well as ever she was. But, in the morning she had a lump on her cheek the size of a hen’s egg. To be honest, I paid little attention to it and thought it would be alright again before night time. I was thinking to myself that it had come on her suddenly and would suddenly disappear again. But the lump got worse and old Sadie from Ballinacorr came into the house about twelve o’clock. ‘In the name of God,’ said she, ‘what’s wrong with the little girl? God bless her !

There’s none of us that knows,’ says I.

And did you do anything for it?‘ says she.

‘I did not,’ says I, ‘for I hadn’t a clue what to do with it.

Well get nine irons,‘ says she, ‘and though you should have done it long ago, measure her.’

Well, we did, and she was all right within a very short time, and now for you!

” For inflammation of the eyelid, an equally remarkable use is made of the number nine. The sore, which usually assumes the form of a small round lump, tapering towards the top, is called a sty. To ‘cure’ it, take nine gooseberry pricks, or “stabs ” as they are called, and in succession ‘point’ first towards the eye, next towards the ground, and the final one was thrown over the left shoulder. I know a friend that once ‘doctored’ herself in the way that I have told you, and she got immediate relief.

Why the gooseberry “stabs” are the only ones which are effective I don’t know. In the same way I cannot explain ‘The Soot o’ Nine Pots’ being a sure remedy for many kinds of illness that can effect cattle. The one thing that I do know is that any number other than nine will not do. At one time someone suggested that the number was selected in honour of the ‘Nine Muses’, (Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope) but I believe this idea to be too fanciful to be seriously entertained. I believe it is sufficient for us to know that the directions for use are faithfully recorded and that we should use them in accordance with the precise directions that are contained in that great traditional and mystical list of medicines created by the Gaelic race since earliest times.

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Round Towers of Ireland

All over the island of Ireland there are ruins from past ages spread everywhere, which give us all a wonderful insight into the mysterious lives of our ancestors who built these monumental structures. There are few of these structures, however, that are more remarkable than the round towers that are found in almost every historically renowned locality. At one time there were a great number of these towers, but some were destroyed by the ravages of time, some of them were used as convenient sources of ready shaped stone, and some suffered from the intentional destruction carried out by intolerant or thoughtless people. Whatever the reason for their demise, these structures have gradually disappeared from the landscape until only about eighty remain, and out of these less than twenty-per-cent are in almost perfect condition. The remaining towers exist only in various stages of dilapidation.
round tower 1The round towers stand at varying heights to each other. Those towers that remain in perfect, or near perfect, condition reach up to somewhere between seventy to two hundred feet in height, and their bases vary from eighty to thirty feet in diameter. The entrance into the towers themselves are usually twelve to eighteen feet from the ground, while inside the tower there are several stories, each averaging a height of about ten feet. Each of these stories illuminated by a single narrow window, with the highest level invariably having four slender pointed arched windows (Lancet Windows)which are open to the cardinal points of the compass. The roof of the tower is conical, made of overlapping stone slabs, and beneath the projecting cornice it is encircled by grotesquely carved heads and type of zig-zag ornamentation. The masonry is of granite stone, cut and chiselled into shape but, without the least regularity the size of the blocks. In one single round tower, some stones are very large, others small, and even more shaped into every geometrical shape known.
All the round towers that remain standing, as previously stated, occupy sites of special historical note. This could be considered as sufficient evidence to suggest that almost every historic spot in Ireland, at one time or another, could boast of being the site of one or more of these interesting structures. As further evidence of this can be added the fact that the existing towers are generally to be found close by the ruins of churches, abbeys, or other ecclesiastical buildings. The effect on the landscape of these massed ruins being surmounted by a single tall shaft is often picturesque, and almost a symbol of Ireland in tourist brochures. In fact, the proximity of the tower to the ecclesiastical ruin is so common, that many writers on Irish historical sites put forward the theory that the tower was built by the monks who had built the church. Many of those who advocate just such an origin of the round tower also put forward the theory that they were built, either as a place of safe-keeping for valuable property, as a belfry for the church, or for the purpose of providing accommodation for the monks. But, closer examination of these theories show that none are truly acceptable.
In all the troubled ages of Ireland, and, unfortunately they have not been few in number, the monasteries and ecclesiastical buildings of every description were generally spared. If this had not been the case, those monasteries, abbeys and Cathedrals that possessed valuable property, which they wanted to hide from the most ruthless marauders, would not have advertised their wealth by erecting a tower. They would have been far more likely to seek out an inconspicuous hiding place for their treasures rather than erect a tower that was the most conspicuous feature of the landscape.
These towers were not built to provide belfries, either. This is evident from the fact that, in almost every case, the nearby churches had been built with bell-towers, which formed a part of the sacred building. This would not have been the case if the round towers had been conceived and built as a place in which to locate bells.
round-tower 3Moreover, that these towers were not built for providing hermit-cells is apparent from the fact that hermit-caves and cells are abundant throughout Ireland, and, almost without exception, they are to be found in secluded spots. There is nothing to suggest that, on occasion, some of the round towers were not adapted to each of these uses. But, in every case, the monks and church builders’ only reason to change the use of an existing structure was to meet an urgent need. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that these round towers were not built by the monks at all. It is a well-known fact that Irish monks were fond of writing and they recorded, in detail, every action of their daily life and, to date, there is no passage in which they record the building of a round tower. Whenever church historians make a reference to these structures, even those who mention the raising of churches at the foot of a round tower, they demonstrate that quite clearly that the tower pre-dates the introduction of Christianity into Ireland.
Most historians in Ireland agree that the round towers were pagan constructions, and that they are so old that they even precede written history in this land. There is no doubt that the early people of Ireland worshipped fire and the sun, and this fact alone gives us many reasons to believe that the round towers were built by the Druids for purposes of religion. Every tower has an extensive view to the East, which gives the observer and excellent early sight of the rising sun, with the dawn being the favourite hour for celebrating sun-worship. Furthermore, every tower has, at its base, the remnants of an extraordinary quantity of ashes and embers that suggest that, in each of these towers, a sacred or perpetual fire was kept burning.
Adding to this evidence is, that in every locality where a round tower stands, there still exists among local folklore and traditions suggestions that these structures were for sacred use, but not Christian. Among these traditions are indications of their former use as places sacred to sun and fire-worship, namely the names by which they commonly known among the local people. The generic Irish name for the round tower is Colcagh, ‘Fire-God’, but the proper names designating individual towers are still more characteristic. E.g. Turaghan, the ‘Tower of Fire’; Aidhne, the ‘Circle of Fire’; Aghadoe, the ‘Field of Fire’; Teghadoe, the ‘Fire House’; Arddoe, the ‘Height of Fire’; Kennegh, the ‘Chief Fire’; Lusk, the ‘Flame’; Fertagh, the ‘Burial Fire Tower’; Fertagh na Guara, the ‘Burial Fire Tower of the Fire Worshippers’; Gall-Ti-mor, the ‘Flame of the Great Circle’; Gall-Baal, the ‘Flame of the Community’; Baal-Tinne, the ‘Fire of the Community’, and many similar names, retain the memory and worship of the Druids when no written records have been left to us.
In addition to such important information the names of the hills, mountains, or islands on which the towers are situated have designations that refer either to the circle, a favourite and sacred figure in Druidical holy places, or to the sun or fire worship. Yet another curious circumstance strengthening the round tower’s relationship to the rites of sun worship, can be found in the fact that wherever this form of religion held sway, it has been accompanied by well or spring worship, and, generally, by the veneration of the ox as a sacred animal. Close to most of the Irish round towers there are springs or wells, which are still regarded as being holy. Of these places many tales are told of miraculous cures, while in many places there remains in the same neighbourhoods legends concerning sacred cows that were usually the property of some famous local saint or hero.
round-tower 4The round towers of Ireland are, in fact, only a part of a vast system of towers of identical construction. If you follow the geographical locations of these structures, you will find the advance of fire worship from the East may be accurately tracked. If you travel from Ireland to Brittany, in France, you will see, in the mountainous or hilly districts, several towers that exactly like those of Ireland. In the north of Spain several remain, while in Portugal, there is one, and in the south of Spain there are numerous similar towers. Cross from Spain to north of Africa and you will discover that there are numerous towers, which are to be found in such places as Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. Meanwhile, in Sardinia, several hundred are still standing; and written testimony as to their original purpose abundant among the Sardinian records and are readily available. In Minorca, among the Balearic Isles, is the famous Tower of Allaior, and the mountain districts of southern Italy, as well as Sicily’s hills, contain numbers of them. Malta has the Giant’s Tower, which in its appearance and construction is identical with the ‘Tower of Cashel’ in Ireland. Cyprus has several, and they remain on the coast of Asia Minor.
In Palestine none have yet been found, which might indicate just how the Hebrews of old destroyed every vestige of Canaanite idolatry. But it is probable that the “high places” broken down may have been towers of the sun, for the Canaanites were fire worshippers, and the name Baal is found in Palestine and in Ireland. In Armenia, and in the Caucasus, they are so numerous that they seem to crown almost every hill-top. But, returning to the Mediterranean shores, we mentioned their existence on the northern coast of Africa, while in Arabia and on the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea, they stand in considerable numbers. They are to be found in Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, and Sumatra, where, in some places they are apparently still used for fire worship.
Throughout this vast extent of territory there is no material difference in the shape, appearance, or construction of the round tower. In Sumatra and Java, as in Ireland, the door is elevated, and the building divided into stories. The walls are constructed of many-sided hewn stones, the upper story is lighted by four windows looking to the cardinal points, the cornice has the same kind of zigzag ornamentation, and the roof is constructed in the same manner, with overlapping stones. Even the names of these structures are nearly the same, for in India and Ireland these buildings are Fire-Towers, Fire-Circles, or Sun-Houses. Yet, another bit of circumstantial evidence that goes to prove that the round towers of Ireland were erected by a people who had the same religion, and similar religious observances, as the natives of India is apparent in the legends around Indian towers. In India, the local traditions tell how each of these towers was built in one night by some notable character who was afterwards buried in it. In Ireland, the same legend is also found, while the local folklore tells us the tower was built overnight. The ‘Tower Tulloherin’, for instance, was allegedly built in one night by a monk who came to the neighbourhood as a missionary. But, finding the local people inhospitable, and unwilling to give him lodging for the night, he decided he would remain since there was no place in Ireland that was in more need of his missionary work. So, on the evening he arrived, he began to build the tower, and by morning it was finished. In that place he the monk now set up his residence and began to preach to the crowds of people attracted by the wide-spread fame of the miracle. The story of the Tower of Aghagower is similar, except that the saint in this case was aided by angels. Kilmackduagh, on the other hand, was built in one night by angels without human assistance, the work being undertaken after the pleas of a saint, who watched and prayed while the angels toiled. Ballygaddy’s history is somewhat different in that the local folklore attributes its origin to a local “giant” who, having received a challenge from another “giant,” decided to take his stand on Ballygaddy hill to watch for the coming of his enemy, declaring that he was ready, “to beat the head off the bragging blackguard if he was to say as much as Boo.” It is said that he stood upon that hill for seven days and nights, at the end of which time, “his legs were that tired he thought they’d drop off him.” To rest those legs, the giant raised the tower as a means of support. The challenger finally came to the site and the story says that the tower-building giant “didn’t leave a whole bone in the blackguard’s ugly body.” When the battle was over, the winner began to dismantle the tower, but stopped and decided that he would put a roof on it and “leave it as a memorial to himself that those mortals who followed him would wonder at.
The Tower of Ardpatrick was, according to tradition, built under the auspices of Ireland’s great saint, while the high tower on the Rock of Cashel is attributed, by the same authority to Cormac Macarthy. He was the king and archbishop of Cashel, who, being at war with a neighbouring potentate, needed a watch-tower. The entire tribe was summoned and, working together, they managed to build the tower in a single, and, at sunrise, Cormac was able by its help to ascertain the whereabouts of the opposing army, allowing him to inflict an overwhelming defeat of the enemy. Meanwhile, the Glendalough Tower is reputed to have been built by a demon, at the command of Saint Kevin. In a previous encounter with the saint, Satan had been soundly defeated and from that moment he and all his well-informed subjects kept at a safe distance from Glendalough. Although all of Satan’s regular followers did not want to risk another encounter with Kevin, there was one cunning snake of a devil, who had come from foreign parts and had not heard anything about the saint. One evening he was caught by the blessed saint, who immediately set him to work in building that tower. So, under the watchful gaze of the saint, the rogue went to work as hard as he knew how and was as busy as an ant. He was certain that before sunrise he would have the tower built so high that it would collapse by itself. But, Kevin had beaten Satan himself, and was not about to be fooled by one of his underlings. He kept his two eyes on the devil every minute of the day, so when he felt that the devil had the tower built high enough, he threw his bishop’s cap at it, and it became stone to make a roof, so making a fool of the devil.
The round tower, however, is not without a touch of romance. One of the most notable of these structures, Monasterboice, is said to have been built by a woman under peculiar circumstances. According to the legend, this woman was young, beautiful, and good of heart. Although she should have been happy also, she was not, because she was persecuted by the attentions of a suitor chieftain. This suitor’s reputation must have been far from irreproachable, since he was said by the storytellers to be an outrageously disgraceful villain, or a smooth-talking deceiving, murdering villain. The young woman loved another chieftain who was of good character, and she was determined to escape from the attentions of the villainous one, having learned that he was determined to carry her off. She employed two men to help her escape, the night before the proposed abduction, and, before morning they had built the tower allowing her to take refuge in the uppermost chamber. As expected, the villainous chieftain came with his gang of thieves, but was disappointed in his efforts to seize the woman and steal away her virtue, and he was left to besiege the tower. But, having taken the precaution to provide herself with a good supply of heavy stones, the lady pelted her besiegers vigorously, cracking their thick skulls as if they were just egg-shells. Her bravery was quickly rewarded by her lover who, when he heard of her desperate situation, came to her relief and attacked the besiegers of the tower. With the lady throwing stones at the front of them, and her lover’s group attacking them from behind, the wicked chieftain became scared that they would be trapped, and so they scattered so quickly that you would have thought there was a thousand devils after them. So, the lady was saved and was able to descend the tower into the arms of her lover, and the young couple were married the next Sunday. This is the way that the tower came to be built and demonstrates that those who try to win a lady against her will always come off worse. For you can be sure if she cannot beat such people with her tongue, she will always find some other way to beat them. Be sure of one thing, a woman can always get what she’s after, and there’s many a man who has discovered the truth of that.

Famed Fairies

When I was a young man the fairy folk were known more commonly as the “Good People”. In those days it was believed that these ‘Good People” very much wanted to add to their numbers, but only from among the beautiful, innocent, and most amiable children of mortals. It was not a vindictive act on their part, for the ‘good people’ were not known to show any signs of being ill-disposed in any way toward men or women. This was especially true if the mortals had made some effort to show the ‘good-people’ some respect, or at least had not provoked them with their bad behaviour.

In bygone days, however, there were some fairy-folk known as ‘Gentiles’ or ‘Tribes of the Glens’ who were not just as kindly. They were believed to have been dark spirits, or monsters, who generally lived in lonely valleys, wild dells, and gloomy caverns. Although they appeared to have possessed a limited ability to actually harm human beings, they were considered to be revengeful, deceitful, and malevolent spirits when the opportunity was presented to them. Although they were easily overcome by brave warriors in those far-off days, the ordinary Irish peasantry was always worried about the mischievous plans and resentful attitude that these dark spirits could conjure up. There were none who would even consider the prospect of passing by the haunts of these ‘Gentiles’ late in the evening, or after nightfall.

Fairy 1When it comes to the ‘Good People’ Irish popular tradition is filled with many weird places and personages, all of which have found their way into our native literature. Their names are related to some of the most famous chieftains and females in Irish mythology, and to a variety of fairy-haunts. The Fiachna MacRoetach and Eoichaidh MacSail are mentioned in Irish folklore as rival chiefs among the Sidhe, or fairy-men. Ilbhreac was the Elfin chief of Eas Roe (Ballyshannon), where there was a much celebrated Sidhe mansion. Meanwhile, in a Rath along the side of the road between Cork and Youghal it is believed that a ghostly chieftain, called Knop, holds court among his folk. Sometimes, music and merriment are heard from within this fort, and travellers along that road have reported that they saw strange lights around it. A similar fairy mound, which the locals call ‘Brigh Leith’ has been a famous home to the ‘Good-People’ in Westmeath since ancient times.

The ‘White Shee’, or ‘Fairy Queen’ has long been recognised as having pre-eminence over others of her sex. Folklore tells us that ‘Ounaheencha’ a fairy queen of the ocean, would sail around the coasts of Kerry, Cork and Clare in her quest for handsome young men, who were captured and taken to her cave. Again, the fairy damsel is famed for having given Finn MacCool a battle stone, to which a chain of gold was fastened. With this weapon in his hands, Finn was rendered totally invincible on the field of battle.

‘Cleena’, the Elfin Queen of South Munster, is reputed to live in her invisible palace at ‘Carrig Cleena’ near Fermoy, County Cork. In Irish, known as ‘Cliodhna’, she is said descended from the ‘Tuatha de Danaan’ and her name is given to a loud, roaring, surge that occurs in Glandore harbour, ‘The Wave of Cleena’ (Tonn Cliodhna). But along the coast of Cork there are numerous caverns, which the sea has hollowed out of the rocks, and from these caves, the waves echo loudly with a deep, monotonous roar. In the calm of night, those moaning surges from ‘Tonn Cliodhna’ are especially impressive, bringing a sense of fear and melancholy to the local people.

fairy rathThe names of such Fairy-Queens were renowned among the Irish peasantry of old, on a level comparable with that of ‘Meadbh’, who was the celebrated Queen of Connaught. She was, perhaps, the most renowned among the heroines of Ireland’s ancient days and figures very prominently in the annals of our nation. But, Meadbh was not renowned simply for her beauty, which was said to be unmatched, or poetic ability. It was her masculine vigour of character that makes her stand out when compared to others of her sex. When young, she contracted a marriage with the King of Ulster, Conor McNessa, which ended unhappily for her. Separated from King Conor, Meadbh formed an alliance with a Connaught chieftain called Ailill. Unfortunately, Ailill died a short time after the marriage. Meadbh, however, did not mourn for long before she married the son of the King of Leinster, who was also called Ailill. But, it was Meadbh’s fighting abilities and her warlike deeds that became the subject of many old bardic stories and romances.

In my youth, which was not that long ago, I knew of several local people who were excellent at telling stories and passing on their folkloric knowledge, although they were already old or middle-aged. In those days while working in the fields, or sitting by the fireside, or at fair, a market, or merry-making on a Sunday or holiday, it was customary to hear or relate an old story. These tales often had plots more intricate, yet just as interesting, and well-drawn to a satisfying conclusion as any that you find in the stories of the finest novelists. Many an hour I would lie under a shady tree or hedgerow and would listen with delight to the tales of wonder. In these tales were many kings and princes that were portrayed as the hero and, usually after a considerable share of fighting with giants or chieftains, some accomplished and beautiful princess became a bride to the conqueror, and returned with him to share the honours of his palace and kingdom.

The Ghost Whisperer

You might not believe what I am about to tell you. In fact, I didn’t quite believe the story myself when I heard it first. My grandfather was already an old man when he told this story to me and he informed me that it was first told to him by his father. As was common to all my grandfather’s stories, this tale began with the introduction of a beautiful young woman. Yet, although Eileen Geary was a very beautiful young woman and every bachelor’s eye was attracted to her, it was not her undoubted good looks or the wealth that she had inherited from her father, that made her one of the most unusual people in the country. She was well known for her enjoyment of life, her great intelligence, and for her wit. But these talents were not what made Eileen unusual and set her aside from others. No, friends, what set Eileen apart was an ability that was strange and extremely rare among mortals, and she had inherited this from those who had gone before her. It was rumoured that it was from a maternal great-aunt, who had lived for over ninety years, Eileen had inherited the rare and amazing ability to see ghosts and to converse with them.

Ghosy Whiperer 2It will not surprise you to learn, I am certain, that because of this hidden talent, Miss Geary, had been visited by many spirits in her young life. Some of those that had appeared to her were among the most unpleasant spirits that you could ever imagine, and through these encounters, Eileen had developed a great ability to deal firmly with any of them. On the occasion about which my grandfather spoke, however, she was approached by a ghost spirit while paying a visit to ‘King John’s Castle’ in the north of the country. It was said, and Eileen was most likely aware, that the ruins of this old Norman castle were haunted by one of the most terrifying spectres in the entire country. It was renowned for appearing to people, covered in blood and carrying its own mangled head in his hands. There were also stories of the terrifying scream that accompanied the ghost and, it was said, those who had seen the ghost had also felt his tight grip around their neck.

It was early evening when Eileen began to wander in the ruins, by herself. Here and there were tall granite stone columns, walls and arches that led into rooms that were open to the elements. In one of these rooms, Eileen noticed a large, stone fireplace that she decided to have a closer look at. Then, as she approached this old hearth, a gut-wrenching scream filled the entire room and Eileen saw a horrifying, blood-soaked figure in ragged clothing approach her. But the young woman did not flinch and, standing her ground, she spoke to the spirit in a cold unemotional tone, “Would you take yourself away from me immediately. Neither your appearance nor your shenanigans frighten me in the least. For you to come into my presence and show yourself in such an unpleasant condition, covered in gore, is the height of bad manners.

Silence immediately returned to the castle as the spirit stared at this young woman, not quite believing that he would be spoken to in such a way. A spirit with its reputation that could not reduce a mortal to a quivering mess of flesh in its presence had lost its reason for existence. In a state of deep humiliation, the once-terrifying ghost now dragged itself away, along the ruins of the castle hallway. Completely deflated by this encounter with Eileen Geary, as he slinked away, the ghost left a stain of blood in its track. This stain was still visible to observers when I was a teenager, and I understand it can still be seen to this day. Any of you who still doubt the truth of my grandfather’s tale is invited to visit this old castle yourself to see the bloody track with your own eyes.

Heralds of Death

Those who have read some of my books of Irish Short Stories, or have followed by blogs at www.irelandsloreandtales.com and www.myirelandspast.wordpress.com  will know that they contain several stories about “The Banshee”, which, of all Irish spirits, fairies and ghosts, is the most widely known. Those people from other countries who visit Ireland usually read up on the customs and folklore of the nation, along with its flora, fauna and wildlife. Indeed, some visitors arrive believing that ‘The Banshee’ is one of the sites of our country and they seem to expect it to manifest itself to them at some time during their stay.

The Banshee, however, is an Irish legend whose roots go way back to the dark days of pre-history, when there were all sorts of mystical and magical creatures that were said to roam the land. But, the first recorded sighting of ‘The Banshee’ was the spirit that attached itself to the Clan of O’Brien, from among whose ranks came several High Kings of Ireland, and haunted their old Castle of ‘Kincora’, the ruins of which remain near Killaloe in County Clare. Then, at the great and bloody ‘Battle of Clontarf’, that was fought in 1014 A.D. between the Irish and the Danes, Ireland’s famous High King, Brian Boru, was killed at the very moment of his victory. It is rumoured, however, that ‘The Banshee’ appeared to the old King on the eve of battle to tell him of his future victory, while fore-warning him that he would not survive the battle.

There is a story from more recent times, which is said to have occurred in the countryside of North County Armagh. Although there are no longer any surviving witnesses to what happened at that time, the story is accepted as fact by the local community. The story tells us that at a house, which still stands in this rural area, an old man lay upon his death-bed waiting for eternal sleep to overcome him. The man’s three grown-up sons had, in the meantime, sent for the local doctor and were anxiously awaiting his arrival just as the first light of dusk crossed the sky. They were having a smoke on the front steps of the cottage, and they quietly chatting among themselves when they first heard the heavy rumbling noise of coach wheels on a metalled road. They looked up and they saw a huge, black coach drive into their farm-yard, which stretched out from the main door of the house. Nervously, one of the old man’s sons went down to meet the coach, believing that it was carrying the doctor, but the coach swept past him at speed and continued to move down the lane to a gate. Witnessing all this, the other two sons ran after the coach, which was became hidden from view by high hedges, but they could still hear the rumbling of the coach wheels. In their rush, the two young men almost crashed into the gate, which was closed across the lane and barring the exit. The rumbling of the coach had stopped by this time and the carriage itself had totally vanished, without leaving as much as a wheel rut in the ground. The large padlock on the gate remained completely intact and there was no sign at all that the gate had been tampered with. But, a short time later, the doctor arrived at the house and he quickly came to realise that there was nothing that he could do for the old man, who died quietly only an hour or so after the visit.

Banshee 2There is an older story, which relates to an event that took place one night in early spring, in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Two house servants had been instructed to await the arrival of a coach, which was bringing home the family’s eldest son. The young man had travelled to England, and further afield, seeking a cure to the illness from which he was suffering, but all his efforts had proved to be fruitless. One of the servants, who had been dozing in the hall, was suddenly awakened by the heavy rumbling noise of an approaching coach. Still half asleep, he immediately awakened his companion and they both went out of the house door and down the long flight of steps to open the carriage door. But, as the servant reached out his hand to turn the handle to the door, he was surprised and terrified to see a skull looking out of the window at him. In his terror, he screamed loudly and fell in a heap at the side of the coach and, when he finally awakened once more the servant slowly picked himself up from the ground, but he saw neither sight or sound of the coach. About ten minutes later the invalid eldest son’s coach arrived, and the servants carried him to his bed. Unfortunately, the young man’s illness had become very much worse and his suffering ended when he died in his sleep.

On a winter’s night, at the beginning of the last century, a coach was seen by a game-keeper who was doing his rounds of a large property, which stood in a scenic wooded glen among the beautiful Glens of Antrim. It was a calm and frosty night as he made his patrol of the property, and he suddenly heard the loud rumbling of wheels on the avenue that ran up to the back of the house. But he knew that it was not possible for any vehicle to be arriving at the property so late at night, and all sorts of strange thoughts began to enter his head. Recalling ancient legends from the district, his thoughts quickly turned to the possibility that the noise could be the approach of the ‘Death Coach’. As this possibility dawned upon him, he ran to open the gates on the avenue before the ‘coach’ arrived, and he just about managed to open the last gate and throw himself on the ground beside it, when he heard the coach go past. With his head buried in the damp ground the man did not actually see the coach itself as it went past, but the next day he heard the news that the property owner’s uncle had died suddenly in London. But, in this story, there is a very important fact for the reader and uninitiated to learn, namely that at the sight or sound of a coach all gates that might bar its way should be immediately thrown open. It is only by doing this can a person ensure the ‘Death Coach’ will not stop at their house to call for a member of the immediate family, but it will only warn of the death of a relative who is somewhere else.

apparition 2Despite the many stories and legends about the Banshee, we must remember that she is not always the harbinger of death in Irish families, because certain families have other strange and varied warnings that death is near to them. There was one local family that I recall, who believed a death in their family is foretold by a female ghost, dressed in a white satin dress and opening the door into the living area where she walks across the room and through the hallway. A friend once told me that his family believed that the breaking of a mirror is an omen of death, while a cousin related that he knew of a family who was convinced that the independent opening and shutting of the farm gate foretells the passing of a family member. Among Irish families, there are varied traditions concerning the fore-telling of death, including one that says the cry of a cuckoo, in any season of the year, is a herald of death. In another family, that warning of death may be the sound of a ringing bell, even when there is not a bell in the house. I can remember my uncle’s wife telling me, at one time, that a rat crossing their path is a warning of a death in her family, while a neighbour’s family are certain that seeing a large white owl is a certain sign of death among them.

This list is short, but I am certain that there are many people from various areas of Ireland who could add to my list and make it much more comprehensive.

Irish Folklore 1

Nipping the Cake

It was always the tradition in many Irish homes that the cake of bread intended for the morning breakfast table should be ‘nipped’ before being put it away in the cupboard. In Irish, it is called “a bhara“, and the housewife or housekeeper was always particular about how she carried out the task. She would either break a piece off the cake herself as soon as she took it from the griddle, or else encouraged another family member to do it instead. It is said that when the cake of bread was broken in this manner then nothing ‘bad’ would happen to it through the night, and no hungry spectre or fairy folk would lay a hand or tooth upon it.

Oh, Mary dear,” an old woman called out to her daughter one night when everyone had just gone to their beds, “sure, didn’t I forget to ‘nip’ the cake. Get up, darling girl, and do it, or else it might all be gone in the morning and your Da will have nothing to eat with his tea before he heads off to Belfast!

Ah, now, mother,” replied Mary, from the small back room in which she and her younger sister slept, “would you give my head peace with all your nonsense. Sure, nothing will touch it.

There’s no nonsense in it, I tell you,” replied the mother, “and if you don’t get up now then I’ll have to get out of bed myself, and me hardly able to move with the ‘roomytis’ (rheumatism). Oh, Sweet Jaysus, what come ever caused me to forget to do it!

The mournful tone in which the old mother spoke about her suffering from rheumatism settled the matter, and Mary jumped out of her bed exclaiming, “For goodness sake mother you’re a nuisance with all your superstitions!” and, turning to her sister she added,  “Come with me to the kitchen, Bridget, for I won’t go there by myself.”

Would you ever get into bed and not be paying any attention to her,’ whispered Bridget quietly, hoping that her mother would not hear.

But she will get up herself if I don’t go, and she would never let us hear the end of it.

Sure, she will never think about it again, Mary. So, just come into bed.”

Mary, of course, was willing enough to comply with her sister’s request, but just then her mother called out once again, “Mary, did you get up yet?”

Aye, aye,” Mary cried out in an angry tone while, speaking quietly to her sister she said, “Do you see, now. She’s not going to forget it, so we might as well get up and do it, or we’ll get no sleep tonight.

Neither Mary nor Bridget had much confidence in the seemingly ridiculous ritual of “nipping the cake”, to keep it safe from the hungry fairy folk that roamed the land. Nevertheless, they would do just the same themselves when they got married and took charge of household duties. They would, undoubtedly, recall that their own mother They will remember that their own dear mother did it, and what was right for her, could hardly be very wrong for them. It was in such ways that the traditions were handed down through the generations, even to the present day.