Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.
‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough – We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment; 3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach. It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.
Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap; 60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time. In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward. The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.
Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..
Of all Ireland’s ghosts, fairies, or demons, the Banshee (sometimes called locally the ‘Boheentha’) is, probably, the best known to those living outside the country. I am often amused by the number of visitors from across the Channel who think that they are as common as the pigs, potatoes, and other fauna and flora of Ireland, and expect her to make an appearance on demand just like one of the many famous sights of our country. They ignore the fact that the Banshee is a spirit with a lengthy pedigree that no man can measure because its roots extend back into the dim and mysterious past of Ireland.
Without a doubt, the most famous Banshee of ancient times was that which attached itself to the royal house of O’Brien. She was called ‘Aibhill’, and she haunted the rock of Craglea that stands above Killaloe, near the old palace of Kincora. In 1014 A.D. the battle of Clontarf was fought against the Danes, and the aged king, Brian Boru, who led the Irish forces was fully aware that he would never come away alive. The night before the battle, ‘Aibhill’ had appeared to him and told him of his impending fate. The Banshee’s method of foretelling a person’s death in those olden times differed from that which she adopts in the present day. Now she, generally, wails and wrings her hands, but in the old Irish tales she is often found washing human heads and limbs, or blood-stained clothes, until the water is all dyed with human blood, and this would take place before a battle. So, it appears that over a course of centuries her attributes and characteristics have changed somewhat.
Reports from eyewitnesses give very different descriptions about what she looks like. Sometimes, she is pictured as a young and beautiful woman, and at other times appears as an old and fearsome hag. One witness described her as “a tall, thin woman with uncovered head, and long hair that floated around her shoulders, attired in something which seemed either a loose white cloak or a sheet thrown hastily around her, uttering piercing cries.” Another witness, who saw the banshee one evening sitting on a stile in the yard, appeared as a very small woman, with blue eyes, long light hair, and wearing a red cloak. There are numerous other descriptions available, but one surprising fact about the Banshee is that she does not seem to exclusively follow families of Irish descent. At least one incident refers to the death of a member of a County Galway family, who were English by name and origin.
At this point, we should relate one of the oldest and best-known Banshee stories, namely the story contained in ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshaw’. The good lady states that in 1642 her husband, Sir Richard, and she chanced to visit a friend, the head of an Irish clan, who resided in his ancient baronial castle, surrounded with a moat. At midnight, she says, she was awakened by a ghastly and supernatural scream, and looking out of the bed, she saw in the moonlight a female face and part of a form hovering at the bedroom window. The height of the window from the ground and the position of the moat around the castle convinced her ladyship that this was a creature of the spirit world. She did notice, however, that the pale face she saw was that of a young and rather beautiful woman, and her reddish coloured hair was loose and dishevelled. This ghostly form, Lady Fanshaw recollected, was dressed much in the style of ancient Ireland and continued to appear to her some considerable time before vanishing with two shrieks that sounded like those that first attracted attention.
In the morning, still shaking with fear, Lady Fanshaw told her what she had witnessed. Surprisingly, she found that not only was he able to confirm the existence of such a being, but he was ready to explain to account for its presence in his castle. He told her quite candidly, “A near relation of my family expired last night in this castle. But we decided not to tell you that we were expecting such a visitation, in case it would throw a cloud over the cheerful welcome we had prepared for you. However, before any event of this kind happens in this family or castle, the female spectre that you have seen always appears. We believe this spirit to be a woman from a lower class, with whom one of my ancestors degraded himself by marrying. In an effort expiate the dishonour done to his family, he subsequently drowned the poor woman in the moat.”
If one was strictly applying traditional terms to such a vision, then this woman would not normally be called a Banshee. The motive for the haunting is like other tales that are on a par with this one, in that the spirit of the murdered person haunts the family out of revenge, and always appears before a death.
There was nothing special about this ruined Church. It was a simple oblong building, with long side-walls and high gables, and an unenclosed graveyard that lay in open fields. As the group of people walked down the long dark lane, they suddenly heard a distant sound of wailing voices and clapping hands, like you would hear at a country wake where neighbours and friends lament the passing of one of their own. The group of young people hurried along the lane, and they came in sight of the church ruins, There, on the side wall, a little grey-haired old woman, who was clad in a dark cloak, was running to and fro, chanting and wailing, and throwing up her arms like a crazy person. The girls now became very frightened, but the young men in the group ran forward and surrounded the ruin. Then, two of the young men went into the church and, as they did so, the apparition vanished from the wall. Nonetheless, they searched every nook, and found no one, nor did any one of them become unconscious. All the young people were now well scared, and they made their way home as fast as they possibly could.
When they finally reached their home, their mother opened the door, and immediately she began to explain that she had become terribly concerned about their father. Their mother told them that she had been looking out of the window in the moonlight when a huge raven with fiery eyes landed on the window-sill, and it tapped three times on the glass. When the young ones told her their story it only added the anxiety that they were all now beginning to feel. As they stood talking among themselves, taps came to the nearest window, and they all saw the bird again. A few days later news reached them that their Father had died.
For the most part, the eye-witnesses to these events were people of good character, including the sister of a former Roman Catholic Bishop related a story about an incident that occurred when she was a little girl. She said that she went out one evening with some other local children for a walk, and going down the road, they passed the gate of the parkland near the town. On a large rock that stood beside the road, they suddenly saw something very strange and moved nearer to get a better look. Before them, they saw that the strange object was a little dark, old woman, who began to cry and clap her hands noisily. Some of the girls tried to speak to the old woman, but they became very afraid, and all of them chose to run home as quickly as they could. Next day there came news that the gentleman near whose gate the Banshee had cried, was dead, and had apparently died at the very hour when the children had first seen the spectre.
A Certain, well-respected lady from County Cork stated that she had two experiences of a Banshee within her family. She said, “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white figure standing on a bridge which was clearly visible from the house. The figure waved its arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The wailing lasted several seconds before the figure finally disappeared. But, the next morning, her grandfather was walking as usual into the city of Cork. He stumbled, fell, and hit his head against the kerb. The poor man would never recover consciousness.”
In her second story, she states, “…my mother was very ill, and one evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. We suddenly heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. We naturally looked everywhere to try and find the cause of the wailing but in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another but said nothing since it appeared that my mother did not hear it. My sister, who was downstairs sitting with my father, heard it and thought something terrible had happened to her little boy, who was in bed upstairs. When she rushed up to his bedroom, however, she found him sleeping quietly. While my father did not hear it, in the house next door they had heard it, and ran downstairs, thinking something had happened to their servant. But the servant immediately called out to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Someone must be near death.’”
There is another story, handed down to us from the last years of the nineteenth century. This records a curious incident that occurred in a public school and includes the presence of the Banshee. When one of the boys became ill, he was immediately quarantined in one of the many bedrooms by himself, where he used to sit all day. On one occasion, as he was being visited by the doctor, he suddenly jumped up from his seat, declaring that he had heard somebody crying. But the doctor had heard nothing and concluded that his illness had slightly affected the boy’s brain. Nonetheless, the boy, who appeared to be quite sensible, still insisted that he had heard someone crying, and said, “It is the Banshee, for I have heard it before.” The following morning the headmaster of the school received a telegram saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot dead.
There is a mistaken belief that the Banshee is confined to the geographical limits of Ireland. In fact, there are several incidents that show how the Banshee can follow the fortunes of a family abroad, and there foretell their death. The following story clearly shows that such an event can occur. A party of visitors was gathered together on the deck of a private yacht that was sailing one of the Italian lakes, and during a lull, in the conversation, one of them asked the owner, “Count, who’s that queer-looking woman you have on board?”
The Count replied that there was only those invited ladies and the stewardesses present. nobody ladies present except those who had been invited and the stewardess. The speaker, however, protested that there was a strange woman present, and suddenly, with a scream of horror, he placed his hands before his eyes, and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, what a face!” For quite a while the man was shaking with fear and dared not remove his hands from his eyes. When he finally did so, he cried out “Thank Heavens, it’s gone!”
“What was it?” asked the Count.
“It was nothing human,” stammered the man. “It looked like a woman, but not one from this world. She had on a green hood, like those worn by the Irish peasantry, framing an oddly shaped face that gleamed unnaturally. She also had a mass of red hair, and eyes that were somewhat attractive but for their hellish expression.”
An American lady guest suggested that the description reminded her of what she had heard about the Banshee. The Count turned to her and told her, “I am an O’Neill. At least I am descended from one of them. As you know, my family name is Neilini, which, just over a century ago, was O’Neill. My great-grandfather had served in the ‘Irish Brigade’, and on its dissolution, at the time of the French Revolution, he had the good fortune to escape the general massacre of officers. In the company of an O’Brien and a Maguire, he fled across the frontier and settled in Italy. When he died, his son, who had been born in Italy, felt himself to be much more Italian than Irish. He changed his name to Neilini, and the family has been known by this name ever since. But for all that we are Irish.”
“The Banshee was yours, then! So, what exactly does it mean?”
“It means,” the Count replied solemnly, “the death of someone very close to me and I pray earnestly that it is not my wife or daughter.” The Count’s anxieties were soon removed when he himself was seized by a severe angina attack and died before morning.
As a last note to readers, the reports of encounters with Banshees tell us that this spirit never shows itself to the person whose death it is heralding. While other people are able to see or hear the banshee, the one fated to die never does. So, when everyone that is present, but one, is aware of the Banshee, the fate of that one person can be regarded as being certain.
“Sure, I’ll leave you past the stream,” said an old man to a friend of mine who was leaving my house one night.
“Oh, don’t annoy yourself, Eddie,” my friend replied, laughing; “the night’s a clear one, and I won’t be afraid.”
“Sure, he’s not afraid of ghosts, Eddie? ” said I, when my friend had left.
“Och, God bless you! He isn’t afraid?” smiled Eddie, “well, I don’t think you know him very long or you wouldn’t be saying that.”
“Do you tell me he is afraid of ghosts!” I exclaimed.
“I do,” replied Ned emphatically, “that is unless he has changed greatly this last while.”
“And what good would it do him if you escorted him over the stream?” I asked.
“Ah! For goodness sake, do you know nothing at all? ”
“I can assure you, Eddie, I, for one, am not well versed in those things. But I am very willing to learn.”
“And did you never hear that nothing bad can follow you past running water?” asked Eddie, astonished by my admission of ignorance.
“Honestly, no,” I replied. “Is that the truth? ”
“Indeed, it is,” answered Eddie. ” Sure, I thought everybody knew that.”
“Well, no, Eddie! In that part of the country where I come from, the people believe in ghosts alright, but I don’t think any ever heard of that.”
“Well, now, isn’t that a quare thing,” said Eddie, looking down at the floor thoughtfully.
“And what would you do,” he asked, “if you were walking about at night, and, without hearing or seeing anything anywhere around you, you were to get a blow, very suddenly, on the back of your head?”
“By God! I suppose I’d turn around and strike back,” I answered and laughed.
“Ha ha! Well, that is where you’d be entirely wrong. Indeed, that would be a move that would do you little good. Damn the bit harm your fists would be doing, for you’d only be beating the air. And, at the same time, you’d be getting such a thrashing yourself that if you ever survived it, you’d be a lucky man, and be thankful for some good person’s prayers.”
“Well, tell me, what should I be doing then?” I inquired with great interest.
“What should you be doing? Is that what you’re asking me?”
“You should be walking on you should, until you cross a stream of running water, and whatever it is that would be trying to do you harm couldn’t follow you past it.”
“Oh, I see!” I replied, rather deflated by the answer he gave me, but to keep him encouraged I said, “That’s why you spoke about the stream a few moments ago.”
“Aye, that’s the very way son,”
“Then there must be some magic charm in running water?”
“To be sure there is, and why wouldn’t there be?” he exclaimed earnestly as if I doubted his word.
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.
The 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.
Moreover, 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.
The 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.
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.
It 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.
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.
There 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.
Despite 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.
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.
From the many ideas and images that fill the folklore and mythology of Ireland there have been various mystic creations that have been given imaginative form and existence. One of these mystical creatures ‘The Merrow’ (or in Irish Morvadh, Morvach) is one of these and takes the legendary shape of a fantastic sea spirit that follows closely our idea of a mermaid. They are semi-human in their nature and shape of the body. From head-to-waist they appear, for intents and purposes, human. Then, from the waist, it is covered with greenish-tinted scales that appear to be the body and tail of a fish. In temperament, we are told, they are of a modest, affectionate, gentle and beneficent disposition. In the Irish their name appears to be a compound of ‘Muir’ (the Sea), and ‘Oigh’ (maid).
These marine creatures are also called by the Irish ‘Muir-gheilt’; Samhghubha; Muidhucha’n; and Suire and they appear to have been residing around our shores from the distant past, basking on our rocky coastline. According to the earliest chronicles available, when the Milesian ships bore onward, seeking a friendly harbor along our shores, the Suire, or ‘Sea-Nymphs’ played around them as they made their passage.
It is said that ‘The Merrow’ was able to have a close relationship with human beings and, it appears, they intermarried, living together with them for many years. There is, naturally, some exaggeration within the tales told by the various families and groups that live and thrive on Ireland’s southern and western coasts and claim a partial descent from these inhabitants of the seas and oceans. There can be little doubt, however, that the natural instincts of ‘The Merrow’ are likely to have prevailed over their romantic interests. Another problem that may have upset relationships with mortals would undoubtedly have been the very strong desires that they possessed to always return to their former haunts and companions in their undersea world.
Tradition suggests that the ‘Merrow-Maiden’ was the daughter of a King from beneath the sea, but it also informs us that these maidens might be found living under the waters of our lakes. These mermaids are said to allure young mortals to follow them beneath the surface of the water, where they will live in an enchanted state with each other.
‘Merrows’ wear a ‘Conuleen Druith’, or alittle charmed cap, which was generally covered with feathers and used for diving under the water. Should they ever lose this small cap they would lose the power to return to their homes in the depths of the seas and oceans. They have, however, been known to leave their outer skins behind them in the sea so that they might assume other more magical and beauteous appearances. But, they retain the soft white webs between their fingers and are often seen with a comb of gold, parting their long green hair on either side of their head, enhancing her very beautiful features. Also, beautiful and attractive is the music of ‘The Merrow’, which can be heard coming up from the lowest depths of the ocean, and sometimes floating across the water’s surface to encourage ‘Merrows’ to dance upon the shore, the strand, or on the waves that roll against the shoreline. Though all their features and fascinations are designed and practiced in order to seduce young mortal men, these maidens can occasionally be very vengeful.
It is strange to think of the possibility that there are ‘Merrow-Men’, but tradition insists that they do exist. It is said, however, that the ‘Merrow-Man’ is deformed in its shape and its features. More menacingly, the ‘Merrow-Men’ are said to keep the spirits of drowned fishermen, and sailors, captive in cages that are fastened to the bottom of the sea.
The myth of the Merrow-Maiden is known in various folklore traditions, but under different names. In Scotland, these creatures are known as Selkies and like Merrows in Ireland they can be either male or female. Furthermore, the Selkies are seals while in the water and what differentiates them from mermaids, other than the choice of animal, is that they undergo a full body transformation upon coming to shore. They do not merely transform their seal tails into human legs, but rather completely shapeshift from the sea animals into a human form. This is accomplished by shedding their seal-skin when they come to land.
Writers on Irish folklore and superstitions occasionally represent unbaptised children as being blindfolded and sitting within fairy moats, the peasantry believing that the souls of these children simply go into a void. But, not all peasants thought this way, especially the most enlightened. All of those who were influenced by the teachings of Catholic Theologians believed that the unbaptised infants suffer the pain of losing the presence of God, because of ‘Original Sin.’ They follow the teachings of sacred Scripture that tell us, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) In simple terms it was believed that unbaptised persons are deprived of the beatific vision of God, although they are not subject to the sufferings of those, who have lost the grace of baptismal innocence. ‘Limbo’ was the name given to this void, but modern theologians say that there is no such place since God would not be cruel enough to damn innocent children to an eternal void.
In Ireland, until thirty or forty years ago, unbaptised children and abortions were generally buried under certain trees and bushes, is why they were given the name, ‘monument bushes’. Remarkably, when these types of interments took place in consecrated churchyards in Ireland, the graves were always dug on the north side of the cemetery and apart from those deceased persons who had been baptised. For the most part, however, ‘monument bushes’ were found in the centre of cross-roads. Occasionally, they are seen by a roadside, but detached from adjoining fences. Often grouped together in gnarled and fantastic shapes, these bushes present a picturesque and beautiful view to anyone passing-by, especially when flowered over with hawthorn blossoms. Ghosts or monsters were occasionally conjured up, before the excited imaginations pf credulous and timid people, when they passed these objects at night.
Ancient and solitary hawthorns, generally called ‘Monument Bushes’, are held in great veneration by local communities. To destroy these bushes, or even to remove any of their branches would regarded as being a disrespectful desecration. The faeries and the ‘Pookas’ are supposed to frequent the sites where these bushes grow. Elves are often seen hanging from and flitting amongst the branches. But, ghosts are more generally found about those haunts and, therefore, few persons want to pass by them alone, or at a late hour. Sadly, such fears are gradually losing their force, because there are few of the old traditions that are known to the new generations of Irishmen and women.
In an older time, whenever a funeral cortège passed by ‘monument bushes’, it was customary for all those in attendance to uncover their heads, while the “De Profundis” had been recited. Then the funeral procession would continue towards the graveyard that had been chosen for interment.
A lady, dressed in a long, flowing, white robe, is often supposed to issue from beneath those ‘monument bushes’ and to seat herself on the haunches of the horse, when a solitary horseman rides along the road. She usually clasps her arms around his waist, and her hands are often found to be deadly cold. She speaks not a word, and suddenly glides off, after riding a considerable distance with them. This apparition is supposed to mandate a near approach of the horseman’s death, and, as he moves forward, he begins to droop or fall into a lingering deadline.
The following customs, regarding to the dead, appear to have come from a distant time in Ireland’s history. When a person had been murdered, or had died by some sudden cause, at a certain spot or on a roadside, the common folk, when they went to that place, carried a stone with them that they would throw on the site where the dead body was found. An accumulation of stones thus heaped together soon forms a considerably sizeable pile. The hat is also removed by those passing by, and a prayer is usually offered for the eternal repose of the departed soul. “I would not even throw a stone on your grave,” is an expression that was used by local peasantry to denote their bitterness towards any person thus addressed. But, it very certain, that few of our generous people would carry their resentments so far, as to refuse the ‘Requiem’ prayer after death, on behalf of those less liked and least respected while they were alive.