Irish Superstitions and Folklore

Deathshriek Banshee

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Ireland is a nation rich in superstitions still observed. Urban legends and the cultures and religions of Ireland's former inhabitants from foreign lands influenced folk traditions and superstitions.

The Celts, an early eastern European civilization that migrated to the British Isles, started many of its traditions, including the festival now recognized as Halloween. The English, who came to establish a colony in the 11th century, following the Celts, the Normans, and the Vikings, were the bridge to another superstition—that of the four-leaf clover or shamrock—which was initiated by their ancestors, the Druids.

The legend of the goddess Macha, known for her red hair, gave rise to a string of beliefs as to why red-haired people (particularly women) can be dangerous. Other superstitions deal with fairies, leprechauns, healing, good and bad luck during the holidays, and foretelling one's fortune in marriage.

Specific Superstitions

The Shamrock

The shamrock, a four-leaf clover, is a special symbol in Ireland because of its emerald green color that may have earned for Ireland the label "Emerald Isle". The country prides itself on its abundant green fields. The verdant color represents spring and the essence of life. Superstitions abound about the four-leaf clover because this kind of clover is considered rare or hard to find. A common clover has three leaves only; and its shape resembles a solar cross that ancient men used as a compass.

According to Irish belief, the origin of this object of superstition can be attributed to the Druid priests of old England. The Druids performed healing and worshipping rites in oak trees in the forests where they encountered a four-leaf clover. They initiated the superstition that bearers of this type of clover will be able to open their third eye by reciting incantations, and curing people of their illnesses.

Prior to this discovery, the ordinary clover (with three leaves) had already been declared by St. Patrick as a wonder plant. Born in the 4th century, St. Patrick was responsible for the establishment of Christianity in Ireland. The saint is also believed to be responsible for preventing snakes from inhabiting the Irish territory. He talked to the Druids and replaced their pagan beliefs with Christian teachings. St. Patrick also introduced to the Druids the shamrock as a representation of the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—united as one flesh because the clover has three leaves linked as one.

The shamrock is still a popular talisman today and a charm for good luck. It is believed that anyone who possesses it will be blessed with luck in anything, even in gambling, and will be saved from the evil effects of witchcraft and sorcery. There are certain conditions, though, for its power to remain effective: the owner of the shamrock must keep it handy and away from the public eye and never give it to someone else. Graves often have carvings of the clover image to serve as protection.

 

Red-haired Women

Redheads are thought to be harbingers of ill luck. The superstition was said to have stemmed from the legend about a goddess named Macha, who is often associated with horses and races. Her husband, Cruinniuc, often bragged about her running speed. When the king of Ulster heard this, he dared Macha to race with his fastest horses. Even though Macha was then pregnant, if she failed to win, her husband would be executed. Despite her pleas for mercy, she was forced to run. Macha finished in first place, but exhausted, she underwent premature delivery in the field and bore twin sons. She then cursed the Irish men and their descendants, that they would experience pains as excruciating as those during labor. In the famous battle of Ulster, her curse spared her twins and 17-year-old Irish legendary warrior Cúchulainn. Consequently, the young hero was able to win the war without soldiers backing him up. Macha, who just happened to be red-haired, has been greatly feared ever since.

In general, red-headed people are often said to be of fiery temperament. Meeting a red-haired woman is also believed to bring bad luck. Other current superstitions related to red hair are that a man bumping into a female redhead on his way to work will procrastinate and go back home, and a male or female redhead in a red coat is a bad luck omen.

 

Oíche Shamhna

Oíche Shamhna refers to Halloween, or November's Eve, in Ireland. The Celts, early settlers of the British Isles, proclaimed Oíche Shamhna as the time when souls visited the Earth. When Ireland adapted the Christian religion years later, Oíche Shamhna became Hallowmas (later called Halloween) and All Saints' Day. October 31 is the official Halloween date, November 1 is All Saints’ Day, and November 2 is All Souls’ Day. On these days, people commemorated the lives of the dead and honored them through offerings, prayers, and sacrifices.

It is believed that the spirits are at their most potent during the Oíche Shamhna. A great number of superstitions have evolved from this season, which is still observed. Among these superstitions are:

  • Birds such as ravens and water-wagtails are Satan's messengers of bad luck;
  • Leave an ivy leaf soaked in water overnight, and when no spots form on the leaf, then the person doing the ritual will have a year of good health;
  • Tossing hair locks into the bonfire will result in a dream of a future mate;
  • Throwing dust on the feet of fairies and goblins will make them release the souls they have seized;
  • Blackberries should be part of meals of this season because they will attract the puca, a shape-changing creature that causes widespread damage. The puca will emit slime and those who eat the slime will be ill;
  • Food should be offered to the wandering spirits because they also need nourishment—when the food disappears, the spirits have eaten it. Tradition dictates that food of the dead should not be consumed by humans;
  • Never look back upon hearing footsteps because spirits will be seen and when they stare back, they can kill;
  • Calling someone's name three times can be deadly to the name-owner.

In Ireland, today, people celebrate Halloween by dressing up in costume (usually of the ghoul or goblin variety), making bonfires (akin to their Celtic forefathers who were warding off evil spirits who returned from the underworld on that day), and setting off fireworks. Children go door to door in costume and receive sweets. Houses are decorated with pumpkins carved as faces, illuminated from within by candlelight. Barmbrack is a traditional Halloween cake (fruit bread) in Ireland. Traditionally, bakers placed a piece of rag, a coin and a ring in each cake. Each member of the family then took a slice. Persons receiving the rag would have a doubtful financial future. The coin boded a prosperous year. The ring ensured impending romance or happiness. Modern-day barm brack usually only includes the ring.

 

Other Superstitions

Actions

  • After recovering from an illness, swear not to comb your hair on a Friday or kneel and pray facing the full moon to express gratitude for the grace to live on until death.
  • Crossing a stream of running water keeps evil souls from following at night.
  • For their child to not have a club-shaped foot, married women should avoid stepping on graveyards or tombs when they are pregnant. If they did so, they should kneel down and pray immediately and make a sign of the cross on their shoe soles thrice.
  • Passing under a hempen rope causes death and will cause evil in the next life.
  • Hair locks should be hidden from birds. Headaches will befall the owner if a bird brings the locks to its nest.
  • Shaving every Sunday starts toothaches; to prevent it, always have the jawbone of a haddock as a talisman.
  • Place an earthworm inside the hand of a newborn seventh son and let it stay there until it dies; this will enable the infant to possess the power to cure when he grows up.
  • Dropping coins while onboard a boat can bring a heavy storm.
  • A person who looks at a cat rubbing its paws on its face will die ahead of his housemates.
  • Walking counterclockwise twelve times around the Black Church in St. Mary's Place will make the devil appear and grant any wish to the witness provided that the devil takes the witness’ soul upon death.
  • If you are stalked by an evil spirit or being, cross a stream of running water to stop it from trailing behind.
  • Cutting the nails of a baby before he turns a year old will make him a kleptomaniac when he grows up.
  • One form of witchcraft makes a person ill or violently harmed by nailing his photo on an oak tree or placing it upside down in front of a pitcher filled with water.
  • A ritual for invisibility: Cut a raven's heart into three, place beans inside each portion, and then bury them right away. When the bean sprouts, keep one and place it into the mouth. Invisibility occurs while the bean is inside the mouth.

Alternative Medicine

  • Wearing an iron ring on the ring finger relieves rheumatism.
  • Tying the seeds of a dock (a type of weed) to a woman's left arm will result in pregnancy.
  • To cure tonsillitis, apply hot potatoes placed in a stocking on one's throat.
  • There are two ways to cure a child's mumps: one is rubbing the head of the child, covered with blanket, behind a pig so the infection will transfer to the animal; another is gathering black stones before the sun rises and casting three of them in God's name, another three in Christ's name, and the remaining three in the Virgin Mary's name, while the sick child with a rope on his neck is tied to a holy well. The second way is effective when done on three consecutive mornings.
  • To get rid of warts, get some soil under the pallbearer's feet while attending a burial ceremony; put the soil like a paste on the wart; then make a wish that it will be gone soon.
  • To remove a sty on one's eyelids, point to the direction of a gooseberry thorn nine times while chanting “Away, away, away!”
  • Apply a fair amount of bull or hare's blood or distilled water with walnuts to lighten the appearance of freckles.
  • Mint tied on the waist cures stomach pains.
  • Boiling and making a drink out of a nettle (wild plant) sourced from churchyards is believed to cure dropsy.
  • Boiled daisies take the red out of sore eyes.
  • Boiled milk cures boils.
  • Rubbing unsalted butter on stitches will heal them.
  • Letting a person sick with fever rest on the seashore will cure him as the waves will take the fever from him.
  • A freshly cut potato rubbed on warts and buried in the garden afterward is an effective cure.
  • Fishermen should keep the first salmon catch
  • Finishing a cup of nettle soup on May 1 (May Day) prevents rheumatism for a year.
  • A herring tail should be rubbed on a child's eyes during the Epiphany on the 6th of January to avoid being sickly during that year.
  • Spiders kept in a bag and worn as a pendant or necklace itself will cure fever. Opening the bag will cause bad luck.
  • Walking around a burning flame during St. John's Eve or Midsummer's Eve spares one from being sick the whole year.
  • Covering an open wound with two fingers while reciting a prayer to the Father, Son, and the Virgin Mary will close and heal it.

Animals

  • Taming a wild horse can be done by reciting the Apostle's Creed into his left ear on Wednesday and into his right on Friday.
  • Porpoises on shore, lobsters and other crustaceans on rocks, and seabirds in flight foretell a storm.
  • Swallows are vengeful whenever someone annoys them or destroys their nests.
  • Killing a cricket will provoke its kind to destroy the person's clothes

Bad Luck Omens

  • Taking hair locks as gift from a loved one
  • When a chair collapses after rising from it
  • Stealing an item from a farmer or blacksmith
  • Encounters with a cat, a dog, or a woman first thing in the morning
  • Meeting a man riding a white horse on the way to a funeral; turning back will disarm the curse
  • Carrying an infant after attending a wake; your hands should be dipped in holy water first
  • Falling on top of a grave
  • Leaving shoes on top of chairs and tables
  • Beds placed facing doors
  • Lilac inside houses
  • Trimming fingernails on Sundays - If you did evil stories would be told about you for a week. Even worse the devil would follow you all week.
  • Knives as gifts
  • Wearing green outfits
  • Knitting at night
  • Changing a boat's name
  • Being the third boat to leave the port; the first three boats should sail altogether
  • Making a shortcut against a known route along the shore
  • Washing hands with someone at the same time using the same basin
  • Falling down while standing on a chair
  • Carrying fire when going out of the house while a companion is sick
  • Doing anything important on a Friday
  • Christmas Day on a Monday and Tuesday
  • Seeing two magpies from the left while on a journey
  • Encountering a hare before the sun rises
  • Heading towards a funeral procession; to counteract the bad luck, one must take three steps backwards
  • The presence of a fox
  • Three childbirths under one roof in one month
  • Building a new house with the use of the ruins of an old one
  • Moving in to a new house on a Monday and during Lenten season (Friday is recommended)
  • A frog or worm found in one's home

Body

  • When there is an unbaptized child at home, make a sign of the cross on his/her forehead first for safety before carrying him/her; and never take coals of fire outside the house.
  • Itching of a body part often has meanings – the palm means getting money; the elbow means a possible relocation; and the ear when scratched and it turns red means one will be backstabbed.
  • Saluting with the left hand brings bad luck to the person for whom the greeting is meant.
  • Breath nourishes the soul and harsh words can kill a person or make him/her ill.
  • Blood and saliva are also believed to be powerful and hair makes a person strong.
  • When one feels his earrings, his friend's soul in purgatory is asking for prayers.

Death and Funerals

  • If a family dies, the house can still be inhabited by others without worrying about safety, as long as a small flock of sheep will be brought in to sleep for three consecutive nights.
  • Lights turned off during dinnertime bring death to a family member present on the dinner table within that year.
  • Taking a shorter route when taking the coffin to its grave will be taken as an insult to the dead that its soul will not rest in peace.
  • If the first lamb of the season is born black, it foretells mourning garments for the family within the year.
  • When taking a corpse through a march it must not fall down as this will bring chaos and tragedy to the dead person's family.
  • If a newborn baby dies, his coffin should not be nailed on top otherwise his mother will never have children.
  • A dead man's hand can be an amulet, heal the sick, and stop water and wind from putting out the flame if a candle is placed in it.
  • The sheet used to wrap a corpse can cure aches and pains when tied around an aching body part.
  • The edges of candles used during wakes will heal skin burns.
  • A bird entering a house is a death omen.
  • Killing sea otters can cause death to the slayer.

Good Luck

  • First day of the week and month
  • Cutting hair under the moonlight or during the new moon except on Fridays
  • Planting potatoes on Good Friday
  • Throwing footwear on the way home from a party
  • Seeing two magpies on the right side while traveling and the chirp of a cuckoo bird heard from the right
  • The presence of crickets and hens with their chicks inside the house
  • Seeing a white lamb early in the morning with a ray of sunlight on its face

Good Luck for Christmas and the New Year

  • Breakfast by candlelight on Christmas Day
  • Eating fresh or salted herrings at breakfast on Christmas Day
  • Eating 12 mince pies during the 12 days before Christmas, 1 pie each day, is a way of preventing diseases
  • Cocks crowing on the midnight of Christmas Eve
  • Leave an open door at midnight of New Year's Eve for the old year to come out and the New Year in.
  • Avoid wearing shoes with holes to stay financially lucky
  • Sweeping the floor is discouraged, or you’ll be driving a friend away.
  • Doing the laundry on New Year's Day
  • Never close financial deals during the New Year to avoid bad luck.
  • Cleaning the chimney during New Year's Day
  • Being able to find a lump of coal or when a dark-haired guy delivers the same amount of coals at home.
  • Do not eat animal meat during the New Year to prevent infections.
  • Burning the log of a Yule tree (pine, evergreen, or fir) for twelve hours on Christmas Eve, using the remains of last year's log

Love and Marriage

  • Leaving a plate of flour with a snail and covered overnight will help a maiden find out the initial of the first name of her future groom, for the snail will carve the initial on the flour to be seen the next morning.
  • To be able to see the face of the future spouse in dreams, borrow a wedding ring and play with a piece of wedding cake by passing it through the ring thrice.
  • Ten hemlock leaves in powdered form mixed in food or drink act as a love potion. Likewise, the skin scraped by a woman from a corpse buried for nine days serves the same purpose. A woman ties this to the leg of her husband or lover while sleeping and removes it before he wakes up. The skin should be hidden from everyone else for her man to keep loving her.
  • Potions made of herbs should be paid for with silver except for love charms and incantations; they should be given and not bought.
  • A horse race or a 30-meter run from the church after the wedding ceremony to the newlyweds’ house brings luck to the couple.
  • Mothers-in-law should break bread over their new daughters-in-law's heads to pass on their culinary and household management skills.

Mythical Characters/Symbols

  • Eggshells are fairies’ favorite abode, and they should be destroyed after eating the insides to block bad fairies from entering.
  • For the soul of the dead not to be influenced by evil prior to its departure on Earth, bread should be always in stock at home to keep the evil spirits preoccupied while the soul leaves.
  • The Dullahan is a scary apparition of a black-clothed headless man on horseback who carries his head while traveling. It is believed that sleeping people die whenever his horse, which breathes fire, pulls to a stop.
  • The púca is a wild horse that runs farms while it gallops around them. It is believed to turn into a goblin whenever it demands a portion of the harvest as its share, which the farm owners usually grant to keep it from damaging their livelihood.

Pregnancy and Children

  • A married couple will never have any child if an enemy knots a handkerchief; a child can only be conceived when the knot has been untied.
  • A pregnant woman should not see a hare to prevent her unborn child from acquiring séanas (hare-lip). She should tear the hare's ear should she meet the animal by chance.
  • To prevent their babies being replaced by changelings: mothers eat oatmeal right after childbirth; place tongs and tie red ribbons on the cradle; apply holy water on them and their children; and put unsalted butter on the baby's mouth.
  • A piece of iron should be attached to a newborn's clothing until his day of baptism for protection.
  • An infant's hair and nail trims can prevent possible convulsions by wrapping them with a linen cloth and tying the small pack under the baby's cradle. The same method should be done for salt to prevent fairies from seizing the little ones.
  • Those who were born in the evening can control ghosts and possess the third eye, unlike those born during daytime.
  • The seventh-born son of every family is believed to cure diseases with the power of his hands, while a boy born after his father's demise can cure fevers.
  • When souls of deceased children appear before their mothers, the baptized ones appear clearly like a lit image while the unbaptized are not as bright.
  • Fairies, when provoked into anger, get back at their enemies by destroying possessions such as furniture, animals and crops. They can even bring death.
  • Fairies ask the souls of mothers who die from childbirth to look after the babies they replaced with changelings.
  • Children walking backwards are believed to be cursing their parents.

Talismans

  • A horse's rear tooth that fell off and a purse manufactured using a weasel's covering can be amulets against greed for money.
  • A crooked pin under a gambler's coat will give him luck in card games.
  • A white clover is a protection against evil.

 

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References

1. A-Z World Culture