Saint John’s Day, Toberona & the Gift of the Gab

Saint John’s Well, Toberona

John Swift, Toberona, just outside Dundalk, County Louth; ‘Up to the early part of the nineteenth century a pattern or fair annually celebrated St John’s Day, 24th June, when well known bards and other artists from Louth and the surrounding counties would gather in the vicinity of Toberona bridge, to show their talents. It is recorded that over-indulgence in alcohol and rowdying brought an end to these patterns…..

But legend had it Toberona did not require either brewed or distilled liquor to engender anything like transports of inebriation. Toberona had its well of spring water, named after Saint John, and those quaffing of its draughts, if endowed to even the slightest extent with poetic or rhetorical talent, would be inspired to speech worthy of the most gifted orator or author. They had a saying in the Temple tavern (in Dundalk): Tell it in Toberona.’

Told in Toberona, 2008

John Swift 1896-1990 was born and spent his youth in Dundalk, County Louth, before moving to Dublin in 1912.

Photograph by my dad John P Swift.

The Bonfire on Saint John’s Eve

Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, circa 1815, County Offaly; ‘It is the custom at sunset on that evening to kindle numerous immense fires throughout the country, built like our (English) bonfires, to a great height, the pile being composed of turf, bog-wood, and such other combustibles as they can gather.

The turf yields a steady, substantial body of fire, the bog-wood a most brilliant flame; and the effect of these great beacons blazing on every hill, sending up volumes of smoke from every point of the horizon is very remarkable.

Ours was a magnificent one being provided by the landlord as a compliment to his people, and was built on the lawn, as close beside the house as safety would admit. Early in the evening the peasants began to assemble, all habited in their best array, glowing with health, every countenance full of that sparkling animation and excess of enjoyment that characterize the enthusiastic people of the land. I had never seen anything resembling it, and was exceedingly delighted with their handsome, intelligent, merry faces; the bold bearing of the men, and the playful, but really modest deportment of the maidens; and the vivacity of the aged people, and wild glee of the children.

The fire being kindled, a splendid blaze shot up, and for a while they stood contemplating it, with faces strangely disfigured by the peculiar light first emitted when bogwood is thrown on: after a short pause, the ground was cleared in front of an old blind piper, the very beau ideal of energy, drollery, and shrewdness, who seated on a low chair, with a well-plenished jug within his reach, screwed his pipes to the liveliest times and endless jig began.

An Irish jig is interminable, so long as the party holds together; for when one of the dancers becomes fatigued, a fresh individual is ready to step into the vacated place quick as thought; so the other does not pause, until in liked manner obliged to give place to a successor. They continue footing it, and setting to one another, occasionally moving in a figure, and changing place with extraordinary rapidity, spirit and grace. Few indeed, among even the very lowest of the most improvised class, have grown into youth without obtaining some lessons in this accomplishment from the traveling dancing-masters of their district; and certainly in the way they use it, many would be disposed to grant a dispensation to the young peasant which they would withhold from the young peer.

But something was to follow that puzzled me not a little: when the fire had burned for some hours, and got low, an indispensable part of the ceremony commenced. Every one present of the peasantry passed through it, and several children were thrown across the sparkling embers; while a wooden frame of some eight feet long, with a horse’s head fixed to one end, and a large white sheet thrown over it, concealing the wood and the man on whose head it was carried, made its appearance. This was greeted with loud shouts as the “white horse;” and having been safely carried by the skill of the bearer several times through the fire with a bold leap, it pursued the people, who ran screaming and laughing in every direction. I asked what the horse was meant for, and was told it represented all cattle. While I looked upon the now wildly-excited people with their children, and, in a figure, all their cattle, passing again and again through the fire.’

Personal Recollections, 1841

Midsummer’s Eve in Ireland

A hundred years ago, and for many centuries before, Midsummer’s Eve was observed and celebrated throughout Ireland on the 23 June, that is, on Saint John’s Eve.

The bonfire was central to the activities of Midsummer’s Eve, and those who witnessed the flames more than a lifetime ago noted that the landscape was filled with hundreds of bonfires, creating a beautiful aspect by illuminating the country as far as the eye could see. These fires were lit on elevated sites including mountain tops and hills, but also in fields, at crossroads and on the streets and in squares of towns and villages throughout the country. In Dublin bonfires were outlawed by the Lord Mayor in the 1700’s, and as a substitute, the towns’ people attached candles to trees and bushes to maintain the tradition in some form. Gradually, during the nineteenth century, coercion bills were brought in an attempt to eliminate bonfires from many towns and villages across Ireland, but these bills, while having limited success in some areas, failed to end the popular tradition of lighting bonfires on Saint John’s Eve. While the tradition of lighting bonfires on Saint John’s Eve has declined substantially over the past century the tradition is still observed in certain parts of the country up to the present day.

Bonfires in previous centuries were fed on materials that were readily available and  easily obtained; in some areas straw, reeds and wood were collected throughout the whole six months leading up to Midsummer’s Eve, while in other areas the bonfire was principally made of turf, with every inhabitant of the village donating their own share to feed the flames.  Well into the last century the ancient Irish tradition of burning animal bones continued, some believe in imitation of ancient sacrifices, the addition of which created crackling noises and bright stray sparks, while, at the same time, providing the origin of their very name “bone-fire”, now generally spelled and often pronounced as bonfire.

The Midsummer’s bonfire is traditionally believed to increase fertility and produce luck, while passing through the flames of the fire was believed to provide protection from both the fairies and the evil eye. Many accounts relate how cattle were driven through the flames between two persons who each held a lighted sheaf of straw or reeds, known as a “cleer”. Members of the household also jumped through the fire, as did lovers who held hands in the hope of encouraging their own fertility.  In County Cavan, a century ago, it was still believed that if you ate your supper by the fire on Midsummer’s Eve you would be protected from hunger throughout the coming year, while farmers often spread a sod of turf, coal, ashes, or even holy water on their crops as a method of protection from diseases including blight on Midsummer Eve.

Games and amusements were performed by many who attended, caps were often grabbed from unsuspecting heads and thrown or, at least, pretended to be thrown into the flames by the more boisterous members of the community. Spectators at the bonfires often fashioned bundles of reeds or straw which, when lit, and waved through the air, and in some places including Belmullet in County Mayo sods of lighted turf were thrown to the sky in the belief that the air would be purified through the motion of these smouldering sods. Additionally, a lighted piece of turf or a coal was often taken from the bonfire and carried home to relight the hearth in the household, which according to many accounts, was annually quenched on Midsummer’s Eve.*

*It is worth mentioning that quenching the fire on Midsummer’s Eve  was only observed in some localities, as there was a strong tradition in many parts of Ireland of keeping the hearth fire burning continuously for years, or even decades, on end.

Sources

Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Second series II (1896), 157, 316, 365.

Mahon, Rev. Michael P. Ireland’s Fairy Lore, Boston, 1919.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814-19.

O’Hanlon, Rev. John (Lageniensis). Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humorous Tales. London, 1870.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath,  A.D. 1682

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1979.

Warburton, John & others. History of the City of Dublin. Dublin, 1818.

Various articles from the Folklore Journal 1881 – 1916.

Illustration ‘Midsummer’s Eve’ by Jack B Yeats, 1912.

The Feast Day of Saint Columbcille

F.L. Molloy, Parish of Clonmany, 1814; ‘The titular saint, or as some express it, the guardian, of this parish, is Columbkill. The 9th of June is his festival day, and is observed most ceremoniously by the old people in the parish: on that day they circumambulate certain places, repeating certain prayers, deified, as it were, for him.

They formerly drove down their cattle to the beach, on that day, and swam them in that part of the sea, into which runs the water of St Columb’s well, which is thereby made holy-water; but this custom, of late, has not been practised.

There is also a traditional story told here, that the earth of a little hillhock (tempo desh,) on the right of the road leading from the chapel to the church, formerly expelled all mice and rats, until the earth of it was vended, when its expelling powers ceased; still, however, they carry all their dead around it, as being an ancient custom.

There is a circular flat stone in the centre of the church-yard, about fourteen inches in diameter, on which are two round hollow places, which they say are prints of Saint Columb’s knees. On that day mass used to be celebrated, but of late, I believe, it has being discontinued.’

A Statistical Account or a Parochial Survey of Ireland –  William Shaw Mason.

Whitsuntide & Fate

Whitsuntide is a very fatal and unlucky time. Especially beware of water then, for there is an evil spirit in it, and no one should venture to bathe, nor to sail a boat for fear of being drowned; nor to go on a journey where water has to be crossed. And everything in the house must be sprinkled with holy water at Whitsuntide to keep away the fairies, who at this season are very active and malicious, and bewitch the cattle, and carry off young children, and come up from the sea to hold strange midnight revels, when they kill with their fairy darts the unhappy mortal who crosses their path and pries at their mysteries.’*

Whitsuntide, the week beginning on the seventh Sunday after Easter Sunday, also known as Pentecost, is traditionally considered to be the most fatal time of the year in Ireland. A child born on Whit Sunday is believed to be destined to kill or be killed. To prevent this fortune a worm or some other small creature was placed in the palm of a newly born child’s hand and then closed over, in the hope this action would count against the child’s fatal destiny. Animals born on Whit Sunday were also considered to be ill-fated; in County Kildare it is traditionally believed that if a filly or a colt foaled at Whitsuntide it would ‘turn out vicious, and if kept will cause death of, or injury to its owner,’ the belief was also well known in Ballyliffen, County Donegal, as Charles McGlinchey recalled in his memoir of nineteenth century life, The Last of a Name, ‘I always heard, too, that it wasn’t a lucky day to be born, that a human being or an animal born on that day would do some harm or get a violent death. A foal born that day would be considered a dangerous animal,’

Whitsuntide’s association with drowning increased its evil reputation. All over Ireland, but especially in areas close to loughs and in coastal areas, legends abounded about the dangers of going near water on Whit Sunday or Whit Monday. Those born on Whit Sunday were thought to be most susceptible to drowning at any time of the year, but the danger of drowning on Whitsuntide posed a special threat to all. In coastal counties including Donegal and Kerry custom forbade boats to go out to sea and even discouraged people from venturing near the seafront during Whit Sunday and Whit Monday. The association between drowning and Whit Sunday was perhaps strongest around Lough Erne in County Fermanagh where local lore maintained that the lough took the life of one person each Whit Monday.

* Lady Jane Wilde

Sources

Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.

Foster, Jeanne Cooper. Ulster Folklore. Belfast, 1951.

Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.

Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908).

Sayers, Peig. Peig: the Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island. Translated by Byran MacMahon. (Dublin, 1974).

Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. London, 1888.

Feast Day & Legends of Saint Kevin of Glendalough

The 3rd June is the feast day of Saint Kevin who is one of Ireland’s most revered saints, and the former abbot of the seven churches of Glendalough in County Wicklow, where the ruins of his monastery and his grave-site stand to this day. On Saint Kevin’s Feast Day people still gather from near and far at Glendalough to complete patrons and to offer up their prayers in honour of the saint’s memory. In former times these holy gatherings were often violent and boisterous; Samuel Hall and his wife Maria noted in 1840 that ‘until very recently (the peasantry), honoured the memory of the patron saint by assembling in the churchyard to drink and fight,’ the Halls continue to explain that the ‘custom was put to an end by the parish priest who, a few days before one of our visits, had actually turned the whiskey into a stream, gathered the shillelaghs into a large bonfire and made wrathful and brutal men, who had been enemies for centuries, embrace each other in peace and goodwill over Kevin’s grave.’ The Hall’s were too quick in jumping to the conclusion that the more disreputable activities described above had ceased by the 1840s, as due to continued disturbances on feast day Cardinal Paul Cullen is said to have suppressed the pilgrimage in 1862.

There are many legends regarding and detailing the long-life of Saint Kevin who is said to have lived for over a hundred and twenty years from the end of the fifth century until his death at the beginning of the seventh century. A good number of these legends allude to Saint Kevin’s love of solitude, wildlife and nature, and as Kevin is often referred to as the patron saint of blackbirds it seems appropriate to provide perhaps the most well-known legend the Saint is said to have been at prayer in a small wooden hut with holes in the roof, and raising his arms towards heaven to be nearer to God, his upper limbs came through the roof and a blackbird came to rest in his open hand. In his gentleness, patience, and devotion, Saint Kevin is said to have allowed the bird to make her nest and lay her eggs on his palm, holding his outstretched open hand Heavenward until the blackbird’s eggs hatched. The legend has been immortalised with all statues of Saint Kevin depicting the saint with his arms aloft with a blackbird nestled on his palm.

Another legend tells of how a sorceress was attempting to kill the son of a Leinster Chief named Colman. For protection Colman left his son Faoláin at Glendalough under the care of Saint Kevin. At this time Kevin had only set up his monastery and had no resources to care for a child. However, before long God sent a doe to the valley of Glendalough, and from the milk of this doe the child was weaned. One day a brother was milking the doe and left a bucket of milk unattended. Seeing an opportunity, a greedy raven* swooped down to steal some milk only to knock over the container with its beak spilling the contents. In his fury Saint Kevin put a curse on all descendants of the raven that would continue for one day each year after the death of the Saint. The following version of this curse is taken from The History and Topography of Ireland, by the twelfth century Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis: ‘On the feast-day of the saint, the ravens of Glendalough, … are prevented by a curse of Saint Kevin from alighting on the earth or taking food. They fly around the village and the church, making a great noise, and on that day enjoy neither rest nor food.’

*Sometimes a rook.

Painting is ‘The Patron Festival of Saint Kevin and the Seven Churches,’ by Joseph Peacock, 1813.

Lower illustration is Saint Kevin and the blackbird, miniature of an Irish codex, ca. 9th or 10th century

Sources

Carty, Francis. Two and Fifty Irish Saints. Dublin, 1941.

Gerald of Wales. The History and Topography of Ireland. Translated by John J O’Meara. Harmondsworth, 1982.

Hall, S.C. (Mr & Mrs). Hall’s Ireland. London,1840.

O’Hanlon, Rev. John Canon O’Hanlon. Lives of the Irish Saints, with Special festivals and the Commemorations of Holy Persons, Volume VI. Dublin, 1875.

Vose, John D. Tales and Yarns of Glendalough and the Wicklow Hills: Eventide at Glendalough Told to John D. Vose by Bill Fanning – Shepherd of Glendalough. (Wicklow, 1986).

Lough Derg Pilgrimage

William Carleton; ‘Lough Derg is in the centre of a lake in the wild and gloomy mountains of Donegal, and can only be approached by boat. The property in which it lies belongs to the Leslies of Glasslough. They have leased the ferry of the island to certain persons, who were contracted to pay them two hundred a year. I think it was in the year 1796, that a boat filled with ‘pilgrims’, as they are called, was lost, on its way across to the lake, owing to the drunkenness of the boatmen.

My father’s anecdote, or rather legend, went on to state that there was a holy priest in the boat who, when it sank with its freight, deliberately walked on the waters of the lake until he reached the island in perfect safety. I recollect observing to my father when he told me this legend: ‘It is strange that if he had the power of walking upon the water, he had not the power of saving the boat and all that were in it.’ He paused and looked at me, but said nothing.’

Wiilliam Carleton’s Autobiography, 1896

Pilgrimages to Lough Derg traditionally, as well as latterly, began in late May or early June, and continued until the Feast of the Assumption, 15 of August.

For many centuries Station Island has been referred to as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, a name that was adopted from a cave on the island. The cave itself received the name through a legend, were Saint Patrick prayed to God for assistance in converting the pagan Irish, and God, answering his prayer, showed Patrick a cave which led to purgatory, where the horrors of hell could be viewed by pilgrims. The cave remained accessible to pilgrims who visited the island up until 1632, in which year the cave was closed by order of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

The Lough Derg Pilgrimage remains one of Ireland’s most popular as well as ancient pilgrimage sites,  with accounts of pilgrimages to the island date back to the twelfth century, with oral accounts bringing the site back to the fifth century. Shane Leslie bequeathed the site to the Bishop of Clougher in 1960.

Photograph Station Island, Lough Derg, 1913 – Lawrence Collection, The National Library of Ireland

The Hiring Fair of Strabane

Hiring Fair of Strabane – Photograph by Henry F Cooper c. 1910

Patrick McGill, circa 1903; ‘There was great talk going on about the Omagh train. The boys who had been sold at the fair before said that the best masters came from near the town of Omagh, and so everyone waited eagerly until eleven o’clock, the hour at which the train was due.

It was easy to know when the Omagh men came, for they overcrowded an already big market. Most of them were fat, angry-looking fellows, who kept moving up and down examining us after the manner of men who seek out the good and bad points of horses which they intend to buy.

Sometimes they would speak to each other, saying that they never saw such a lousy and ragged crowd of servants in the market-place in all their life before, and they did not seem to care even if we overheard them say these things. On the whole I had no great liking for the Omagh men.’

Children of the Dead End, 1914.

The Strabane hiring fair, like another number of similar fairs held in the west of Ireland, was held twice annually, on 12 May and 12 of November. There’s no coincidence that the occasion of the hiring market coincided with the “Gale Days”; traditionally the time when six months rent was paid to the landlord. The difficulty of paying rent led many tenant farmer families to send their children, both sons and daughters – some as young as 12 or 13, to the fair to seek employment as farm labourers or servants, in order to make up the difference with the rent. Those who found employment at these fairs were effectively owned by their new employers for the following six months.

Although hiring markets were held throughout all parts Ireland, the one in Strabane was amongst the most popular for the buying and selling of labour. Contemporary accounts described the trains as packed,  with an extra fourth class carriage was generally added to cope with large amount of passangers. Labourers and farmers travelled from the surrounding counties, and further still. Remembering the hiring fairs of his youth in the 1920’s Ciarán Ó Nualláin, a native of Strabane and a brother of the great Irish novelist Flann O’Brien, described the congregations that assembled in the streets as; ‘so crowded that you could walk across the streets on the people’s heads!’* Remarkably by the 1940’s the Hiring Fair of Strabane had declined completely.

The early years of Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien / Myles Na gCopaleen, Ciarán Ó Nualláin, 1998

May Day & Butter Stealing Witches

Rose Shaw -the Pipe Smoker, c. 1915

On May Day, or more particularly, May morning, witches are traditionally believed to be able to steal their neighbour’s milk or butter, so that no amount of churning will create butter. These witches, or hags as they were often known, were usually widowed women, frequently they were poor, and invariably they were known in their community as odd. Anyone visiting a household between sunset on May Eve and sunset on May Day would be treated with great suspicion. People were particular in not giving anything away, especially fire, milk, salt and water as to do so was considered to be risking the household’s luck and milk-profit for the coming year. Tradesmen who worked about the house would have to smoke by the hearth, and extinguish their pipes before they left the dwelling, while beggars who regularly received hospitality at other times of the year would know to avoid calling at Maytime.

To protect the household from harm on May Eve May-flowers, often marigolds or primroses, are strewn across the window-ledges and the threshold of the dwelling, while branches of rowan or mountain ash are placed above the byre and around the boundaries of the land to protect the cattle, who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to evil influence during Maytime. Holy water was sometimes used along with, or as an alternative to, May-flowers or boughs, while milk was in some instances poured on the threshold of the household as an offering to the fairies. Farmers went to special lengths to protect their cattle on May morning. R. Clarke in an 1882 article titled ‘Folklore Collected in County Wexford’ mentioned that on May morning cows are struck with a quicker-berry switch, which prevents any person putting any evil on them or taking their profit or butter.’ While William Wilde tells us that before the famine súgans (straw ropes) were sometimes placed around the necks of cattle on May Eve to protect them against ill luck and the fairies, while another method to protect the cattle against the powers of witchcraft was to singe the hair on the heads of each of the cattle, or in other cases a sod of coal was passed around the animal.

Farmers would often watch the well through the night on May Eve to ensure that no one tampered with it, as there was great importance attached to being the first on May morning to draw water from the well, this first water was often referred to as the ‘flower of the well’, and was fed to the cattle in the belief that the milk-profit was protected from the power of witchcraft for the season. Conversely, if a witch managed to get to the well first on May morning, having retrieved a cinder from a fire on May Eve, it was believed that by dropping the cinder down the well, in an action known as “burn the well”, she could gain the milk profit of the well’s users for the year to come.

early 20th c
Miss Mannix milking a cow at charville Co. Cork, 1920.

Witches were thought to have many methods for stealing a person’s milk profit on May Day. If a person was seen dragging a straw rope, a spancel, or other object connected with cattle across the dew of a neighbouring farm on May morning they would be presumed to be attempting to steal their neighbour’s milk and butter. On May Day witches were also believed to be able to transform themselves into hares and, in this form, steal the milk-profit from a neighbouring farmer by suckling on the udders of his cows. The ability of ‘old hags’ to transform themselves into hares is noted by Giraldus Cambernsis in his twelfth century text the History and Topography of Ireland, and is the subject of a local legend, still well known in many parts of Ireland that tells of how a farmer upon discovering a hare suckling one of his cow’s udders on May morning chases the hare with his dogs, one of which manages to bite the hare as it passes through a small gap in the wall of a house belonging to a local elderly woman. Upon entering the house the hare is nowhere to be seen, however a wound is discovered on the woman in the same position as the spot where the hare was bitten.

Previously there was great reluctance to be the first household to light a fire on May morning as witches were believed to be able to steal the luck and the milk-profit from the first household that did so, with this in mind people would be waiting for their neighbours’ fires to be lit, watching their chimneys, before they lit their own. In some areas the people waited until the priest’s fire was going, believing that the priest’s close relations with God would act as protection against any threat of witchcraft. An inventive method to protect a household’s milk profit on May morning, noted in the 1890s in County Leitrim, was to ‘get a bunch of rowan leaves, and tie it up the chimney to dry, then on May morn, light this, and let that be the first smoke to go out of the chimney; for witches can do nothing with it.’

If a witch managed to steal your milk-profit there were a number of methods to regain what was lost. The woman of the house, in this situation, is often advised by an outsider to the community on how this can be achieved. In one such instance, an old woman from Mallow related to the American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin that a firebrand was stolen from her house on May morning, the woman went on to explain that a ‘man was sitting there that knew what that meant. He took a piece of peat and threw it into the butter furkin. If he hadn’t done that, we would have been a whole year without butter.’ The Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeology Society provides a detailed account of how to retrieve the lost butter along with the consequences the perpetrator would face; ‘If on the May Day’s churning it is discovered that the butter has been already robbed by a witch-woman, a plough-chain should be looped round the churn, which should be placed on three stones, and the colter of the plough should be heated and placed under the churn; it will then be found, on commencing to churn again, that the butter will come; but during the operation no one on any pretex should be allowed into the house. During the heating of the colter the witch-woman will suffer torture; and it is she who will come and endeavour to gain admittance in to the house when the churning is again in full swing, if anyone thoughtlessly let her in, the butter would again disappear to the witch-woman’s house.’

Sources

Curtin, Jeremiah. Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin. Edited by Joseph Schafer. Wisconsin, 1941.

Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh. Dundalk, 1923.

Dorian, Hugh. The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal. Edited by Breandán Mac Suibhne & David Dickson. Dublin, 2000.

Duncan, Leland L; Whelan Barney; Whelan, Anne; Lynch, Michael; McVittie, Edward; and Drumkeeran. ‘Fairy Beliefs and other Folklore notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 7, no. 2 (June 1896), pp. 161-183.

Omorethi. ‘Customs Peculiar to Certain Days, Previously Observed in County Kildare.’ Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Surrounding Districts V (1906-1908), 439-454.

Seymour, St. John D. Irish Witchcraft & Demonology. Dublin, 1913 / New York 1992.

Wilde, William. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin 1852, 1972.

May Eve & the Fairies in Irish Folklore

William Blake – Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c. 1786

The boundaries between the Otherworld and our own are said to be slighter on May Eve, and it is then that protection against the fairies is believed to be more crucial than at any other time of the year. May Eve is a great night for the fairies, who are believed to shift location, and hold meetings on hilltops that would continue from dusk till dawn. As with their celebrations at Hallowe’en and during the Full Moon the activities of the fairies on May Eve encouraged many to remain indoors after dusk, but other precautions needed to be taken to protect the household from the fairies.

May-flowers, often marigolds or primroses, are strewn across the window-ledges and the threshold of the dwelling, while branches of rowan or willow are placed above the doors of the home, as well as in the byre and around the boundaries of the land to protect the cattle, who are thought to be particularly vulnerable to evil influences during May-time. In some households Holy water is used in substitution for the flowers and boughs that mark the boundaries of peoples’ homes. William Wilde tells us that in the earlier half of the nineteenth century súgans (straw ropes) were sometimes placed around the necks of cattle to protect them against ill luck and the fairies, while for the same purpose hair on the heads of each of the cattle was singed. In other cases, a sod of coal was passed around the animal to defend it from mischief. While milk was, in some instances, poured on the threshold of the household as an offering to the fairies, although, as with fire, it should be noted that milk should never be given away at May-time, as to do so was believed to be forfeiting the household’s luck for the coming year. In some cases protection was extended beyond domestic areas, D.H. Moutray Read noted a century ago that in the South of Ireland  May boughs were ‘placed not only on houses and sheds, but on the railway engines,’ while in late 1820s Amhlaoimh Ó Súilleabháin, from Callan in County Kilkenny, noted the mail-coach was decorated with May-branches during the festival.

Our ancestors had many stories warning of the dangers of going near fairy forts or even venturing outside the confines of the home on May Eve. Thomas Crofton Croker in his 1826 collection Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, provides an account from Peggy Barrett of Ballyhooly, County Cork, who found herself to be daydreaming in her own garden on May Eve she had foolishly stayed out after dark. Realising the dangers of May Eve she thought she should get home as quicky as possible, but at the very moment that she thought of home she spotted a strange looking black goat, which she described as having ‘long wide horns turned out instead of being bent backwards, standing upon its hind legs upon the top of the wall, and looking down at me.’ She continues ‘My breath was stopped, and I couldn’t move for near a minute. I couldn’t help, somehow, keeping my eyes fixed on it; and it never stirred, but kept looking in the same fixed way down on me.’ Peggy then goes on to tell how the creature continued to pursue her and eventually jumped on her back, and although she eventually escaped from the strange creature, by blessing herself three times, and finally reaching the safety of her own home, from that day until her death she would remain a hunchback. Interactions between mortals and the fairies on May Eve could be positive as well as negative. May Eve is one of the rare nights when the music of the fairies is said to be audible to mortal ears, and there are many stories of mortals learning beautiful music from the fairies; William Wilde noted that in the middle of the nineteenth century a popular method of complementing a musician was to remark ‘you listened to the piper on May Eve.’

The ominous association between the fairies and May Eve can have a great influence on

fairies_at_cradle
Warwick Goble, 1862-1943

many aspects of peoples’ lives. The fairies were supposed to abduct mortals, replacing them with changelings that resembled those they had taken but these imposters, it was said, would never thrive. In the early years twentieth century Brigid Hedderman, who was the district nurse of the Aran Islands in County Galway witnessed the following charm used by young mothers, who had just given birth, from being abducted by the fairies; the charm was made by the mother placing a piece of butter ‘with some other substance’ in her mouth in the belief ‘that failure [to do so] renders the woman liable to be kidnapped on the following May morning.’ Belief in the fatal influence of the fairies on May Eve was alluded to by Nurse Hedderman in a second case were a mother whose young child who was suffering from tuberculous refused to allow her young son to receive medical care as ‘the sickness had presented itself on May Eve, and she believed the fairies had ‘taken her boy, and substituted this other, and how could she think of getting back her own? She did not protect him sufficiently, and must accept the inevitable.’ While illnesses that presented themselves on May Eve were often thought to be fatal, May Eve was also thought to be an effective time to cure illnesses. William Wilde provided us with quite an unusual method for curing a person who has been unwell; ‘If a person has been unwell, particularly of any chronic disease, for any length of time, “the man of the house,” upon May Eve, breaks a spindle of a wooden wheel over the head of the invalid, and death or recovery is confidently anticipated therefrom within three days.’

Sources

Croker, Thomas Crofton Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. London 1825-1828.

Dyer, T. H. Thiselton, British Popular Customs Past and Present: Illustrating the Social and Domestic Manners of the People. London 1900.

Hedderman, B. N. Glimpses of my life in Aran. London, 1917.

Kinahan, G. H. Folk-lore Record 4 1881.

Moutray Read DH. ‘Some Characteristics of Irish Folklore.’ Folklore 27, no.3 (1916).

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. The Diary of an Irish Countryman 1827 – 1835. Translated from the Irish by Tomás de Bhaldraithe. Cork/Dublin 1970/1979.

Wilde, William. Irish Popular Superstitions. Dublin 1852, 1972