Feast Day of Saint Catherine in Ireland

Despite having spent all of her short life in Egypt Saint Catherine Alexandria was, at one time, among the most revered saints in Ireland. The many religious institutions named after Saint Catherine give some indication of the saint’s widespread veneration in Ireland over previous centuries, but it is perhaps Saint Catherine’s Bed, one of six penitential beds,  at Lough Derg that gives the greatest indication of the high position she previously held among the saints of Ireland.

As Saint Catherine is considered, at least in Ireland, to be the patron saint of  seafaring* it is natural that her cult has remained strongest in places like the coastal parishes of  Killybegs in Donegal and  Ventry in  Kerry,  both of which have Catherine as their patron saint. Saint Catherine’s Feast Day, 25 November, has continued to be observed in Killybegs and Ventry with pilgrimages and patrons at holy wells which, according to legend , were long ago blessed in Saint Catherine’s honour by survivors of shipwrecks, often monks, who believed the saint had intervened to spare them being drowned.  In Killybegs there is also a more recent legend, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, in which a Protestant rector named Lodge decided to fill the holy well with soil, in an effort to put a stop to the well worship in the area, only to discover that after doing so a spring shot up through the floor-board of his house flooding his drawing room, leading the rector to have the holy well restored to its previous state.

* Internationally and in the Roman Catholic tradition Saint Catherine of Alexandria is considered to be the patron saint of many occupations including unmarried women, millers and archivists, however to the best of my knowledge, seafaring is only ascribed to her in the Irish tradition.

Above photograph of Saint Catherine’s Well, Killybegs, County Donegal, circa 1940, Valentine Collection, National Library of Ireland.

Spilling Blood on Saint Martin’s Eve

The tradition of sacrificing a fowl or a farm animal on Saint Martin Eve was once observed in many parts of Ireland, and was still going strong into our grandparents’ times. The type of animal slaughtered depended on the means of the household; in wealthier households a pig, lamb, calf, or other animal was generally chosen, while in the majority of households, especially as the nineteenth century progressed, the slaughter of a fowl, generally a goose, gander, chicken, or duck became the most widespread offering to the saint. For those who could neither afford nor obtain a farm-animal – alternatives were often resorted to. In some coastal areas, for example, seabirds were known to be slaughtered in place of farm-animals on Saint Martin’s Eve, while for those who failed to procure an animal of any kind the spilling of blood was sometimes considered so essential that a member of the family would spill some of their own blood, usually by cutting a finger, to fulfil the obligation to the saint.

The slaughtering of the animal was the responsibility of the head of the household; if a fowl was to be slaughtered the woman of the house generally carried out the ritual, while if a mammal was to be slaughtered the man of the house was thought to be responsible for the ritual. Whether female or male, the head of the household would hold the animal in their hands and proclaim that the animal was been killed in honour of Saint Martin. Once the creature was slaughtered, to protect the household from evil and to encourage prosperity in the coming year, the blood was spilled and sprinkled over the threshold, about the windows, and in each corner of the dwelling. In some instances, the byre, stables and other outbuilding were protected in a similar manner. While, as a form of personal protection, blood from the animal was sometimes used to make the sign of a cross on the forehead of each member of the household. Ronald H. Buchanan tells us that ‘the head of the fowl was sometimes thrown over the roof of the house to ward off evil during the following year.’ While, according to Lady Augustus Gregory, the claw of a foul killed on Saint Martin’s Eve is worth retaining as it is thought to contain the power bring back a child that had been taken by the fairies.

There are many legends warning of the consequences of failing to make an offering to Saint Martin on Saint Martin’s Eve, for example, versions of following short County Leitrim legend were once well known in many parts of Ireland;

‘A man who, having nothing else, killed his only cow in honour of the saint, who rewarded him by increasing his riches in the following year, so that when St Martin’s Day came round again, he was the possessor of many beasts. Then in his plenty, he grudged even a fowl, and by the following 11th November was as poor as he ever was.’

The slaughtered fowl or beast was cooked and shared between the members of the family on Saint Martin’s Day, which along with Michaelmas and Christmas Day were the only holy days when the consumption of meat was permitted amongst the primarily Catholic population of Ireland.


Buchanan. Ronald H. “Calendar Customs.” Ulster Folklore. Volume 9. Belfast, 1963.

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.

Evans, E. Estyn. Irish Folk Ways. London, 1957.

Gregory, Lady Augusta. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. 1920.

Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. London, 1814-1819.

Moutray Read DH. ‘Some Characteristics of Irish Folklore.’ Folklore 27, no.3 (1916), pp. 250-278.

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

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

Painting by Edith Sommerville, titled ‘The Goose Girl,’ 1888, available to view at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Irish Folklore for Mondays

As the first day of the week Mondays were traditionally believed to hold an ominous influence over the days that followed, with the old phrase ‘good Monday, good week, and bad Monday, bad week’ being universally popular throughout Ireland a century ago. In consequence of this belief it was deemed to be unlucky to perform particular tasks or activities on that day, for example, people objected to going into new situations or allowing anything to be borrowed on a Monday, from fear that in doing so they’d be giving away the week’s luck. The opening of graves on a Monday was avoided, whenever possible, as attending to a burial on a Monday was believed to encourage death during the remainder of the week. In County Leitrim, at least, it was considered unlucky to mention the Fairies on Mondays, if someone did mistakenly make reference to the fairies they should immediately say “My back to them and my face from them.” Many barbers still close their shops on a Monday and maybe it’s just as well as an old Irish belief claims that by getting your hair cut on a Monday you’re encouraging baldness, with the curse Lomradh an Luain ort, “the shearing of Monday on you” being well known throughout Kerry a couple of generations ago.


Monday’s sinister reputation is heightened by the similarities between the Irish words for Monday ‘Dia Luain’ and Doomsday ‘Lá an Luain,’ and many believed Monday was an ill-favoured day for contracting a marriage. Legend has it that when Saint Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland he barred their return until the Day of Judgement, but the confusion between Lá an Luain and Dia Luain resulted in a reluctance to get married on a Monday, as a Mrs Borland from Derrynane in County Kerry remarked just under a century ago, ‘what would be the use being married the day the snakes returned?’

A legend, with a similar theme, maintains that Lough Foyle means the borrowed lake, in this legend a witch from Ulster asked her younger sister from Connaught into allowing her borrow the lough until the following Monday. The younger sister agrees to this request, and  rolls up the lake and carries it across mountains and valleys to her older sister in Ulster, but when Monday arrives the older sister refuses to return the lake insisting that she was promised the lake not just till Monday but until the day of judgement.

Well there’s always some good with the bad, and Monday was believed to be a favoured day for undertaking certain tasks and activities, for example, Lady Augusta Gregory noted that Monday was considered to be a favourable day for picking herbs.  While Lady Jane Wilde found that Monday was a favoured day for faith healers to apply cures for many illnesses including depression and liver complaints, and even witchcraft.


Gregory, Lady Augusta. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. London, 1920.

Mac Lir, Mananaan. ‘The Folklore of Months’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, (1895)

Wilde, Lady Jane, Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland, London, 1890.

Various Issues of the Folklore Journal 1893-1920

Photograph is of Fairhead Village, County Galway, 1902

All Souls’ Day & the Dead

Kildare, 2 November

‘It is said that on this one day of the year the souls of the dead are allowed to re-visit their native districts; and if only the human eye had the power to see them, they would be observed about one on every side “as plenty as thranteens [long blades of grass] in an uncut meadow.”

At night time it is customary in every house to light a candle in memory of each member of a family who has died. They are placed in an unused room and allowed to burn till midnight, when, after praying for the souls of the dead, they are extinguished, as by that time the souls themselves have returned to rest.

At the last thing at night the hearth is swept clean, and on it are placed three cups of spring water.’

* That the souls of the dead can visit the living is often said of Hallowe’en, and  sometimes extends for a two day period from Hallowe’en to All Souls’ Day.

Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1906-8.

Painting by William Gerald Barry (1864-1941), ‘An Old Woman and Children in a Cottage Interior’, 1887. (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork)

Halloween & the Fairies in Irish Folklore

Encounters between the fairies and their human counterparts are said to be particularly prevalent at Halloween. For on that dark night, like May Eve, the veil between this world and the otherworld is at its thinnest. It is well known that on Halloween the fairies shift location and hold their revels in ancient raths, on top of hills, and around lonesome hawthorn trees. Many people would avoid going out on Halloween as the fairies, who are often mischievous and sometimes vindictive, were believed to be particularly boisterous on this night.

Leaving offerings to the fairies on Halloween was a widespread in Ireland, although the custom was steadily in decline from the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite the decline, the custom is still carried out in some Irish households to this day. Although the idea of sharing the Halloween feast with our fairy counterparts sounds like a friendly gesture, these offerings were often presented in an attempt to put a stop to the fairies more sinister activities. During his childhood in the 1920s Seán O’Callaghan of Ballygrane in County Cork recalled that his mother always left a plate of barmbrack and a saucer of milk at the gate of their house on Halloween night, and that his mother believed that if she failed to leave this offering ‘the fairies would come in and break all the crockery in the house.’ Attempts to appease the fairies on Halloween were not restricted to rural areas; the famous Irish playwright, William Butler Yeats recalled being told as a child that offerings were still made on Halloween night in the slums of Dublin to secure protection against the fairies. Those who dared to venture out on Halloween would often carry charms including items made of iron and crucifixes to repel the fairies, Elizabeth Andrews in her 1913 book Ulster Folklore noted that on Halloween in parts of County Derry mothers put salt or oats on the heads of their children to protect them from being abducted by the fairies.

Many who ventured out on Halloween found themselves unexplainably lost in what were once familiar surroundings. In his 1889 book, originally titled Donegal 60 Years Ago, Hugh Dorian provided the following account of the disorientation that was supposed to accompany those who found themselves lost on Halloween, ‘the passerby can hear the sound of music coming from some steep rock, or if a man in the dusk of the evening is looking for some stray animal he experiences their tricks by going astray and wandering about himself, and then he hears them laughing aloud at him in his difficulty.’ If you find yourself lost on Halloween night, or on any other night for that matter, a good way to find your bearings is to turn your coat inside out; as doing so is supposed to break the fairies’ enchantment. If Halloween was a dangerous time to be abducted by fairy hosts, it was also a date that provided opportunities to rescue loved ones who were held in the fairy realm. Father John O’Hanlon noted in his 1870 book Irish Folk Lore that ‘persons taken away to the raths are often seen at this time by their living friends, and usually accompanying a fairy cavalcade. If you meet the fairies, it is said, on All-Hallows’ Eve, and throw the dust taken from under your feet at them, they will be obliged to surrender any captive human being.’


The fairies are not always vindictive to their human counterparts, and there are many stories where the fairies seem to need the assistance of mortals as midwives, musicians, and, in some tales, to carryout abductions. While the fairies are thought to be more inclined to harm humans at Samhain, in some tales their intentions can often seem benevolent; although the outcome can still have a negative impact on the human protagonist as can be discovered in the following short County Leitrim tale taken from the 1894 edition of Folklore:

‘On Hallow Eve, as a young fellow was going home, he chanced to pass a fort, and heard the most beautiful music he had ever listened to in his life. As he stopped to listen, a grand castle seemed to appear before him, and he was invited to enter. Inside he found full of little men running about, and one of them came to him and told him on no account to take any refreshment there or it would be the worse for him, he took nothing. By-and-bye he saw them all trooping out. He followed, and noticed that they all dipped their fingers in a large cask outside the entrance door and rubbed their fingers across their faces. He accordingly dipped his finger in the liquid and rubbed it over one of his eyes. In an instant there was a fine horse ready for him, and away with him and the others over the country, and over the whole world.

Towards morning he found himself lying on the butt of an old haystack, about half-a-mile from his own door, and getting up, he made his way home. The next day he had occasion to go into the market town, and whom should he see, but all his friends of the night, mingling with the people of the place, and going up and down through the market. What must he do but up and speak to some of them, and asked them how they did. Said one to him, “How can you see us?” So he told them that he had dipped his finger in the barrel before the castle door and rubbed it over his right eye. That instant as he spoke the little man struck his eye with a stick he had, and took the sight from it, and it was no more he saw either the good people or anything else with that eye.’

I’m going to finish up this post on Halloween & the Fairies in Irish Folklore with the following popular tale of fairy abduction titled ‘The Fairy Bride.

Goblin Market by Arthur Rackham, 1867-1939

There was a young farmer who did not believe in the fairies, and so did not fear walking alone near areas where the fairies were known to frequent. One dark Halloween evening he was out hunting geese when he saw three dark figures carrying a coffin. Noticing that they were a man short, and out of respect for the dead, the farmer took the fourth corner of the coffin procession advanced in silence, but soon one of the three figures said that it was time to have a rest, and with that they proceeded to lower the coffin onto the road. As the young farmer laid his corner of the coffin down, he lost sight of the other three bearers, and when he looked up again, they were nowhere to be seen.

Confused by the sudden disappearance of the other three bearers the young farmer looked around and waited for their return, but with the passing of time he came to believe that they would not be returning. While waiting the young farmer felt compelled to look inside coffin. To his great surprise he found a young woman dressed in ordinary clothes, rather than habit that the dead were usually buried in at the time. As he stared at this strange sight the woman opened her eyes at put out her arm to the young farmer. Though he was shocked at seeing the animation in the face and the body of the young woman he extended his hand and helped her to her feet. Once she was standing, he asked the young woman how she came to be in the coffin, but she made no reply to any of his questions and only shook her head, at which stage he realised that she was unable to speak. Not knowing what to do with the young woman the young farmer took her back to his home. She took on many of the household chores, and they got on well, but she never spoke a word.

On the following Halloween the young farmer happened to be passing near the very spot where he had first encountered the young woman on the previous year when he heard voices coming from a nearby rath. He soon realised that the voices were complaining about their failure to carry off the young woman the previous Halloween. One of the voices bragged “he was never able to discover how to make her speak,” to which a second voice replied “and there’s not much hope of that! – small chance he’ll ever find the small pin behind her ear.” Upon hearing this method for breaking the fairies’ enchantment the young farmer raced home and took the pin from behind young woman’s ear, and from that moment her power of speech returned. The two of them kept talking and they were married within the year.


Andrews, Elizabeth. Ulster Folklore. London 1913.

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. ‘Further Notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 5, no. 3 (1894), pp. 177-211.

Gregory, Lady Augusta. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. 1920.

Lynd, Robert. Home Life in Ireland. London, 1909.

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

O’Callaghan, Seán. Down by the Glenside. Cork and Dublin, 1992.

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

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

Main painting Dancing Fairies by Richard Doyle, 1824-1883.

The Night of Mischief: Traditional Irish Halloween Games & Amusements

In Ireland Hallowe’en has a long tradition as a night for games and escapades. At one time, at least in parts of County Waterford, Hallowe’en was known as oídhche na h-aimléise, ‘The night of mischief or con’, while in some areas of Counties Cork and Kerry Hallowe’en is traditionally referred to as Snap Apple Night – in recognition to the central role played of apples in a number Hallowe’en games that are still played annually on this the last night of October which welcomes the winter. While many of the following traditional games and pranks, documented from nineteenth and twentieth sources in this post, have managed to survive into our own times – others have fallen into disuse over the past century.

Bobbing, Diving, or Ducking for Apples

This is a game that has survived into our own times and remains a favourite pastime with children on Hallowe’en night. In setting up the game a barrel or basin of water is placed on the floor with a number of apples floating on the surface. The contestants hold their hands behind their backs. The game is played by the participants attempting to sink their teeth into one of the apples – a feat which can only be achieved if the apple is pushed to the bottom of the container. In variants of the game coins are added either to the bottom of the barrel or wedged halfway into the apples.

Snap Apple

Snap Apple is another game still widely played in households across Ireland on Hallowe’en night. For this game an apple is suspended, just above the height of the contestants, by tying the apple’s stalk with string to a beam, rafter or some other elevated surface in the house. The contestants stand some distance away and take turns in making a running leap at the apple in an attempt to sink their teeth and take a bite of the apple.

Illustration from the Book of Halloween by Ruth Edna Kelley, 1919.

A more boisterous and potentially dangerous variant of Snap apple, which has declined in popularity dramatically over the past century, involves the use of two pieces of wood or sticks with pointed ends tightly fastened together in the shape of an x or cross. A lighted candle and an apple were impaled on alternative ends of the cross. The cross would be suspended from the rafter with a piece of cord which was twisted tight so that it would revolve at a great pace when untangling itself. The object of the game is to get a bite of the apple – but many would end up with a face full of wax as they missed their target.

Riding or shoeing the Wooden Mare

Another game that was a feature of Hallowe’en gatherings was known as ‘Riding or Shoeing the Wooden Mare.’ John Donaldson gives a detailed description of how the game was played in his 1838 work A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh:

‘It [the wooden mare] is made of a pole, or strong handle of a fork or shovel, about 6 feet long; this is tied at both ends with a rope which is secured in the middle to a joist or beam from which it suspends in a horizontal position about 18 inches from the ground.

The operator mounts and places his limbs like a tailor across the pole and catches it between his thighs with one hand, and has a short stick to balance himself in the other hand. When he has his beast settled (for she is ticklish and uneasy), he hits her a blow with his short stick, which is putting in a nail, and then as soon as possible applies the stick to the ground in order to balance himself, but it often happens, if the stick be not placed near her centre, she wheels round and the operator falls. There are some people, however, who have a knack of keeping her steady and putting in the requisite number of nails.’


Making mischief on Hallowe’en night is a long-established tradition in Ireland. Through the veil of darkness all sorts of antics are resorted to by wandering gangs of youths as they travel though the lonely country roads, villages and the towns of Ireland creating havoc with the knowledge that their transgressions could be blamed on the fairies, who are known to be particularly active on Hallowe’en night.

A number of imaginative ruses were noted by Irish folklore collectors over a hundred years ago which included removing gates from hinges, pouring water down the chimneys, and a sophisticated form of the knick knack* prank, which involved tying the knockers of a row or a terrace of houses together so that when one door was opened the knockers of the remaining houses  tap and rattle in unison. Cabbages seem to have played an important role in the revelry that accompanied Hallowe’en; an 1893 article noted that in County Leitrim ‘the lads steal all the cabbages they can, and break them in pieces by throwing them on the roads, which are sometimes found covered with the debris of broken cabbage in the morning.’  While in a 1907 article by Hugh James Byrne described how the youths in Roscommon targeted misers and difficult neighbours for their “practical jokes” which included taking ‘the pith out of a cabbage-stalk and stuff it in with hay, and put in a lighted turf, which makes the hay smoulder, and puff the smoke through the keyhole, filling the house with a disagreeable smell.’

*Ringing a doorbell or knocking on a door and running away.


Byrne, Hugh James. ‘All Hallows Eve and Other Festivals in Connacht.’ Folklore 18, no. 4 (1907), 437-439.

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.

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

Duncan, Leland L. ‘Folk-Lore Gleamings from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 4, no, 2 (June 1893),  pp. 176-194.

Haddon, A. C. ‘A Batch of Irish Folklore’ Folklore 4, no. 3 (1893), 349-364.

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.

O’Sullivan, Maurice. Twenty Years A-Growing.  Translated by Moya Llewelyn Davies and George Thomson. Dublin and London, 1933.

Featured painting at top of post is Snap Apple Night by Daniel Maclise, 1834. Currently in a private collection.

Halloween Divination in Ireland

Illustrated London News, 1871

In Ireland Hallowe’en is the most popular night of the year to practice divination, which provides much amusement and excitement. As summer turns to winter on this night, the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld are believed to be less pronounced, and so on Hallowe’en many games, rituals and rites were, and still are, performed partly in jest and partly in earnest, with the object of gaining insight into one’s fate.

One activity involved setting several objects out in saucers or plates, which were then laid on a table. The chosen objects varied from one region to another, and even between different households, but generally a few of the following were included; a ring, a piece of wood, clay, a bean, a coin, salt,  water, a button or a thimble. Once the saucers were set, a blindfolded person, seat before them would pick one, the item which the person touched was symbolically believed to indicate their future situation in life.  A ring meant the person would be married, a piece of wood or clay meant that they would die young, a bean or a rag meant that they would always be poor, while a coin indicated that they would be wealthy, salt was for luck, water meant that the person would emigrate or travel, while if one picked the saucer with a button or thimble it was believed they would die bachelor or a spinster.

In another divination game nuts were used to determine if two young people would be good together when married. Two nuts were named after a pair, usually both being present, and placed on the grate or on the turf ashes of the fire, to burn side by side. Chestnuts, wall-nuts and hazelnuts were traditionally the most popular for this activity, while grains of wheat were also sometimes used. If the nuts burned together it was taken as a sign that the young couple would end their days happily married to one and other, however, the pair would not marry if one hopped off, while if one burned fully and not the other, it was taken as a sign of unrequited love.

Other activities took place outside the house on Hallowe’en, for example, cabbages were picked by blindfolded young women*on that night, in the belief that the appearance of the cabbage would reflect the attributes of their future husbands. If a well grown cabbage was picked it indicated that the girl would have a handsome husband, while if the cabbage had a rotten or crooked stalk it was said to signify that the girl’s husband would be a “stingy old man”. A cabbage with two heads was said to protend that the girl would end a widow, while if the cabbage was hollow in the centre it foretold that the young woman would never marry and end her days as a spinster. Additionally, the number buds on the cabbage were believed to correspond the number of children the marriage would produce, and many accounts state that the cabbage must be stolen.

Illustrated London News, 1865, by  J.T. Lucas

While the above practices were generally carried out in company, other forms of divination were traditionally carried out a person alone. These practices often commenced at midnight, and were always performed in the name of the devil. One described by Lady Jane Wilde as “the most fearful of all” involved a girl uttering an incarnation before a looking-glass, in the expectation of catching a glimpse of her future husband, it happened sometimes that instead of seeing their future love, the looking-glass instead reflected an image “too terrible to describe”, and the girl from shock would either die or spend the rest of her days in a state of great distress.

Many of divination rites practiced on Hallowe’en were aimed at inducing a dream of one’s future lover. One method of achieving this was to eat a salted egg, a smoked herring, or some other food that would cause thirst  – in the hope that whilst asleep your future lover would come to your aid in a dream with a glass of water. Another rite, which was supposed to give you a glimpse future love while sleeping, involved gathering ten ivy or yarrow leaves – cut with a black handled knife, and without speaking a word. The tenth leaf was thrown away, while the remaining nine were sneaked into the house once everyone was asleep, and were then placed under a pillow in a sock or stocking, with only the following words uttered:-

“Nine ivy leaves I place under my head,

To dream of the living and not of the dead.

If ere I be married or wed unto thee,

To dream of her to-night, and her for to see,

The colour of her hair, and the clothes that she wears,

And the day that she’ll be wedded to me.”

* In some areas, including parts of County Mayo, both young women and men participated in this activity.


Donaldson, John. A Historical and Statistical Account of the Barony of Upper Fews in the County of Armagh, 1838.

McGlinchey, Charles, The Last of a Name

Wilde, Lady Jane. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland. 1890

Folklore, various articles, 1881-1916

Journal of the Kildare Historical and Archaeological Society, 1908

Welcoming the New Moon in Irish Folklore

In Ireland there are a host of traditional beliefs and rituals that were once commonly observed to acknowledge the arrival of the New Moon.  It which was generally believed that at first sight of a new moon a person’s behaviour could influence their fate until the start of the next moon cycle.

One such widespread belief, which has survived advised that in order for a person to increase their fortune a piece of silver should be borrowed when the New Moon first appeared, in the belief that your wealth would increase as the new moon waxed, while, at least in County Clare, it was considered lucky to turn the coins in your pocket on the first occasion that the luminary is sighted. In a similar manner, but with less favourable results, it was believed to be unlucky to catch sight of the New Moon through glass; a correspondent from a 1903 issue of Ireland’s Own warned that sorrow would follow a person who saw a new moon through glass until the following new moon appeared. Even the position that the New Moon was viewed from was deemed to be of consequence to the viewer’s fate: ideally, for luck, the New Moon should be seen over the right shoulder, while to see the New Moon over the left shoulder was believed to be unlucky, and seeing the New Moon directly before you was said to foretell that the onlooker would have a fall.

Direct appeals were also made to the New Moon, with some believing that a person who  demonstrated their veneration for the New Moon upon its first appearance would receive protection for as long as the moon lasted. In his 1870 book Irish Folk Lore Fr. John O’Hanlon provided two accounts of the manner in which salutations were made to the New Moon during the middle of the nineteenth in County Galway.

In the first account, a person kneels down before the moon says a Pater or Ave, and then recites the following address:

‘Oh Moon! May thou leave us safe, as thou hast found us!’

While in the second account a person should ‘make a sign of the Cross, while at the same time chanting in an undertone the following short prayer:

“God and the holy Virgin be about me!”

And finally the following verse:

“I see the moon, and the moon sees me;

God bless the moon, and God bless me!”’

Appeals to the New Moon were also made by young women who sought insight to the identity of their future husband. In the early years of the twentieth-century an elderly woman from County Tipperary gave A. H. Singleton a detailed account of the following salutation which she had tried in her young day for insight into her future love life:

‘When you get a sight of it [the New Moon] kneel down, and with a black-handled knife lift a sod from under your right knee and from under the toe of your right foot repeating:

“New moon, new moon,

Happy may I be;

Whoever is my true love

This night may I see.”

Once this verse is recited a number of times the Lords pray should be repeated, after which the sod of earth is lifted from under your knee and foot and hidden outside your house ‘till you are ready to go to bed, then bring it inside. You must not speak to a living soul once the earth brought into the house. Then put the earth into the right-foot stocking, and put that under your head. But be sure you talk to no one till morning.’


Anonymous correspondent. Ireland’s Own, Vol 1, No. 8, 14 January 1903.

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

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

Singleton, A. H. ‘Dairy Folklore and other Notes from Meath and Tipperary.’ London, 1904.

Hallowe’en & the Dead Amongst Us

The souls of the dead were believed to be able to walk among the living between Hallowe’en and All Souls Day. When darkness fell great care was taken by the living to honour and extend hospitality to their own departed. To welcome the wandering dead on Hallowe’en, front doors were left open, food was prepared, and seats were set by the fire, which was built to burn through the night. Before the household retired to bed prayers were said and candles lit for the souls of those family members who had passed away. In parts of County Wexford candles served another purpose, and were placed in the windows of houses to assist departed loved ones in finding their past homes.

While released from their suffering the hospitality extended to the dead was, in part, offered out of respect, but also as a precautionary measure, as the dead were supposed to be jealous of the living, and believed to take revenge over past grievances. Many feared to set foot outside on Hallowe’en; as Lady Wilde explained ‘according to the popular belief, it is not safe to be near a churchyard on Hallow Eve, and people should not leave their homes after dark, or the ghosts would pursue them . . . if on that night you hear footsteps following you, beware of looking round; it is the dead who are behind you ; and if you meet their glance, assuredly you must die.’

For the mothers of babies who had died before baptism, even as they sat at home, Hallowe’en presented  a night of great anguish and sorrow, as prayers could not save the souls of their unbaptised offspring who where thought to be the captives of the fairies, and only released on Hallowe’en when the fairies had their own revels. As a Mayo correspondent wrote to the Graphic newspaper in 1881, unbaptised babies ‘come to gaze hopelessly in at the warm kitchen and the mother from whom it was so crudely torn, while it shivers and wails in the cold. Then she will make the sign of the cross and then weep, but dares not offer up a prayer for the doomed soul, which, she believes, must wander hopelessly for eternity.’


Carbery, Mary. The Farm by Lough Gur: The Story of Mary Fogarty. Dublin, 1937.

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

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

Various articles from volumes of the Folklore Journal and the Graphic.

Painting James Walter Gozzard, 1888-1950

Irish Folklore for Ireland’s winter visitor the Barnacle Goose

George Marples, 1869-1939, Barnacle Geese

From as early as the middle of September each year flocks of barnacle geese, known in Irish as Gé ghiúrainn, make their winter homes on remote sea-cliffs and islands that surround Ireland’s northern and western coasts, where they stay until their eventual departure which commences as the weather starts to warm up, which usually occurs by the following April. We now know that barnacle geese migrate to Ireland, flying thousands of miles in their distinctive V-shaped formation from the sea-cliffs of Greenland where they spend the summer months, mate, nest, and rear their young goslings. Prior to the development of scientific explanations on the migratory habits of birds the mysterious appearance and disappearance of barnacle geese in Ireland, coupled with the absence of evidence of their reproduction, led many to take special notice of the arrival of these winter visitors in Ireland, and to ascribe legendary explanations for the origin and reproduction of barnacle geese.

As winter visitors the date of arrival of barnacle geese on Irish shores is traditionally believed to provide insight into the weather of the coming season. As noted in a number of accounts provided by the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection, which collected folklore from Irish Schoolchildren in the late 1930s, the early arrival of these geese, between late September and early October was believed to be a harbinger of a ‘hard’ or ‘severe winter.’ The early arrival of barnacle geese, however, was not always believed to impact the weather of the whole season; Mary Agnes Bonner of Ardmalin, County Donegal, provided a local belief that gave the premature arrival of the barnacle goose a shorter period of influence over Ireland’s winter weather noting that the geese’s arrival ‘is a sure sign of a month’s bad weather.’

Barnacle Tree, 1597

The mysterious appearance and disappearance of barnacle geese, who neither nest nor rear their young goslings on Irish shores, led to a number of variants of legends that attempted to explain the obscure origin and reproduction of these distinctive winter visitors.  The earliest documented account describing the origin of barnacle geese is recorded in the twelfth century text The History and Topography of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales], who claimed to have witnessed the conception of these geese himself, noting that ‘first they appear as excrescences on fir-logs carried down upon the waters. Then they hang by their beaks from what seems like sea-weed clinging to the log, while their bodies, to allow for their more unimpeded development, are enclosed in shells. And so in the course of time, having put on a stout covering of feathers, they either slip into the water, or take themselves in flight to the freedom of the air.’ Similar variants to Cambrensis’ account of the reproduction of barnacle geese were still well remembered in more recent centuries. The Belfast born ornithologist, Edward A. Armstrong noted in his 1940 book Birds of the Grey Wind  the widespread familiarity of the belief ‘that barnacle geese are generated from the shell-fish of the same name.’* Armstrong also noted that in his 1882 hunting manual The Fowler in Ireland Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey asserted that around the coast of Ireland ‘men were to be found who professed to have seen the transmogrification taking place. Writing for the Schools’ Collection, in the late nineteen thirties, Mick Campbell of Speenoge in County Donegal recalled hearing the old people ‘say that the gosling of the barnacle goose falls from a barnacle that grows on a certain tree, on a certain shore on one particular island of the Orkney- and nowhere else.’

The accepted and widespread conclusion that barnacle geese were not born of flesh had a significant impact on the consumption of food on Ireland’s many and various fast days throughout the year, which included Fridays, Holy Days and Lent. In the twelfth century Giraldus Cambrensis noted that ‘in some parts of Ireland bishops and religious men eat them [barnacle goose] without sin during a fasting time, regarding them not to be flesh, since they were not born of flesh.’ In 1215, just thirty years after Cambrensis’ visit to Ireland, Pope Innocent III saw that it was fit and necessary to specifically forbid the eating of barnacle goose on fast days. Despite Pope Innocent III’s edict, the consumption of barnacle goose by fasting Irish Catholics continued well into the twentieth century. Kevin Danaher in his 1972 seminal work The Year in Ireland confirmed that the tradition of Irish people, including members of the Catholic clergy, eating barnacle goose on fast days, in the belief that the geese were of the sea rather than of flesh, continued until relatively recent times in areas along the west coast of Ireland, including parts of Donegal and Kerry, and that a well-known hotel in Tralee served ‘brent goose# during Lent, mainly for the benefit of the clergy.’

*Edward A. Armstrong thought it probable that the word barnacle was attached to these geese through the similarities between the Latin word for shell-fish – bernaculae, and the Latin word for referring to birds – Hibernicae or Hiberniculae.

      # Brent geese were, and to some extent still are, often confused with barnacle geese. At one time they were they were thought to be of the same species.


Armstrong, Edward Allworthy. Birds of the Grey Wind. Oxford, 1950.

Cambrensis, Giraldus. The History and Topology of Ireland. Translated by John O’Meara. Harmondsworth, 1982.

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