‘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
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Foster, Jeanne Cooper. Ulster Folklore. Belfast, 1951.
Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.
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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.