The fairies were thought to be particularly active under the light of the full moon. On those brightly illuminated nights fairies, who lived in beautiful palaces under the sea, were said to come up on to the land to revel and converse with the fairies of Ireland, at fairy mounds and around hawthorn trees, as Lady Wilde explains, ‘on moonlight nights they often come up on the land, riding their white horses, and they hold revels with their fairy kindred of the earth, who live in the clefts of the hills, and they dance together on the green sward under the ancient trees, and drink, nectar from the cups of the flowers, which is the fairy wine.’
As fairies and mortals lived separate but connected lives, the full moon presented greater possibilities of association between these two races. On Inishbofin, for example, dread of the fairies was so strong that when the moon was fullest, young girls were encouraged to stay indoors to avoid being abducted as brides to the fairies, while the good people’s* beautiful music and dancing was said to have tempted many a young girl to leave her home on these most ominous evenings. The full moon also presented an opportunity for the fairies to seek revenge on anyone who had slighted them, and anyone who built over a mound or cut down a fairy tree would do well to stay in on these nights for there are many stories that attest that the fairies took their opportunity to seek revenge on those mortals on these moonlit evenings.
* When speaking of the fairies the name ‘good people’ was often used as a precaution to causing offence.
Lady Jane Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887.
Lady Jane Wilde, Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland, 1890.
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.
In Ireland there are a host of traditional beliefs and rituals that were widely observed in acknowledgement of the arrival of the New Moon. It was traditionally believed that a person’s behaviour at the first sight of a new moon could influence their fate until the start of the next moon cycle.
One such widespread belief advises that in order for a person to increase their fortune a piece of silver should be borrowed when the New Moon first appears, as it was believed that your wealth would increase as the new moon waxed. 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 appearance of the following new moon. 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 a fall.
Direct appeals were also made to the New Moon. Some believed 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.’
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.
‘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)