Halloween Divination in Ireland

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1871-ireland-blindfolded-man-game-candle-light 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…

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The Dead Among Us – Hallowe’en in Irish Folklore

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james-waltr-gozzard James Walter Gozzard 1888-1950

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…

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Fridays, the Fairies & Stolen Brides

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Ireland –

Goblin Market - Arthur Rackham Goblin Market – Arthur Rackham

Lady Wilde;

‘The creation of Adam, the Fall, the expulsion from Eden, and the death of Christ, all took place on a Friday; hence its evil repute and fatal influence, above all other days of the week, upon human actions. But the fairies have great power on that day, and mortals should stay at home after sunset, for the fairies always hold their revels upon Fridays, and resent being interfered with or troubled by the human presence.’

‘On Fridays the fairies have special powers over all things, and chiefly on that day they select and carry off the young mortal girls as brides for the fairy chiefs. But after seven years, when the girls grow old and ugly, they send them back to their kindred, giving them, however, as compensation, a knowledge of herbs and philtres and secret spells, by which they can kill…

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A Vigil for the Feast of Saint Francis in Athlone

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Westmeath-

3 October –

athlone-castle Athlone by Richard Lovett, circa 1900

J.G. Conmee. Glanduff, 1902;

‘The Feast of St. Francis was a day of great devotion in the Barony, and fifty years ago it was the custom for a crowd of its good people to gather into the St. Francian Church at Luainford [Athlone] to keep not only the day itself, but even its Vigil.

The whole night before a throng of country people sat up in the little church, and passed the time in the familiar and homely practices of piety then so dear to them. Foremost among these was the Rosary – the decades being “let round” by men or women of recognised social or spiritual superiority – not within a mild contention now and then as to whether it was Pat Ryan’s or Mrs. Murphy’s turn to officiate, or whether the fifth “dicket” had or had not been…

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Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

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nev-fyr-001 Postcard uncredited

Michaelmas, the feast-day of the Archangel Michael, is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of traditions and beliefs are associated with the day, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in honour of the saint, while in Swinford, County Mayo,  Michaelmas had a special significance and was a time of celebration and reunion; as many locals returned to Swinford from working the harvest in England on, or before, the day of the feast, according to John Millington Synge the returned harvesters would be, ‘sitting around in each other’s houses playing cards through the night, and a barrel of ale set up among them.’

As with many Irish calendar customs food took a central role in the activities of the day. An animal – usually a goose, which was generally referred to as a Michaelmas Goose, was slaughtered…

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The Last Sheaf – A Harvest Rite for the Old Hag

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201ec6f8866b112867cbc3c62862aaf1 Irish harvest workers, 1920s. Photographer unknown

Traditionally the cutting of the last sheaf of corn, or cailleach ‘old hag/witch/wife’*, as it was generally known in Ireland, was observed as a special rite on many farms throughout the country. The corn harvest was typically saved by late September or early October, on the final day a bunch of corn was left standing in the corner of the last field to be harvested, this sheaf would be plaited to symbolically represent an old woman, witch, or hag, who was generally blamed for any misfortune suffered by the people.

A contest of skill was then devised to dislodge this sheaf. In the north of Ireland they generally followed this pattern; labourers, standing at a distance of ten yards, or metres, took turns throwing hooks intending to fell the cailleach. Once the sheaf was felled it was brought triumphantly to the farmer’s wife and hung about her…

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The Full Moon & the Fairies in Irish Folklore

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images Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1867 – 1939

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…

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The Fair of Donnybrook

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Dublin-

26 August-

Donnybrook Fair Donnybrook Fair – Erskine Nicol, 1859

Richard  Warburton, 1818;

‘It is however at the fair of Donnybrook, that the natural humour and peculiar character of the lower classes of the metropolis are best seen. Donnybrook is a pleasant village contiguous to the south suburbs of the city.

It has a green or common, on which the fair is held, in the month of August. It is regularly proclaimed, and is attended by police officers, whose interposition is indispensable to preserve the peace. The fair, which is held for the sale of horses and black cattle, lasts a week, during which time every mode of amusement and gymnastic exercise peculiar to the Irish is practised, each day concluding with a pitched battle, in which much blood is spilled, and many heads broken, but rarely and life lost.

The Green is covered with tents, and filled with pipers, fiddlers…

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The Lady Well at Modeligo

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Waterford-

Holy Well near Modeligo, Waterford Holy Well near Modeligo, Waterford

Gordon W. Foksayeth, 1911;

‘In the parish of Modeligo, on the right bank of the Finisk, there may be found a remarkable specimen of the many holy wells of Ireland.

The name “well” is really deceptive : for the water is merely rainwater, and does not derive its existence from any spring, but is simply contained in a bath-shaped receptacle in a piece of limestone jutting up from the surface of the land. The dimensions of the well are about 4 feet long, by 3 feet broad, and 2 feet deep. I have called it bath-shaped, as it is an oval in appearance, and seems to be an unusually large bullaun, or a natural cavity in the rock. There is generally about six inches of water in it, and a legend asserts the existence of an inscribed cross and an inscription on the bottom…

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Puck Fair of Killorglin

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Kerry-

Puck Fair Puck Fair Killorglin, circa 1900 – From the National Library of Ireland’s Photographic Collection

John M. Synge, circa 1900;

‘The greatest event in West Kerry is the horse-fair known as Puck Fair, which is held in August.

If one asks anyone, many miles east or  west of Killorglin, when he reaped his oats or sold his pigs or heifers, he will tell you it was four or five weeks, or whatever it may be, before or after Puck.

On the main roads, for many days past, I have been falling in with tramps and trick characters of all kinds, sometimes single and sometimes in parties of four or five, and as I am on the roads a great deal I have met the same persons several days in succession – one day perhaps at Ballinskelligs, the next day at Feakle Callaigh and the third in the outskirts of Killorglin.

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