Halloween Divination in Ireland

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Illustrated London News, 1871

In Ireland Hallowe’en was the most popular night of the year to practice divination, which provided much amusement and excitement. As summer turned to winter on this night, the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld were believed to be less pronounced, and so on Hallowe’en many games, rituals and rites were, and still are, performed partly in earnest and partly in fun, 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 objects in the saucers varied from region to region, and even between one house and another, but generally included some of the following; 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 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 they would emigrate or travel, while a button or thimble would die bachelor or a spinster.

In another game nuts were used to determine if two young people would be good together when married. Two nuts were named after the pair 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.

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

While the above practices were carried out in company, other forms of divination were traditionally carried out by isolated individuals. 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 these rites 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.

Sources

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

Michaelmas in Irish Folklore

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Postcard uncredited

Michaelmas is the feast-day of the Archangel Michael and is traditionally observed throughout Ireland on the 29th September. A host of tradition is attached to this date, for example, male children born on, or near, Michaelmas were often called Michael or Micheál in his honour. While in Swinford, County Mayo, in the early twentieth century,  Michaelmas had a special significance; 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 and eaten in honour of the saint. John Hannon in his 1870 book Irish Folklore maintained that a sheep used to be slaughtered by those who could afford it on Michaelmas day, while he also states that it was ‘ordained by law that a part of the animal must be given to the poor. This is said to have been done, in order to perpetuate the memory of a miracle wrought by St Patrick, through the assistance of that Archangel.’

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uncredited

Michaelmas also acted as a marker for certain civic and domestic activities. In many Irish towns, including Drogheda, Dublin and Kilkenny, the Mayor took office on Michaelmas Day. Up until the first decades of the 19th century, on the feast day of Saint Michael, a bull was baited* at a bull-ring situated  near Saint Francis Abbey in Kilkenny. In some areas Michaelmas was one of the two annual rent days, previously known in Ireland as Gale Days, (the other being the 25 March), in place of the more usual Gale Days of the first days of May and November. Domestically the woman of the house started slaughtering the foul at Michaelmas, with the first goose slaughtered becoming the “Michaelmas Goose”, while for the men, the day marked the beginning of the fox and hare hunting seasons, and, in many parts of Ireland, the end of the fishing season.

Otherworldly creatures were active at Michaelmas, and children were warned not to eat blackberries after Michaelmas eve, as it was believed that the púca  flies through the county defiling the blackberries on that night.** Michaelmas was also a time for divination; a Michaelmas cake was baked on the night of Michaelmas with a ring mixed through the dough, exactly as is still done on Hallowe’en. Portions of the cake were then distributed amongst any unmarried persons who were present, with the belief that whomever discovered the ring was destined to be wed before next Michaelmas.

 

*Bull-baiting typically involved a bull being attacked by dogs, while trapped in an area, often a pit of some kind.

**The púca, sometimes spelled pooka, is a shape-shifting spirit that most commonly takes the form of a horse, but can also take the form of other animals, it was also said that the púca defiled blackberries on Hallowe’en.

 

Sources

Hannon, John (Lageniensis), Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humouress Tales. London1870.

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

Synge, J. M. In Connemara. Dublin, 1910/1979.

Various articles from the Folklore Journal, up until 1920, as well as Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, 1852 and the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1897.