‘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.’
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland.
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.’
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.’
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.
Hannon, John (Lageniensis), Irish Folk Lore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country; with Humouress Tales. London, 1870.
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.
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 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
‘On May Eve the threshold must be stewn with “May-flowers” (marsh-marigolds). On last May Eve, only a few days ago, I saw our cook coming in with a great bunch of May-flowers, which she told me she intended on strewing on the thresholds of all the entrance doors of the house, as, being May Eve, the fairies would have great power, and the May-flowers are a potent charm to prevent them entering the house. “Besides,” she said, “whoever comes across the threshold, particularly that of the kitchen, must step on the flowers, and bring good luck and plenty of butter into the house.”
One should always try to be the first to draw water at a well or spring on May morning. It brings good luck to the house, and plenty of butter all year.
No one (who keeps cows) likes to be the first in the neighbourhood to light his fire on May morning, as the witches (not the fairies) take the first smoke that appears to work spells where-with to take the butter off the milk for the whole year.
It is very unlucky to take fire out of a house on May morning. If a passer-by wants a light for his pipe, he must not carry away the sod of turf. If he does, he must bring back another to replace it.’
‘There are some days in the week considered unpropitious by the people for certain work or projects. Thus, no one should undertake any business of importance on Wednesdays or Fridays, nor set out on a journey, nor get married; and should the ancient superstition be disregarded, evil will fall on the sinner, and whether it comes from heaven or hell, come it will, so the peasants believe, for the fairies are out on those nights, and have their revels and dances, and no mortal should trouble them. But the fairies never have three parties in the week, for that is the number of the Trinity, and is sacred and holy; so they leave the other days free to men.’