Irish Popular Superstitions

From Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions

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CHAPTER I...continued

The native humour of the people is not so rich and racy as in days of yore; the full round laugh does not now bubble up from the heart of the Irish girl when making her toilet at the wayside pool, nor the joke pass from the pedlar or bagman to the pig-driver as they trudge alongside of one another to fair or market. Well, honoured be the name of Theobald Mathew—but, after all, a power of fun went away with the whiskey.

The spirits of the people isn't what they were when a man could get drunk for three halfpence, and find a sod on a kippeen [10] over the door of every second cabin in the parish, from Balloughoiage bridge to the town of Glan. The pilgrimages formerly undertaken to holy wells and sacred shrines for cures and penances have been strenuously interdicted; the wells themselves neglected, the festival days of their saints passed by, and their virtues forgotten; their legends, too, often of great interest to the topographer and historian, and many of which were recounted by the bards and annalists of earlier times, are untold; and the very sites of many of these localities are at present unknown.

The fairies, the whole pantheon of Irish demigods are retiring, one by one, from the habitations of man to the distant islands where the wild waves of the Atlantic raise their foaming crests, to render their fastnesses inaccessible to the schoolmaster and the railroad engineer; or they have fled to the mountain passes, and have taken up their abodes in those wild romantic glens—lurking in the gorgeous yellow furze and purple heath, amidst the savage disruptured rocks, or creeping beneath the warrior's grave, learnedly, but erroneously, called the Druid Crumlegh—where the legend preserved by the antiquary, or the name transmitted by the topographer, alone marks their present habitation.

When the peasant passes through these situations now he forgets to murmur the prayer which was known to preserve from harm those who trod the paths of the "good people," and, by thrusting his thumb between his fore and middle finger, to make the sign of the cross—indeed, he scarcely remembers to cross himself at all; and in a few years to come the localities of the fairies will be altogether forgotten. The wild strains of aerial music which floated round the ancient rath, and sung the matin and the vesper of the shepherd boy, who kept his flocks hard by, are heard no more, and the romance of elfin life is no longer recited to amuse or warn the rising peasant generation. To the log-house by the broad waters of the Ohio or the Missisippi, to the wild monotonous Australian prairie, or even to the golden soil of California, the emigrant has carried the fairy lore of the mother country; so that, to the charming descriptions of our countrywoman, Mrs. Hall—to the traits and stories of William Carleton—the happy illustration of Irish manners by Banim and Gerald Griffin—the pencillings of Lady Chatterton, or the graphic sketches of Caesar Otway and Samuel Lover—but, above all, to the Munster legends, embalmed by Crofton Croker, must the enquirer after fairy lore refer, who would seek for information on such matters in Ireland twenty years to come.[11]

Would that the Irish emigrant carried with him his superstitions only. But no. In the rankling hatred towards the English rule in Ireland—increased by the very circumstances under which so many of our countrymen now quit our shores, fostered and transmitted unalloyed for generations to a foreign soil—has future England more to fear from future America in case of national war, than all the rebellions and agitations which puny Ireland could possibly excite, now or hereafter.

The ordnance survey, of which we feel so justly proud, is a case in point. It was commenced in 1825, and finished a few years ago. Eminent scholars, well acquainted with the language and habits of the people, and educated up to the point required, traversed the country in all directions, talked with, and lived among the people, for the purpose of fixing ancient boundaries, testing the accuracy and value of ancient documents, and collecting that great amount of traditional, antiquarian, and topographical information which our ordnance records at present embody; while another class of men were occupied at home in arranging, collating, testing with ancient Gaelic manuscripts, and finally preserving the information transmitted to them by the former. Could the materials then obtained be collected now? No. We may confidently appeal to Larcom, Petrie, O'Donovan, Curry, and other eminent men employed upon that great national work, for the truth of this assertion.

The dynasties of Europe have been shaken; many of the most ancient governments overthrown; and the whole of the continent convulsed with internal strife, or shaken by sudden change as the late tempest of revolution swept along its plains and leaped over its mountain tops. The very Pope himself, the head of the most widely-spread and numerous sect of Christians in the world, has been rudely driven from the seat of St. Peter, a wanderer and an exile, though assisted by the contributions of the "starving Irish!" and in all probability his temporal power has been much abridged or even annihilated: but what are these revolutions to that which has been and is now effecting in Ireland by the failure of a single article of diet? All these countries will settle down, more or less, into the condition in which they were before 1848. Some change emperors —young ones for old—though, as in the case of Aladdin's lamp, the change may not be for the better; others discard kings, and, under the name of republicanism, enjoy presidents or dictators; parliaments appear to be the panacea with one set of people, and a scoffing disregard of excommunication the chief delight and boast of another; but in the end it will be found that they will nearly all shake down with a very little more or very little less of liberty than they had in the beginning of the year 1848.[12] The German will twist his moustache, smoke, and live on his beer and sour krout; and the Frenchman drink his wine at three sous a bottle, shrug his shoulders, and enjoy his fête as before. Not so the Irishman; all his habits and modes of life, his very nature, position, and standing in the social scale of creation, will and must be altered by the loss of his potato. Ay, even more than if he was suddenly compelled to turn Mahommedan,—changing all his chapels, churches, and meetinghouses into mosques,—or had a parliament going round with the judge of assize, and sitting in every county town in Ireland twice a-year.

"I wasn't asey in myself," says our old friend Darby, "till I wrote to tell you all the doins that's gettin' on with in the counthry, and how, if times doesn't mind, I'll sell the two little slips [13]—them that was bonoveens on last Lady-day—and gather in the trifle of money that's due me out of the gombeen [14] these two years; and when I've made baton [15] of the meddin, and dishposed of the cabin and the little garden to Phauric Brannach, I'll be after takin' myself and the ould woman to the place they're diggin' up the goold as thick as poorens [16] used to be in harvest. Besides, I'm noways continted at stayin' here at this present writin', and I'm tould Colonel Browne is watching me like a tarrier after a weasel. Whisht! sure avourneen, I was out in the 'ruction in '98; and I walked all the ways to see Dan (the heavens be his bed this night!) at Tara, and bring home a sod from off the grave of the boys we planted there the night afore I ran back into Connaught—just to the ould spud, where your own four bones were bred and born, a one side of Rawcroghan."

If ever there was a nation that clung to the soil, and earned patriotism by the love of the very ground they walk on, it is (or we may now write was) the Irish peasantry. The Jew carries about with him from land to land a portion of the soil of Palestine, that it may mingle with his grave. Lately, when the author of the "Pleasures of Hope" was interred, a deputation of the Poles of London cast into his tomb—an offering to his genius—some earth from the grave of Kosciusko. Not many years ago, we stood upon the custom-house quays of Dublin, watching a large emigrant ship, bound for St. John's, getting under weigh. The wind and tide were favourable; the captain was impatient, and the names of the passengers having been called over, it was found that one was missing, a stout labourer from Kilkenny, a great favourite with his neighbours and fellow-passengers. The captain swore, as captains will on such occasions, that he would not wait a moment for the rascal, who, he supposed, was "getting drunk" in some of the neighbouring public-houses.[17] The prayers and entreaties of his fellow-passengers were in vain; the last plank was about to be hauled on board, when the missing passenger rushed breathless through the crowd towards the ship, carrying in his hands a green sod, about as large as that used to "estate" a lark, which he had just cut from one of the neighbouring fields.

"Well," said he, as he gained the deck, amidst the shouts of his friends," with the blessing of God, I'll have this over me in the new country." Was not this patriotism?

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[10] A sod of turf stuck on a sally switch or kippeen, and placed in the thatch of an Irish cabin, is the sign of "good liquor within."

[11] The best of all our fairy tales are, perhaps, the "Superstitions of the Irish Peasantry," in the volumes of the "London and Dublin Magazine," published from 1825 to 1828. "The Newry Magazine," and "Bolster's Cork Magazine," also contain much interesting information on this subject.

One of our most learned and observant Roman Catholic friends has just written to us, in answer to some queries relative to superstitions—"The tone of society in Ireland is becoming more and more 'Protestant' every year; the literature is a Protestant one, and even the priests are becoming more Protestant in their conversation and manners. They have condemned all the holy wells and resorts of pilgrims, with the single exception of Lough Derg, and of this they are ashamed: for, whenever a Protestant goes upon the Island, the ceremonies are stopped! Among all the affectionate mentions of his dearly-beloved father made by John O'Connell, he had not the courage to say 'the Lord rest his sowle.' I have watched these changes with great interest."

[12] This assertion was printed in the "Dublin University Magazine" for May, 1849. Subsequent events have proved its truth.

[13] Slip is the term applied to a young pig, of from six months to one year old; while bonov, or bonoveen, means a piggin-riggin, or sucking-pig, or one much younger than a slip.

[14] Gombeen means lending out money or provisions upon an exorbitant and most usurious rate of interest; by it, however, has commenced the foundation of many a considerable fortune. A gombeen man is among the country people what the bill-broker and money-lender is among the higher classes.

[15] Baton—skinning the land and burning it, in order to extract its utmost value as manure. Various acts of parliament are in force against this most injurious practice; but it is still had recourse to, particularly in Monaghan, to the detriment of both land and landlord.

[16] Poreens— small potatoes.

[17] The facetious, witty, and sarcastic Brennan was once asked at dinner, whether he did not like to be drunk?—"No, ma'am," was his reply, "but I like to be getting drunk."