The peculiar superstitions of a people
will often throw a light upon their ancient faiths. Baring-Gould has
remarked, "Much of the religion of the lower orders, which we regard as
essentially divine, is ancient heathenism, refined with Christian
symbols." Whatever doubt may be felt as to this, all must admit the
underlying paganism of some customs, credences, or sayings. Gomme tells
us that "the local fetishism to be found in Aryan countries simply
represents the undying faith of the older race."
Dr. Todd, in his work on Irish Religion, ventured
on more tender ground, when he wrote concerning the "Guardsman’s Cry" of
St. Patrick — "The prayer which it contains against women, smiths, and
Druids, together with the invocation of the powers of the sky, the sun,
fire, lightning., proves that, notwithstanding the undoubted piety and
fervent Christian faith of the author, he had not yet fully shaken off
the pagan prejudices." Giraldus Cambrensis declared that the Irish, at
the conquest by Henry II ,justified their condemnation by the Pope,"
being more ignorant than all other nations of the first principles of
The legends of the English and French might be shown to
contain a vast amount of questionable common sense and faith; but our
present inquiry is to trace the underlying opinions of the ancient
Leaving outside the so-called Druidical megalithic
monuments, about the origin of which, in circles, pillars., we know
little or nothing beyond speculation, and which are scattered almost all
over the globe, we notice in the Irish certain notions and practices
connected with stones that reflect the manners of former times.
The stone of Cuamchoill, near Tipperary, produced
blindness on those who gazed on it. Stones of Speculation, Liath
Meisieth, used to draw fire, were much revered. One object in the
Irish Museum, of brass cased in silver, six inches by four, has the
precious crystal in the centre, set round with coloured stones. The
footprints of the angel Victor were to be seen on a stone in Down
County, as the celestial being alighted to deliver-his message from on
high to St. Patrick.
In the Glimpses of Erin, by S. and Alice
Milligan, an interesting notice occurs of the Brash or Bullan
stones, in Cork Co, though there is a specimen at the Seven
Churches of Glendalough. "The upper surface of this
monument," say they, "is indented with four deep basin-shaped hollows.
Two of them, the smallest, are quite close to each other at one edge;
the other two, of larger size, are at the opposite edge. The devotee
placed his or her knees in the smaller hollows; and, repeating a certain
number of prayers, dropped an offering of some minute article into the
larger. This operation, with certain rounds and washings at the Well,
was deemed a specific for rheumatic pains and other ailments."
It is added, of the Brash superstition, "This is
a pagan cultus, which all the power of Christianity, the personal
influence of the cleric, and national education, have not been able to
obliterate." A respectable farmer declared that he was not above saying
a prayer at the "blessed stone" when he came that way. The water found
in hollows of Bullan stones was held good for bad eyes.
Upright Standing Stones, or Dallans, the
same authorities assure us, are reverenced as in idolatrous India. Mr.
Milligan says, "The Inismurray women kneel before these stones, and pray
that they may be delivered from the perils of childbirth." St. Bridget’s
stone at the Faughard, Louth, has a raised work round it, with St.
Bridget’s pillar near it upon steps, round which the devotees walk.
The Clocha breca, or speckled stones of Inismurray, Sligo, are thus described by Dr. O’Donovan —
"They are round stones, of various sizes, and arranged
in such order that they cannot be easily reckoned; and, if you believe
the natives, they cannot be reckoned at all. These stones are turned,
and, if I understand them rightly, their order changed by the
inhabitants on certain occasions, when they visit the shrine to wish
good or evil against their neighbours." An aeir, or long-curse,
has been often thus hurled against a private enemy.
There is no account of the people, as recorded of some
Celts, worshipping a bloody spear, or one placed in a vase upon the
altar, as With the Scythians; but Spenser, in Queen Elizabeth’s time,
observed the Irish drink blood in a certain ceremony, and swear by the
right hand of their chiefs.
Solinus, in the early Christian centuries, must have
heard strange tales of Eric, when he left this record — "It is a surly,
savage race. ‘the soldier in the moment of victory takes a draught of
his enemy’s blood, and smears his face with the gore. The mother puts
her boy’s first food, for luck, on the end of her husband’s sword, and
lightly pushes it into the infant’s mouth, with a prayer to the gods of
her tribe that her son may have a soldier’s death."
The Evil Eye was an object of dread, and
penalties concerning it are conspicuous in the old Brehon laws. The
Suil Bhaloirs, or Balor eye, relates to one Balor, who was
able by an eye to strike a foe dead. Love potions, on the contrary, are
referred to in many ancient songs.
Persons were put under vows to do or not to do a thing.
They were said to be under Gesa. This was often imposed with
certain spells or charms.
Raising the wind — so valuable a power in sailing days —
was the privilege of a few, and had its votaries down to the last
century. Windbound fishermen of the Hebrides, too, used to walk, sunwise, round the chapel of
Fladda, in Fladdahuan Isle, and pour water
upon a round, bluish-looking stone. This effectually raised a wind. The
gods then kept the wind in bags. Not so long ago, old women in the
Shetlands would sell wind to sailors.
Dreams have played a great part in Ireland. In St.
Patrick’s Confession they are referred to. Professor O’Curry
explains the meaning attached to them by the peasantry. Auguries were
taken from the flight of birds, from beasts, and the appearance of
clouds. Prodigies were not always perceived but by favoured parties.
Thus we read in one poem, "The King alone beheld the terrible sight; and
he foresaw the death of his people." Showers of blood were thus beheld.
Bards at times recognized the sounds of approaching death on the strings
of their harps.
Miracles were of ordinary occurrence, and of varied
character. Tales were told of early saints crossing the Irish Sea by
standing upon their garments laid upon the water. They are similar to
what is noted in Hucher’s Le Saint Graal, where a number of
Christians came to Britain upon Joseph of Arimathea’s shirt, which grew
in size with the number mounting upon it.
Transformations, especially into animal forms, have been
implicitly believed in by the peasantry. Some perceive in this the
system of Totemism. Prof. Rhys was led to recognize a Dog-totem in
Ireland from the number of dog-names. Conaire, son-of-bird, must not eat
bird; and Cuchulainn, the hero, named after a dog, was told not to eat
of dog; he was ruined by breaking the order. "The descendants of the
wolf in Ossory," we are told in Wonders of Erin, "could then transform
themselves into wolves." The wolf was the totem of Ossory.
Druids, as tradition relates, could change men into
animals or trees. Dalyell’s Darker Superstitions of Scotland
gives a number of such transforming stories. Thus Minerva changed
Ulysses, for fear of his enemies
"She spake, then touched him with her powerful wand;
The skin shrunk up, and withered at her hand:
A swift old age o’er all his members spread,
A sudden frost was sprinkled on his head."
An Indian changed himself to a mouse to catch a fairy
dancer. So many Irish tales relate to transformations, though more for
war stratagem than love beguilements.
Andrew Lang, referring to Cupid and Psyche, equally
applicable to other superstitions, observes, "We explain the separation
of the lovers as the result of breaking a taboo, or one of etiquette,
binding among men and women as well as between men and fairies."
Witchcraft — the conscious or unconscious exercise of a
power peculiar to some persons, in greater or lesser degree, of
controlling little-heeded or understood laws of nature — was ever common
in Ireland. Witches were Pitags, Buitseachs, or Tautags.
These had the mark, or "Seal of the Devil," in reddening skin,
which would retain for hours an indentation upon it. Recently, it has
been ascertained by a philosopher, that a sensitiveness in certain
individuals exists even beyond their bodies, so that they suffer without
being actually touched.
In a tradition respecting Conn of the Hundred Battles,
the hero Eogan was told by three women that he should be slain in the
coming fight. Upon his asking their names, they replied, "Our names are
Ah, Lann:, and Leana; we are daughters of Trodan the
Magician." A witch, who sought to rescue a hero surrounded by foes,
induced the tribesmen to leave him and attack some rocks, which they
were hypnotized to believe were armed soldiery. The witches tied knots
in a string, and breathed on them with a curse upon the object of their
hateful incantation. Some persons, however, were clever enough, when
finding such a charmed string, to undo the knots, and so prevent the
calamity. The Koran contains a prayer for delivery "from the mischief of
women blowing on knots."
Incantations were common in Ireland. A story in Erse —
Pandyeen O’Keily — has a man riding aloft on a besom. A giant
blew a young man to a distant Rath, and sent him into a heavy sleep A
giant got from a little green man a black cap — like
Jack-the-Giant-Killer’s Cap of Darkness, and gave it to the King of
Ireland’s son, that he might be invisible at his leisure.
Other superstitious traditions, more or less hypnotic,
may be mentioned. A thimble was given by a fairy to a young man to serve
as a boat. A large white cat declared herself a woman three hundred
years old. Riding on fairy horses, carrying off princesses through the
air, using swords that gave light, sending weasels to bring money,
turning into flying beetles, forcing into magic sleep, and even
restoring youth, were some of the wonders, A black dog was said to be a
hag’s father. Adepts could turn into vultures, swans, wolves. But,
according to Hyde’s Folk Lore, witches could be released by
masses. A hag or witch was a gwrack in Celtic Welsh.
Sir George Grey, in his New Zealand narratives, has
several instances of enchantment, like those of Irish times. One old
woman, by her spells, held a boat so that it could not be launched.
Again, "Early in the morning Kua performed incantations, by which he
kept all the people in the cave in a profound sleep." A sorcerer baked
food in an enchanted oven to kill a party. Of another, "He smote his
hands on the threshold of the house, and every soul in it was dead.
This was an Irish charm for the toothache -
"May the thumb of chosen Thomas
in the side of guileless Christ
heat my teeth without lamentation
from worms and from pangs."
Charms of a peculiar kind were employed to ward off
evil. Of these — more potent than the feminine sign of the horseshoe
over the threshold — was the celebrated Shelah-na-Gig. The
writer, many years ago, was shown one of these strange figures in the
reserved depositaries of the British Museum. It was the squatting figure
exposed naked female, rudely sculptured, not unlike,
except in size, the singular colossi under the Museum porch brought from
Easter Isle. This figure was taken down from over the doorway of an
ancient church in Ireland, and was, without doubt, a relic of pagan
days, used during many Christian centuries to ward off evil from the
incoming congregation. Another stood by the moat of Howth.
In the Stone Chips of E. T. Steven we have the
following — "The horse-shoe is still the conventional figure for the
Yoni in Hindoo temples, and although its original import was lost, until
lately the horse-shoe was held to be a charm against witchcraft and the
evil eye amongst ourselves, precisely as was the case with the more
unmistakable Shelah-na-Gig at certain churches in Ireland."
The Dublin Museum contains an extraordinary bone-pin
representing the Shelah-na-Gig and evidently a charm to shield
the wearer. It was found alongside a skull in a field. Wilde declared
that a Roscommon child was taken from the grave to obtain its arms for
Popular holidays are still associated ~.with the ideas
of former heathen festivals.
May-day in some parts of Ireland has its female mummers,
who dance and hurl, wearing a holly-bush. A masked blown carries a pail
of water with a mop for spreading its contents abroad. Boys then sing
carols, as in France. In the south-east of Ireland a girl is chosen as
May Queen, presiding at all May-makings till she is married. May Eve,
having its dangers from fairies., is spent in making cattle safe from
the milk-thieving little people, by causing the cows to leap over fires.
Dairymaids prudently drive their cows along with the mystical rowan
Of the phallic May-pole, set up for St. John’s Eve or
Midsummer-day, N. O’Kearney remarks, "The pole was evidently used in the
Druidical ceremonies." Yule cakes were Nur cakes. Hogmanay was
observed, as in Scotland. Hog was a Chaldaen festival. Irish pagan
feasts were announced by the blowing of long horns, two or three yards
in length, some of which are to be seen in Dublin Museum. The Christmas
Candle of south-west Ireland was burnt till midnight on Christmas Eve,
and the remnant kept as a preservative against evil spirits till the
next year’s candle was set up. Magic ointment revealed the invisible.
All Saints’ Day perpetuated the pagan Samhain of
November Eve. Holy cakes, known sometimes as triangular bannocks, were
then eaten as Soul-Mass cakes.
"November Eve," says Mrs. Bryant’s Celtic Ireland,
"is sacred to the Spirits of the Dead. In the western islands the old
superstition is dying very hard, and tradition is still well alive. It
is dangerous to be out on November Eve, because it is the one night in
the year when the dead come out of their graves to dance with the
fairies on the hills, and as it is their night, they do not like to be
disturbed." — "Funeral games are held in their houses." In olden times
it was thought their dead heroes could help in distress.
"Twice during the Treena of Tailten,
Each day at sunrise I invoked Mac Eve
To remove from me the pestilence."
The Keens, or lamentations for the dead, are connected
with ancient and heathenish practices. Professional howlers had charge
of the corpse. Rich, who wrote in 1610 of a Keen, remarked, "A stranger
at the first encounter would believe that a quantity of hags or hellish
fiends were carrying a dead body to some infernal mansion." But some of
the Death Songs have great beauty of composition. Shelah Lea’s Lament
is a fine example. It is thus translated from the Erse :—
"Sing the wild Keen of my country, ye whose heads bend
in sorrow, in the house of the dead ! Lay aside the wheel and flax, and
sing not in joy, for there’s a spare loft in my cabin ! Oweneen, the
pride of my heart, is not here! Did you not hear the cry of the Banshee
crossing the lovely Kilcrumper ? Or, was there a voice from the tomb,
far sweeter than song, that whistled in the mountain wind, and told you
that the young oak was fallen ? Yes, he is gone ! He has gone off in the
spring of life, like the blossom of the prickly hawthorn, scattered by
the merciless wind, on the cold clammy earth. — Raise the Keen, ye whose
notes are well known, tell your beads, ye young women who grieve; lie
down on his narrow house in mourning, and his spirit will sleep and be
at rest ! Plant the shamrock and wild firs near his head, that strangers
may know who is fallen ! Soon again will your Keen be heard on the
mountain, for before the cold sod is sodded over the breast of my
Oweneen, Shelah, the mother of Keeners, will be there. The voice, which
before was loud and plaintive, will be still and silent, like the
ancient harp of her country,"
Another exclaimed :— "My sunshine you were. I loved you
better than the sun itself; and when I see the sun going down in the
west, I think of my boy, and my black night of sorrow. Like the rising
sun, he had a red glow on his cheek. He was as bright as the sun at
mid-day; but a dark storm came on, and my sunshine was lost to me for
No one would claim for the Keens a Christian origin. The
Rev. John Wesley saw a funeral in 1750, and wrote :— "I was exceedingly
shocked at the Irish howl which followed. It was not a song, but a
dismal, inarticulate yell, set up at the grave by four shrill-voiced
women who were hired for the purpose; but I saw not one that shed a
tear, for that it seems was not in the bargain."
Mrs. Harrington, in 1818, had this account of a
professional Keener, a descendant of pagan performers :— "Before she
began to repeat, she usually mumbled for a short time, with her eyes
closed, rocking her body backward and forward, as if keeping time to the
measure of the verse. She then commenced in a kind of whining
recitative; but, as she proceeded, and as the composition required it,
her voice assumed a variety of deep and fine tones." Her eyes continued
shut while repeating, with some variations, it may be, the ancient poem.
It is said of Curran, that he derived his earliest ideas
of eloquence from the hired mourners’ lamentations over the dead. Dryden
refers to the ancient practice :—
"The women mix their cries, and clamor fills the
The warlike wakes continued all the night,
And funeral games were played at new returning light."
With so imaginative and ignorant a people, a supposed
spiritual set of creatures played a great part in daily life, and those
ancient ideas are not entirely driven off by the march of the
school-master. Scotland, with its centuries of parish schools, retained
many superstitions to a very late date, as the clergyman of Kirkmichael,
Perthshire, declared he found there in 1795.
Some spirits answered to those described by Plato, as —
"Between God and man are the daemons, or spirits, who are always near
us, though commonly invisible to us, and know our thoughts." The Rev. R.
Kirk left on record, in 1691, that "the very devils, conjured in any
country, do answer to the language of the place ;" and yet he
ascertained that when the Celt left his northern home, they lost power
over him, as they were Demons Loci. In some cases they were
ghouls, feeding on human flesh, causing the man or woman gradually to
waste away, unless exorcism were practiced in time.
Would that men had found as much comfort in the belief
of good spirits, as they have suffered fears from the belief in evil
ones ! There is still, alas ! in this world, more thought of a jealous
and an avenging Deity than of one benevolent and paternal.
Subterranean spirits might dwell in burning mountains,
or occupy themselves ifl mining, and the storing of treasure. Many Irish
legends relate to such. They may appear as Daome-Shi, dressed in
green, with mischievous intent. Others presented themselves restlessly
moving over water. Not a few sought amusement by destroying at night
what parts of a church had been constructed in the day. Hence the need,
in certain cases, to bury alive a man, woman, or child under the
foundations. Tradition says that St. Columba, thus tormented, buried St.
Oran, at his own request, under the monastery of lona.
The Phookas, or Pookas, have left some
marks in Ireland. There is Castle Pookah:, or Carrig-a-Phooka,
Cork co., and a Phook cavern in Wicklow co. Pope calls it—
"A dusky, melancholy sprite
As ever sullied the fair face of night."
Phookas have been seen running from hill to hill. Their
shapes vary, like the Boduchs of the Hebrides.
The Cluricaune, or Leprechaune, is a
mischievous old fellow, dressing in a green coat, but without brogues
"That Scottish elf,
Who quaffs with swollen lips the ruby wine,
Draining the cellar with as free a hand
As if it were his purse which ne’er lack’d coin."
In the Religious Beliefs of the Pagan Irish, by
O’Beirne Crowe, is a reference to the Morrigan, which once
appeared in the shape of a bird "addressing the famous bull Dond
in dark mysterious language." — " On another occasion she appears to Cu,
in the form of a beautiful lady, and tells him she is in love with him,
and has brought him her gems and her cattle. Cu said he had something
else than love to attend to at that time. She said when he would next
engage in single combat, she would, in the shape of a serpent, coil
herself around his feet, and hold him fast for his adversary."
Of the mysterious Banshee much has been said and
sung. She is often attached to certain families, or even septs, and
gives notice of coming calamities. She is the Ben-sidhe of Irish;
and Cyveraeth, or Tyloethod, of Welsh, whom it is fatal to
meet, or to listen to her shrieks. As an old woman, she is the White or
House fairy. In this sense she is said to "draw nigh at the time of
death, and bear the soul to its fairy home." The White Lady of Avenel
was a Banshee.
There is a curious old Irish legend about a lady whose
father shut her up in a tower on Tory Isle, with twelve matrons in
charge, who were to keep her from the sight of a man. All went well till
McKineely consulted the Banshee of the mountain. Telling him to dress in
women’s garments, she ferried him to the island, asking shelter for a
noble lady chased by an enemy. Landing the young man, she threw the
dozen guardians into a Druidic sleep, and left the couple together
awhile, afterwards rowing the man ashore. Serious results ensued.
Fairies are more pronounced in Irish than in English
traditions. They are fairly represented it the west of Scotland, in
Wales, Lancashire, and Cornwall, parts frequented by Irish friends and
They are Sides, Sighe, Sith, Duine Matha, or
Good People. Fear-sig of the supernatural world are Irish forms of
the Welsh Tylwyth-Teg, the fair family; Swedish, Nissen;
Danish, Damhest; Polish, Rotri; the Russian, Domavoi;
English, Puck, Elf, Fay, or Robin Goodfellow; Cornish Pixie;
Burmese, Nats; Breton, Korigan, or Koril; Scotch
Brownie; Norwegian, Trolls, or Nyss; Oriental, Jin;
Jewish, Schedim; Italian, Fata; Greek, Parcae, or
"That which is neither ill nor well,
That which belongs not to heaven or hell."
Because many are represented as little men, writers have
fancied the idea was but a tradition of pre-existing races, small in
stature, who were improved off by visitors or marauders of larger
growth. Dwarfs or Duzes are thought in Brittany to haunt the
dolmens, or ancient graves, though in some manner they are known as the
ghosts of Druids. Certainly Africa bears evidence of a wide-spread pigmy
race. There are Dokos of South Abyssina, Obongo of West
Africa, Akka of Central Africa, Batua living in trees like
monkeys, and others in Congo.
The Fairies are associated with mankind at present,
though they may carry off their children, replacing them by changelings.
The manikins may be white, brown, grey, or yellow. Some are small enough
to sit in ears of corn, while others fly about on magic horses. It is
sad to know that these little people indulge in faction fights, and
pinch those who dance with them. Giants figure less often. The Book
of Leinster tells of giant Luter, with fourteen heads, wooing Gobal,
whose charms extended over fifty cubits.
Occasionally these little people are not content with
stealing babies, but would run off with men; as Nea, of the golden hair,
did the Irish Fenian warrior. The busy Maakiset, who worked
underground, were more worthy of offerings than the Kapeet, who
caused eclipses by catching hold of the moon. It is discreet always to
speak well of fairies, as they listen without being seen. Their females
look after men, as their males look after women.
They have kings and queens. Oberon or Elberich was a
king, and Titania a queen. The Irish say that Don, the Milesian leader,
drowned in a storm raised by the Tuaths, became a King of the Fays. mis
Mananain, now Isle of Man, was so called from Mananan, an ancient chief
transformed to a royal Sidhe. Mab, daughter of King Eochaidh Faidhleach,
became Queen of the Fairies, being more than immortalized in Spenser’s
Fairy Queen. Another King of the Fairies was the Tuath Fionnbharr. The Welsh Fairy King was Gwyh ab
As these spirits of air, earth, and water are numerous,
it is a comfort to learn from the Talmud that, while the bad ones are
exactly 7,405,926, the good ones number, in the rougher estimate,
.Black fairies are not conspicuous, unless in the mines.
The Maories of New Zealand assure us that their merry little fays are
not of their dark colour, but fair like Englishmen. They love the hills
of Waikato. A chief, frightened of them, took off his ornaments, and
gave them away. As soon as they finished their song, as he told the
tale, they took the shadows of the Maori’s earrings, and handed them
about from one to the other.
As all know, the Fairies, or Peris, are suffering from
some misconduct in happier climes. Christian tradition holds to their
Irish fairies are thus mourned for by D. F. McCarthy :—
"Ah ! the pleasant time hath vanished ere our
wretched doubting banished
All the graceful spirit people, children of the earth and sea —
Whom in days now dim and olden, when the world was fresh and golden,
Every mortal could behold in haunted rath and tower and tree —.
They have vanished, they are banished. Ah I how sad the loss for
Some were not so pleasant :—
"While the Phooka horse holds his frantic course
O’er wood and mountain fall,
And the Banshee’s croon, a rhythmic rime
From the crumbling, ivied wall."
As elsewhere noted, the Irish fairies are intimately
associated with the Druidical, ghostly, or magical Tuaths. When these
were conquered by the Milesians, they betook themselves to the hills,
and survived as fairies. The Good People have been also thought
to be Druidesses. The English Lubberfiend of Milton is doubtless
the Irish Lureigadan.
The Sighe, Shee, or Sith were of many
varieties. As the Farr-shee was the man of the Sidhs, so was the
Bann-shee the woman of the Sidhs. They were magical deceivers;
they built fine balls, and interfered in battles.
"Behold the Sidh before your eyes,
It is manifest to you that it is a king’s.mansion,
Which was built by the firm Daghda;
It was a wonder, a court, an admirable hill."
They might have been deified mortals. Lug Mac Ethlend
had been a thousand years a Sidh. He would sometimes sojourn awhile on
earth. Once he had a son by the fair Decture, and thus Cuchulainn became
a hero. Carolan, the Irish bard, celebrates the fairy hills of Sith Beag
and Sith More in Leitrim. Troops of them on horses followed their King
Donn and Queen Cliodhna, or Cleena.
The Daoine Shee, or men of peace, referred to
in the Book of Armagh, were peevish rather than malevolent.
Dressing in green, they resented the appearance of human beings in
green. They who wanted to see them must select Hallow-eve, walk round
their hill nine times, when a door would open revealing the dancing
throng. It is dangerous to accept their invitation to come in for a
dance, as the tripper never returns again to his home.
Fairy-inspired bards were liable to be spirited away
by their muse, the Leaunan Sighe. If she helped them in
composition, they were bound to follow her throughout eternity.
"Were it not better thou shouldst dwell awhile with
a young maiden of golden locks,
Than that the country should be laughing at thy doggrel rhyme ?"
The Mermaids, or sea-fairies, were Moruodh, or
Moruogh. Their hair and teeth were green. We have no record of
their pugnacious qualities, as of the denizens of land. Ailne, whose lay
is in old Irish, lamenting the death of her husband and two sons, knew —
"by the mighty fairy host, That were in conflict over the Dun, Fighting
each other" — that evil would befall her three beloved. They did not
then play Ceol-sidh, or fairy music.
The word Sidh is said to be the Celtic root
for a blast of wind. The whirlwind was certainly called a fairy wind.
There is a Sidh Thuim on the Boyne, Sidh Neanta of
Roscommon, Sidh Meadha near Tuam, Sidh Aodha Ruaidh a hill
of Donegal. There are seventy Irish townships beginning with Shee.
Ireland abounds with localities having fairy
associations. Joyce gives many. Finn and his Fenians are in
Sliabhna-mban-fionn, the mountain of the fair-haired women; Rath
Sithe, the Fenian fortress, is in Antrim; the Fairy’s wood is in
Sligo. Then there are the Sheegys, fairy hills, in Donegal; the
Sheeauns, fairy mounds; the haunted hills, Shean, Sheena,
Shane; and Knockna looricaim, the hills of the Cluricane. In
Lough Corrib the Leprechauns were said to have been provided with
ground meal for supper by hospitable neighbours.
There was a Banshee’s palace in South Munster, and
another in a rock near Mallow. The Banshee Aeibhell had a fine
palace in a rock by KilIaloe; it was she who threw her cloak round the
hero O’Hartigan at the battle of Clontarf, so rendering him invisible.
In fact, Joyce is led to exclaim, "Some parts of Connaught must have
been more thickly populated with fairies than with men."
Were the fairies in Ireland of great antiquity ?
One has written of the fancy, "that the tales of mortals
abiding with the Fays in their Sighe palaces are founded on the tender
preferences shown by the Druidic priestesses of old to favourite
worshippers of the Celtic divinities." N. O’Kearney is of opinion that
"our fairy traditions are relics of paganism." Kennedy says, "In
borrowing these fictions from their heathen predecessors, the Christian
story-tellers did not take much trouble to correct their laxity on the
subject of moral obligations." Andrew Lang sees that "the lower
mythology — the elemental beliefs of a people — do service beneath a
thin covering of Christian uniformity."
At least, we may admit, with Prof. Stokes, that "much of
the narrative element in the classic epics is to be found in a popular
or childish form in primitive Fairy tales."
Among the early and latter superstitions, Ghosts
are very prominent.
As so many ghost stories rest upon tradition, it is well
to bear in mind what the author of The Golden Bough says —
"The superstitious beliefs and practices which have been
handed down by word of mouth are generally of a far more archaic type
than the religions depicted in the most ancient literature of the Aryan
It is not easy to laugh at Irish peasants for ghost
yarns when all nations, from the remotest antiquity, accepted them, and
philosophers like Dr. Johnson, preachers like John Wesley, reformers
like Luther, poets like Dante and Tasso, recognized such spirits. Some,
like an author in 1729, may doubt souls returning from heaven — "Nor I
know," said he, "whether it would be worth their shifting Hell, and
coming back to this world in the wandering condition those things called
Ghosts are understood to be." Others may exclaim with Dr. Johnson, "All
argument is against it, but all belief is for it."
Thyraeus, the Jesuit, thinks that they are but souls
from purgatory, seeking rest. Earberg considered, "It is against no
Scripture that souls should come from Hades." Henri Martin, the French
Celtic scholar, said, "The intercourse between earth and heaven is a
belief strongly accredited among the Bards." Gladstone recognizes that
the recent Greek dead "are wanderers in the Shades, without fixed doom
or occupation." Homer’s Odyssey has this reference —
"But swarms of spectres rose from deepest hell,
With bloodless visage and with hideous yell.
They scream, they shriek, and groans and dismal sounds
Stun my scared ears and pierce hell’s utmost bounds."
Virgil shows to Aeneas his father Anchises —
Suetonius tells us that the ghost of Caligula walked
in Lavinia’s garden, where his body was buried, until the house was
burnt down. Ecclesiasticus (chap. xlvi.) speaks of Samuel thus: "And
after his death he prophesied, and showed the king his end." In the
archives of the Royal Society is a MS. paper, read November 16, 1698, on
some "Apparitions in ye N. of Scotland," in which we are informed that
Mr. Mackeney, A.M., Oxford, "said that they saw apparitions almost every
week; and upon his knowledge they did very frequently foretell the death
of Persons, which always succeeded accordingly."
Were all these mistaken ? Were they under the
influence of Herbert Spencer’s Organ of Reviviscence, or
Wonder-Organ, which "affords a tangible explanation of mental illusions"
The Irish, like the ancient Jews, held that bad men,
especially, could walk this earth after death; and the English law,
almost to our day, allowed a stake to be driven through the body of
suicides and murderers, to prevent their spirit troubling the living.
The Church has had its say in the matter. The Council
of Elvira, A.D. 300, forbade the lighting ... of tapers in cemeteries, as
that was apt to disturb the souls of Saints; so said the Council of
Iliberit. St. Basil was told by a ghost that he had killed Julian. Both
Ignatius and Ambrose were said to have appeared to their disciples. No
Church has eyed denied the existence and appearance of ghosts, and none
opposed exorcism in some form or other.
"Irish pagans," observes Nicolas O’Kearney, "never
dreamed of spirits after death having assumed such forms (misty ghosts).
The spirits from Elysium always appeared in their proper shape, and
spoke and acted as if they were still in the enjoyment of mortal life."
In this respect he differs from Macpherson’s
Ossian. The opinion is, also, opposed to other descriptions in
recognized Irish poems of antiquity. In the poem Cathluina, as
translated in Ireland’s Mirror, is this :— "Ferarma, bring me my
shield and spear; bring me my sword, that stream of light. What mean
these two angry ghosts that fight in air ? The thin blood runs down
their robes of mist; and their half-formed swords, like faint meteors,
fall on sky-blue shields. Now they embrace like friends. The sweeping
blast pipes through their airy limbs. They vanish. I do not like the
sight, but I do not fear it."
The Inverness Gaelic Society had a paper by
Donald Ross on this subject, saying, "Spectres hovered gloomily over the
reedy marsh or the moor, or arrayed themselves on the blasts of the
wind; and pale ghosts, messengers of the unseen world, brought back the
secrets of the grave." A Gaelic song has the following — "In a blast
comes cloudy death, and lays his grey head low. His ghost is rolled on
the vapors of the fenny field." Henri Martin speaks of "harps of bards,
untouched, sound mournful over the hill."
Some ghosts were material enough. That of St. Kieran,
of Clonmacnoise, managed to strike King Felim, the plunderer of his
church, so effectually, with his ghostly crozier, as to give an internal
wound, of which the chief died. When Finn or Fionn appeared to Osgar, on
the battle-field of Gabhra, it is affirmed that "his words were not
murmurs of distant streams," but loud and clear.
But the Fetch, as recognized in the scattered
poems collected, or revised, in Macpherson’s Ossian, is more a
spirit of the air. Some of the descriptions, relating to the ghosts of
Erin and Argyle, are striking :—
"She was like the new moon seen through the gathering
mist — Iike a watery beam of feeble light, when the moon rushes sudden
from between two clouds, and the midnight shower is on the heath. —
Clouds, the robe of ghosts, — rolled their gathered forms on the wind —
with robes of light. — Soon shall our cold pale ghosts meet in a cloud,
on Cona’s eddying winds. — Tell her that in a cloud I may meet the
lovely maid of Toscar."
Again — "Faint light gleams over the heath. The
ghosts of Arden pass through, and show their dim and distant forms. —
The misty Loda, the house of the spirits of men. — Ghosts vanish, like
mists on the sunny hill. — His soul came forth to his fathers, to their
stormy isle. There they pursued boars of mist along the skirts of winds.
— I move like the shadow of mist — The ghost of Crugal came from his
cave. The stars dim — twinkled through his form. His voice was like the
sound of a distant stream."
Of one it is said," His eyes are like two decaying
flames. Dark is the wound of his breast." — Caugal, who appeared in
dress and form as living, but pale, is made by the poet to say, "My
ghost is on my native hills, but my corse is on the sands of Ullin. Thou
shalt never talk with Caugal, nor find his lone steps on the heath. —
Like the darkened moon, he retired in the midst of the whistling blast."
Of another — "A cloud, like the steed of the
stranger, supported his airy limbs. His robe is of the mist of Lano,
that brings death to the people. His sword is the green meteor,
half-extinguished, his face is without form and void." Some "show their
dark forms from the chinky rocks." Others "fled on every side, and
rolled their gathered forms on the wind." One comforts himself, dying,
with, "My fathers shall meet me at the gates of their airy halls, tall,
with robes of light, with mildly kindled eyes."
A hero cried out, "I never feared the ghosts of
night. Small is their knowledge, weak their hands." A poet murmurs," I
hear at times the ghosts of bards, and learn their pleasant song." Of a
great warrior, it is said, "A thousand ghosts are on the beams of his
steel, the ghosts of those who are to fall by the King of
resounding Morven." Or, "Let Carril (a bard) pour his songs, that the
chiefs may rejoice in their mist." Of a beautiful woman, it is written —
"She is fair as the ghost of the hill, when it moves in a sunbeam at
noon over the silence of Morven."
A ghost may warn of danger, foretell disaster,
foresee death, communicate intelligence. Whatever may be thought of
Macpherson’s Ossian, there can be no doubt that all the poetical
representations of Irish ghosts bear pagan, and not Christian,
characteristics. The traditions, coming through Christian centuries,
have a distinct pagan colouring. The ghosts of Christian times would
seem to have left their Christianity in this life, becoming heathen on
the other side.
Other illustrations of Irish superstitions occur in
the course of this work, though noted under various heads. The Irish
were not more superstitious by nature than their neighbours; but, in
changing less their abodes, and retaining faith in the religion of their
fathers, they have clung to old traditions more than those who were
subject to greater transitions of place and ideas.
After all, as some of these Irish superstitions are
the heritage from the past in all lands, can the scientific mind afford
to treat them as irrational and absurd ? Is experience of all times and
all nations utterly worthless ? If the photographer’s sensitive plate
can see more than the human eye, and exhibit stars which no telescope
can show, are we so sure that nothing exists but what is revealed by our
senses ? May we not hinder our own mental vision by a studied resolution
to reject what we cannot explain ?