Saturday, July 31, 2010

Superstition concerning Witches.

Superstition concerning Witches.

Flying broomsticks and plant lore.

Broomsticks are an ancient symbol representing womanhood, while pitchforks are an ancient symbol representing manhood. Brooms, a symbol often associated with witchcraft, are used to sweep away, or cleanse an area of negative energy prior to performing magical and healing rituals. Wise women and witches would also use their broomsticks to perform a sort of imitative magic. They would go out into the fields and dance and leap high into the air while astride their brooms and pitchforks. It was thought that this would cause the crops to grow as tall as they were able to jump into the air.

Flying Broomsticks.

Today, the broomstick conjures the mood of Halloween for youngsters - and it's another image with a meaning steeped in history. In centuries past, Samhain marked the time of year when witches would "fly" in order to divine the future. The image of witches flying off on their magic broomstick correlates to their use of magical flying ointments during their divinatory endeavours. After the witches covered themselves with the ointment they would lay down by the fireplace in order to keep safe and warm while on their shamanistic journeys.

Ancient Superstitions.

Superstitious people, believing that witches could literally fly, assumed they climbed aboard broomsticks and rose through their chimneys to terrorize the countryside with their wicked deeds. But the "flight" was really one of spirit. Samhain marked a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the worlds of the dead thinned. With the help of hallucinogenic herbs, those seeking spirit flights could explore this realm, using their experiences to divine clues about what the future held. The symbol of this flight, the witch's broom (also known as a besom), has historical associations with a variety of plants.


Bundles of this plant were attached to a handle and used in cleansing rituals prior to performing magic. This practice was thought to sweep away any negative energy and evil spirits that might interfere with the magic being performed by the witch. Broom is also a narcotic and depresses respiration.

Celery seeds.

The seeds were eaten by witches before flying so that they wouldn't become dizzy and fall off their broomsticks.

Ragwort stalks.

According to legend, the stalks of this plant formed the basis for magical flying brooms.


Ash often made up the handle of the broom and had the added benefit of preventing a witch from drowning.


The branches of this tree could also serve as the traditional witch's broom. A bundle of birch twigs could be bound to one end of the broom handle using a flexible, vine-type plant such as osiers.


This plant was also known as osiers. The larger branches of this plant were used to make the handle of the witch's broom. The longer, pliable twigs could be used to bind other materials to the broom handle.

Other plants have been associated with the witches' brooms, including bulrush, mullein and even corn stalks, if nothing else was available.

Come Fly with me.

As for the actual "flying," we again investigate herbs for some insight. The narcotic and hallucinogenic properties of many herbs served in witchcraft and magic rituals during ancient and medieval times. Many of these herbs became ointments with the addition of melted fat. Rubbed into the skin, ointments would carry the chemical properties of the herbs into the blood stream, causing a variety of physiological effects - irregular heartbeat, tingling, numbness, delirium, mental confusion, weightlessness, and hallucinations. These effects would create the feeling of flight, especially since the witches would often fast prior to going on their shamanistic journeys to heighten the effects of the herbs they used.

Herbal Fortune telling.

The motivation behind the desire for flight lay in the belief that upon leaving the physical body after death, spirits moved to the astral plane. Witches thought it possible to temporarily depart the body and visit this astral plane when in a trance or sleep-like state. They believed that the astral bodies of both the living (as visitors) and the dead travelled on the same astral plane and so the possibility existed that the two could meet. This was the goal of "flying."

This spirit flight was really a type of divinatory shamanism and is still practiced by many tribal healers such as modern-day shamans and medicine men. Samhain was thought to be one of the best times of the year to practice this type of divination. The boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead were thought to be at their weakest during this time. After the effects of the herbs wore off the visions the witches had would be interpreted for clues about what the future held.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Handfasting Poem

May you be Blessed.

May you feel no rain, for each of you will be a shelter to the other.
May you feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.
May there be no loneliness,for each of you will be companion to the other.
You are two bodies, but there is only one life before you.

May your days be good and long upon the earth!
May the sun bring you new energies by day,
May the moon softly restore you by night,
May the rain wash away any worries you may have,
And the breeze blow new strength into your being,
And then, all the days of your life,
May you walk together gently through the world,
and know its beauty and yours.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010



An Irish Tradition.

The term honeymoon is packed with symbolism. The mead, or honey wine, is sweet and symbolizes the particular sweetness of the first month of marriage. It is a time free of the stresses and tensions everyday life puts on the relationship as time goes on. The moon symbolizes the phases or cycles of the couple’s relationship as it waxes and wanes from full moon to full moon. Like the moon, the couple’s relationship would have its brighter moments and its darker ones. Being tied in with the moon cycle, the one-month period of time was considered associated with the woman's menstrual cycle, and thus, fertility.

The term honeymoon did not evolve from a term of endearment or the description of an event. It literally depicted a period of time during which a particular marital convention was followed, specifically what the bride and groom did for one full moon after their wedding. Were it not for some Irish monks in the Middle Ages, who originally produced mead (honeywine) for medicinal purposes, none of us would refer to the post matrimonial period as a “honeymoon”. According to Irish tradition, at the end of breakfast/banquet the bride and groom, each with a glass of mead recite a toast:

Friends and relatives so fond and dear
Tis our greatest pleasure to have you here
When many years this day has passed
Fondest memories will always last
So we drink a cup of mead
And ask for a blessing in your hour of need.

The family and guests at the wedding party raise their glasses and respond:

On this you’re special day, our wish to you
The goodness of the old, the best of the new
Gods/goddess bless you both who drink this mead
May it always fill your every need?

Ever since the fame of the Irish monks brew spread throughout medieval Ireland, it was believed that mead was essential for sending off the bride and groom after the wedding. It was used as both a final toast and a proper beginning of the marriage. Following the wedding, the bride and groom were provided with enough mead to toast each other after their wedding, and hence the term "honeymoon."

This delicate, yet potent drink was not only considered the best way to start a new marriage, it was also believed to enhance such valued qualities as fertility and virility. On numerous occasions the groom, laced with generous amounts of mead, was carried by his friends to the bedside of his bride. If nine months later, a bouncing baby appeared, credit was given to the mead.

Mead's influence was so great that the halls of Tara, where the high kings of Ireland ruled, were called the House of the Mead Circle. In Celtic mythology, a river of mead flows through paradise.

It became the chief drink of the Irish, and was often referred to in Gaelic poetry. Its fame quickly spread and soon a medieval banquet was not complete without it.

Stories making reference to mead have been found as early as the 5th century and it was in wide use by the Middle Ages. So it seems that the "honeymoon" tradition may be even older than our contemporary wedding.

Speaking for myself I feel that a glass of mead can be enjoyed after every ritual or ceremony, be it a Handfasting, a naming ceremony of giving thanks to the gods/goddess after ritual

Good health and a long life to you and yours. Cheers.
Dea-shláinte agus fad saoil agat agus leatsa. Bheag.

Monday, July 26, 2010



Handfasting is an ancient Celtic custom; once common it is now experiencing something of resurgence. It is a ceremony in which a man and woman come together at the start of their marriage relationship. Their hands, or more accurately, their wrists, are literally tied together. This practice gave way to the expression "tying the knot" or “getting hitched” which has come to mean getting married or engaged.

The handfasting ritual recognized just one of many forms of marriages permitted under the ancient Irish (Brehon) law. The man and woman who came together for the handfasting agreed to stay together for a specific period of time, usually a year-and-a-day. At the end of the year the couple faced a choice. They could enter into a longer-term "permanent" marriage contract; renew their agreement for another year, often turning their backs on each other to go their separate ways.

The custom hails from the pre-Christian era but continued after Christianity was well established because it was not ordinary for either the Church or government to play a role in witnessing marriages during this period. Even though Marriage was one of the seven sacraments, it wasn't until the Council of Trent, which began in 1537, that the Church required that the Church witness marriages. Government registration of marriages in Ireland only began in the middle of the 19th century.

It is important to understand the view of the Brehon Law on marriage to see the importance of handfasting. In an article entitled Marriage, Separation and Divorce in Ancient Gaelic Culture, Alix Morgan MacAnTsaior points out that marriage was seen as a contract intended to first protect the individual and property rights of the parties (and their families) and secondly to ensure that any children born of the union were properly recognized and cared for.

If the couple decided to separate at the end of the year (or at any other time) Brehon law specified how their property would be divided. More importantly, it established the recognition of the inheritance rights of any child conceived during the time of the handfasting union.

Lughnasadh, the August 1st Celtic festival, was one time of the year when handfastings often took place. These unions were known as "Teltown marriages" because men and women came together at the festival at Teltown, Co. Meath, often not knowing in advance who their partner would be. They remained together through the year and if necessary, parted company at the festival in following year.

WOMEN - In Celtic culture women were equal in the eyes of the Law up to the coming of the Romans and Christians. Some patriarchal extremes may have started to be taken on with the continued interaction with Brythonic tribes, however the Laws and customs remained largely unchanged until Christianity became implanted on Irish soil. This was compounded with the coming of the Saxon and then the Norman. Though the Brehon Law remained gender neutral and in power up to the 17th century, patriarchal elements who had gained power over our people interpreted the Law as only applying to men much earlier than this. The records show that women had the rights to own and disburse property, inherit property and have skills, as well own and use weapons on the field of battle. They also had rights in the construction of their marriage contract, as well as complete authority within their homes. A woman’s authority was in the hearth and the man’s on the land.

HEARTH - The hearth was of central importance in Celtic society, and its foundation was the marriage contract. Within the hearth the woman's authority was absolute. The hearth was the centre of much activity, where many traditional crafts were carried out; it also provided warmth and nourishment, it was a gathering place for storytelling and music, and it had to be an open place of hospitality to all.

Handfasting survives in several forms today. It is present in part in many Western religious and secular ceremonies as the celebrant asks, "Who gives this woman to be married?" The giving of the bride's hand to the groom is reminiscent of the handfasting ceremony. Handfasting is also the marriage rite practiced by pagan and Wiccan groups.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Horrible Events at Hungry Hall.

Hungry Hall is an old place name in the townland of Barreen and is situated approximately 150 meters south of Balraheen crossroads and one mile north of Rathcoffey. The name refers to a gateway that leads into a division of land and its origin comes from the very tragic circumstances in the 1800s.

There are a number of versions of the story but the most interesting account was recorded in the schools collection that was conducted between 1937 and 1938 for the Irish Folklore Commission. It was part of a number of Folklore stories written by Mary Gill and Nan Crowe two 6th class pupils from St, Mochuo National School Rathcoffey.

The tale began when young boys began to disappear without trace in the general Rathcoffey area. Despite intensive searches and thorough investigations no trace of the missing children were found.

One day a man travelling in the Balraheen area close to Rathcoffey was passing by a house and needed to light his clay pipe. The house was a thatched house with a half door in which an old woman and her son dwelled. One record suggests on this occasion her son was away from the house as he was a soldier in the British army. The traveller was in the habit of getting a light for his pipe from the woman in the house. However, on this occasion the woman was not in the house and having called out her name he got no reply. As the door was open he decided to enter the house and help himself to a light for his pipe. There was a big cooking pot over the fire and the traveller bent down to the fire to get a cinder in order to light his pipe. As he bent down he saw the foot of a young boy projecting out from the pot. The unfortunate man got such a shock he immediately ran out from the house screaming.

The woman was arrested and eventually brought before the local magistrate Thomas Wogan Browne from Castlebrown (now Clongowes Wood). The incident can be dated to the period when Wogan Browne served two terms as a magistrate, firstly, for some years before 1797 and secondly, for a four year period between 1806 and 1810. At her trial she was accused of cannibalism and admitted the charge. Apparently she enticed the children into her house by offering them food. The Judge, Wogan Browne who was a landlord in the area informed her that he had many fine bullocks on his property and wondered why she didn’t she take any of his cattle. To this she replied ‘your lordship, if only you tasted the flesh of young boys which she described as tastier than veal, you would never eat another scrap of animal meat’. This remark horrified the court and not surprisingly she was sentenced to death.

Executions of the period would usually take place at the scene of the crime. Many highway men for instance that were apprehended and convicted of robbery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were brought back to the scene and hanged at the spot of their crime. The execution of this woman took place close to her house at Barreen. There was a large tree beside the house where a gate was hung that led in to the fields at the rear. A rope was placed across a branch of the tree and from this she was hung. One problem that arose was how to dispose of her remains. As one convicted of eating human flesh she would not be allowed to be interred in consecrated ground. This problem was easily solved for at the hanging a barrel of tar was placed under her body and the tar set on fire. Her body soon fell into the barrel and was consumed by the flames. She was regarded in the local area as a Witch and her execution is the last recorded burning of a Witch in the locality.

The house where she lived was never again occupied and soon became a ruin. Due to the incident both the house and the adjoining division of land came to be known as ‘Hungry hall’. In later years a black dog thought to be the Witch in disguise was often seen running from Hungry hall to the roads nearby.

The story of the horrific events at Hungry hall was often told to children in order to get them to bed early and that is one of the reasons why the story survived in folklore to modern times.

It wouldn’t get me off to a goods night sleep.

Reference: Kildare Online Electronic History Journal.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Yew Tree

The Yew.

Trees have always had a special place in myth and religion and the Irish language even has a special word for the sacred tree, 'bile'. Poets and artists; scientists and historians; gardeners, ecologists and thinkers, all look to the tree, yet none can create it, only time can. The tree inspires; it has long given shelter. In common with stone, it remains the supreme, silent witness of all that happens. It personifies beauty, romance, rebirth and mystery, and for those who heed superstition, it can summon menace in the form of the revenge of the fairies, as well as the wrath of the gods.

Our ancestors were well aware that the tree should be respected. Under Brehon Law, it was protected. Modern man is, unfortunately, far more primitive in his understanding of the natural world and its spiritual self. A vicious storm might fell a tree, but only man will cut a forest down in the name of profit.

Pre-Christian Ireland had its share of sacred trees. A specific tree not only served as a landmark, it often made a place special. One such tree is the Yew.

The Yew is the longest lived tree; it is also known as a guardian forming the gateway pillars to the Otherworld and features in churchyards. It protects the dead, and is linked to kingship and war, due to its use in making bows and spears. It could also be used when making wands.

It has been suggested that in times gone by, when a pagan burial was carried out a sprig of Yew was placed on the deceased person’s chest and this could have resulted in some of those sprigs propagating in the same way as a gardener would propagate a cutting. These would eventually grow in these burial areas so marking them out as burial sites. There may or may not be some truth in this. It is an interesting idea though.

Staves of yew were kept in pagan graveyards in Ireland where they were used for measuring corpses and graves. The wood or leaves were laid on graves as a reminder to the departed spirit that death was only a pause in life before rebirth.

When the Christianity built upon our sacred sites these trees would already be present, so accounting for very old Yews in places where churches have been erected hundreds of years ago.

The yew's reputation for long life is due to the unique way in which the tree grows. Its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then rise up around the old central growth as separate but linked trunks. After a time, they cannot be distinguished from the original tree. So the yew has always been a symbol of death and rebirth, the new that springs out of the old.

The Yew itself has particular qualities which emanate a feeling of awe in its presence. The natural Yew forests that still cover parts of Europe are places with an intense feeling of atmosphere. In the early morning mists, such vast forests become forbidding places that can give a strange sense of unease to a modern day visitor, let alone a hapless Pagan, at the mercy of natural forces and of simpler mind and understanding.

An old folk-tale tells why yews are dressed so darkly.
When the yew was a young species, in times when there were few people, it thought that all other trees were more beautiful, for their colourful leaves could flutter in the wind unlike its stiff pine needles. Thinking that the faeries had deliberately made it unattractive the tree pined. However, the faeries wanted to please the yew, and it woke one sunny morning to find its needles had changed to leaves of gold and its heart jumped with joy. Some thieves came and stole the leaves, making the tree confused and sad. So the fairies tried again and gave it leaves of pure crystal and the yew loved its sparkle, but a storm of hail came and the crystals shattered. Then they gave it broad leaves and it waved them in the air, only to have them eaten by goats. At this the yew gave up, for it realised that its original dress was by far the best, for it was of permanence, of long ages and deep knowledge, and in this the tree found comfort.

Most Pagans view death as a passage rather than an ending, something to be celebrated, and not be feared or despised. The dying Pagan faces the task of saying goodbye to this world and hello to the next. Death is such a fundamental process in nature that, without it, life could not exist. Life constantly changes into death and each moment of death is a moment of rebirth. We perceive beginnings and endings, but the flow of existence is never-ending.

Unfortunately this view is not shared by the mainstream Christian religions so the cemetery is nowadays looked upon as a place of fear rather than a sacred place of return to the ancestral realm.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Birth of the Harp.

The Birth of the Harp.

Once upon a time long long ago there lived a man and a woman in a little cottage by the sea.

The man’s name was Cathal and he was a farmer. His wife Macha was an angry woman who spent her life chastising him.

One day Cathal returned from his work and sat down at the table. Macha came in from outside and seeing Cathal she began to scold him.

"Why are you still at the table?" asked Macha impatiently.

"Wife, I just sat down to my lunch five minutes ago. I've been in the fields all day!" replied Cathal.

"Well, get you back out to the fields. You still have work to do. Take your bread and cheese with you," grumbled Macha.

"Let me get a drink of buttermilk first. It's hot outside," Cathal said.

"Don't drink it all. It needs to last for a while."

Cathal said, "Woman, will you never be satisfied?"

"How can I be satisfied when you sit in the house all day and do nothing?" grumbled Macha.

Cathal grabbed his lunch and raced out to the fields.

"She never stops complaining," muttered Cathal. "I wish I could find just one thing that would make her happy."

A few days later, Macha and Cathal were on the beach gathering seaweed for the salt in it. As usual, Macha was grumbling.

Suddenly she stopped.

"What is that sound?" she whispered.

They listened. There it was the most haunting sound they had ever heard. Where was it coming from? Cathal and Macha could not see.

They kept on walking, searching for the wonderful sound.

All they could see were the bones of a whale that had died on the beach. However, as they stood and looked at the skeleton, Cathal noticed that the sound seemed to be coming from the bones. As the wind blew, the sound got louder. When the wind stopped blowing, the music stopped, too.

Cathal said, "The wind is causing the music as it blows through the bones."

"That is the most soothing tune I have ever heard," said Macha in a quiet, calm voice and Macha was calm and uncomplaining for the rest of the week!

Cathal was surprised but pleased with Macha's new behaviour. He began to think about it. He finally decided that it was the music that had changed Macha.

"I must find a way to keep the music close to Macha. That way she will stay happy," said Cathal to himself.

"I know what I will do," he said three days later. He went and cut down a large tree. He bought some catgut. He shaped the wood into the shape of the whale's rib bones. He made strings of the catgut and attached them to the wood. Then he painted and polished the wood. It was beautiful!

Cathal brought the instrument into the house. He strummed the strings and waited. Macha came out from the back room. She had a lovely smile on her face.

"Oh, Cathal," she whispered, "you have brought the music to me! It is so beautiful! I am so happy!"

She sat down and began to strum the instrument, too. It was as if she was born knowing how to play. She played and played.

And Macha was happy from that day forward. Cathal was even happier because Macha was no longer complaining!

Some say that is how the first harp came to be. Of course there are other theories.

The Irish Wake.

Irish Wakes

Wakes of times gone by began with women washing the body of the deceased and preparing it to be laid out on a bed or a table, often in the largest room of the house. The body was covered in white linen adorned with black or white ribbons, flowers for the body of a child. Lighted candles were placed around the body. Clay pipes, tobacco and snuff were also placed in the room. Every male caller was expected to take at least a puff. The smoke kept evil spirits from finding the deceased. Usually, a pipe and tobacco were place on a table next to the body. Occasionally, a pipe was laid on the chest of the deceased male. Clocks were stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were turned around or covered and curtains closed.

Once the body was prepared, it was never left alone until after burial. Someone, usually a woman, sat in the same room until it was taken away. According to custom, crying (keening) couldn’t begin until after the body was prepared just in case the sound might attract evil spirits that would take the soul of the departed. However, once the body was properly prepared, the keening began. Often family members will give the deceased a kiss goodbye.

In ancient times it was the duty of the bard, who was attached to the family of each chief or noble, assisted by some of the household, to raise the funeral song; but as times moved on this may have been entrusted to hired mourners, who were paid according to how well they performed. However, in much more recent times it is the Caointhe, the lead keener, who would be the first to lament the deceased. Keeners, especially the Caointhe, recited poetry lamenting the loss of the loved one in addition to crying and wailing. All the women in the house joined in, especially as each new caller arrived to pay his or her respects.

No emotion was left out of the mourning process. Between the extremes of tears and laughter, heartfelt poetical lamentations and boisterous songs, there were debates. As the mourners gathered round the kitchen table, poteen or whiskey laden tea in hand, it was inevitable that discussions would begin. Often these debates turned heated as one might expect given that the most common topics concerned religion, politics or economics.

Wakes lasted through two or three nights. Food, tobacco, snuff, and liquor were plentiful. Out in the countryside, the liquor served consisted of whiskey or poteen, which is a very potent and illegal Irish homemade brew. Laughter and singing as well as crying filled the air as mourners shared humorous stories involving the deceased. In addition to this seeming merriment, games were played. While this may appear to have been disrespectful of the dead, it was not the intention. It is thought that the merrymaking aspects of these wake customs were influenced by our pagan heritage as well as the need to stay awake for such a long period of time. The church frowned upon these activities and tried hard to discourage the people from indulging in them, they even attempted to ban food and alcohol. Thankfully they were unsuccessful.

An Irish wake is a traditional funeral ritual for the person who has died and those who mourn them. It is a way of celebrating the deceased person’s life. There have been changes over the years. Most wakes are now not as formal as they used to be and most have given up the tradition of having the body displayed in their home. People may now choose to hold the wake in the pub or other public area such as a local hotel without the deceased present. You may still hear of a house wake although they are getting rarer but still parts of the tradition live on and they do help with the grieving process and in some parts of Ireland traditions are still very important.

I have been to a number of wakes in my life and I have seen how important it is for the family of the deceased to make sure that their loved one gets a good send off and the amount of visitors can indicate the social importance of the deceased. I do believe it is extremely important for us to stand by our traditions as they bind us together and help us at certain times to cope with the stresses of a modern society.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sacred Wells.

Sacred wells.

Since time immemorial, Irish people have firmly believed in the healing powers of sacred well waters. Special days were set aside to visit wells and leave gifts in appreciation. The wells were cleaned, generally cared for and the water channels kept clear to ensure the flow of water in and out of the well's basin. Carrying healing powers and blessings, the water flowed into the nearest streams and on to rivers and lakes so that all life forms dependant upon water could benefit.

The existence of holy wells in Ireland today offers an opportunity to witness sacred sites and rituals that have continued since prehistoric times. Where once a sacrifice may have taken place, today a bride might look into the waters for inspiration or good luck; a cripple might bathe in the waters in search of a cure. A ritual practice dating from prehistoric times and continuing today is that of circumambulation, or making structured rounds of the well, always in a clockwise direction (deiseal).

People visited the wells for their traditional virtues of healing and divination. If a physical cure was sought, the believer would drink or sometimes bathe in the water. In fact the water of some holy wells has indeed been found to contain curative properties, mostly due to the presence of certain minerals. However, the healing influence of the wells was due to more than their medicinal qualities. The well itself was viewed as a shrine dedicated to the miraculous emergence of living water, in all cultures a symbol of generation, purification, and the source of life itself.

People still make pilgrimages to the holy wells to seek relief for a variety of ills from rheumatism to scurvy, broken bones to leprosy. The link between water and fertility led to a number of wells gaining a reputation for curing childlessness. At the well, the petitioner would leave a token piece of clothing, usually hung on a bush or a tree so that the healing power of the well could act upon it.

Dreaming at holy wells was also used as a method of foretelling the future, possibly an echo of pagan times when, it seems, a female oracle presided over the well. This ancient practice was preserved down the years, albeit in a humbler manner, by the custom of country girls who would seek to know their future husband at the well. Hence it is the healing and wisdom of the Otherworld that has been sought by petitioners of the holy wells throughout the centuries.

In Ireland, pilgrimages to holy wells are still an important part of the year; and a high number of these fall upon the Celtic festivals of Imbolc on February 1st. Beltaine on May 1st, Lughnasa on August 1st and Samhain on November 1st. These are all special turning points of the year when the gates of the Otherworld are opened. Numerous holy wells are in fact dedicated to the Celtic goddess, Brigid and you will find many contain variants of her name.

There is still a strong instinct even today when stood near a well or on a bridge overlooking water to toss a coin into the depts., the “wishing well” if you like, or the tying of a rag to a tree in order to ask for a favour from the goddess. Rag Trees are another indication of the Druidic origin of Ireland’s sacred wells. Frequently a tree with magical properties – oak, holly, rowan or hazel – was planted beside the well to serve as its guardian. Hundreds of years later, the trees now tower over the water and supplicants still tie bits of cloth to the branches, trusting that as the fabric disintegrates so will their ailments diminish.

Christianity did not alter the people’s belief that the wells had healing powers. The great 19th-century Irish playwright J.M. Synge, while living in the Aran Islands, wrote Well of the Saints, a comedy based on accounts of miracles that occurred at Tobar an Ceathrar Alainn (Well of the Beautiful Saints), which is found on Innishmor just a few meters from a church dedicated to Saints Fursey, Brendan, Conal and Bearchan. In the play, Martin and Mary Doul, a blind beggar couple, believe themselves to be beautiful until a friar restores their sight with water from a holy well. No longer disabled, they discover they are not only common looking but now have to work for a living. When they become blind again and the friar attempts to restore their sight a second time, Martin knocks the holy well water to the ground, choosing blindness and a beggar’s life, having ‘seen’ enough human cruelty.

The Bullaun Stone.


The bullaun stone consists of a large rectangular block of weathered limestone with a deep bowl-shaped depression, hollowed out of its upper side. “Bullaun” refers to the hollow in the rock itself, which can have many bullauns in it, although many have only one.

It may have been used in pagan worship with perhaps offerings of milk, grain or even blood deposited in the bowl. It has been suggested that the bullaun stone was also known as a “wart stone” and healing powers were attributed to the rain that collects in the bowl-shaped hollow.

The bullaun stone consists of a large rectangular block of weathered limestone with a deep bowl-shaped depression, hollowed out of its upper side. Believed to be of pre-Christian origin. They may have been used for pounding ingredients such as herbs or ritual grains in pre historic times as a mortar and pestle might be used today.

They may also have been used in fertility rites.

A bullaun stone is a stone in which a cup shaped hollow has been made either naturally or by hand. The stones are associated with religious ritual and magic and the water collected within was thought to have the ability to cure ailments. To gain a cure, it was said a person had to visit the stone three times in the same week and go around the stone seven times on bare knees.

As with sacred wells believers may have left offerings to the gods/goddess either in the water contained within the hollow or underneath the stone itself.

It is generally thought that bullaun stones date from the Bronze Age (2000BC to 500 BC, in Ireland).

These stones have an undisputable association with water, and with worship of the Celtic fire goddess Brigid, and her successor, St. Bridget. Many are found in association with early churches and holy wells.

Their presence at so many early Christian sites places them as being of massive importance to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Ireland -- something that the Church was eager to assimilate. Ritual use of some bullaun stones (reputedly for both blessing and cursing) continued well into the Christian period.

The Christian church incorporated bullaun stones into their rituals and it is easy to imagine the origin of the baptismal font or the Roman Catholic holy water font which greets people as they walk through the church door. Many people have a small font in their house which they fill with water from their church or holy wells.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sweat Houses in Ireland.

Sweat Houses.

Sweat Houses were used in Ireland from the earliest times down to early in the 19th century for the cure of rheumatism; it was also reputedly a cure for temporary madness.

Many Sweathouses’ were round structures with a corbelled roof very similar to the beehive huts. Some had a hole in the roof to allow smoke to escape and this hole would be covered with a flat slab of stone prior to sealing the naked person using the sweathouse inside. It has also been recorded that mixed groups of men and women used sweat houses, again entering naked

They are generally sited next to or near water (a stream, river or Lough). The surviving examples are usually about seven feet in height and about the same in diameter with a low lintel covered door through which you must crawl.

Archaeological evidence suggest that a large turf fire was started inside the house and kept burning until the temperature inside became hot, after which the embers and ashes were swept out. Rushes or other plants were then placed within the house to form a cool surface on which to stand or sit.

There is also evidence to suggest that instead of lighting a fire within, some sweathouses used hot rocks heated outside the sweathouse and then placed inside, very similar to the Native American methods. Then the person who wished to use it, wrapping themselves in a blanket crawled inside and sat down. The door was closed up and the person would remain within for an hour or so until a state of complete perspiration had been attained.

Then crawling out you would plunge straight into cold water (nearby stream etc) after which you would be rubbed down until you became warm. This process would be carried out a number of times. After several baths at intervals of some days the person commonly got cured.

It has been suggested that sweathouses were generally used around autumn; this is around the same time as the Celtic festival of Samhain with its associations of mingling with the dead and communing with the ancestors and of travelling between the worlds.

Although we would not have used certain mind altering substances that some may find available today the use of magic mushrooms and other commonly found plants which appear at this time would and were used. This would enable the users of sweathouses to produce a consciousness altering experience in which people could interact with the spiritual forces through visions. This may have been of use to any religious faction, Pagan or Christian. So now we have both a healing function and a spiritual one making these structures extremely important to the local community.

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the accepted use of sweathouses may have become part of the folklore of a community, a way of placating the faerie folk in case some disaster may happen. If anyone doubts the strength of belief in the Sidhe here in Ireland I would suggest you read the article I have posted concerning the case of Bridget Cleary. In the early twentieth century this poor unfortunate woman was burned to death because people believed that she was a changeling.

In Germany a Turkish bath is called an Irish bath, as the idea is said to have come from Irish Sweat Houses.

The exact date of the construction of sweathouses is unknown, but they were used from the earliest times to the early nineteenth century.

Oisín and Tír Na nÓg.

Oisín and Tir Na nÓg.

The direct translation of Tir Na nÓg is "land of eternal youth". It refers to a mystical land in Irish mythology where the trees are always in bloom and there is always a bard to sing for you, where the food is always bountiful and the drink is always flowing, and, most of all, a place where you'll never grow a day older. You may live for blissful eternity in this enchanted land.

The favourite legend of Tir Na nÓg is that of the love between Niamh (pronounced Neeve) and Oisín (O-Sheen), a goddess and a Celtic warrior, whose love story takes them across the ocean, through the ages, and into legend.

One day while out hunting, Oisín was approached by a beautiful maiden, Niamh. The couple fell in love and travelled on Niamh’s magic white horse to live in Tir Na nOg. They married and lived a long and happy life together in this enchanted land.

300 years had passed and Oisín still looked exactly the same as when he arrived to Tir Na nOg. But even the land of eternal youth couldn’t banish memories and he began to miss his people and his home terribly. Niamh understood his need to visit the mortal world again and see his friends and she provided him with a fairy horse to take him there. She warned him however that he must not set foot on the earth – if he did, he would never be able to return.

Oisín arrived back in Ireland to see that much had changed over 300 years! Fionn and his men were long dead and the Fianna were by now the stuff of legend. He did not like what he saw and decided to return to Tir Na nOg and his beloved Niamh. On his way back he came across a group of men who were attempting to lift a heavy rock and he bent down to help them. Tragedy struck as he slipped from the saddle and fell to the ground. Oisín had touched mortal soil. He was instantly transformed into an old blind man.

Oisín wandered Ireland for many years; eventually he was to die without ever again setting eyes upon Niamh and Tir Na nOg. Here the story of Tir Na nOg ends. Unfortunately eternal youth is for fairies and not mortals - but that shouldn’t stop us dreaming!



The Reek.

Long before St Patrick’s visit in 441, the Reek was known by its ancient name of Cruachán Aigli. Cruach’ in English is a variant of ‘rick’ or reek, or stacked-up hill and refers to the cone-shaped mountain. Some translators took ‘Aigli’ to mean ‘Eagle’.

On foot of this interpretation, the coat of arms for Westport town incorporates an eagle and, in the nineteenth century, part of the ridge extending eastwards from the peak or Reek was still called Mount Eagle.

The name Cruach Phádraig started to gain prominence over Cruachán Aigli from the tenth to the thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century when many Irish place names were given an Anglicised version, Cruach Phádraig became widely known as Croagh Patrick.

Pagans celebrate the harvest with the festival of Lughnasa, held in honour of the god Lugh and whose name is now encompassed in the Irish for August (Lughnasa). (Nasa means games or an assembly). This festival took place throughout the country, often in high places such as The Reek.

Locally the festival became known as Domhnach Chrom Dubh (Black Crom Sunday. Crom Dubh features in legend as a pagan god.), Garland Sunday, the last Sunday of Summer, Domhnach na Cruaiche (Reek Sunday).

The Boheh Stone

In 1987 Gerry Bracken (a local historian) discovered that while standing at the Rock of Boheh which is about 7km (just over 4m) from Croagh Patrick, that the setting sun, rather than disappearing behind Croagh Patrick, actually rolls down the north slope of the mountain. This phenomenon lasts about twenty minutes and occurs on the 18 April and 24 August each year. These two dates, with 21 December, split the year into three equal parts and it is thought that they were used to celebrate sowing and harvesting seasons.

The spectacle of the rolling sun in prehistoric times probably merited the inscription on the Boheh rock outcrop, depicting many cup-and-ring marks, making it one of the finest examples of Neolithic rock art in Ireland and Britain

Winter Solstice

Less than a kilometre from Croagh Patrick is the ancient ritual site of Annagh, Killadangan, which has a standing stone row at its centre. This stone row aligns with the setting sun at 1.40pm on 21 December each year. The sun sets into a notch on the east-ridge of Croagh Patrick. On the same day as the rising sun is celebrated at Newgrange, the setting sun retires to its sacred celestial home at Croagh Patrick.

Before 1113 AD Lent or St Patrick’s Day (March 17th ) was the accepted time of year to make a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, but in this year a thunderbolt is said to have killed thirty of the pilgrims and the pilgrimage period was changed to summer, the most popular dates being the last Friday or Sunday of July. This story can be seen as an example of the old pagan gods gaining revenge on their Christian usurpers.

Although Croagh Patrick was originally a pagan sanctuary for the celebration of life’s abundance, under Christianity it became the scene of penance for supposed sinfulness. Many of the Christian pilgrims ascended the mountain barefoot, or even on their knees, as an act of atonement. The positive aspects of the original Celtic Lughnasa celebrations have been warped by the Catholic Church, imposing negative and alien concepts of control, fear, and guilt.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Love Flower.

The Love Flower.

There is in the west of Ireland a flower called the love daffodil.

Most daffodils bloom in Spring time, a beautiful yellow that lifts it's head to the spring sun and follows it until the sun sets in the west. Then slowly closes its petals and droops its head toward the ground until the sun rises the next morning.

The love daffodil pushes through the snow in January and is buffeted by cold winds and shone down upon by an icy sun. The colour of the love daffodil is red. Some say if you find it on a clear frosty night in a full moon, blood drips from its petals to the snow covered ground.

You may ask why there is such a sad flower as this that grows alone in the middle of winter before even the crocus heralds the spring.

It all happened a long time ago.

There once was a rich farmer whose wife gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. They called her Caithleen.

It was fortunate indeed that she inherited her mother's looks and her father intelligence. She grew up without her mother’s vanity for her mother was very vain and was considered a great beauty.

Everywhere her father went Caithleen would follow listening to every word that was spoken. The workers loved her for she had a great memory for names. From the oldest man or woman whom she addressed as Mr or Mrs. to the youngest baby of the tenant farmers.

The girls were jealous of her long black hair dark eyes and skin as smooth as velvet, yet for all that, they liked her. The boys would blush and stutter in front of her not sure what to say to one so beautiful.

Her vain mother watched all that was happening and became envious of her daughter. The more her own beauty faded the more she made plans to be once more called the most beautiful of all Ireland.

One day as Caithleen was away on some errand she spoke to her husband.
"Husband," she said, "you are indeed a rich man."

He nodded, tapping his pipe on the heel of his shoe. "I have been blessed many times over. You, a beautiful and devoted wife, a daughter that I love and land that yields plenty."

She watched him slyly as he gazed contentedly into the fire. "I hear," she said, "there are vagabonds on the roads ready to take innocent young girls for ransom."

Her husband stared at her in horror. "Ransom?"

"Yes, all the gold you can find and when they get it they kill the poor innocent ones."

"Oh I could never let that happen to my beloved Caithleen. I will hire guards to protect her."

"That will not help," cried his wife, "for there are too many of the thieves."

"Then wife what are we to do?"

His wife turned away so he couldn't see the look of glee on her face. Her voice was sad. "For her own good she must be locked up in the dungeon where none may find her."

"Never!" Cried her husband, "Caithleen is like a flower, she needs the rain on her face and the warm summer sun to bloom. I will ponder on this vexatious question."

So ponder he did for a whole month driving his wife mad with his indecision. Then one day he made up his mind. "I will build a room for my beautiful Caithleen on top of the house. From there she will see all the countryside while none will be able to gaze on her. That way she will be safe from thieves and vagabonds."

Unhappy though she was being locked away, she did her father’s bidding and settled in the room at the top of the house.

The seasons came and went. Spring with a sea of bluebells, summer with rolling hills of purple heather and long stalked rushes with balls of seed stuck to the top. Autumn with the golden fields of wheat and winter when the ground slept.

Years passed and Caithleen grew more beautiful while her mother, with her sly ways turned into a very cranky woman because everybody kept asking for her daughter, never once mentioning how beautiful she was.

One Winters day her husband declared that he must have the thatch on the roof repaired.

With fear in her heart his wife gripped his arm. "But husband if the Thatcher climbs the roof and sees your daughter he will tell the whole country."

Her husband had aged a lot because he missed having his daughter by his side yet he could still smile. "Worry not wife, I have fixed everything."

The next morning as the sun climbed into the blue frosty sky, Caithleen was awoken by the sound of singing.

She looked out the window and saw a young man about her own age working away pulling out the old thatch and replacing it with new. His hair was the colour of the straw that he matted with his fine strong hands.

He sang of the flight of the swallow and the music carried her to where the bird soared and knowing the song she joined in.

"'Tis a beautiful voice you have," he said when the song finished.

Caithleen blushed. "Thank you, so have you. I've not seen you around here before."
With nimble feet he climbed the roof to where she stood at the window. "I'm from the next county, my name is Seamus." His smile was wide and happy.

Caithleen gave a start. His eyes were grey, plain grey. He was blind.

"Be careful you might slip!"

Seamus stood, sure footed, the smile growing ever wider. "I haven't fallen off a roof yet and I'm the best Thatcher in all of Ireland."

Caithleen smiled. "You're very sure of yourself."

Seamus grinned. "I must get back to work or I'll have no job by sunset and you must get to your work or you'll get into trouble."

"Oh, I.” Caithleen blushed. "Yes, I'd better."

Over the next days and weeks Caithleen and Seamus used to meet and talk and sing. Funny thing, no-one in or around the house could hear them yet, people out in the fields would stop and listen and wonder what kind of new bird had come to Ireland.

It was a grey day and late snow had started to fall. Seamus climbed up the roof to the window where Caithleen stood.

"Tis my last day Caithleen, I've come to say farewell."

She wiped away the tears that ran down her face. Caithleen had fallen deeply in love with the handsome blind Thatcher and had thought of all the ways she could stop him leaving.

"I've brought you a present," he held out his hand, "'tis the first flower of spring." The yellow daffodil shone out against the snowflakes that fell around him. Cathleen reached out and for a brief moment their hands touched.

"Caithleen, you have the most beautiful singing voice and when you speak I can feel the caring in it. At night I dream of what you might look like."

Seamus paused, searching for words. "I wonder - before I go could I touch your face, just once?"

Wordlessly Caithleen reached out for his hand and guided it to her cheek. His touch was feather light as he traced her hair, the shape of her eyes, her nose. His fingers lingered on her lips. Gently she kissed each one.

"What is going on here?"

Caithleen's mother strode into the room and seeing her daughter about to kiss the blind Thatcher screamed. "Get away from her."

She dragged her daughter away from the window and with a great heave threw Seamus down the roof. He tried to get a foothold but the snow, now thick made it too slippery.

Pushing her mother aside, Caithleen leaned out the window and watched her beloved slip over the side.

Beneath him was the last of the straw for the roof held together by stakes stuck in the ground.

His last word before his body was impaled was her name. "Caithleen!!"

With a cry of despair and still clutching the daffodil she leapt from the window. Down, down she slipped, her eyes never leaving the body of Seamus.

Her father found them, both impaled on the same stake, face to face, their lips touching. Between them lay the daffodil covered with their blood. With a breaking heart he buried them side by side on the hillside overlooking the farm. It was talked about near and far, the beautiful smiles they had on their faces.

If you suffering a broken heart, go to the West of Ireland in Wintertime. Search for the blood red daffodil. If you find it, hold it close to your breast and it will heal all unhappiness.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cilliní / Children's burial ground.

Cilliní or Children’s burial ground.

The phrase "Children's burial ground" refers to an unconsecrated place used primarily, though not exclusively, for the burial of unbaptised children. Those most commonly used in Co. Mayo are cillin/Killeen, lios/Lisheen. The word cill is derived from the Latin cella, and means Church or Graveyard. (History of Mayo).

Old Burial Grounds:

The custom of setting apart a special place for the burial of very young or unbaptised children appears to have been common practice in Ireland until the 19th century. Numerous such burial grounds, known as Children's Burial Grounds, Cillíní, Calluraghs, Caldraghs or Cealhúinacha, are recorded on the Ordnance Survey maps, particularly in the west of Ireland.

Frequently the locations chosen were abandoned Early Christian church sites or ringforts, but children were also buried in such places as haggards and fields, boundary fences, cross-roads, under lone bushes, in cliff-clefts, on the sea-shore or outside a graveyard wall. Children's burial grounds are frequently located within a pre-existing early ecclesiastical site or ringfort.

Those sites which are not associated with an older monument are usually marked now by little more than an area of uncultivated stony ground, often raised above the general surroundings.

Within the burial grounds, the individual graves may be marked by a low mound or by a low uninscribed standing stone and sometimes the graves themselves are visible above ground as small box-like arrangements of stones. The presence of quartz pebbles is also a common feature. It was said that little coffins were brought in the night and the only sign that a burial had taken place was a newly made grave. This practice stopped around 1900

Local folklore relates that adults, particularly strangers or suicides, were sometimes interred in these burial grounds. The Ordnance Survey recorded many instances of the continued use of children's burial grounds into the 19th century and an example of the custom was recorded in Co. Mayo as recently as 1964. When the custom began in this country has not yet, however, been established.


Cilliní were the designated resting places for individuals considered unsuitable for burial within consecrated ground by the Roman Catholic Church. Traditionally associated with the burial of unbaptised infants.
The saddest of all customs were those that dealt with the death of babies and young children. Unbaptised babies could not be buried in consecrated ground so they were buried between sunset and sunrise outside the walls of the graveyard or in a disused graveyard, a cillín or a ring fort.

The souls of the little babies were said to be cursed to carry a candle forever. These baby-lights were often seen at night outside graveyards especially in the month of November. People were led to believe by the religious that the lonely little souls were searching for their parents or relations inside the graveyards but they could never enter as they were unbaptised.

Up to fifty years ago in some areas, unbaptised babies were buried in the path around a graveyard. Parents did not go to the grave with the dead child particularly if it was their first child. They believed that if they brought one child to the grave they would bring the next and possibly all their children there also. Should more than two infants from the same family be born dead the cycle could be broken by changing the place in which the infants were buried.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Kilkenny Witch.

Dame Alice Kyteler.
The Woman at the Centre of Ireland’s First Witch Trial (1324-1325)
The case of Dame Alice Kyteler was one of the first European witchcraft trials and the first recorded claim of a witch having intercourse with demons, although the charges were almost certainly trumped up by those seeking her money. Kytler herself escaped, but others in her household were less fortunate.

Dame Alice Kyteler was born in 1280 at Kyteler's House in Kilkenny, Ireland, the only child of an established Anglo-Norman family. She was a wealthy and beautiful Irish noblewoman, and was married four times, to William Outlawe, Adam le Blund, Richard de Valle and, finally, to Sir John le Poers. When Sir John was taken ill, he suspected he was being poisoned, and on his death, Alice’s step-children accused her of using poison and sorcery against their fathers, and of favouring her first-born son, William Outlawe Jr. In addition, she and her followers (ten of her servants and her son, William) were accused of denying the Christian faith, sacrificing animals to demons and blasphemy. There were some rather bizarre specific claims, included the mixing in a robber’s skull of magical ointments made from worms, hairs from buttocks and clothing from unbaptised baby boys, and alleged intercourse with a demon named Robin or Son of Art, which reportedly appeared as a black shaggy dog or as three Ethiopians carrying iron rods. Various powders, charms and incantations were also found at her home.

The case was brought in 1324 before the then Bishop of Ossory, an English Franciscan friar called Richard de Ledrede, but Dame Alice’s network of influential friends deflected the accusations and even had the Bishop arrested. John Darcy, the Lord Chief Justice, travelled to Kilkenny to investigate the events and vindicated the Bishop, who again attempted to have Dame Alice arrested. Although convicted in 1325, on the night before she was to be burned at the stake, she escaped to England, and was never heard of again.

The Bishop, however, continued to pursue her followers, bringing charges of witchcraft against them, and Alice’s son William Outlawe (who was accused of heresy, usury, perjury, adultery, clericide and other misdemeanours), was convicted but escaped relatively lightly after recanting his heresy and sorcery, being ordered to hear three masses a day for a year, to feed the poor and to pay for a church roof to be covered with lead. Her lower-class followers were less fortunate, and one of them, Petronella de Meath, was tortured by whipping to obtain incriminating information against her mistress, and finally burned at the stake on 3 November 1324, the first person in Ireland to be executed by this method. Ironically, Ledrede himself was later was accused of heresy.

This was one of the first European witchcraft trials and followed closely on the election of Pope John XXII to the Papacy, and his addition of witchcraft to the list of heresies in 1320. It also contained the first recorded claim of a witch having intercourse with her incubus. Although the trial itself did not spark immediate, widespread witch-hunts, suspicions of conspiracies with demons, such as those against Kyteler, would be revived in years to come against other reputed witches.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Sin Eater.

The Sin Eater.
A sin-eater is a traditional type of spiritual healer who uses a ritual to cleanse the dying of their sins. The sin-eater absorbs the sins of the people he or she serves and typically works for a fee. As the sins are usually consumed through food and drink, the sin-eater also gains a meal through the transaction.

Sin-eaters are often outcasts, as the work may be considered unsavoury and is usually thought to lead to an afterlife in hell due to carrying the un-absolved sins of others. The Roman Catholic Church regularly excommunicated sin-eaters when they were more common, not only because of the excessive sins they carried, but also because they infringed upon the territory of priests, who are supposed to administer Last Rites to the dying according to Church Doctrine.

A sin-eater typically consumes bread as part of the ritual of taking on the dying person's sins. He or she may also eat salt or drink water or ale. Sometimes, special breads are baked for the purpose of the sin-eating ritual, perhaps featuring the initials or image of the deceased. The meal is sometimes passed over the dead or dying body or placed on its breast to symbolize its absorption of the person's sins. The sin-eater may also recite a special prayer.

As a shamanic tradition, a Sin Eater would be employed by the family of a deceased person, or sometimes by the church, to eat a last meal of bread and salt from the belly of the corpse as it lay in state. By so doing it was believed that the sins of the dead person would be absorbed and the deceased would have clear passage to the hereafter.

The Sin Eater was given a few coins for his trouble but other than that was avoided (literally ‘like the plague’) by the community who regarded him as sin-filled and unclean as a result of his work. That is why Sin Eaters usually lived at the edge of the village and children were warned away from them. One other point of interest, who would eat the sins of the sin eater? for his sins were the accumulation of all the sins he had eaten through his/her life.

The Sin eater seems to have been mostly associated with the Celts of Wales and its borders with England. There have been stories of Sin eaters in Ireland and Scotland long ago.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

An FIr Gorta.

An Irish Tale.

The dead have always played a central role in rural Irish folklore. Whether as insubstantial ghosts wandering through the countryside or walking corpses returning to torment the living, our former ancestors have always exercised an intense and continuing fascination for those who survive them and have formed the basis for many hair-raising tales.

The dead, it appears, will not go away. The belief in returning ghosts, spirits or corpses may have its origin in primitive ancestor worship. It was well known throughout the country that the dead had to be looked after at all times. Not to do so was to invite misfortune upon yourself, your family or your community. Nor has this belief wholly died out.

In 1993, there was an old man in north Cavan who claimed that, as a child, he remembered the corpse of his grandfather coming back from the grave on some nights during the winter months to sit at the fire and smoke a pipe of tobacco. He said that he also remembered actually touching the skin of the corpse and finding it very cold. His grandfather never spoke but sat warming himself by the fire. The rest of the family ignored this and went off to bed, leaving the corpse sitting in front of a good blaze. When they got up in the morning, the corpse was gone - presumably back to its grave. This story was borne out, without prompting, by one of the old gentleman's sisters.

Here is a story told to us as children in County Mayo and passed down through the family.

The Fír Gorta.

The Fír Gorta, The Man of Hunger in the English, was a tall thin looking feller who travelled around from place to place, village to village, town to country. He would knock on your door and as was our custom the stranger would always be welcomed and given a bite to eat, now as you know during the famine if food existed it was as scarce as hens teeth so some people would hide if they heard a knock on the door and some would deny they had anything in the house at all and some would even refuse to open the door. Some would even run him from the door.

For those people there would be no hope for they would perish in the famine, but there were those who would have a small piece of potato or a drop of milk and even though it might have to do the whole family our custom was one of hospitality to the stranger and so it would be offered to him. He would thank them for their generosity, politely refuse their meagre offerings and take his leave of them. Before he left them he would say, “Because of your generosity and your honest welcome you are truly blessed this day and neither you nor your family will ever die of the hunger. Tell none of this, but from this day forth your pot will never be empty and your jug will never run dry.

In the morning the mother went to the pot and within it found a great big potato that would feed the whole family and the jug brimming over with fresh milk and every morning from then on it was the same thing. They survived the hunger.

We were also told to always carry a piece of bread in our pocket because sometimes when out walking the boreen if you felt hungry it meant you were passing a place of famine death and if you did not eat something straight away then you would waste away and die.