Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Crossroads in Irish folklore.

Crossroads in Irish folklore.

The crossroads is a land that belongs to no one. It’s an area that seems to invite ghosts, spirits and creatures of the night, those that don’t belong in the natural world. Malevolent faeries are believed to haunt the crossroads looking for lost souls to lure into the half-lit world of the Unseelie. For this reason it was believed that the crossroads would confound or confuse restless spirits, stopping them from returning to haunt the living.

Crossroads have played a very important role in the folklore of many cultures. They were often used as burial places for unbaptised children, murderers, executed criminals, and suicides.  It was because this ground was unconsecrated and was seen as separate from the everyday world. Such outcasts were not intended for the forgiveness of heaven and so they were buried in a place that would condemn their spirits to wander for eternity.

It was suggested that this was because the crossroads form a Christian cross but this does not hold true as the belief in the power of crossroads predates Christianity and you will find similar superstitions regarding crossroads in many cultures which are not Christian.  Folklore tells us that suicide victims or self murderers as they used to be called were sometimes buried at the crossroads so their spirits would not return to search for those who had wronged them in life.

May be it was for this reason that crossroads have become associated with ghostly legends, magic, and paranormal activities.  They have long been of interest to those who gather information on the paranormal as events of this nature are said to occur on ancient highways and byways especially where they cross.  Whether or not these events are real or imagined does not matter as there are stories in every culture concerning devils, demons and deals done with the devil so I would suggest that, as in every legend, there may just be a grain of truth in their origins. 

Certain routes were used for funerals and called ‘the path of the corpse ’. There was also a tradition of putting wooden crosses on bushes by the roadside where the roads met at a crossroads and if a funeral procession passed by then the pall bearers would place the coffin down for a few minutes. 

Crowing hens, regarded as unlucky, were abandoned at the crossroads. If you had warts these could be cured by rubbing them with a stone and leaving it at the crossroads, if someone picked up the stone then they took over your warts. 

There are stories concerning deals done with the devil, in modern times Robert Johnson the famous blues musician claimed to have met the devil at the crossroads and signed over his soul to play the blues and gain mastery over the guitar. He died at the age of 27 and became one of those poor unfortunates that have become known as members of the 27 club. I will talk about the 27 club in a future show.

In Ireland the sweeping of crossroads was carried out, this was a practice associated with witches who would meet at crossroads to carry out certain rituals.  Traditionally the crossroads was looked upon as a no-man’s land belonging to no one. A place that was thought of as being neither here nor there, a place beyond the real world where normal rules did not apply.  It was here that people could make contact with the spirit world and shrines, crosses and standing stones are a common feature of crossroads throughout Europe. 

At Samhain spirits were thought to gather and walk in procession to visit the homes of their relatives and that if you were to stand at the crossroads at midnight you would see them passing.  Some legends even suggest that if you were to listen carefully you would hear the names of those about to die on the wind as it blew across the feet of the corpses on the way to the house of the one whose name was heard.

Gibbets were often placed at crossroads. A gibbet is an instrument of public execution; it is in this instance, a gallows-type structure from which the dead or dying bodies of executed criminals were hung on public display in order to deter others from following their way of life.  At one time live gibbeting took place; the condemned were placed in a cage like structure that hung from the arm of the gibbet. They were left to die of thirst.  This type of execution seemed to be reserved for those convicted of treason, murder, highwaymen, pirates and sheep stealers. 

It may be of interest to know that Oliver Cromwell was gibbeted after his death, when monarchists disinterred his body during the restoration of the British monarchy. 

The practice of burying suicides and criminals at crossroads was repealed by an Act of Parliament in 1823.  It has been suggested that this was at the request of George IV who had been delayed by a crowd gathered for a burial at the crossroads of Hobart Place and Grosvenor Place. The spectators were watching the burial of a suicide called Abel Griffiths, by this time suicide was regarded with greater sympathy and although frowned upon by the church the populace now didn’t consider it to be self-murder. However, following abolition suicides could only be buried in graveyards between 9-00pm and midnight and no ceremonies were allowed.

There is a sad story concerning a crossroads on the Icknield Way near the Cambridgeshire and Suffolk border in England I mention this only because Ireland was under British rule and so their laws were imposed upon us and this story is now part of the folklore of crossroads.  There is a neatly tended patch of ground where flowers are planted and looked after.  It is known locally as The Boy’s Grave.  The story goes that a young shepherd boy believed he had lost one of his master’s sheep, afraid of being accused of its theft and hanged or transported and the shame that may bring to his family he hanged himself. When the sheep were counted it was found that none were missing. Having taken his own life he was buried at the crossroads, people tend to his grave to this day.  His name is not known nor is his death mentioned in local records.  However, through archaeology and historical research the burial of criminals and suicides at rural crossroads illustrates the practice and there is now a great deal of evidence to support the theory. 

A more pleasant feature of Irish country life was the custom of holding dances at the crossroads. People dance on specially erected timber platforms and enjoy the open air, scenery, meeting friends and making new ones and enjoying the music provided. It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that crossroads dancing became popular. However, the clergy condemned it so the Gaelic League introduced the first Ceilli in 1697 and this let dancers dance indoors under supervision.  Interestingly the Ceilli was not held in Ireland but in London. 

Traditional Irish culture continued in secret until the 1700s. It was a time in Irish history when dancing was prohibited by the English so the Irish would meet on country roads, particularly where they crossed.  They would bring food, drink, and musical instruments and keeping an eye out for approaching soldiers they danced their country dances. It was around 1750 that attitudes began to become less strict and this allowed Irish dance to flourish. 

There used to be a tradition where dance was taught by the Dance Master, a Dance Master would travel around the country staying in villages in order to teach dance steps. To have a Dance Master staying in your village was a cause of immense pride and boasting by the community. 

However, we cannot blame the British for the Public Dance Hall Act of 1935.  This little piece of legislation enacted by the Irish Dáil had a severe and detrimental effect on the traditional music, dance, and storytelling of rural Ireland.  Before this legislation Irish culture was an important part of rural Ireland and centred on house dancing and dancing at the crossroads.  It was here that our art flourished, but along came the pressure to regulate.  This came from a number of different sources, most notable among them was the Catholic Church.

They had been campaigning for years claiming that house dancing led to sin and corruption, here now was a chance for the government to bring in legislation and tax the profits of regulated dance halls.  It now meant that all dance halls had to be licensed for public dances, however, house dances could not be regulated and so they were exempt.

The view of the Gardaí and the clergy was that such dances should be illegal this led to a great number of local people being prosecuted and the dancing in houses and at crossroads began to die out, and with them went our traditional way of life.  Even farmers stopped holding harvest dances as a way of thanking their farmhands for all their hard work gathering in the crops.

The house dances and crossroads dances were not the target of the legislation.  Nevertheless, the clergy and Gardaí continued to apply the act as if it did outlaw these activities, and although they were not the only factors in the demise of the country dances, they were at any rate the only agents of change who consciously and deliberately set out to do away with our traditions.  The Act was not to blame, but its agents, encouraged and assisted by the clergy, certainly were.

It is good to see that today the house dances and dancing at the crossroads are being revived. We no longer look for approaching soldiers, only motor cars.

Incidentally the phrase “Comely maidens dancing at the crossroads” was never in fact uttered by DeVelera as some would have you believe. 

Here I will leave you at the crossroads with the words of that great blues singer Robert Johnson.

I went down to the crossroad

Fell down on my knees

I went to the crossroad

Fell down on my knees

Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy now,

Save poor Bob, if you please”.

Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Ballybogs or Peat Faeries.

The Ballybogs or Peat Faeries.

Although at one time you might have found Ballybogs living in Wales, Scotland England, and Ireland. However, there were greater numbers of them here in Ireland. As one of their names (Peat Faeries) suggests, the Ballybogs are fond of peat, something we are lucky enough to still have.

These small creatures have very strange looking bodies. Their heads seem to sit directly on the top of a little fat body without any neck at all. They have spindly legs that don’t even look as though they could stand on their own, let alone hold up such a round shape. Its gaping mouth is full of blunt, needle-like teeth and its nose hangs down over its top lip, matched by pair of dog-like ears that sit up on their own.

For the most part, the body and head resemble that of a toad with mismatched ears and nose. Their arms mirror the legs in appearance, turning the Ballybog into a frightful looking thing. To top it all off, these little wrinkled creatures appear to have been dipped in mud so they look a bit like a chocolate covered cherry; only in this case, it’s a mud-covered Ballybog.

Ugly in both appearance and sound, the Ballybogs are creatures that prefer to keep to themselves. Obviously, as guardians of the bogs, they live in the bog and prefer the mud holes that are so numerous in that type of location.

Whether due to their solitary existence or some quirk of nature, the Ballybogs cannot speak and only grunt in place of verbal language. This adds to the common belief that the Ballybog is one of the dumbest faeries. Some might say their grunting and slobbering behaviour is reason enough to consider them somewhat less intelligent than humans and closer to the animal kingdom but be careful of what you say. Many people have lived to regret insulting the gentry.

Since their main purpose in life is to protect the bogs, they cause relatively little mischief or damage, certainly less than man as far as the bogs are concerned. However, whether they have a mischievous streak or simply get bored, the Ballybogs have been known to prey upon unsuspecting human travellers and lead them astray from the path. No real harm is ever done to these unwitting travellers other than a few hours of lost time and a bit of unexpected aggravation.

They have been known by many interesting names down through the ages, each with a clever little twist on their origin. They’ve been called Peat Faeries, Mudbogs, Bogles, Boggans, Bog-a-boos, and Boggies, However, don’t confuse them with the Boggie man, he’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

No matter what name they are called by, the Ballybogs have been the guardians of the bogs since the bogs were formed.

They are most typically encountered in Ireland, where people still use peat or turf as we call it as a source of fuel because Ireland lacks natural coal and oil deposits.

While the ballybog was merely unpleasant, it was said to possess a nasty temper. It focuses the majority of its ill will upon those who are lazy, incontinent, or guilty of crimes. Like many of the fairie folk it was widely believed that at one time, they were they guardian spirits of bogs. Some have suggested that the preserved human remains found in the peat bogs of northern Europe are evidence of ritual human sacrifices made to placate the fairies who dwelled within the bogs.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The Old Donkey.

Once upon a time, not that long ago just outside of Westport in County Mayo there was an old farmer who owned an even older donkey.  One day the poor old donkey (who couldn’t see very well), fell into the farmer’s well.

The farmer heard the donkey braying and praying or whatever donkey’s do when they fall into a well.  He weighed up the situation, apologised to the donkey and informed him that as he was so old he wasn’t worth the bother of saving as it would cost too much to call out the fire brigade in order to winch him out.

Instead the farmer called his neighbours together and after deciding that he didn’t use the well anymore it would be far cheaper and easier just to fill in the well. So the farmer began to haul soil in his tractor and with the help of his neighbours they started to shovel the soil down the well.

“What about the donkey?” one of the neighbours shouted,

“Aah it’s kinder just to put him out of his misery” replied the farmer.

The old donkey was extremely annoyed when he heard this and began to get very worried, jumping up and down and saying things like

“Eee haw, eee haw, eee Haw”

This in donkey language meant,

“Aah come on now lads it’s not funny anymore, you’re going to get me all mucky if you don’t pack it in”

Unfortunately for the donkey no one understood donkey language and they just kept shovelling.

More and more soil came down upon the old donkey and he became increasingly agitated as no one seemed to be listening to his cries.

Suddenly an idea came to the donkey, every time he felt a load of soil land on his back he would just shake it off and stand onto it.  Every time he felt the load of soil on his back he shook it off and stepped up, shovel after shovel, load after load, shake it off and step up, shake it off and step up, shake it off and step up.  He began to repeat those words in his head as a way of encouraging himself.

 No matter how tired he became or how painful it became, no matter how distressing it appeared the old donkey just kept fighting back the pain and the panic and just kept repeating to himself Shake it off and step up, shake it off and step up.

It wasn’t long before the old donkey appeared at the top of the well. Battered and tired, he looked at the old farmer, smiled, and stepped over the wall of the well onto firm ground.

What at first seemed to be the cause of the old donkey’s problem actually turned out to be of help to him. What threatened to bury him instead helped him all because he gave it a bit of thought and refused to be beaten.

We can all learn a lesson from that old donkey.  In life we will often come up against problems but if we approach them in a positive way and refuse to give in to panic, bitterness, hopelessness, or self-pity. There will be an answer
The video is courtesy of Craig Smith you tube.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Murphy's Hat.

Murphy’s Hat.

Pat Murphy showed up at Mass one Sunday and the priest almost fell out of the pulpit when he saw him. You see. Pat Murphy hadn’t been to church for years.

After Mass, the priest caught up with him and said,

"Hello Pat, I am so glad you decided to come to Mass. What made you come?"

Murphy said, "I got to be honest with you Father, a while back, I
misplaced me hat and I really, really love that hat. I know that Duffy has a hat just like mine and I knew he came to church every Sunday. I also knew that he had to take off his hat during Mass and I figured he would leave it in the back of the church. So, I was going to leave after Communion and steal Duffy's hat."

The priest said, "Well Pat, I notice that you didn't steal Duffy's hat. What changed your mind?"

Murphy replied, "Well, after I heard your sermon on the 10
Commandments I decided that I didn't need to steal Duffy's hat after all."

With a tear in his eye the priest gave Murphy a big smile and said;

"After I talked about 'Thou Shalt Not Steal' you decided you would rather do without your hat than burn in hell, is that it?"

Murphy slowly shook his head. "No, Father, it was after you talked about 'Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery, ' I
t was then that I remembered where I left me hat."

The Giants Causeway.

The Giants Causeway.

In County Antrim there is a place that is steeped in the mythology and folklore of Ireland. That place is known as The Giants Causeway.

Its ‘discovery’ was announced in 1693 by Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, when presenting a paper to the Royal Society. However, the ‘discoverer’ who should have received credit for it was the Bishop of Derry who had visited the site a year earlier.

There was a great deal of argument concerning the creation of the Causeway.  Some said it had been created by men with picks and chisels, some said it was the result of nature, and some said it was the work of a giant.

The issue was finally settled in 1771 when a Frenchman by the name of Demarest, announced the true origin of the Causeway was the result of volcanic action.

In 1740, a Dublin spinster’s realistic sketches brought the Causeway to the attention of the public and ever since it has attracted visitors from all over the world.

What of its folklore?

One of the legends that surround The Giants Causeway concerns two giants, Finn McCool and Benandonner

Finn MacCool, the handsome giant of Ireland, lived on the wild northern coast, and occasionally he sat at the edge of the sea, sucking on his thumb. Whenever he had a question, any puzzle at all, he sucked that thumb and the answer came.

Finn fell in love with a giantess named Oonagh who lived on a rocky isle across the Irish Sea. Trouble was Finn could not swim, so how would he reach his beloved? He thought a while, and then he tore up some trees, and he built himself a boat, but when he stepped inside, that boat sank under his weight. After all, Finn was a giant.

So Finn sucked on his thumb, and next thing he was gathering columns of rock, six-sided each, flat-topped and weighing 10 tons. He stood on the shore and tossed those columns, one after another, into the sea. In this way he formed a path all the way to Oonagh’s Island.

Oonagh was very impressed (what woman wouldn’t be?), and it was not long before they were married and shortly after she had a son (fast workers, these giants?). They called their son Ossian and he grew up and left home to live with the faeries (I’m saying nothing?) but let’s just say they were sad when he left.

However, they were not sad for long and they commenced singing. Everyone could hear them and as their singing was better than Jedward’s it didn’t upset them. Everyone that is except Benandonner, he was another giant that lived a lonely miserable life on the Isle of Straffa and he was very happy being miserable and did not wish to hear happy singing coming from his neighbours.

Benandonner decided he had to silence yer man Finn and while he was at it he might as well take his wife home with him so with this in mind he challenged Finn for Oonagh’s hand.  Now Benandonner was a big ugly smelly yoke and as he dressed in old rat skins and had three eyes, one in the middle of his forehead, he had no chance of Oonagh but Finn Invited him to come over shouting,

“Come on over if yer think yer hard enough”.

The following day Benandonner arrived at the house and knocked on the door.  Oonagh answered the knock and said to Benandonner,

“Finn’s out at the minute come back tomorrow”

 “O.K” said Benandonner and as this made him very miserable altogether... he was quite happy.

When Finn arrived back he saw Benandonner’s footprints outside his door. “Holy mother of god would ye look at the size of them” he began having second thoughts. 

“Oonagh, that fellagh must be massive”, said Finn. 

Oonagh said “Don’t you be worrying; I have an idea that’ll put manners on him”

The next morning there was a knock on the door.  This time Finn was home but he was hiding in the baby cradle that had once been Ossian’s.  He was covered with blankets so only his eyes could be seen.

“Is this yer baby” Benandonner asked,

“Yes he is, and his father will be home soon”, replied Oonagh.

She had baked some cakes and invited Benandonner to sit down and have some while he waited. What he didn’t know was that she had baked a cake with pieces of metal in it and it was this that she gave him.  When he took a bite he let out a scream,

 “I’ve bust me tooth” he wailed, “What have you put in them”.

 “Only a bit of butter and cream, a few eggs and some flour, sure the baby loves them” said Oonagh, and she gave one to Finn (without any metal in it).

“That child must have teeth of iron” said Benandonner and he bent over and for some unknown reason he stuck his finger in the baby’s mouth (he wasn’t a bright giant).

Surprise, surprise, Crunch! Finn bit down so hard he bit the finger clean off.

Benandonner let out another scream, “What kind of child is this, he’s strong enough to bite off a giant’s finger?”

“Aragh, he’s only a wee thing” said Oonagh, “He’s not that strong but his daddy is trying to teach him how to get better”

Benandonner laughed nervously. "What kind of things is he teaching him?" he asked.

Oonagh smiled “Oh just things” she said.

Benandonner began to tremble, and then he said,

"I'll be going now," and he backed out of the house and ran across the causeway. Halfway across a thought struck him, and he stopped. Working feverishly with all his great strength, he carried away the middle section of those rocks, one by one, for he had no wish for a visit from the monstrous Finn.

So that is the reason why only the beginning and the end remain of the Giant's Causeway, one on Straffa Island, home of Benandonner, and another on the Antrim coast, just near the place where Finn lived.

Volcanic action or a giant’s fear, you decide.