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Friday, October 24, 2008

Black cats, lucky pennies and troublesome fairy folk

The Irish are a superstitious lot. My grandmother was the one that taught me: don't walk under a ladder, don't open an umbrella inside a house, watch out for black cats, etc. I don't live by any of these maxims today, but I do think of my grandmother whenever one of these situations comes to pass.

My mother passed down her share of Irish folklore, sometimes without even realizing it. Every new purse I received from her had a shiny new penny inside. Did you know, Mom, that the "luck penny" is an Irish tradition?

It seems that the Irish penchant for storytelling and poetry has long lent itself to an awareness of the spirit world and the possibility of its impact on daily life.

Earning a daily wage and putting bread on the table were hard for the Irish people for centuries. Added to that was the difficulty of having to avoid actions, places and dates that held superstitious warning. Don't forget the work of the fairy folk. They seemed to always be causing trouble.

Bridget Haggerty has an enjoyable article on the Irish Culture and Customs website that lists many of the superstitions that are not as well remembered today. In God Between Us and All Harm - Irish Superstitions she writes of superstitions surrounding the weather and the sea, livestock and wild animals, and many ailments known to plague the Irish of long ago. Bridget also shares a number of warnings referring to different days of the week and holidays stating, "To live through an ordinary day in old Ireland without being mindful of so many superstitions would have been impossible. Add to this burden the special beliefs surrounding important dates in the calendar."

Bottom line: Life was complicated for the Irish people.

In 1852 William Robert Wilde shared the thoughts of those looking ahead for Ireland: "There is every reason to hope, however, that the decay of such superstitions is not far distant, and that the diffusion of learning will remove every vestige of them."

Sixty-six years later in 1918, William Butler Yeats wrote in his introduction to Irish Fairy and Folk Tales:
"In spite of hosts of deniers, and asserters, and wise-men, and professors, the majority still are averse to sitting down to dine thirteen at table, or being helped to salt, or walking under a ladder, or seeing a single magpie flirting his chequered tail. There are, of course, children of light who have set their faces against all this, though even a newspaper man, if you entice him into a cemetery at midnight, will believe in phantoms, for every one is a visionary, if you scratch him deep enough. But the Celt is a visionary without scratching."
Visionaries, poets and dreamers: that is the character of the Irish soul. Because of the wildness of their imaginations, centuries of Irish people complicated life for themselves with their required procedures for safety, housework, and the every day living. Yet, now we discuss and miss their colorful ways.

As William Robert Wilde discussed in his 1852 Irish Popular Superstitions, the loss of the ancient culture of Ireland, superstitions and all, is the loss of the "poetry of the people":
"In this state of things, with depopulation the most terrific which any country ever experienced, on the one hand, and the spread of education, and the introduction of railroads, colleges, industrial and other educational schools, on the other,--together with the rapid decay of the Irish vernacular, in which most of our legends, romantic tales, ballads, and bardic annals, the vestiges of Pagan rites, and the relics of fairy charms were preserved,---can superstition, or if superstitious belief, can superstitious practices continue to exist?

"But these matters of popular belief and folks'-lore, these rites and legends, and superstitions, were after all, the poetry of the people, the bond that knit the peasant to the soil, and cheered and solaced many a cottier's fireside. Without these, on the one side, and without proper education and well-directed means of partaking of and enjoying its blessings, on the other, and without rational amusement besides, he will, and must, and has in many instances, already become a perfect brute. The rath which he revered has been, to our knowledge, ploughed up, the ancient thorn which he reverenced has been cut down, and the sacred well polluted, merely in order to uproot his prejudices, and efface his superstition. Has he been improved by such desecration of the landmarks of the past, objects which, independent of their natural beauty, are often the surest footprints of history? We fear not."

I for one, while not worrying myself with the effects of crossed knives on the table in my kitchen, or a bed in my house facing the door, hope to learn more about the historic ways of my Irish ancestors. After all, I've written this article on Friday: the day of the week when a new project should not be started, according to Irish legend (as written by Lady Francesca Wilde in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland). At least I haven't cut out a dress, fixed a marriage, moved or gone on a journey today. The fairies would really be after me then.


This post has been submitted to the 9th edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture hosted at West in New England. Lucky you! You can enjoy reading all of the entries about Irish superstitions.

Want to read more about ancient Irish traditions surrounding the feast of Samhain (Irish new year), the day we now celebrate as All Hallows' Eve? You might enjoy Bridget Haggerty's An Irish Halloween.


One last note - a travel tip for you:

Making a trip to Ireland and want to learn the stories of the local ghosts and fairies? It might not be so easy. Here is a suggestion courtesy of William Butler Yeats in his introduction to Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, 1918:
"...if you are a stranger, you will not readily get ghost and fairy legends, even in a western village. You must go adroitly to work, and make friends with the children, and the old men...

"The old women are most learned, but will not so readily be got to talk, for the fairies are very secretive, and much resent being talked of; and are there not many stories of old women who were nearly pinched into their graves or numbed with fairy blasts?"


Anonymous said...

Your blog is fantastic. I love Ireland :D
Best wishes from Poland,

Colleen Johnson, CMJ Office said...

As always, fascinating post and great links to read. Thanks.

I recently freaked when my youngest tried to open an umbrella inside. LOL

Colleen Johnson, CMJ Office said...

As always, fascinating post and great links to read. Thanks.

I recently freaked when my youngest tried to open an umbrella inside. LOL

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,
I'm a bit late to the party on this entry, but I wanted to share that when I lived in Cork, my darling friend Amanda taught me that that whenever we saw a magpie we were to say "Good day, Mr. Magpie!" as quickly as possible. I have to admit I still do it!

Amy :)


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