Irish Druids And Old Irish
The peculiar superstitions of a
people will often throw a light upon their
ancient faiths. Baring-Gould has remarked, "Much of the religion of the
lower orders, which we regard as essentially divine, is ancient heathenism,
refined with Christian symbols." Whatever doubt may be felt as to this, all
must admit the underlying paganism of some customs, credences, or sayings. Gomme
tells us that "the local fetishism to be found in Aryan countries simply
represents the undying faith of the older race."
Dr. Todd, in his work on Irish Religion, ventured on more tender
ground, when he wrote concerning the "Guardsman's Cry" of St.
Patrick--"The prayer which it contains against women, smiths, and Druids,
together with the invocation of the powers of the sky, the sun, fire, lightning,
&c., proves that, notwithstanding the undoubted piety and fervent Christian
faith of the author, he had not yet fully shaken off the pagan prejudices."
Giraldus Cambrensis declared that the Irish, at the conquest by Henry II.,
justified their condemnation by the Pope," being more ignorant than all
other nations of the first principles of the faith."
The legends of the English and French might be shown to contain a vast amount
of questionable common sense and faith; but our present inquiry is to trace the
underlying opinions of the ancient Irish.
Leaving outside the so-called Druidical megalithic monuments, about the
origin of which, in circles, pillars, &c., we know little or nothing beyond
speculation, and which are scattered almost all over the globe, we notice in the
Irish certain notions and practices connected with stones that reflect the
manners of former times.
The stone of Cuamchoill, near Tipperary, produced blindness on those who
gazed on it. Stones of Speculation, Liath Meisieth, used to draw fire,
were much revered. One object in the Irish Museum, of brass cased in silver, six
inches by four, has the precious crystal in the centre, set round with coloured
stones. The footprints of the angel Victor were to be seen on a stone in Down
County, as the celestial being alighted to deliver-his message from on high to
In the Glimpses of Erin, by S. and Alice Milligan, an interesting
notice occurs of the Brash or Bullan stones, in Cork Co, though
there is a specimen at the Seven Churches of Glendalough. "The upper
surface of this monument," say
they, "is indented with four deep basin-shaped hollows. Two of them, the
smallest, are quite close to each other at one edge; the other two, of larger
size, are at the opposite edge. The devotee placed his or her knees in the
smaller hollows; and, repeating a certain number of prayers, dropped an offering
of some minute article into the larger. This operation, with certain rounds and
washings at the Well, was deemed a specific for rheumatic pains and other
It is added, of the Brash superstition, "This is a pagan cultus,
which all the power of Christianity, the personal influence of the cleric, and
national education, have not been able to obliterate." A respectable farmer
declared that he was not above saying a prayer at the "blessed stone"
when he came that way. The water found in hollows of Bullan stones was held good
for bad eyes.
Upright Standing Stones, or Dallans, the same authorities
assure us, are reverenced as in idolatrous India. Mr. Milligan says, "The
Inismurray women kneel before these stones, and pray that they may be delivered
from the perils of childbirth." St. Bridget's stone at the Faughard, Louth,
has a raised work round it, with St. Bridget's pillar near it upon steps, round
which the devotees walk.
The Clocha breca, or speckled stones of Inismurray, Sligo, are thus
described by Dr. O'Donovan--
"They are round stones, of various sizes, and arranged in such order
that they cannot be easily reckoned; and, if you believe the natives, they
cannot be reckoned at all. These stones are turned, and, if I understand them
rightly, their order changed by the inhabitants on certain occasions, when they
visit the shrine to wish good or evil against their neighbours." An aeir,
or long-curse, has been often thus hurled against a private enemy.
There is no account of the people, as recorded of some Celts, worshipping a
bloody spear, or one placed in a vase upon the altar, as With the Scythians; but
Spenser, in Queen Elizabeth's time, observed the Irish drink blood in a certain
ceremony, and swear by the right hand of their chiefs.
Solinus, in the early Christian centuries, must have heard strange tales of
Eric, when he left this record--"It is a surly, savage race. 'the soldier
in the moment of victory takes a draught of his enemy's blood, and smears his
face with the gore. The mother puts her boy's first food, for luck, on the end
of her husband's sword, and lightly pushes it into the infant's mouth, with a
prayer to the gods of her tribe that her son may have a soldier's death."
The Evil Eye was an object of dread, and penalties concerning it are
conspicuous in the old Brehon laws. The Suil Bhaloirs, or Balor eye,
relates to one Balor, who was able by an eye to strike a foe dead. Love potions,
on the contrary, are referred to in many ancient songs.
Persons were put under vows to do or not to do a thing. They were said to be
under Gesa. This was often imposed with certain spells or charms.
Raising the wind--so valuable a power in sailing days--was the privilege of a
few, and had its votaries down to the last century. Windbound fishermen of the
Hebrides, too, used to walk, sunwise, round the chapel of Fladda, in Fladdahuan
Isle, and pour water upon a round, bluish-looking stone. This effectually raised
a wind. The gods then kept the wind in bags. Not so long ago, old women in the
Shetlands would sell wind to sailors.
Dreams have played a great part in Ireland. In St. Patrick's Confession
they are referred to. Professor O'Curry explains the meaning attached to them by
the peasantry. Auguries were taken from the flight of birds, from beasts,
and the appearance of clouds. Prodigies were not always perceived but by
favoured parties. Thus we read in one poem, "The King alone beheld the
terrible sight; and he foresaw the death of his people." Showers of blood
were thus beheld. Bards at times recognized the sounds of approaching death on
the strings of their harps.
Miracles were of ordinary occurrence, and of varied character. Tales were
told of early saints crossing the Irish Sea by standing upon their garments laid
upon the water. They are similar to what is noted in Hucher's Le Saint Graal,
where a number of Christians came to Britain upon Joseph of Arimathea's shirt,
which grew in size with the number mounting upon it.
Transformations, especially into animal forms, have been implicitly believed
in by the peasantry. Some perceive in this the system of Totemism. Prof. Rhys
was led to recognize a Dog-totem in Ireland from the number of dog-names.
Conaire, son-of-bird, must not eat bird; and Cuchulainn, the hero, named after a
dog, was told not to eat of dog; he was ruined by breaking the order. "The
descendants of the wolf in Ossory," we are told in Wonders of Erin,
"could then transform themselves into wolves." The wolf was the totem
Druids, as tradition relates, could change men into animals or trees.
Dalyell's Darker Superstitions of Scotland gives a number of such
transforming stories. Thus Minerva changed Ulysses, for fear of his enemies
"She spake, then touched him with her powerful wand;
An Indian changed himself to a mouse to catch a fairy dancer. So many Irish
tales relate to transformations, though more for war stratagem than love
The skin shrunk up, and withered at her hand:
A swift old age o'er all his members spread,
A sudden frost was sprinkled on his head."
Andrew Lang, referring to Cupid and Psyche, equally applicable to other
superstitions, observes, "We explain the separation of the lovers as the
result of breaking a taboo, or one of etiquette, binding among men and women as
well as between men and fairies."
Witchcraft--the conscious or unconscious exercise of a power peculiar to some
persons, in greater or lesser degree, of controlling little-heeded or understood
laws of nature--was ever common in Ireland. Witches were Pitags, Buitseachs,
or Taut-ags. These had the mark, or "Seal of the Devil,"
in reddening skin, which would retain for hours an indentation upon it.
Recently, it has been ascertained by a philosopher, that a sensitiveness in
certain individuals exists even beyond their bodies, so that they suffer without
being actually touched.
In a tradition respecting Conn of the Hundred Battles, the hero Eogan was
told by three women that he should be slain in the coming fight. Upon his asking
their names, they replied, "Our names are Ah, Lann:, and Leana;
we are daughters of Trodan the Magician." A witch, who sought to rescue a
hero surrounded by foes, induced the tribesmen to leave him and attack some
rocks, which they were hypnotized to believe were armed soldiery. The witches
tied knots in a string, and breathed on them with a curse upon the object of
their hateful incantation. Some persons, however, were clever enough, when
finding such a charmed string, to undo the knots, and so prevent the calamity.
The Koran contains a prayer for delivery "from the mischief of women
blowing on knots."
Incantations were common in Ireland. A story in Erse--Pandyeen O'Kelly--has
a man riding aloft on a besom. A giant blew a young man to a distant Rath, and
sent him into a heavy sleep A giant got from a little green man a black
cap--like Jack-the-Giant-Killer's Cap of Darkness, and gave it to the King of
Ireland's son, that he might be invisible at his leisure.
Other superstitious traditions, more or less hypnotic, may be mentioned. A
thimble was given by a fairy to a young man to serve as a boat. A large white
cat declared herself a woman three hundred years old. Riding on fairy horses,
carrying off princesses through the air, using swords that gave light, sending
weasels to bring money, turning into flying beetles, forcing into magic sleep,
and even restoring youth, were some of the wonders, A black dog was said to be a
hag's father. Adepts could turn into vultures, swans, wolves, &c. But,
according to Hyde's Folk Lore, witches could be released by masses. A hag
or witch was a gwrack in Celtic Welsh.
Sir George Grey, in his New Zealand narratives, has several instances of
enchantment, like those of Irish times. One old woman, by her spells, held a
boat so that it could not be launched. Again, "Early in the morning Kua
performed incantations, by which he kept all the people in the cave in a
profound sleep." A sorcerer baked food in an enchanted oven to kill a
party. Of another, "He smote his hands on the threshold of the house, and
every soul in it was dead."
This was an Irish charm for the toothache:--
"May the thumb of chosen Thomas
Charms of a peculiar kind were employed to ward off evil. Of these--more
potent than the feminine sign of the horseshoe over the threshold--was the
celebrated Shelah-na-Gig. The writer, many years ago, was shown one of
these strange figures in the reserved depositaries of the British Museum. It was
the squatting figure of an exposed naked female, rudely sculptured, not unlike, except in size, the
singular colossi under the Museum porch brought from Easter Isle. This figure
was taken down from over the doorway of an ancient church in Ireland, and was,
without doubt, a relic of pagan days, used during many Christian centuries to
ward off evil from the incoming congregation. Another stood by the moat of Howth.
in the side of guileless Christ
heal my teeth without lamentation
from worms and from pangs."
In the Stone Chips of E. T. Steven we have the following--"The
horse-shoe is still the conventional figure for the Yoni in Hindoo temples, and
although its original import was lost, until lately the horse-shoe was held to
be a charm against witchcraft and the evil eye amongst ourselves, precisely as
was the case with the more unmistakable Shelah-na-Gig at certain churches
The Dublin Museum contains an extraordinary bone-pin representing the Shelah-na-Gig
and evidently a charm to shield the wearer. It was found alongside a skull in a
field. Wilde declared that a Roscommon child was taken from the grave to obtain
its arms for charm purposes.
Popular holidays are still associated with the ideas of former heathen
May-day in some parts of Ireland has its female mummers, who dance and hurl,
wearing a holly-bush. A masked blown carries a pail of water with a mop for
spreading its contents abroad. Boys then sing carols, as in France. In the
south-east of Ireland a girl is chosen as May Queen, presiding at all
May-makings till she is married. May Eve, having its dangers from fairies,
&c., is spent in making cattle safe from the milk-thieving little people,
by causing the cows to leap over fires. Dairymaids prudently drive their cows
along with the mystical rowan stick.
Of the phallic May-pole, set up for St. John's Eve or Midsummer-day, N.
O'Kearney remarks, "The pole was evidently used in the Druidical
ceremonies." Yule cakes were Nur
cakes. Hogmanay was observed, as in Scotland. Hog was a Chaldaen festival. Irish
pagan feasts were announced by the blowing of long horns, two or three yards in
length, some of which are to be seen in Dublin Museum. The Christmas Candle of
south-west Ireland was burnt till midnight on Christmas Eve, and the remnant
kept as a preservative against evil spirits till the next year's candle was set
up. Magic ointment revealed the invisible.
All Saints' Day perpetuated the pagan Samhain of November Eve. Holy
cakes, known sometimes as triangular bannocks, were then eaten as Soul-Mass
"November Eve," says Mrs. Bryant's Celtic Ireland, "is
sacred to the Spirits of the Dead. In the western islands the old superstition
is dying very hard, and tradition is still well alive. It is dangerous to
be out on November Eve, because it is the one night in the year when the dead
come out of their graves to dance with the fairies on the hills, and as it is
their night, they do not like to be disturbed."--"Funeral games are
held in their houses." In olden times it was thought their dead heroes
could help in distress.
"Twice during the Treena of Tailten,
The Keens, or lamentations for the dead, are connected with ancient and
heathenish practices. Professional howlers had charge of the corpse. Rich, who
wrote in 1610 of a Keen, remarked, "A stranger at the first encounter would
beleeve that a quantity of hags or hellish fiendes were carrying a dead body to
some infernell mansion." But some of the Death Songs have great beauty of
composition. Shelah Lea's Lament is a fine example. It is thus translated
from the Erse:--
Each day at sunrise I invoked Mac Eve
To remove from me the pestilence."
"Sing the wild Keen of my country, ye whose heads
bend in sorrow, in the house of the dead! Lay aside the wheel and flax, and
sing not in joy, for there's a spare loft in my cabin! Oweneen, the pride of my
heart, is not here! Did you not hear the cry of the Banshee crossing the lovely
Kilcrumper? Or, was there a voice from the tomb, far sweeter than song, that
whistled in the mountain wind, and told you that the young oak was fallen? Yes,
he is gone! He has gone off in the spring of life, like the blossom of the
prickly hawthorn, scattered by the merciless wind, on the cold clammy
earth.--Raise the Keen, ye whose notes are well known, tell your beads, ye young
women who grieve; lie down on his narrow house in mourning, and his spirit will
sleep and be at rest! Plant the shamrock and wild firs near his head, that
strangers may know who is fallen! Soon again will your Keen be heard on the
mountain, for before the cold sod is sodded over the breast of my Oweneen,
Shelah, the mother of Keeners, will be there. The voice, which before was loud
and plaintive, will be still and silent, like the ancient harp of her
Another exclaimed:--"My sunshine you were. I loved you better than the
sun itself; and when I see the sun going down in the west, I think of my boy,
and my black night of sorrow. Like the rising sun, he had a red glow on his
cheek. He was as bright as the sun at mid-day; but a dark storm came on, and my
sunshine was lost to me for ever."
No one would claim for the Keens a Christian origin. The Rev. John Wesley saw
a funeral in 1750, and wrote:--"I was exceedingly shocked at the Irish howl
which followed. It was not a song, but a dismal, inarticulate yell, set up at
the grave by four shrill-voiced women who were hired for the purpose; but I saw
not one that shed a tear, for that it seems was not in the bargain."
Mrs. Harrington, in 1818, had this account of a professional Keener, a
descendant of pagan performers:--"Before she began to repeat, she usually
mumbled for a short time, with her eyes closed, rocking her body backward and
forward, as if keeping time to the measure of the verse. She then commenced in a
kind of whining recitative; but, as she proceeded, and as the composition
required it, her voice assumed a variety of deep and fine tones." Her eyes
continued shut while repeating, with some variations, it may be, the ancient
It is said of Curran, that he derived his earliest ideas of eloquence from
the hired mourners' lamentations over the dead. Dryden refers to the ancient
"The women mix their cries, and clamour fills the fields.
With so imaginative and ignorant a people, a supposed spiritual set of
creatures played a great part in daily life, and those ancient ideas are not
entirely driven off by the march of the school-master. Scotland, with its
centuries of parish schools, retained many superstitions to a very late date, as
the clergyman of Kirkmichael, Perthshire, declared he found there in 1795.
The warlike wakes continued all the night,
And funeral games were played at new returning light."
Some spirits answered to those described by Plato, as--"Between God and
man are the daimones, or spirits, who are always near us, though commonly
invisible to us, and know our thoughts." The Rev. R. Kirk left on record,
in 1691, that "the very devils, conjured in any country, do answer to the
language of the place;" and yet he ascertained that when the Celt left his
northern home, they lost power over him, as they were Demones Loci. In
some cases they were ghouls, feeding on human flesh, causing the man
or woman gradually to waste away, unless exorcism were practised in time.
Would that men had found as much comfort in the belief of good spirits, as
they have suffered fears from the belief in evil ones! There is still, alas! in
this world, more thought of a jealous and an avenging Deity than of one
benevolent and paternal.
Subterranean spirits might dwell in burning mountains, or occupy themselves
in mining, and the storing of treasure. Many Irish legends relate to such. They
may appear as Daome-Shi, dressed in green, with mischievous intent.
Others presented themselves restlessly moving over water. Not a few sought
amusement by destroying at night what parts of a church had been constructed in
the day. Hence the need, in certain cases, to bury alive a man, woman, or child
under the foundations. Tradition says that St. Columba, thus tormented, buried
St. Oran, at his own request, under the monastery of Iona.
The Phookas, or Pookas, have left some marks in Ireland. There
is Castle Pookah:, or Carrig-a-Phooka, Cork co., and a Phook
cavern in Wicklow co. Pope calls it--
"A dusky, melancholy sprite
Phookas have been seen running from hill to hill. Their shapes vary, like the
Boduchs of the Hebrides.
As ever sullied the fair face of night."
The Cluricaune, or Leprechaune, is a mischievous old fellow,
dressing in a green coat, but without brogues
In the Religious Beliefs of the Pagan Irish, by O'Beirne Crowe, is a
reference to the Morrigan, which once appeared in the shape of a bird
"addressing the famous bull Dond in dark mysterious
language."--"On another occasion she appears to
Cu, in the form of a beautiful lady, and tells him she is in love with him, and
has brought him her gems and her cattle. Cu said he had something else than love
to attend to at that time. She said when he would next engage in single combat,
she would, in the shape of a serpent, coil herself around his feet, and hold him
fast for his adversary."
Who quaffs with swollen lips the ruby wine,
Draining the cellar with as free a hand
As if it were his purse which ne'er lack'd coin."
Of the mysterious Banshee much has been said and sung. She is often
attached to certain families, or even septs, and gives notice of coming
calamities. She is the Ben-sidhe of Irish; and Cyveraeth, or Tyloethod,
of Welsh, whom it is fatal to meet, or to listen to her shrieks. As an old
woman, she is the White or House fairy. In this sense she is said to "draw
nigh at the time of death, and bear the soul to its fairy home." The White
Lady of Avenel was a Banshee.
There is a curious old Irish legend about a lady whose father shut her up in
a tower on Tory Isle, with twelve matrons in charge, who were to keep her from
the sight of a man. All went well till McKineely consulted the Banshee of the
mountain. Telling him to dress in women's garments, she ferried him to the
island, asking shelter for a noble lady chased by an enemy. Landing the young
man, she threw the dozen guardians into a Druidic sleep, and left the couple
together awhile, afterwards rowing the man ashore. Serious results ensued.
Fairies are more pronounced in Irish than in English traditions. They are
fairly represented in the west of Scotland, in Wales, Lancashire, and Cornwall,
parts frequented by Irish friends and foes.
They are Sides, Sighe, Sith, Duine Matha, or Good People. Fear-sig
of the supernatural world are Irish forms of the Welsh Tylwyth teg, the
fair family; Swedish, Nissen; Danish, Damhest; Polish, Rotri; the Russian, Domavoi;
English, Puck, Elf, Fay, or Robin Goodfellow; Cornish Pixie;
Burmese, Nats; Breton, Korigan, or Koril; Scotch Brownie;
Norwegian, Trolls, or Nyss; Oriental, Jin; Jewish, Schedim;
Italian, Fata; Greek, Parcæ, or Eumenides.
"That which is neither ill nor well,
Because many are represented as little men, writers have fancied the idea was
but a tradition of pre-existing races, small in stature, who were improved off
by visitors or marauders of larger growth. Dwarfs or Duzes are thought in
Brittany to haunt the dolmens, or ancient graves, though in some manner they are
known as the ghosts of Druids. Certainly Africa bears evidence of a wide-spread
pigmy race. There are Dokos of South Abyssina, Obongo of West
Africa, Akka of Central Africa, Batua living in trees like
monkeys, and others in Congo, &c.
That which belongs not to heaven or hell."
The Fairies are associated with mankind at present, though they may carry off
their children, replacing them by changelings. The mannikins may be white,
brown, grey, or yellow. Some are small enough to sit in ears of corn, while
others fly about on magic horses. It is sad to know that these little people
indulge in faction fights, and pinch those who dance with them. Giants figure
less often. The Book of Leinster tells of giant Luter, with fourteen
heads, wooing Gobal, whose charms extended over fifty cubits.
Occasionally these little people are not content with stealing babies, but
would run off with men; as Nea, of the golden hair, did the Irish Fenian
warrior. The busy Maakiset, who worked underground, were more worthy of
offerings than the Kapeet, who caused eclipses by catching hold of the
moon. It is discreet always to speak well of fairies, as they listen without
being seen. Their females look after men, as their males look after women.
They have kings and queens. Oberon or Elberich was a king, and Titania a
queen. The Irish say that Don, the Milesian leader, drowned in a storm raised by
the Tuaths, became a King of the Fays. Inis Mananain, now Isle of Man, was so
called from Mananan, an ancient chief transformed to a royal Sidhe. Mab,
daughter of King Eochaidh Faidhleach, became Queen of the Fairies, being more
than immortalized in Spenser's Fairy Queen. Another King of the Fairies
was the Tuath Fionnbharr. The Welsh Fairy King was Gwyh ab Nudd.
As these spirits of air, earth, and water are numerous, it is a comfort to
learn from the Talmud that, while the bad ones are exactly 7,405,926, the good
ones number, in the rougher estimate, I,064,340,000,000,000.
.Black fairies are not conspicuous, unless in the mines. The Maories of New
Zealand assure us that their merry little fays are not of their dark colour, but
fair like Englishmen. They love the hills of Waikato. A chief, frightened of
them, took off his ornaments, and gave them away. As soon as they finished their
song, as he told the tale, they took the shadows of the Maori's earrings, and
handed them about from one to the other.
As all know, the Fairies, or Peris, are suffering from some misconduct in
happier climes. Christian tradition holds to their final redemption.
Irish fairies are thus mourned for by D. F. McCarthy:--
"Ah! the pleasant time hath vanished ere our wretched doubtings
Some were not so pleasant:--
All the graceful spirit people, children of the earth and sea--
Whom in days now dim and olden, when the world was fresh and golden,
Every mortal could behold in haunted rath and tower and tree--
They have vanished, they are banished. Ah I how sad the loss for thee."
"While the Phooka horse holds his frantic course
As elsewhere noted, the Irish fairies are intimately associated with the
Druidical, ghostly, or magical Tuaths. When these were conquered by the
Milesians, they betook themselves to the hills, and survived as fairies. The
Good People have been also thought to be Druidesses. The English Lubberfiend
of Milton is doubtless the Irish Lurigadan.
O'er wood and mountain fall,
And the Banshee's croon, a rhythmic rime
From the crumbling, ivied wall."
The Sighe, Shee, or Sith were of many varieties. As the Farr-shee
was the man of the Sidhs, so was the Bann-shee the woman of the Sidhs.
They were magical deceivers; they built fine balls, and interfered in battles.
"Behold the Sidh before your eyes,
They might have been deified mortals. Lug Mac Ethlend had been a thousand
years a Sidh. He would sometimes sojourn awhile on earth. Once he had a son by
the fair Decture, and thus Cuchulainn became a hero. Carolan, the Irish bard,
celebrates the fairy hills of Sith Beag and Sith More in Leitrim. Troops of them
on horses followed their King Donn and Queen Cliodhna, or Cleena.
It is manifest to you that it is a king's mansion,
Which was built by the firm Daghda;
It was a wonder, a court, an admirable hill."
The Daoine Shee, or men of peace, referred to in the Book of Armagh,
were peevish rather than malevolent. Dressing in green, they resented the
appearance of human beings in green. They who wanted to see them must select
Hallow-eve, walk round their hill nine times, when a door would open revealing
the dancing throng. It is dangerous to accept their invitation to come in for a
dance, as the tripper never returns again to his home.
Fairy-inspired bards were liable to be spirited away by their muse, the Leannan
Sighe. If she helped them in composition, they were bound to follow her
"Were it not better thou shouldst dwell awhile with a young maiden
of golden locks,
The Mermaids, or sea-fairies, were Moruodh, or Moruogh. Their
hair and teeth were green. We have no record of their pugnacious qualities, as
of the denizens of land. Ailne, whose lay is in old Irish, lamenting the death
of her husband and two sons, knew--"by the mighty fairy host, That were in
conflict over the Dun, Fighting each other"--that evil would befall her
three beloved. They did not then play Ceol-sidh, or fairy music.
Than that the country should be laughing at thy doggrel rhyme?"
The word Sidh is said to be the Celtic root for a blast of wind. The
whirlwind was certainly called a fairy wind. There is a Sidh Thuim on the
Boyne, Sidh Neanta of Roscommon, Sidh Meadha near Tuam, Sidh
Aodha Ruaidh a hill of Donegal. There are seventy Irish townships beginning
Ireland abounds with localities having fairy associations. Joyce gives many.
Finn and his Fenians are in Sliabh-na-mban-fionn, the mountain of the
fair-haired women; Rath Sithe, the Fenian fortress, is in Antrim; the
Fairy's wood is in Sligo. Then there are the Sheegys, fairy hills, in
Donegal; the Sheeauns, fairy mounds; the haunted hills, Shean, Sheena,
Shane; and Knockna looricaim, the hills of the Cluricane. In Lough
Corrib the Leprechauns were said to have been provided with ground meal
for supper by hospitable neighbours.
There was a Banshee's palace in South Munster, and another in a rock near
Mallow. The Banshee Aeibhell had a fine palace in a rock by Killaloe; it
was she who threw her cloak round the hero O'Hartigan at the battle of Clontarf, so rendering
him invisible. In fact, Joyce is led to exclaim, "Some parts of Connaught
must have been more thickly populated with fairies than with men."
Were the fairies in Ireland of great antiquity?
One has written of the fancy, "that the tales of mortals abiding with
the Fays in their Sighe palaces are founded on the tender preferences shown by
the Druidic priestesses of old to favourite worshippers of the Celtic
divinities." N. O'Kearney is of opinion that "our fairy traditions are
relics of paganism." Kennedy says, "In borrowing these fictions from
their heathen predecessors, the Christian story-tellers did not take much
trouble to correct their laxity on the subject of moral obligations."
Andrew Lang sees that "the lower mythology--the elemental beliefs of a
people--do service beneath a thin covering of Christian uniformity."
At least, we may admit, with Prof. Stokes, that "much of the narrative
element in the classic epics is to be found in a popular or childish form in
primitive Fairy tales."
Among the early and latter superstitions, Ghosts are very prominent.
As so many ghost stories rest upon tradition, it is well to bear in mind what
the author of The Golden Bough says --
"The superstitious beliefs and practices which have been handed down by
word of mouth are generally of a far more archaic type than the religions
depicted in the most ancient literature of the Aryan race."
It is not easy to laugh at Irish peasants for ghost yarns when all nations,
from the remotest antiquity, accepted them, and philosophers like Dr. Johnson,
preachers like John Wesley, reformers like Luther, poets like Dante and Tasso,
recognized such spirits. Some, like an author in 1729, may doubt souls returning
from heaven--"Nor do I know," said he, "whether it would be worth their shifting Hell,
and coming back to this world in the wandering condition those things called
Ghosts are understood to be." Others may exclaim with Dr. Johnson,
"All argument is against it, but all belief is for it."
Thyræus, the Jesuit, thinks that they are but souls from purgatory, seeking
rest. Earberg considered, "It is against no Scripture that souls should
come from Hades." Henri Martin, the French Celtic scholar, said, "The
intercourse between earth and heaven is a belief strongly accredited among the
Bards." Gladstone recognizes that the recent Greek dead "are wanderers
in the Shades, without fixed doom or occupation." Homer's Odyssey
has this reference--
"But swarms of spectres rose from deepest hell,
Virgil shows to Æneas his father Anchises--
With bloodless visage and with hideous yell.
They scream, they shriek, and groans and dismal sounds
Stun my scared ears and pierce hell's utmost bounds."
"Then thrice around his neck his arms he threw;
Suetonius tells us that the ghost of Caligula walked in Lavinia's garden,
where his body was buried, until the house was burnt down. Ecclesiasticus (chap.
xlvi.) speaks of Samuel thus: "And after his death he prophesied, and
showed the king his end." In the archives of the Royal Society is a MS.
paper, read November 16, 1698, on some "Apparitions in ye N. of
Scotland," in which we are informed that Mr. Mackeney, A.M., Oxford,
"said that they saw apparitions almost every week; and upon his knowledge
they did very frequently foretell the death of Persons, wch always
And thrice the flitting shadow slipp'd away,
Like wind or empty dreams that fly the day."
Were all these mistaken? Were they under the influence of Herbert Spencer's Organ
of Reviviscence, or Wonder-Organ, which "affords a tangible explanation of mental illusions"?
The Irish, like the ancient Jews, held that bad men, especially, could walk
this earth after death; and the English law, almost to our day, allowed a stake
to be driven through the body of suicides and murderers, to prevent their spirit
troubling the living.
The Church has had its say in the matter. The Council of Elvira, A.D. 300,
forbade the lighting of tapers in cemeteries, as that was apt to disturb the
souls of Saints; so said the Council of Iliberit. St. Basil was told by a ghost
that he had killed Julian. Both Ignatius and Ambrose were said to have appeared
to their disciples. No Church has ever denied the existence and appearance of
ghosts, and none opposed exorcism in some form or other.
"Irish pagans," observes Nicolas O'Kearney, "never dreamed of
spirits after death having assumed such forms (misty ghosts). The spirits from
Elysium always appeared in their proper shape, and spoke and acted as if they
were still in the enjoyment of mortal life."
In this respect he differs from Macpherson's Ossian. The opinion is,
also, opposed to other descriptions in recognized Irish poems of antiquity. In
the poem Cathluina, as translated in Ireland's Mirror, is
this:--"Ferarma, bring me my shield and spear; bring me my sword, that
stream of light. What mean these two angry ghosts that fight in air? The thin
blood runs down their robes of mist; and their half-formed swords, like faint
meteors, fall on sky-blue shields. Now they embrace like friends. The sweeping
blast pipes through their airy limbs. They vanish. I do not like the sight, but
I do not fear it."
The Inverness Gaelic Society had a paper by Donald Ross on this
subject, saying, "Spectres hovered gloomily over the reedy marsh or the
moor, or arrayed themselves on the blasts of the wind; and pale ghosts, messengers of the unseen world,
brought back the secrets of the grave." A Gaelic song has the
following--"In a blast comes cloudy death, and lays his grey head low. His
ghost is rolled on the vapours of the fenny field." Henri Martin speaks of
"harps of bards, untouched, sound mournful over the hill."
Some ghosts were material enough. That of St. Kieran, of Clonmacnoise,
managed to strike King Felim, the plunderer of his church, so effectually, with
his ghostly crozier, as to give an internal wound, of which the chief died. When
Finn or Fionn appeared to Osgar, on the battle-field of Gabhra, it is affirmed
that "his words were not murmurs of distant streams," but loud and
But the Fetch, as recognized in the scattered poems collected, or
revised, in Macpherson's Ossian, is more a spirit of the air. Some of the
descriptions, relating to the ghosts of Erin and Argyle, are striking:--
"She was like the new moon seen through the gathering mist--like a
watery beam of feeble light, when the moon rushes sudden from between two
clouds, and the midnight shower is on the heath.--Clouds, the robe of
ghosts,--rolled their gathered forms on the wind--with robes of light.--Soon
shall our cold pale ghosts meet in a cloud, on Cona's eddying winds.--Tell her
that in a cloud I may meet the lovely maid of Toscar."
Again--"Faint light gleams over the heath. The ghosts of Arden pass
through, and show their dim and distant forms.--The misty Loda, the house of the
spirits of men.--Ghosts vanish, like mists on the sunny hill.--His soul came
forth to his fathers, to their stormy isle. There they pursued boars of mist
along the skirts of winds.--I move like the shadow of mist--The ghost of Crugal
came from his cave. The stars dim--twinkled through his form. His voice was like
the sound of a distant stream."
Of one it is said," His eyes are like two decaying flames. Dark is the
wound of his breast."--Caugal, who appeared in dress and form as living,
but pale, is made by the poet to say, "My ghost is on my native hills, but
my corse is on the sands of Ullin. Thou shalt never talk with Caugal, nor find
his lone steps on the heath.--Like the darkened moon, he retired in the midst of
the whistling blast."
Of another--"A cloud, like the steed of the stranger, supported his airy
limbs. His robe is of the mist of Lano, that brings death to the people. His
sword is the green meteor, half-extinguished, his face is without form and
void." Some "show their dark forms from the chinky rocks." Others
"fled on every side, and rolled their gathered forms on the wind." One
comforts himself, dying, with, "My fathers shall meet me at the gates of
their airy halls, tall, with robes of light, with mildly kindled eyes."
A hero cried out, "I never feared the ghosts of night. Small is their
knowledge, weak their hands." A poet murmurs," I hear at times the
ghosts of bards, and learn their pleasant song." Of a great warrior, it is
said, "A thousand ghosts are on the beams of his steel, the ghosts of
those who are to fall by the King of resounding Morven." Or, "Let
Carril (a bard) pour his songs, that the chiefs may rejoice in their mist."
Of a beautiful woman, it is written--"She is fair as the ghost of the hill,
when it moves in a sunbeam at noon over the silence of Morven."
A ghost may warn of danger, foretell disaster, foresee death, communicate
intelligence. Whatever may be thought of Macpherson's Ossian, there can
be no doubt that all the poetical representations of Irish ghosts bear pagan,
and not Christian, characteristics. The traditions, coming through Christian
centuries, have a distinct pagan colouring. The ghosts of Christian times would
seem to have left their Christianity in this life, becoming heathen on the other
Other illustrations of Irish superstitions occur in the course of this work,
though noted under various heads. The Irish were not more superstitious by
nature than their neighbours; but, in changing less their abodes, and retaining
faith in the religion of their fathers, they have clung to old traditions more
than those who were subject to greater transitions of place and ideas.
After all, as some of these Irish superstitions are the heritage from the
past in all lands, can the scientific mind afford to treat them as irrational
and absurd? Is experience of all times and all nations utterly worthless? If the
photographer's sensitive plate can see more than the human eye, and
exhibit stars which no telescope can show, are we so sure that nothing exists
but what is revealed by our senses? May we not hinder our own mental vision by a
studied resolution to reject what we cannot explain?