Those magic words “Once upon a time” have been spoken around the flickering flame of the turf fire by storytellers for thousands of years.Within these pages you will find gathered together tales of County Mayo to ignite your imagination. Tales of Highway men and ghostly figures that roam the woods. Monsters that inhabit the deep waters of Lough Mask and creatures of the night that suck the life from those they visit. Stories that are part of the rich tapestry that makes up the folklore, myth and legend of County Mayo.
You will be taken on a journey through the rugged landscape of the west coast of Ireland, to its holy mountain Croagh Patrick known locally as The Reek and across the waters of Clew Bay. Here you will read of Gráinne Uialle the Pirate Queen, the spectre known as the Fír Gorta who roamed the famine villages of west Mayo, and the Matchstalk man of Straide.
Within theses covers you will find the story of The Love Flower and two young lovers, the land of eternal youth known as Tír na Nog and the Night of the Big Wind and many more. So why not pull up a chair and sit awhile, you know you’re never too old for a story.
Signed copies can be purchased from me by post. Contact firstname.lastname@example.orgIt can also be purchased from any good bookshop. It is published by History Press Ireland.Thank you for your help :)
Here is a story that has a local connection. It’s about one of the vilest men County Mayo ever produced and his name was:
Séan na Sagart.
Who was Séan na Sagart?
He was born in 1690 in Derrew, near Ballyheane, County Mayo and his real name was John Mullowney.Mullowney was a notorious horse thief and drunkard, a violent man who had absolutely no morals whatsoever, a truly despicable character.He was arrested for horse stealing and sentenced to death by the Grand Jury in Castlebar. The case came to the attention of Bingham, another man of low character and high station, the High Sheriff of County Mayo and realising just how low this man would stoop he saw in him the potential to offer him a deal. If Mullowney agreed to join the ranks of the priest hunters then he would be spared the hangman’s noose. There was one condition; he would have his freedom provided he paid a certain rent each year-a priest’s head”. Mullowney agreed and before long he had gained a new name, that of Séan na Sagart or John of the priests.
The Penal Act of 1709 demanded that Catholic priests take an Oath of Abjuration recognising the right of the protestant crown of England and today it would be the same as swearing allegiance to the crown. In effect it denied the rights of James II and the Stuarts or other Catholic claimants to the crown of England. All clergy had to recognise the Protestant Queen Anne as Supreme Head of the Church of England and Ireland, any cleric that refused was sentenced to death or transportation for life by the Protestant controlled judicial system.Out of an estimated two thousand Catholic priests in Ireland only thirty three took the oath. The law hoped to eradicate Catholicism in Ireland within two generations and bishops and clergy were banished and no new priests were permitted to enter the country, in this way the protestant ruling class believed they would gain complete control over the political, economic and social systems of Ireland
Mullowney was to prove to be extremely efficient in his new role and received £100 for the capture of an Archbishop or Bishop, £20 for a priest and £10 for a monk, a Jesuit, or a hedge school teacher an extraordinary amount of money at that time and money that Mullowney used to fund his habits of drinking, womanising, and newly found expensive tastes.In common with today, wealth was the key that opened the doors to society and it wasn’t long before he became a welcome visitor to the homes of certain members of the Protestant gentry.In fact he was a regular visitor to Newbrook House near Hollymount, Claremorriss then the residence of the Lord Clanmorriss of the Bingham family, a close relative and neighbour of another Bingham, Lord Lucan. The Bingham’s hated the Catholics and the peasant class who they regarded as one in the same and supported the actions of Mullowney and his like.It has been suggested that Bingham was Mullowney’s paymaster and that the heads of his priest victims were kept in the cellar of Newbrook House.It has also been suggested that some of the heads were thrown into a little lake in the parish of Ballintubber; it now bears the name Lake of the heads.
There is an interesting story concerning Mrs Bingham, she is said to have employed a priest as a butler and footman. One day the Bingham’s had urgent business in Castlebar but when they got into their carriage one of the horses refused to move. Mrs Bingham must have been feeling a certain amount of guilt because she insisted it was because of the murders carried out by Séan na Sagart that the horse wouldn’t move. She made her husband promise that Mullowney would not be allowed to murder any more priest. As soon Bingham promised the curse was lifted and the horse is reported as happily trotting all the way to Castlebar. However, I don’t think the promise of the Bingham’s amounted to much as Mullowney carried on his wicked trade.
He truly was an evil man and he even used this as a way of catching those unfortunate priests who felt that there is a little good in everyone. One technique was to pretend to be sick, bedridden and close to death, Mullowney would call for a priest to confess his terrible sins and when the priest arrived Mullowney would grab a hidden knife from under the blankets and attempt to stab and kill the priest.This technique was to eventually lead to his demise.
Mullowney wanted to catch a particular priest in Ballintubber, It is said that he convinced his sister Nancy Loughnan who was a widow and a devout Catholic that he was gravely ill and desperately needed to confess his sins before he went to face his maker. The priest, Father Kilger was quickly sent for and he arrived dressed in disguise. As he knelt by the bed of Séan na Sagart in order to hear his confession the priest hunter jumped up and stabbed the priest in the neck killing him.
Everyone in County Mayo hear of this and there was widespread anger and revulsion and everyone knew that Father Kilger’s nephew Friar Bourke would be at the funeral, exactly what Séan na Sagart wanted. The friar turned up as expected and took his place as a pallbearer; he wasn’t stupid though because he had brought two bodyguards with him for protection, John McCann and Fergus McCormick.As the funeral procession arrived at Ballintubber a bunch of Redcoats blocked their way and from out of the bushes jumped Séan na Sagart.He grabbed the friar roaring “My rent is paid” probably referring to the money he would collect for the friar’s head. The friar broke free and ran off towards the Partry Mountains hotly pursued by the priest hunter.
It was said that the chase lasted most of that day and eventually came to an end in a wood near Partry.The friar who was exhausted at this stage fought with Séan na Sagart and in the struggle the friar stabbed Séan with his own knife. McCann who by now had reached the pair grabbed the knife and finished the job so ending the career of Séan na Sagart, priest hunter. The year was 1726.
Mullowney was hated with a vengeance by the people of County Mayo, it is said that his body was tossed into Lough Carra. However, the parish priest ordered the body to be retrieved and it was buried in un-consecrated ground near Ballintubber Abbey. The locals had the last word though because they buried the corpse facing north where the sun never rises.
These are the water horses of Ireland and they have been known to gallop out of the crashing waves up onto the shore, venturing inland. They are supposed to make excellent mounts for whoever can catch one, although riding an Aughisky is not without risk. If they hear or see the sea they set off in an uncontrollable charge, galloping straight back into the watery depths where they came from, taking their helpless rider with them to be torn apart. It has even been suggested that the Aughisky may be the so-called “Irish crocodile,” which is more commonly referred to as the previously mentioned Dobhar Chu.
Eyewitnesses have described the animal as a Water Horse which is capable of assuming the characteristics of a man, save for its ears, which retain their horse-like appearance. According to legend the Aughisky pastime was to pretend to be grazing quietly at night in order to lure unsuspecting humans onto its back by appearing to be a docile horse. Once the trusting individual was firmly situated on the creature’s spine it would suddenly bolt for the nearest lake or riverbed, where it would proceed to devour its victim with the exception of the liver for which it seems to have developed a dislike. It has also been claimed that the skin of the Aughisky has adhesive properties, which would explain why its victims aren’t able to leap to safety before plummeting into their watery graves. You see Storytellers think of an answer for everything.
An Aughisky a few years ago frequented Lough Mask, co. Mayo, preying on the cattle, until it was killed by a monk of Tourmakeady. Another that lived in Lough Corrib had a serpent’s body and a horse’s head; this used to feed on the bodies buried in the churchyard to the south-east of Oughterard, but one of the Lees family whose sister was buried watched her body and killed the monster, its blood staining the church wall to this day: the holes through which this Aughisky came up can be seen along its track through Lemon field Bog.
A water horse that lived in Litter-craffoe Lake was captured by a boy of the Cooney family, he was warned by a wise woman if he ever let it see the water it would be the death of him. For years it was a faithful horse, but one day he brought it in sight of the lake, into which it shot like an arrow, carrying its rider with it, whom it killed and tore to pieces, blood and fragments of his body floated on the surface of the water.
A funny story is told of Tom (we won’t mention his last name). He spent an evening drinking whiskey on a little Island in the middle of Lough Mask when he saw a water horse coming towards him. He rushed into his boat and pulled for his life, when he got to land he met a neighbour who asked him to lend him the boat, as his old mare and foal had just swum across the lake and he wanted to follow them, so much for this Aughisky. Must have been strong whiskey.
In the 7th century St. Féchine of Fore compelled an Aughisky to pull his chariot after his horse fell dead. There’s always a religious connection.
The kelpie like the Aughisky is a supernaturalwater horse from Celtic folklore that is believed to haunt the rivers and Loughs of Scotland and Ireland. The horse’s appearance is strong, powerful, and breathtaking. Its hide was supposed to be black (though in some stories it was white), and will appear to be a lost pony, but can be identified by its constantly dripping mane. Its skin is like that of a seal, smooth but as cold as death when touched. Water horses are known to transform into beautiful women to lure men into their traps. It is understood that the nostril of the horse is what creates the illusion of grandeur. The water horse creates illusions to keep itself hidden, keeping only its eye above water to scout the surface, much like the illusion of a fish’s pupil or a crocodile. It is wise to keep away from them.
As the story of the kelpie differs depending on the region where it is told. Other versions of the story say that the kelpie is “green as glass with a black main and a tail that curves over its back like a wheel” or that, even in human form, they are always dripping wet and/or have water weeds in their hair.
The water horse is a common form of the kelpie, said to lure humans, especially children, into the water to drown and eat them. It performs this act by encouraging children to ride on its back. Once its victims fall into its trap, the kelpie’s skin becomes adhesive and it bears them into the river, dragging them to the bottom of the water and devouring them — except the heart or liver. Commonly known as spirits of the dead, they are malevolent creatures. Well its one way to keep children away from the edge of the lough.
An exception is an Irish tale in which, the coming of Christianity began to mark the end of the mystical period of Ireland, a water horse fails to travel to Tír na nÓg with its fellow mystical creatures and instead rises above water, seeking a wife. However, after attempting to court a rather clever girl, who consults a druid about the situation, he is captured and forced to work to be taught compassion. After learning his lesson, he is given the choice of departing to Tír na nÓg or drinking a magic potion that will make him a real man. The water horse, now full of love, decides to drink the potion which erases the memories of his life as a water horse and gives him the chance to live with the clever girl with whom he has fallen in love.
Some say the kelpie is not always male, but may also take the form of a human woman. In this instance, the kelpie is often referred to as a water wraith and is most often seen clothed in a green dress. She is just as treacherous as a male Kelpie.
There was one way in which a Kelpie could be defeated and tamed; the Kelpie’s power of shape shifting was said to reside in its bridle, and anybody who could possess such a bridle could force the Kelpie to submit to their will. A Kelpie in subjugation was highly prized, it had the strength of at least 10 horses and the endurance of many more, but the fairy creatures were always dangerous captives especially those as malignant as the Kelpie.
As we have heard the water monsters that were said to inhabit our lakes had the ability to shape shift and so they may appear as Water Hounds, Water Horses or even Humans. Here follows one such story.
The Kelpie’s Wife.
There once was a Kelpie’s wife, who lived beneath the Lough with her baby son, whom she loved dearly. The Kelpie’s wife loved her husband but she missed the warmth of the sun and her family, for the Kelpie had stolen her away from them without as much as a farewell.
One day, when her husband was out hunting victims, the cold and the darkness became unbearable and she fled to the surface, leaving behind her baby son, for she knew the Kelpie loved his son and would care for him. Once at the surface she basked in the warmth of the sun and soon made her way to her parent’s cottage. Her family were overjoyed to see her, for they thought she had died and so they held a great Celidh.
The Celidh dragged on into the night and the Kelpie’s wife soon forgot her husband and child with the joy of being reunited with her family. During the night there came a great storm and suddenly, from outside the cottage, they could hear the champing of a horse’s hooves.
Her husband had found his wife gone and was furious, for he loved her so greatly that he viewed her escape as the ultimate crime. Taking the form of a black stallion he banged on the cottage door but he couldn’t enter, for he had not been given permission to enter and cross the threshold. He called for her in rage filled screams. The Kelpie’s wife was frightened and also sad for she loved her husband but wished to stay with her family. Eventually, during the night, they heard a great ‘thud’ as something hit the door. After this, there was silence.
In the morning when the Kelpie had returned to the Lough, they found lying on the ground, the decapitated head of the Kelpie’s son. In revenge for his wife’s betrayal he had slain his only son. This was the price to pay for breaking a Kelpie’s heart. The Kelpie’s wife lived contently and was never again bothered by the Kelpie, who had learnt his lesson of love. To be honest the two of them sound like a heartless pair.
Another story concerning The Kelpie comes to us from Donegal,
Once upon a time, not that long ago there lived a poor fisherman in the village of Buncranna in County Donegal who went by the name of Seamus O’Doherty. His family had fallen on hard times and he was now the sole provider for his seven brothers and sisters. One day when Seamus was down amidst the rocks at low tide hunting for crabs he stopped for a smoke, it was a fine summer day and finding a sheltered spot behind two large boulders he sat on thewarm sand and he let the warm sun warm his body. He lay back and fell into a deep sleep.
Seamus woke with a start, the sun was now low in the sky and the tide was almost full in. “Ah Jesus” he thought ” the tide has cut me off , I’m Stuck!” and indeed he was, it was either swim for it or climb the cliffs, neither was an option he felt inclined to take. He slumped down in his little spot between the boulders and lit another cigarette while he considered his options.
Just then he heard the sound of voices, he rose and peered over the rock. Seamus wasn’t very popular in the village as he was prone to bouts of extreme drunkenness so he didn’t expect it to be a rescue party. He was amazed by what he saw coming out of the water. There were a group of people, fair of face and lithe of body, these were no mortal folk, these were Kelpies. Seamus knew the old stories and like most villagers half believed them half not, and yet here in front of him was proof.
When the fairy’s were driven from the land by Patrick and his fellow priests most went to Tir na Og, the land of the forever young but some elected to stay, the Banshee stayed to summon the dying, the shining ones stayed to guard the holy places and the Kelpies took the form of grey seals and lived almost their whole lives in the sea only taking on their human forms to mate or die.
The group of kelpies 7 men and 6 women formed a circle on the beach; they were dressed only in shifts of a light material, covered with a thick cloak of fur. Their leader, if such he was, stood in the centre of the circle and started to sing One by one the others joined in. Such music Seamus had never heard the like of before, it drifted over the beach and mingled with the sound of the waves on the pebbles and the breeze swirling up and down in rhythm with the beat of a heart.
Seamus slid down into his hollow again, this was something no mortal man had seen or heard for thousands of years. The singing got quieter and eventually died away, Seamus rose again and peered over the rock. The group was standing silent, their leader raised his arms and said ‘Go now and make us strong again’ He turned and walked into the sea merging with the surf and was gone. The rest of the group quickly paired off and went to find a place where they could be alone, one couple came towards Seamus,
‘Oh Mother Mary protect me’ prayed Seamus for he had been told of the fate that befell those caught by the fairy’s.
The couple stopped not far from Seamus’s hiding place and throwing their cloaks and shifts to one side began kissing and canoodling on the sand. Seamus could hear the amorous activity increase in intensity and frantically looked round for a means of escape. He then noticed that the girl had thrown her cloak down carelessly and it was just within reach. Seamus edged himself closer and quietly slipped the cloak into his bag, before creeping back to the shelter of the stones.
The couples ended their hanky panky and one by one returned to the sea, the girl whose cloak Seamus had lifted searched the beach for her garment but couldn’t find it. Soon she was alone on the beach.
Seamus rose from his hiding place, ‘Is this what you are looking for?’ he asked taking the cloak from his bag. The girl gasped.
“Well have you no tongue in your head?” he asked,
“Seamus O’Doherty” The girl whispered in a strange sing song voice, that seemed to come not from her mouth but from inside Seamus’s Head.
“How in god’s name do you know who I am” asked Seamus,
“All the creatures of the shore and fish in the sea know who you are Seamus’ the girl said “Now give me my cloak so that I can return to the sea”
“Now what would I be doing that for” replied Seamus. ‘Sure you would just be swimming off and leaving me like the poor soul I am. No I want some treasure, gold or silver before you get this back”
“Ha” the girl shook her long blond hair “and how would I do that, isn’t all our treasure deep down in the sea, and you have my cloak so how can I get it?”
Seamus thought about this, the girl smiled and edged towards him hand outstretched,
“Please now Seamus give me my cloak”
Seamus looked deep into the girls deep blue eyes, they swirled and sparkled like the pebbles caught in the waves. Seamus reached the cloak out to the girl, then shook himself and said,
“None of your auld fairy tricks now”
“Och Seamus” said the girl “sure you’ll give me my cloak now wont you”,
She was close to Seamus now and he could smell the salt in her hair. She reached out and touched him; he felt a tremor run up his arm. She led him down to the water’s edge and reached up and kissed him full on the lips. Stars exploded in his head, his lips tingled and passion flared in every nerve of his body. He pulled her close and returned the kiss. They fell backwards into the shallow water and embraced. She started to sing in his ear in the strange language of the kelpies, Seamus shivered with delight.
He felt a tugging at his waist and in a flash the girl had her cloak and was gone. Seamus was alone and no longer at the water’s edge, he had been pulled out to sea and not noticed. Seamus like many fisher folk then as now couldn’t swim; he floundered for a full minute before at last his head sank beneath the waves. Water rushed into his lungs and slowly he felt life leave his body, as it did he opened his eyes and saw the kelpies male and female surround him and watch in silence as he died.
In the village that evening the Banshee howled and the villagers wondered who had offended the fairy’s, the next morning they had their answer as Seamus’s body was washed into the harbour.
She is known throughout the Celtic world.The name Leannán sidhe means Fairy of Inspiration or Love Fairy and legend tells us that the Leannán sidhe lives under the Irish Sea.
She is a fairy mistress of dreadful power for she seeks the love of mortal men.She is said to be evil and dangerous radiating an incredible beauty, under her spell they become her slaves.Most men cannot refuse her for life without her will seem dull and lifeless and no other woman will ever replace her.
I refer to the Leannán sidhe as her but only because I’m male because she can appear as a male figure of great beauty to a female. The Leannán sidhe is whatever you wish to see.
It appears to take some joy from playing with the emotions of mortals and once you become one with her she is all that matters.It is often depicted as a vampiric type of spirit that sucks the life force out of its lovers.All who love her live only for her and they will desire no other frequently destroying themselves or becoming insane as they strive to please her.
In Irish folklore the Leannán sidhe is a muse, a source of artistic beauty, poetry, or music and it’s said that those who devote themselves to it will live a short but glorious life.It has been suggested that she will give the gift of creativity in exchange for the artist’s life or some would say soul.To be fair though, it may be the destructive nature of the artist’s life that causes their death. Musicians, artists, writers, and poets often tend to burn the candle at both ends.Sometimes they may burn brightly but they will also expire quickly. As they say, “Live fast, burn bright, die young”.However, you’ll be pleased to know that Storytellers are exempt as we realise what she is.
Some artists fall into deep depression when the Leannán sidhe withdraws her love and this usually results in great heartbreak and sorrow. This is the price that must be paid for her inspiration.She is an impatient mistress who creates such a desire in her lovers that they will overcome all obstacles to embrace her; even life itself is not too high a price to pay.
The more you desire her, the more she will elude you however, you are chained to her and you will never be free. She will never give herself to you in a mortal land and she will insist that she will only meet you in Tir na nOg, so you must pass through death to be with her.
No one knows what she truly is; the translation of her name may hold a clue. The words refer to a fairy muse; Leannán means the love of my soul or spirit…my inspiration if you like.Sidhe refers to the mounds; it is often used by some people to describe the people of the mounds or the fairies.In Irish poetic tradition she was the muse who appeared to the bard as the Aishling or Vision.In his vision he meets her on a hillside and she inspires him to write music and poetry that has an otherworldly sadness and regret for the glories of Irelands past.A tradition that is carried on and reflected in many of the songs sung by Irish people the world over.
Whatever you think of the Leannán sidhe, whether you regard it as something to be feared or something to be embraced.Once captured you live only to please.Like the members of what’s called ‘The 27 Club’ your own passion will lead you to your eventual destruction, usually before you reach the age of thirty, hence the name ‘The 27 Club’.You become caught within the arms of a dominatrix.The more you suffer, the more you crave. The more you feed the craving the more you will hunger and that hunger will never be satisfied.You will sacrifice everything and become consumed by your own passion.
Extract from the Song of the Leannán sidhe.
You shall be known by other men
For your great works of voice and pen
Yet inspiration has a cost
For with me know your soul is lost
I’ll take your passion and your skill
I’ll take your young life quicker still
Brenna Gwyn of The Children of Twilight.
In the story about the Leannán sidhe I made reference to an urban legend, that of The 27 Club but for those of you who may not know of it or may have never heard of it here is my take on it.I won’t name all those who may be eligible for membership as the list could be endless.
The 27 Club.
History is full of those talented artists who have died young.There is an urban legend today that is called The 27 Club. I might even suggest there may be a link with The Leannán sidhe.
Some people consider the first member of this club to have been the great bluesman Robert Johnson of Crossroads fame (I mean the song not the TV soap). Other members of this club are said to include Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobbain, and recently Ami Winehouse.To that list you could add many other names such as Phil Lynott who died at the young age of 37 and James Dean.
However, there have been many artists from the past who predate the beginnings of this so called club by hundreds of years.Names from literature that I might propose for membership could include John Keats (25), Percy Shelley (20), Thomas Chatterton (17), Christopher Marlowe (29), George Gordon Byron (37) and Robert Burns (37).
Their deaths may have been caused by tragic accidents, deliberate acts of self-destruction, or even natural causes. They all have certain things in common; they were all brilliant, all young, and all inspirational. Through them we are taught the beauty and power of emotion. It is through emotion that there are those who are able to create works that inspire imagination and magic in others.
So there you have it, The 27 Club is a group of artists that have died young, most before or by the age of 27, a couple were older but nevertheless they were equally inspirational.Maybe you have your own suggestions. They were some of the most talented minds of their generation and in their short lives each made an enormous impact.Sadly many led hard partying lifestyles abusing drugs and alcohol but maybe that’s the nature of the beast.
One other name I will add to my personal list is that of another young man that I believe inspired a generation.He was to die at the young age of 27 and entered the hallowed halls of Irish History and Folklore, becoming a legend to many. His name was Bobby Sands.
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.
In Celtic folklore, the fairies are divided into two categories. The Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court also referred to by W.B. Yeats as the Trooping Fairies and the Solitary Fairies.
The fairy of the Seelie Court were inclined to be benevolent to humans although they could still be dangerous, whilst the fairy belonging to the Unseelie Court were seen to be dark, malevolent, and extremely dangerous.
The word Seelie is Scottish in origin and means happy or lucky and these fairies would sometimes play pranks on humans and although somewhat annoying they were generally harmless, whereas those of the Unseelie Court were exactly the opposite and seemed to enjoy bringing harm and unhappiness to humans.
Some of the things blamed on the fairies such as souring the milk, tainting the butter, or turning road signs to lead the traveller astray could be looked upon as the work of ‘The Gentry’ as they were called.
However, the dark fairies could bring death and disease to your door in the form of tuberculosis where a body would be seen as wasting away, changelings were left in place of a human child, and these changelings were usually deformed in some way.
Even people who suddenly lost the power of speech and movement would be suspected of being away with the fairies. The word ‘Stroke’ is said to come from the description ‘fairy-stroke’.It was believed that a person who suffered a stroke had been shot with a fairy dart, their body stolen away and replaced with a transformed fairy.
Of course today we would look to medical conditions such as a stroke, paralysis, or some other form of condition.
The belief in the power of the fairies was strong, especially in rural communities that had a strong link with the seasons and the land.Therefore, superstition was rife, protective charms were worn, spells and incantations were spoken, and the use of iron was considered to be very effective (we will speak of this later).
Wearing guises or masks at certain times of the year such as Samhain in order to confuse the fairies, even putting your jacket on back to front or clothing inside out was enough to prove detrimental to them.
Certain places known to be the home of fairies should be avoided. Digging in a fairy mound is extremely unwise and paths that fairies travel should never be blocked.In times gone by, people would build their houses in such a way as to leave fairy paths clear, even if it meant knocking a corner off.It has even been suggested that one of the reasons the traditional cottage was built with the back door in line with the front door was so that you could leave them both open on certain nights to allow the fairies to troop through.
Fairy forts and fairy trees were left undisturbed, even cutting brush on a fairy fort could result in the death of the person concerned.
Another superstition concerned good housekeeping, it was said that the woman of the house must keep her home clean and neat otherwise she would incur the wrath of the ‘little people’, although I’d say this had more to do with the lazy man of the house rather than the fairy folk
What is a fairie?
Some people suggest that it may be a supernatural being halfway between human and angel, but where do they come from?
There are others who suggest that they may be forgotten angels.There is a story that tells us that when the angels revolted, God ordered the gates of heaven shut; those that were still in heaven at this time remained as angels, those who had been cast into hell became demons, and those caught between became fairies. Not good enough to be allowed back into heaven but not bad enough to enter hell.However, as they were still considered as fallen angels they were still subject to the will of the devil.
Those that were seen as dealing with fairies were therefore guilty of witchcraft and were punished or even executed during certain times in our dark history.
Another theory, and if I subscribed to theories this is the one I would choose relates to the race of people known as the Tuatha de Danann in Irish folklore and mythology.
It was said that they came from the sky in large chariots; another suggestion was that they came from the Islands in the north of the world.They were said to be like gods and goddesses or even nature spirits and that they were driven into hiding in the caves and hidden valleys after suffering defeat at the hands of the Milesians (said to be the ancestors of the modern Irish).
The Tuatha de Danann were said to be immortal and that the only thing that could harm them was iron. The reason for this may have a deeper meaning. It has been suggested that the Tuatha de Danann were a Bronze Age race that was defeated by an Iron Age race, the Milesians. Legend has it that the two races met in battle and the iron weapons of the Milesians proved far superior to the Bronze weapons of the Tuatha de Danann.
The Tuatha de Danann fled and went underground hiding in the caves, mountains and hidden valleys. They became known as the fair folk of the hills due to their fair hair and complexion. This in time became fair folk of the Sidhe (mounds) eventually it became fairy folk. They are said to fear iron because it was responsible for their defeat and they flee from it whenever they see it.
The people of the mounds (Daoine sidhe/ Deena shee), commonly known today as ‘Fairies’, live all over Ireland. The places they live are called forts, raths, or mounds. A fairy king or Queen rules each of these places. At times it is said you can hear sounds of music and merriment coming from the fairy places. It’s believed that Turlough O’Carolan a famous Harper in the 18th century fell asleep on a fairy mound and received the gift of fairy music. Some say it is this gift of fairy magic that gives Celtic music its unique sound even today.
A favourite gathering place for Irish fairies is under a Hawthorne tree. These are usually encircled by a fairy ring of flowers. Certain Hawthorne’s are considered sacred in Ireland. As recently as 1999 in Latoon, County Clare a multimillion-pound highway was diverted so it wouldn’t uproot a lone Hawthorne tree. It was believed if the tree was disturbed everyone that drove on the new road would have bad luck. Irish fairy superstitions say it is best never to disturb these places.
Fairy paths are the routes fairies use to get from here to there and are all over Ireland. Never build a house on a fairy path. The best way to avoid this is to set four posts at the corner of the site and leave them there overnight. If they are still standing in the morning then it is safe to build there. If any have fallen or are moved try another spot. You don’t want your house on a fairy path. You would never have any peace.
Some of the superstitions that are associated with fairies include:
A pair of shovels crossed at the mouth of a grave is believed to keep out malevolent fairies. This Irish fairy superstition is still practiced today in some parts of Ireland.
Carry an iron nail or some other piece of iron as protection against the ‘gentry’.
In the western islands of Connemara it is believed the dead can be heard laughing with the fairies and spinning flax at night. One girl swore she heard her dead mother’s voice singing from inside a fairy mound. The laughing and singing lasts for a year and a day then stops.
Old stories were told that included fairies. It was just taken for granted that these stories were all true because it was the natural order of things that they truly were part of the real world.
As the science of the day began to find cures for mankind’s aliments belief in Irish fairies began to decline, but not completely.
Secretly many people are careful not to offend the Good People. Up until the year 1700 virtually everyone in Ireland believed in fairies from royalty down to the rural peasants. Not even the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century could dispel this belief.
Today some people suggest that only the uneducated believe in fairies. The reason for this could be because the uneducated would be the only ones to admit to belief in fairies. Anyone else would never admit to your face this belief for fear of ridicule.
To this day in Ireland some people still practice rituals to appease the Good People even though they may not be aware of what they are doing.
On May morning some people collect flowers especially primroses to spread around their doors and windows. This is done to keep out the malevolent fairies. They may or may not know why they do this. They would never admit to you or me why they do this and yet it is still done and I think that speaks for itself.
Some of these old superstitions were given new meaning with the coming of Christianity.Whether you believe in the fairies or not all I will say is that their stories are some of the threads that make up the rich tapestry that we call Irish folklore and superstition and I for one would never dream of denying them their place in the stories we tell today.
It’s that time of year again and believe it or not on the longest day of the year we are now looking towards the coming of winter. Whether you celebrate this time as the Summer Solstice or St John’s Night there are a wide range of rituals attached to it, usually they centre around warding off negative spirits, marriage, fertility, and the celebration of light.
Although in the Ireland of today we now have the hypocrisy of ‘back yard burning’ legislation we still light bonfires. I call it hypocrisy because as long as our politicians agree with and sanction the use of industrial pollutants and weapons of war that spout out more damaging toxic chemicals than the burning of untreated wood then I will continue to refer to it as hypocrisy.
Fire was used to banish the dark encourage the light and to bring about a certain magical influence. It could banish demons, tell you who you may expect to marry, and ensure a good harvest.At this time the custom was to wear garlands of flowers and herbs to discourage spirits that may do you harm.One of the most powerful of these was ‘Chase devil’, known today as St. John’s Wort because of its ties to St. John’s night.
The fire was lit at crossroads, on hilltops, or any gathering place and were traditionally started using the two sacred woods Fir and Oak ( Rowan ).Nine different types of herbs would then be added and these consisted of Vervain, St.John’s Wort, Lavender, Yarrow, and others that are in season at this time.There would be dancing, feasting, and fire jumping. In some parts of Ireland people would throw samples of the most troublesome weeds into the fire, this would protect the fields from being invaded by these weeds.
At the end of the night/day the fires would be allowed to burn out and people would carry some of the ashes back home with them to sprinkle on the four corners of their fields to ensure fertility, and to put some on the hearth to ensure protection, health, and good luck through the following year.
It is a time of year when flowers smell their sweetest, their colours are vibrant, the trees are wearing their best leaves, berries are plentiful, and the fairies are at their most active. If you see a full moon on Midsummer eve then you may even see them dancing and carrying out their own celebrations.Leave an offering under a hedge so the fairies will think kindly of you and bring you good luck.
I wish you all a blessed, happy, and light filled solstice. May your harvest be a good one, and may fortune smile on you and yours.
It appears that fairy women all over Ireland find birth a difficult experience. Many fairy children die before birth and those that do survive are often stunted or deformed creatures.
The adult fairies, which are aesthetic beings, are repelled by these infants and have no wish to keep them. They will try to swap them with healthy children who they steal from the mortal world. The wizened, ill tempered creature left in place of the human child is generally known as a changeling and possesses the power to work evil in a household. Any child who is overly admired is especially at risk of being exchanged. I must have been awful lucky????
It is their temperament, however, which most marks the changeling. Babies are generally joyful and pleasant, but the fairy substitute is never happy, except when some calamity befalls the household. For the most part, it howls and screeches throughout the waking hours and the sound and frequency of its yells often transcend the bounds of mortal endurance. I think we have all experienced that feeling.
A changeling can be one of three types: actual fairy children; senile fairies who are disguised as children or, inanimate objects, such as pieces of wood which take on the appearance of a child through fairy magic. This latter type is known as a stock. I’ve met a few in adult life??
Puckered and wizened features coupled with yellow, parchment-like skin are all generic changeling attributes. This fairy will also exhibit very dark eyes, which betray wisdom far older than its apparent years. Changelings display other characteristics, usually physical deformities, among which a crooked back or lame hand are common. About two weeks after their arrival in the human household, changelings will also exhibit a full set of teeth, legs as thin as chicken bones, and hands which are curved and crooked as birds’ talons and covered with a light, downy hair.
No luck will come to a family in which there is a changeling because the creature drains away all the good fortune which would normally attend the household. Thus, those who are cursed with it tend to be very poor and struggle desperately to maintain the ravenous monster in their midst.
One positive feature which this fairy may demonstrate is an aptitude for music. As it begins to grow, the changeling may take up an instrument, often the fiddle or the Irish pipes, and plays with such skill that all who hear it will be entranced. This report is from near Boho in County Fermanagh.
"I saw a changeling one time. He lived with two oul’ brothers away beyond the Dog’s Well and looked like a wee wizened monkey. He was about ten or eleven but he couldn’t really walk, just bobbed about. But he could play the whistle the best that you ever heard. Old tunes that the people has long forgotten, that was all he played. Then one day, he was gone and I don’t know what happened to him at all."
Prevention being better than cure, a number of protections may be placed around an infant’s cradle to ward off a changeling. Iron tongs placed across the cradle will usually be effective, because fairies fear these. An article of the father’s clothing laid across the child as it sleeps will have the same effect.
Changelings have prodigious appetites and will eat all that is set before them. The changeling has teeth and claws and does not take the breast like a human infant, but eats food from the pantry or nowadays the fridge. When the creature is finished each meal, it will demand more. Changelings have been known to eat the cupboard bare and still not be satisfied. Yet no matter how much it devours, the changeling remains as scrawny as ever.
Changelings do not live long in the mortal world. They usually shrivel up and die within the first two or three years of their human existence. The changeling is mourned and buried, but if its grave is ever disturbed all that will be found is a blackened twig or a piece of bog oak where the body of the infant should be. Some live longer but rarely into their teens.
There can also be adult changelings. These fairy doubles will exactly resemble the person taken but will have a sour disposition. The double will be cold and aloof and take no interest in friends or family. It will also be argumentative and scolding. As with an infant, a marked personality change is a strong indication of an adult changeling.
Changelings may be driven from a house. When this is achieved, the human child or adult will invariably be returned unharmed. The least severe method of expulsion is to trick the fairy into revealing its true age. Another method is to force tea made from lusmore (foxglove) down the throat of a suspected changeling, burning out its human entrails and forcing it to flee back to the fairy realm. Heat and fire are anathema to the changeling and it will fly away.