An Irishwoman’s Diary: A Brilliantly-coloured Paddy and sea-faring fears

Mention of pig, priest, fox, hare or red-haired woman made skippers head for home

‘Brilliantly-coloured Paddy’ might sound like a racy sort of name for a Blasket islander, but there was sound method to the moniker. Pádraig, as he had been christened, had been distinguished initially as Peadaí Rua for his russet hair.

However, any mention of “rua” and its associations with the fox was guaranteed to court bad luck at sea. Surrounded by ocean, Paddy couldn’t really put a toe in the water. The alternative – Peadaí Deaghdhathach, as it was in Irish – stuck for good.

The story is told by the now late UCD professor of folklore Bo Almqvist in the enthusiastic introduction he wrote to research on this subject by one of his students, Dr Bairbre Ní Fhloinn. Euphemism and “name avoidance” occur in every culture, he noted, but the extent to which it existed within the maritime community of the north Atlantic has been the focus of some 30 years of work by Dr Ní Fhloinn.

Ní Fhloinn was fascinated by the fact that mention of pig, priest, fox, hare or red-haired woman was enough to make any skipper turn a boat around and head for home. In fact, any four-footed creature might cause problems, and crew knew that they had to substitute the phrase “cold iron” – the marine version of touching wood. As she explains, it was long believed that iron possessed “particular apotropaic properties” against the forces of evil and misfortune. The pig was especially feared by fishermen, and this may be why cold iron, as “the most effective of antidotes in the folk cannon of prophylactics”, was summoned to combat the “perceived threat”.


It was never just an Irish phenomenon, but extended across north Atlantic communities, dating back to Viking times, and Ní Fhloinn draws on extensive references and interviews and previously unpublished material from the National Folklore Collection in UCD. Norwegian fishermen referring to clergymen as "black cardigans", and Icelanders preferring to speak of "grey fish" as a circumlocutory for shark. Sir Walter Scott refers to the practice of name avoidance in his novel, The Pirate, set in the Shetland Islands and published in 1822.

Mischievous crew

She talked to many skippers during her field work. Thomas Lantry of Howth, Co Dublin, told a story of a skilled skipper in the Co Waterford fishing port of Dunmore East who refused to go to sea for 48 hours after a tin lid from pig’s feed was nailed onto the top of the wheelhouse. A short time later, mischievous crew placed a “heap of crubeens” around his boat. He roused them all at 4am and ordered the offending items to be removed forthwith.

Foxes had a similar effect, and phrases like “madra rua ar do dhuán” or “ a fox on your hook” or “madra rua ort”, as in “a fox to you”, were the worst type of curse. Hares and rabbits were no better, along with rats, salmon and clergy. It could prove a awkward if a navigational mark involved one of many islands named after animals.


Mayo crab fisherman Pat “The Chief” O’Donnell related how he was giving directions to another skipper, and mentioned the name “Pig Island” as it didn’t bother him so much. His colleague was more cautious, though, confirming on VHF radio that he would “head for the fellow with the curly tail . . .”

As with the Blasket’s brightly-coloured Paddy, aversions to red heads were not confined to women. The colour “rua” or russet red had an association with the underworld, Ní Fhloinn explains. There was a belief that red-heads belonged to the fairies, or were sought by them to act as nurses or foster parents at fairy raths.

The “early health and safety policy” – as film maker Alan McLeod has described the practice – extended to name-avoidance of certain people. Howth fisherman Raymond Moore said he was superstitious about one name, and couldn’t identify same as he was going to sea that night!

Quarrelling, or even talking about an argument, was regarded as exceptionally unlucky, as was shedding blood. There was a belief that a row could result in fish abandoning a particular stretch of water. If a fisherman cursed, he would have no decent catch, reflecting a conviction that anti-social behaviour did not augur well for one’s prospects at sea.

The practice may have waned considerably, but has not completely died out, and Ní Fhloinn was struck by how much knowledge of it has survived. A declaration of interest here – she needlessly credits this reporter in her acknowledgements for passing on a few contacts. Two of those, Seamus Bovaird and Andrew Ward of Greencastle, Co Donegal, discuss the rationale with her for the superstitions – which may be a type of confidence building, or insurance, or an oblique way of maintaining mental awareness in a highly risky occupation. As they sum it up simply, the “map is different at sea”. Cold Iron: Aspects of the Occupational Lore of Irish Fishermen by Bairbre Ní Fhloinn is published by Four Courts Press.