Superstitions may seem strange and baseless, but somehow they have clung on for thousands of years. Are they a sign of respect for the past and if so just how much longer might they last?
WHEN I WAS growing up, there was a ring fort at the end of our road. We were warned not to play there. It was accepted that fairy forts contained some mystique or potential for harm. Our parents were probably told the same by their parents, and so on through the generations. But has belief in science and technology replaced faith in superstitions?
Perhaps not. Dara Molloy, a former Roman Catholic priest based on Inis Mór, is in demand to perform Celtic rituals and blessings. When we spoke last week, he was at a wedding ceremony in which he used blessings dating from what he terms “Celtic Christianity”. It involves the tying of knots and sprinkling of water from a nearby well. These practices predate the Roman Catholic Church, he says, and are more in keeping with old Irish customs and beliefs. “We held on to a lot of traditions but they were pushed to the margins of the church,” he says. “People still visit holy wells, climb Croagh Patrick or go to Lough Derg, but many other Irish customs and traditions didn’t carry on and some local priests were instrumental in encouraging them to be abandoned.”
Molloy says when he first moved to the Aran Islands 25 years ago, he was struck by the reverence the locals had for ancient sites and monuments. “Neighbours of mine on Inis Mór who were born and raised on the island had never been up to the hill fort of Dún Aengus,” he says. “One of the reasons given was that their parents wouldn’t let them. They said the place was lived in by the sióga or other world folk. Nowadays some young locals want to have their weddings up there because they believe the energy of the sióga is there. The belief hasn’t been lost. It is just used differently. I have witnessed young adults who want to go to Dún Aengus and sleep there overnight to get the feeling that is up there.”
That feeling may relate to the fact the site has been used by locals for centuries as a place of gathering or safety.
Piseogs [superstitions] are still heeded on the islands too, says Molloy. That is why a red-haired woman who turns up at a door on New Year’s Eve is unlikely to be shown indoors. “It would be a bad omen for the coming years,” he says.
Colm Moloney, managing director of Headland Archaeology, says much has been lost in recent years in relation to Irish folklore. “My own childhood revolved around my dad, who spent a lot of his time walking his greyhounds (and his children) around the landscape of east Cork. Every hill, river, nook and cranny had a story attached to it and he told them so well it was captivating,” he says. “Modern Ireland does not readily facilitate this kind of activity. Landowners have a problem with people wandering across their land and kids have so much to distract them, it is near impossible to get them outside.”
Moloney says much of our folklore is in danger in the hands of the current generation. “The Irish psyche has changed. The respect that was there for the past is losing ground. Our knowledge and links to the past through oral traditions were what made us unique.”
There have been reports recently that a farmer destroyed a ring fort in Co Cork. This would not have occurred a decade ago, he says. Folklore often existed to protect the built heritage and vice versa.
“Every country boy knew the traditions associated with ring forts,” he says. “If you touched the fairy forts something very bad would happen to you. This tradition and similar kinds of piseog resulted in the preservation of archaeological monuments across the country, probably for thousands of years.
“This is a frightening development, where 30 sq m of farmland is of greater value than a monument that may have stood on that spot for 1,200 years.”
Some readers relay their own superstitions
Im not superstitious at all, but a friend gave me a rare packet of Huxley-designed tarot cards and I immediately lost a couple. I don’t want them, but I’m sort of afraid to throw away the pack for fear of bad luck. So I’ve dragged them through five house moves. Logically I think it’s a pile of arse, but I can’t fully embrace the logic. My Kerry father-in-law is incredibly superstitious – black cat, walking under ladders, banshees, and ghosts – the works. It’s funny because he’s quite religious and it seems to spill over into superstition. He wouldn’t buy anything with the number 13 on it or in the price.
I think mine might be a bit strange. It’s when I’m flying and the plane is lining up on the runway, I always bless myself three times with my left hand before it takes off. I have no idea why I do it as I’m not scared of flying but people have given me strange looks when I do it.
I always wave goodbye to one magpie and I never leave my shoes pointed towards the door, as it is a sign you will never marry. I don’t keep red and white flowers together and I would never have lilies on their own, only with other flowers. Why, I don’t know, probably because it has been hammered into me by my mother. I try to tell myself it’s silly, but then better safe than sorry I suppose. My mother would always send my sister or myself into the church at Christmas time to nab some hay from the crib so she could put it in her purse to bring her wealth. On a full moon as well, Mum always turns the change over in her purse. I think it is supposed to bring you wealth. I think the Irish are way more superstitious than other nationalities. We have age-old traditions that we hang onto in the hope they might just bring us a little bit of luck.
When it comes to superstitions, it’s magpies for me. For some reason I hate seeing one for sorrow and I always search for the second so as I can say two for joy. I am not superstitious about anything else: I will leave new shoes on the table and walk under ladders. With magpies, they say where there is one there are two but I always make sure I search until I see it. When we were expecting our first child I regularly saw three magpies and we had a girl. On the second pregnancy both my hubby and I saw four magpies. There is probably nothing in it and we still waited until junior one and two arrived before buying pink and blue clothes for them.