Irish Folklore: Traditional Beliefs and Superstitions
Traditional Irish Folklore
A central aspect of Irish folklore is the wealth of traditional beliefs and superstitions which have been held by Irish people over the centuries. Many of these beliefs can be traced to Celtic traditions which the Catholic church failed to erradicate completely.
Looking back at my childhood in Ireland, I find it amazing that so many traditional superstitions and cures were believed in, alongside Catholic doctrines and the modern scientific world. Belief in these old superstitions is no longer as strong as it was in the days before modern science, but they nonetheless continue to be part of the richness and uniqueness of Irish culture.
While Irish fairy figures such as the Leprechaun and the Banshee are well-known around the world, some of the more everyday traditions of Irish folklore are in danger of being forgotten - from belief in magical cures and holy wells to superstitions about unlucky omens and fairy trees. While these beliefs might seem strange and out-dated to outsiders, I believe they give richness and meaning to life and I hope that they will continue for many years to come.
Read on for an overview of some of the most common Irish beliefs and superstitions...
Traditional Irish Beliefs
- Belief in fairy folk: These beliefs are almost died out now, but for many centuries the Irish were convinced of the existence of magical creatures such as leprechauns, pookas, selkies (seal-folk), merrows (mer-people) and the dreaded Banshee. Older folk will still tell tales of hearing a Banshee, or even of an encounter at night with a fairy sprite. You can read more about these fairies at my article: Forgotten Fairies of Irish Folklore.
- Magical cures: I can remember being quoted a variety of bizarre remedies to cure a wart when I was a child - that's only twenty years ago. Most of them involved potatoes, chanting certain words and then burying the potato. In fact there are still people in Ireland who will go to healers today, where they can be recommended to try traditional cures such as saying certain prayers, taking herbs, or visiting a holy well ...
- Holy wells: Belief in the magical healing ability of natural springs dates back to pre-Christian times in Ireland. The Celtic people of Ireland believed springs were sacred places where the underworld met our world, and where the power of the Goddess Aine was particularly strong. With the advent of Christianity these springs became known as 'holy wells' and their reputed healing power (for anyone who drank their water) was atrributed to local Christian saints. People still commonly visit these wells today, to take the waters and leave an offering - whether a few coins or a prayer card.
- Blessings and curses: Another Celtic tradition which survived long into Christian times was the belief in blessings and curses. There are ancient stones, called bullaun stones, which were believed to lend power to a blessing or a curse - if the person saying the words was touching a bullaun stone at the time, their words were thought to come true. With the coming of Christianity to the island, the tradition of curses gradually dropped away due to its potential to be associated with black magic, but the tradition of Celtic blessings continued in Christianized form and has produced many beautiful blessing-prayers. The Irish spiritual writer, John O'Donohue drew on this tradition in his writings, creating beautiful modern blessings rooted in the traditions of Celtic spirituality.
Common Irish Superstitions
- Fairy trees: Interestingly, these trees can still be found across Ireland today. While most people avow they do not believe in fairies, neither will they risk the bad luck believed to stem from cutting down one of these trees! The trees are recognizable because they often stand in the middle of a field, where normally they would have been cleared - stories abound of bad luck following the cutting down of known 'fairy trees' and so they are left alone. Hawthorn trees in particular are associated with fairies, and it is also considered bad luck to bring a branch of hawthorn blossom into your house.
- Sea-going superstitions: Sailors and fishermen have held onto superstitions longest in Ireland - as a form of protection against the unpredictable and dangerous moods of the ocean. Red-headed women have traditionally been considered to bring very bad luck to a boat or ship. Changing the name of a boat was believed to bring better luck. In some coastal communities it was believed that blowing out a candle was extremely bad luck as it meant that a sailor somewhere at sea would die - and instead they let their candles burn down and die out naturally.
- Bad omens: Many sights were believed to be an omen of bad luck to come in Irish folklore. For example seeing a single magpie is considered to be unlucky, but even worse is if a bird flies into your house. This is said to be a warning sign that someone close to you will soon die. Other events considered to be omens of bad luck are if a chair falls when someone stands up, breaking a mirror (thought to cause 7 years bad luck) and sighting a black cat.
- Protection against bad luck: Fortunately, with all this potential for bad luck, Irish folklore also contains many recommendations about how to improve your luck. While spilling salt brings bad luck, throwing a handful of that salt over your left shoulder will cancel out the bad luck. Shamrocks, a rabbit's foot and holy objects such as crosses, holy water or saint's medals are all believed to be lucky and can protect against life's misfortunes.
- Halloween: Is considered to be the most magical and dangerous night of the year in traditional Irish folklore. Halloween (or Samhain as it was known in Celtic times) ushers in November, the month of the dead when souls walk free on earth and you are best not to venture outside your house after dark. Bonfire, lanterns and masks were believed to protect the living from predatory ghosts and ghouls. One activity I remember from Halloween as a girl was peeling an apple in a single piece and throwing it over my shoulder in the belief that the peel would arrange itself into the first letter of my future husbands name. I'm still waiting to meet a man whose name starts with an unreadable squiggle!
I hope you have enjoyed reading this very brief selection of Irish beliefs and superstitions - if you have some of your own you'd like to share, why not share them in the comments section below....
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