Irish Folklore: Traditional Beliefs and Superstitions

Updated on June 9, 2016
Irish folklore has been best preserved in rural areas - for example the Irish wake traditions of whiskey, snuff and music illustrated here.
Irish folklore has been best preserved in rural areas - for example the Irish wake traditions of whiskey, snuff and music illustrated here.

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.

Bullaun stones featured in Irish folklore as the most powerful place to utter a blessing, or a curse. They are recognizable by their hollowed centre which are thought to have been used for baptisms in early Christian times.
Bullaun stones featured in Irish folklore as the most powerful place to utter a blessing, or a curse. They are recognizable by their hollowed centre which are thought to have been used for baptisms in early Christian times.
'Fairy trees' are left standing for fear of bad luck in Irish folklore.
'Fairy trees' are left standing for fear of bad luck in Irish folklore.

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....



Are you superstitious?

How superstitious are you?

See results

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • profile image

        Cameron N 2 months ago

        It was awesome

      • profile image

        John. 10 months ago

        A lady was telling me about a old Irish myth of someone having difficulty selling a house, and they were told to bury a statue of St Joseph head down in the garden facing the house and it would be sold. This has got to be myth of myths.

      • profile image

        skyalr 13 months ago

        were can i find a lepercon ???????????????????

      • profile image

        Se├ín O'Brien 14 months ago

        I thought Bulláuns were for grinding corn in!

      • profile image

        Adrian 14 months ago

        Great read. Superstition is all over the world but in Ireland there are lots of mysteries and mythical creatures that have my imagination running. I found an interesting article on Irish fairies and elves that it also interesting.

        http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/tuath...

      • Marie McKeown profile image
        Author

        Marie McKeown 2 years ago from Ireland

        Interesting!

      • profile image

        Mardi 2 years ago

        I think the Irish must have brought some of these superstitions to Australia...I'm around 5th generation Australian and my mum throws salt over my shoulder if i spill water or something like that. The superstition about 7 years bad luck from breaking a mirror is also very common here.

      • profile image

        Heidi 2 years ago

        Amazing and magical. Thank you.

      • profile image

        Toni Choong 2 years ago

        To Debbie the gift's to a new home are bread,salt,water,oil and a piece of coal

      • Marie McKeown profile image
        Author

        Marie McKeown 2 years ago from Ireland

        Sorry I don't know that one, but maybe someone else will see your comment....

      • profile image

        Debby 2 years ago

        The Irish say you should have certain things before moving into a new house ie; holy water,bread,salt and I don't know the rest does anyone else know?

      • Marie McKeown profile image
        Author

        Marie McKeown 2 years ago from Ireland

        You have some interesting questions! Pookas were mischevious spirits believed to cause household accidents and mishaps. If someone dropped their food or if the milk went sour they might have attributed it to a Pooka at work using magic to make things go wrong.

        The banshee is probably a mix of ancient legends about the goddess of death and the more recent practice of 'keening' or wailing loudly and continuously when someone dies. The eerie cry of a banshee is said to fortell that someone in your household will soon die.

        As for sea-faring, all the inhabitants of Ireland have arrived by sea - at least until the invention of airplanes! There were definitely rudimentary boats known as 'coracles' which pre-date the viking arrival in Ireland, and also St Patrick was kidnapped by a sea-faring Irish pirate known as Niall of the Nine Hostages centuries before the viking arrival. So there was definitely some sea-faring ability although the Irish may have learned a more sophisticated method of constructing boats from the Vikings. And you are absolutely right that the Vikings founded the first urban centres in Ireland, including Dublin.

        Hope this helps clarify few things!

      • Robert Levine profile image

        Robert Levine 2 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

        What are pookas? And though most people have heard or used the phrase "to scream like a banshee," I don't know precisely what it is.

        The wealth of superstitions about traveling the sea may be because, according to a book I read entitled A History of the Irish Race, the ancient Irish weren't seafarers. The probably only became so after contact w/the Vikings; it was the Vikings who founded what are now the major cities of Ireland on or near the coast: Dublin, Cork, Limerick, etc....

      • Marie McKeown profile image
        Author

        Marie McKeown 3 years ago from Ireland

        Glad you enjoyed!

      • FatBoyThin profile image

        Colin Garrow 3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

        I like the idea of some of these beliefs rather than the practice - superstitions have led to the creation of some great traditional tales over the years and without all those strange beliefs those stories wouldn't exist. Great Hub. Voted up.

      • profile image

        Celtic Descendant 3 years ago

        I am quite Irish, and I wanted to learn more about my heritage. I was looking through sites, but could not find any that took my interest. When I looked at this site, I thought "I finally found a site that I can believe." Thank you so much Marie, for giving me something to read about the Irish beliefs.

      • Marie McKeown profile image
        Author

        Marie McKeown 5 years ago from Ireland

        I am glad you enjoyed the hub Kate, and thanks for the feedback!

      • Kate Mc Bride profile image

        Kate McBride 5 years ago from Donegal Ireland

        I found out some new superstitions and beliefs from reading this hub. Voted it up and interesting.I really enjoyed reading it.

      • Enigmatic Me profile image

        6 years ago from East Coast Canada

        Its been fun reading all things Irish with Marie! Have picked up a book of Superstitions and Fairy Tales from Ireland not long before you published this one. Looking forward to the read.

      • Marie McKeown profile image
        Author

        Marie McKeown 6 years ago from Ireland

        Thanks Nan!

      • profile image

        Nan Mynatt 6 years ago

        Exciting information about Irish tradition. My husband sent me flowers with Leprechauns in the foliage. I marked you up on this hub.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)