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....
Are you superstitious?
NanaKay on July 31, 2020:
Wonderful read! I could hear my dear Grandmother telling me these. She did an Apple peel for me and it was a P...4 years later I married Phil. Also if a fork lands on the floor A family is coming to visit, the tinges direction told from which direction they were coming. A knife meant a male visitor and a spoon meant a female. If a fork or spoon landed upside down..direction was the same meaing, but fork meant the death of a male and spoon meant death of a female.
Donna on July 13, 2020:
My mother always said it was bad luck for the Irish to own birds and of course you would never open an umbrella in the house or put a pocketbook on the bed.
Maria on May 22, 2020:
Hallo. I think the one about hot ears means someone is talking or gossiping about you.
Star on February 26, 2020:
Missi on February 06, 2020:
Hi Marie, I am from Appalachia Ohio. My family has all of your noted superstitions. I always thought they were an Appalachia thing....
Tanika Edwards on March 07, 2019:
What does it mean when your ear itches, turn red, and feels hot? (In the irish culture)
Jennifer McKee Roussin on December 24, 2018:
When I was a little girl, about 3 or 4, my grandmother (of Irish descent) told me that under each leaf of the trees and bushes was a fairy. I believed it and went home and told my mother this.
Sheamus from Staten Island,New York on August 31, 2018:
My wife's grandmother was from the south and had many quirky superstitions the have lasted in the family till today. Such as if a certain bird showed up in a certain place and time it was a sign from a deceased loved one.
Cameron N on February 26, 2018:
It was awesome
John. on July 13, 2017:
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.
skyalr on April 27, 2017:
were can i find a lepercon ???????????????????
Seán O'Brien on March 30, 2017:
I thought Bulláuns were for grinding corn in!
Adrian on March 05, 2017:
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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.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on December 05, 2015:
Mardi on October 30, 2015:
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.
Heidi on October 26, 2015:
Amazing and magical. Thank you.
Toni Choong on August 23, 2015:
To Debbie the gift's to a new home are bread,salt,water,oil and a piece of coal
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on August 12, 2015:
Sorry I don't know that one, but maybe someone else will see your comment....
Debby on August 04, 2015:
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 (author) from Ireland on July 19, 2015:
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 from Brookline, Massachusetts on July 17, 2015:
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 (author) from Ireland on May 24, 2015:
Glad you enjoyed!
Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on May 22, 2015:
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.
Celtic Descendant on January 08, 2015:
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 (author) from Ireland on September 19, 2012:
I am glad you enjoyed the hub Kate, and thanks for the feedback!
Kate McBride from Donegal Ireland on September 19, 2012:
I found out some new superstitions and beliefs from reading this hub. Voted it up and interesting.I really enjoyed reading it.
Woolie from East Coast Canada on August 23, 2011:
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 (author) from Ireland on June 06, 2011:
Nan Mynatt on June 05, 2011:
Exciting information about Irish tradition. My husband sent me flowers with Leprechauns in the foliage. I marked you up on this hub.