This week we ponder whether superstitions are a thing of the past? Well let’s have a look. It was bad luck to put shoes on a table or chair, place a bed facing the door, bring lilac into the house, cut your fingernails on Sunday, give a knife as a gift, or wear green – except for a bit of Shamrock or ribbon on St. Patrick’s Day.
Ireland was a land that’s renowned for its belief in superstitions, and while Ireland has become a very modern country, it’s safe to say that many of her inhabitants, as well those of Irish descent living elsewhere, still throw spilled salt over their right shoulder or worry about seven years bad luck if they break a mirror. No doubt, you can add a dozen more to your own personal list, but we’re going to relate some more, even odd ones you may or may not have heard of before.
Lot No 1
Did you know, for example, that you can tame a young wild horse by whispering the Creed into his left ear on Wednesday and into his right ear on Friday? The procedure was repeated until the animal was calmed.
A purse made from a weasel would never be empty. It was unlucky to knit at night until you were certain the sheep were asleep. It was fortunate to hear a cuckoo call – but only if it was on your right side.
At fairs it was a common practice to give a “luck penny” which means returning a portion of the sale price to the seller when a deal is made. The deal was then settled by spitting on the palm and slapping the hand of the customer. Interestingly, a man’s status in the area is often determined by the size of the “luck penny” he is in the habit of giving.
From country folk came a wealth of beliefs related to physical ailments. For example, a stocking filled with hot potatoes and applied to the throat cured tonsillitis. Shaving on Sunday encouraged toothache – but carrying a haddock’s jawbone helped prevent it. Boiled daisies were said to relieve sore eyes, milk in which kelp had been boiled could cure boils, and unsalted butter rubbed on a stitch in the side could make it go away. As for warts, folk firmly believed they could be cured by rubbing them with a fresh-cut potato and burying the potato in the garden.
Lot No 2
Thoughts on Dunmore last week brings me those associated with the sea.
Still more colourful superstitions surround the sea and the weather. Changing the name of a boat was said to change its luck and coins dropped overboard would cause a storm. Fishermen considered it unlucky to keep the first salmon of the seasons, some fishermen, for example, were reluctant to paint their boats green; taking short-cuts from established routes along the shore was unlucky, and water in the house – not just in coastal areas – had many superstitions attached to it. For example, water in which feet were washed was never thrown out at night. And, when water was discarded, it was never thrown without a warning to the good people.
As for the weather, because they depended so much on a fruitful harvest, rural folk paid close attention to the portents. The old, familiar red sky at night rhyme was common in the Irish country side – but so were other signs including falling soot, frogs changing colour, curlews calling, midges biting, and swallows flying low. All of these omens foretold a change for good or ill. Sea folk had their own superstitions, too. Big shoals of herring foretold a plentiful harvest; three boats were lashed together when leaving a harbour because it was bad luck to be the third boat out; along the northwest coast, some of the catch was always left on board; sharks should not be hunted on Sunday; greedy pollock were a sign of bad weather; a coal thrown after a fisherman as he board his boat brought good luck and he always boarded from the right; and, in Wicklow, the fishermen always put to sea in a sun-wise direction. There’s some logic to many of these beliefs – especially those regarding the movement of marine life or birds. Porpoises swimming near shore, lobster and crabs on rocks, or seagulls and other sea-birds flying in-land were all portents of stormy weather.
Lot No 3
To live through an ordinary day in old Ireland without being mindful of so many superstitions would have been impossible. Add to this burden, the special beliefs surrounding important dates in the calendar.
Pipes were never lit from the hearth fire on May Day, nor were the embers taken outdoors. Also, if you drank nettle soup on May 1, it was believed that you’d be free of rheumatism for a year. It was unlucky to go on a trip on both St. Martins Eve and the Feast of St. Martin. On Epiphany, January 6, the tail of a herring was rubbed across the eyes of children to protect them from disease for the rest of the year. On St. Brigid’s Day, February 1, a straw from the Christmas nativity scene was put up into the rafters to protect against evil spirits (or as a cure for ringworm!). On Good Friday, while little work was done in general, it was a lucky day to sow potatoes. And, on all Souls Day – November 2 – people avoided taking short cuts for fear the good people would lead them astray. Other days in the year had special beliefs attached to them – Saturday, in particular. In the old days, it was considered unlucky to move house, get married, begin a big project, or take a journey overnight.
Lot No 4
In other parts wearing a rabbit’s foot was a symbol for good luck but not traditional in an older Ireland but the hare. Indeed it and subsequently, the rabbit – is an ancient pagan symbol. When Christianity came to Ireland, the symbol of the hare was used deliberately to transfer old pagan religion into a Christian context – especially at Easter time. As harbingers of spring, hares were held in high esteem. Over time, the Easter hare became the Easter rabbit or bunny – far less threatening to Christian Ireland than the ancient pagan symbol.
Besides hares and rabbits, other animals, as well as birds, provided rich fodder for superstitious country folk. If a cat strayed into a house, every effort was made to make it stay. But, if a family moved, the cat was left behind. It was also believed that you should not look at a cat who had just wiped its face with its paws – whoever the cat looked at would be the first in the household to die. Crows flying directly over a home were also an omen of death and the old Irish saying “God between us and all harm” was always said on hearing the crow of a rooster.
Until recent times many if not most houses in Ireland had a lucky horseshoe positioned above the door. It was placed with the points up “so the luck wouldn’t run out.” Even today, many Irish brides make sure there’s a lucky horseshoe included in their ensemble – perhaps a small fabric one sewn into the hem of their gown or a fabric one carried on their wrist.
Just as in old Ireland, not a day goes by without being reminded of some superstitious belief. But, while one may now walk under a ladder and scorn the very logical origins of perhaps being showered with paint, many still won’t allow an open umbrella in the house, or lilac blooms inside, or crossed knives on the countertop – better uncross them immediately or there will be an argument!
Go Seachtain Eile, Slan.