By using this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with the View cookie policy Ok, got it

Irish Customs and Beliefs

ISBN: 9781856354424
€9.95 €8.96
Irish Customs and Beliefs is a book of stories and beliefs of all kinds of things to do with old Ireland: Highwaymen and travelling people, the Irish whiteboys, lost and hidden treasures. Beliefs associated with birds, insects, animals, plants, bushes, trees and stones. Dwarfs and fabulous water monsters, ghosts, witches, castles and drowned cities.
To find out more information on Kevin Danaher, click here.

ISBN 9781856354424





One for Sorrow, Two for Joy

An unfortunate boy came back to our school after the summer holidays with warts on his hands. In the ordinary way this would have mattered little, and the warts would have yielded to one or other of the numerous traditional cures that we all knew, but the rumour went around that he had plundered a robins nest, and although he may well have been innocent - as he loudly protested - his life was made a misery for weeks. We all knew the story of how the robin tried to comfort our Saviour on Calvary and was given his red breast as a perpetual memory; the robin must not be hurt or harmed in any way but always treated as a friend, and to our childish minds the robins knew this - hadn't we often seen a robin flying into the kitchen and picking up crumbs from the table? Not that we persecuted other birds, but the robin was sacrosanct. If one got caught in a crib he was released at once with an air of apology; we might keep a linnet or a finch as a song-bird or even try to keep a sparrow as a pet but never a robin. We had heard, too, of another bird at the Crucifixion, the crossbill which tried to draw the thorns from the Saviours head and was given the crossed bill as a token, but few of us had ever seen this rare bird.

Some people hold that modern farming, with its chemical fertilisers and insecticides has greatly reduced the numbers of wild birds. This may well be true, for it is certain that a small boys memory of forty years ago is full of birds, and even then the old people held that they were still more numerous in former times. Tis many the one would have gone hungry in bad times, said an elderly neighbour, but for the birds they caught. And it wasnt only the big birds but thrushes and blackbirds too. We used to go out in the long nights with a light and dazzle them in the hedges and knock them down with sticks, and tis often I saw a dozen or more of them hanging from the crane over the fire, roasting, yes, and twas often I ate them too, and I can tell you they tasted nice when you mightnt have seen meat for a month before that. He told us, too, of his poaching of pheasant and woodcock in the same way, with a lantern and a stick, although the landlords were very severe on poachers, and of setting snares for snipe in marshy places and of sticks smeared with birdlime to catch wood-pigeons in the trees, and even of cormorants that he had seen eaten by fishermen near the mouth of the Shannon, but I can tell you they were the strong eating, as tough as an old boot and the taste of every fish the creatures ever ate on them.

In my day a group of boys might still go 'torching' and persuade their mothers to let them roast a thrush or a blackbird, but the custom was dying out then and is hardly ever heard of now. 'Cribs' are still made sometimes, but only by small boys for amusement, and the captured birds are usually released or kept as pets.

The thrush we respected as a fine singer, and, indeed, the blackbird's musical efforts were praised too, but he was disliked by people who lived in thatched houses as he had the uncomfortable habit of tearing large holes in the thatch, whether to get material for his nest or to search for insects, we were not quite sure. People stuck rods with fluttering rags in the roof to scare the blackbirds or hung up a potato into which a number of feathers had been thrust so that it whirled about in the wind, but the blackbirds became accustomed to these devices in a short while and the holes in the roof appeared again. No wonder that some angry householders made war on the blackbirds or sprinkled salt or soot on the thatch to discourage them. More recently a spraying of bluestone solution on the thatch has proved effective; it is supposed that this discourages insects in the thatch, and the blackbirds have to forage elsewhere. Even the domestic hens were not adverse to poking about in an old thatched roof, and I still remember the loudly expressed joy of an old fellow, who had re-roofed a shed with corrugated iron, at the efforts of his wife's fowl to resume their favourite perch. It took several days of flying up and slithering down again before the silly birds learned that the good old days were gone.
People liked to have rooks about the place. A man with a rookery in his grove of trees was quite proud, and if, by any chance, they deserted the place everybody thought that he must have done something dreadful. A story was told of a tyrant landlord who evicted a poor widow, whereupon all the crows left his estate and did not return until he died. They are knowing birds. They begin to make their nests on 1 March, but if this falls on a Sunday they wait until the next day to begin work. And in the spring, you never see a crow in the bogs until the turf-cutting begins when they come in flocks and you have to hide your dinner-bag away or you'll find they have raided it. The jackdaw, albeit a merry fellow, was looked upon as a bit of a nuisance because of his habit of nesting in chimneys and his impudent thieving ways. The grey-hooded crow, the córnach as the old people called him, was hated as a killer of lambs and chickens, and was hunted until he became the wariest of birds. Seldom could we come within a field's distance of a hooded crow.

Housewives disliked the magpie, holding that he stole young chickens, but little or no effort was made to hunt them down, except that a nest too near a fowl-yard might be demolished. We all knew and believed the magpie rhyme -

One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three to get married and four to die,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.

- although we were not quite sure what the last line meant. Many people did not feel comfortable at seeing one magpie and looked around to find a second one. I had a pet magpie, found as a fledgeling and carefully reared, which used to sit on my shoulder, and there were dire prophecies of ill-luck to come because of the 'one for sorrow'. However, the only ill-luck was for the poor magpie when in his innocence he joined a flock of feeding fowl and was pecked to death by a hatching hen. The magpie is a notable nest builder, and we were told the story of how he tried to teach all the other birds how to make a good nest.
First, quoth he, you find a suitable branch in a tree.
Don't we all know that? said the crow.
Then you put two sticks across, like this.
That is only common sense, said the pigeon.
Then you add more sticks, continued the magpie patiently. We're not learning much here today, said the blackbird.
All right, said the magpie, if you know it all, I'm only wasting my time with you.
And the class broke up, never to reassemble. Only the wren watched the master builder in secret, and so only two birds, the magpie and the wren know how to roof a nest.
If you put a pinch of salt on a bird's tail, we were told, the bird cannot fly and you can easily catch it, but if you wanted to catch a heron - we called them 'cranes' - all you had to do was to creep up behind him and shout 'lie down!' in his ear and he would obligingly fall in a faint. But you had to be careful; he always stabbed at your eye when waking up again, and his beak is long and powerful. The water-bailiffs hated herons, accusing them of devouring salmon-spawn, and shot them whenever they could, but we liked to see the great birds, especially if one was flying south as this was a certain sign of good weather. Still a better weather-prophet was the swallow, as she flew high or low to indicate sunshine or rain. Swallows are blessed, said the old people; it is very lucky to have them nesting in the cow-house, and their nests must on no account be harmed even when they are empty - if a swallow's nest in a byre is deliberately harmed the cows in that byre will give blood instead of milk.
Another lucky bird is the cuckoo. 'Thanks be to God and may we live to hear it again,' is what you should say on hearing the cuckoo's first call. Especially lucky it was to hear it in the right ear, not so fortunate to hear it in the left. Many the time I saw an old person, on being told that the cuckoo was calling, turn around so as to be sure to hear it in the right ear. If you heard the cuckoo calling from the trees in the churchyard, that meant a death in the family before the year was out; if you heard it before your breakfast it meant a hungry year for you, and all sorts of unspecified ill-luck fell on the person who was so unfortunate as to hear it from inside the house and not in the open. Another bird whose call held a message was the cúirliún, as we called the whimbrel. A single long clear call from him meant fine weather while a quavery repeated call meant rain on the way.

To hear a lot of corncrakes calling in the dusk meant fine weather on the way. There were many arguments as to how the corncrake could produce such a robust noise. Some held that the bird lay on its back when calling, others that it pushed its bill into the ground, and still others that it had no voice at all but made its sound by plucking a wing with a leg - the same way as you'd knock a note out of the string of a fiddle. The noise made by the gabhairín reó, the jacksnipe, was also a mystery to us; most people said it was a voice-call but others held it was a sound made by the wings. Its call meant frost, and it was usually heard in the cold weather. I liked to lie in the heather and watch its wings quiver as it dived after flies. The green plover was another bird that called the frost.

The old story of the wren betraying St Stephen and the other one of how it warned Cromwell's men of the approach of an Irish force were usually heard around Christmas. In the old days people really hunted the wren on the afternoon of Christmas Day, but that had died out in our time. The wren was not disturbed at other times of the year, and I always thought the story was trotted out at Christmas as a half-hearted excuse for chasing and killing the little creature. But, although we didn't persecute it, we regarded the wren as a sneaky little thing, disliked by all the birds as well as by every other creature since the time it deceived the eagle and became king of the birds. We had our doubts, too, about the willie wagtail, which had three drops of the devil's blood on its tail, and so could never stand still.

Down by the tide there was a different set of birds, the oyster-catcher that was marked with a cross, the various gulls whose comings and goings were sure weather-signs for those who could read them, the cormorants that sat on the rocks and spread out their wings to call the wind and the gannets reputed to be incapable of alighting on or rising from any rock except marble, and hence kept to the water nearly all of the time, laying their egg, we were told, on the surface of the sea and hatching it out by holding it between wing and body. And of course the swans on the Shannon; nobody would dream of harming a swan - weren't King Lír's children turned into swans, and who would want to take the risk of killing a king's child in disguise?




  • Irish Customs and Beliefs