Daithi O'Hogain,
Irish Superstitions
(Gill & Macmillan, 1995)

There's more to Irish folk traditions and superstitions than just leprechauns and pots of gold. Anyone curious to learn more without devoting a whole lot of time to study might want to check out Irish Superstitions by Daithi O'Hogain.

Irish Superstitions is a tall, thin book (only 96 pages) which is perfectly suited for toting around in a back pants pocket. The text is dry enough that extended reading is probably a bad idea, but absorbed in spurts it's quite fascinating.

For instance, the book reveals the importance of the human head in Celtic society, where it was thought to be the center of both the intellect and emotions. This belief was so strong in some Celtic cultures that warriors would collect and preserve the heads of their foes.

Breath, we're told, is the "liquid of the soul," carrying powerful words and healing. Words were believed to be so powerful that verbal defamation could cause sickness or death, and satirical poets were feared members of society. Poets, early Celts believed, had a unique vein in their heads which gave them their creative force.

Blood and saliva carried special powers, too, and hair was believed to be a source of strength. The Irish believed that so strongly, Hogain writes, that they continued to wear their hair long in battle through Elizabethan times, despite English efforts to impose a uniform short cut.

It notes that a ringing in your ears could mean that a friend in Purgatory is ringing a bell to ask for your prayers.

When they're known, the book briefly relates the origins of various beliefs, which are often derived from the mythologies of ancient heroes like Fionn Mac Cumhaill, druidic philosophies and early Christianity. The way the differing belief systems mingle here demonstrates a fundamental dichotomy of the Irish -- their ability to reconcile otherwise irreconcilable beliefs.

There are, for instance, characters inhabiting the moon, wind and sea in Irish lore. These are not so much deities as personifications and, again, they sometimes have origins steeped in druidic lore and sometimes are creations of the Christian god.

To the west of Ireland, Tir na nOg (The Land of the Ever-Young) became, under Christian influences, Tir Tairngire (The Land of Promise). A prehistoric cavern in Dunmore, County Kilkenny, was said to be the home of a monstrous cat, while a similar cavern on an island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, was believed to be a mouth to Hell. Others say the underground caves and tunnels are home to the Tuatha De Danann, a magical race who lived underground.

Stories abound about the Tuatha de Danann taking mortals below for various purposes -- heroes to fight for them, hurlers to compete with them, musicians to play for them, children to live with them. And yes, there are even entries about the elusive leprechaun and the mournful banshee.

The Celts had numerous traditions about the natural world, O'Hogain explains, ranging from magical trees to fairy mists and "hungry grass." There are also a host of beliefs about the domesticated animals which were there lot -- for instance, some Irish believed that rubbing dung on a cow's udder would stop the fairies from stealing her away. Cats, we learn, have a vengeful nature (as any cat owner can tell you!) and dogs should never be questioned, lest they answer.

On the wilder side, stoats and hares are not to be trusted. Foxes are unlucky, and bark in groups outside the houses of a dying person. Killing a sea otter can be fatal to the hunter, but a seal can shed its skin and become human for a while.

The final chapter deals with the rules and rituals of life, like running a foot or horse race from the church where a wedding has taken place to the home of the couple for luck, or the practice of mothers-in-law breaking bread over the heads of new brides when they entered their new homes to gift them with baking and domestic skills.

Reading Irish Superstitions won't gift anyone with in-depth understanding of the many facets of Celtic lore. But it's a grand source of Irish trivia and can easily serve as a solid place to begin one's study.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 28 June 1999