My memory of Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s was of a ghostly country. Life was very different then especially when darkness fell. Rural electrification had not yet arrived so oil lamps, candles and flash lamps were the only source of light during the gloomy evenings and long nights. We are so used to brightly lit houses nowadays that we take them for granted. It is only when electrical supplies occasionally break down due to storms that modern people get an idea of what it was like to live by candle-light or the flickering flames of an oil lamp.
The problem was greater in the past due to the style of the older houses with their tiny windows and little natural light. In many houses the main source of light at night was the open hearth where the turf fires flickered and flamed casting shadows on the walls and creating a spooky atmosphere.
Most people were quite religious and knew from their catechism about purgatory and souls coming back to seek help. For such people ghosts were a reality and on dark, stormy nights stories about lost souls and wandering spirits were the subject of many fireside conversations. Having listened to such stories is it any wonder that some people, particularly children, were fearful of walking home in the dark. Nor is it surprising that people saw ghostly apparitions when passing grave-yards as their imaginations got the better of them. Of course there were always a few smart boys in any community to pull stunts and terrify the innocent ones.
It’s easy to forget now that there were no televisions in the 1950s and very few radios in the 1940s. Nor was it easy to read at night when everywhere was so dark. Instead people gathered in each other’s houses to hear the seanachie with his legends and piseogs, his stories about fairies and raths, leprechauns and crocks of gold, mysterious sheeogs, wailing banshees and malicious pookas. Many of these stories belonged to the Celtic twilight and like modern horror films both frightened and entertained us.
Young people might laugh at some of the folk beliefs from the past. However these beliefs were often highly practical measures and were deeply concerned with human life and welfare. They were attempts to protect vital human interests and were relied upon by people in times of trouble or danger whether real or imaginary. Like religion they answered a need in peoples’s lives. In those days our lives were very insecure in the countryside when the death of an animal or the failure of crops meant disaster and hunger. Nowadays people are less concerned due to insurance and government intervention.
There were many superstitions around certain days, January 6th was Nollaig na mBan. Twelve candles were lit in honour of the 12 apostles. However the first candle to die out was looked upon as an omen that the person who lit it would be the first to die. On St Brigid’s day people were wary of doing work involving turning or twisting such as spinning, digging or ploughing. May Day was very important and many of the customs sprung from people’s need to protect their livestock and crops. Holy water was sprinkled on the byre and the cows. Wells were protected for fear of contamination. The Feast of St John on June 24th was celebrated with bonfires. The Sunday between the end of July and the beginning of August was the Feast of Lughnasa or Fraughan Sunday. It was the day to climb Croagh Patrick. Halloween was all about fairies, spirits and the dead. Fairies were believed to move from fort to fort so it was dangerous to be out of doors on that day or on May Day. Calves were blessed with candles like children being baptised. Coal was put under churns.
Many of the older superstitions have disappeared. If you interfere with a fairy fort you will have bad luck. If you hear ringing in your ear the souls in Purgatory are calling for your prayer. If you see a white horse in the morning you will have good luck. On the other hand if you see a red-haired woman on your way to a fair turn back or else you will have bad luck for the day. If you have a habit of spilling milk you will marry a drunkard. Unbaptised children were not buried in consecrated ground. Houses were not built on the path between fairy forts to leave the passage way clear for the movement of fairies between the two forts.
But superstitions have not disappeared. Some people still believe it is dangerous to walk under a ladder, that broken mirrors bring seven year’s bad luck that we should knock on wood to avoid disappointment and that if you spill salt you should toss some over your left shoulder to avoid bad luck. Even the government is superstitious. When cars should have been registered as 13G in 2013 they changed the number to 131 G because even they thought 13 was an unlucky number. Some beliefs are so ingrained that they never change.
Author: Mary Conneely