Land blessing tradition survives as farmers seek to ward off piseogs
Did you take the time to shake holy water in each corner of your fields on Saturday night? The old custom of using holy water to ward off bad luck and protect against piseogs on May Eve may have died out in some areas but the tradition is alive and well in others.
It was believed that shaking Easter water or blessed water from 'Cumann na dTrí nUisce'-- any place where three waters, three parishes, three townlands or even three drains meet - was particularly powerful, but any water that had been blessed was enough to ward off bad luck. The aim is to protect your boundaries from bad luck in the form of piseogs.
East Clare resident and well-known storyteller Eddie Lenihan says piseogs can be described as simply old superstitions but they have a more sinister side that he says is the Irish equivalent of voodoo in the Caribbean.
"Piseogs are evil magic, the working of badness on your neighbours or the taking away of his luck to add to your own luck," he says.
"People used to believe that there was only a certain amount of luck to go around."
There are hundreds of piseogs that relate to farming, crops and land.
To place raw eggs on your neighbour's land was said to reduce his crop and increase your own. The placing of raw meat, be it a piece of bacon or a dead chicken, in another man's field would ruin his crop.
"You could find that your potato crop would be all stalks and no crop," says Eddie. "If you looked at your neighbour's field, his might have a great crop and you would be suspicious of him.
"Nowadays, modern people would say it was a lack of fertiliser but, back then, it was what people believed."
Piseogs were often associated with certain families and certain parishes, with the piseog being passed from mother to daughter. The female connection was due to women being in charge of butter making and butter was a source of wealth in the old days.
"If the butter failed, you couldn't pay rent so you were out on the road," Eddie says. "It's no wonder the women were always watching each other's butter and their success."
Protecting the milking cows from piseogs was absolutely imperative on May Eve, when it was believed piseogs were even more powerful. To ward off bad luck, a red ribbon would be tied to the cow's tail or around her neck.
There were also strict rules about where a cow house could be built. Under no circumstances should a cow byre be built on a fairy path and it should be away from a fairy fort or you would have no luck.
If you had bad luck for building the byre in the wrong place, you could try to remedy it by having a mass said in the byre.
Many families also dressed their boys in girls' clothes on May Eve to prevent them being taken by the fairies.
On May Eve, the hours between midnight and the dawn were believed to be the most dangerous and some farmers would stay up all night to try and protect their land from piseogs.
Eddie recalls several cases of women being found on their neighbour's land up to no good.
"Some women would creep onto the neighbour's land and, using a scarf or cloth, would skim the dew off the grass on May Eve. Then she would have the dew of the grass of your land to do her bad work," he says.
Another woman notorious for piseogs was reputed to use a dead man's hand for working her magic.
"People in the area were terrified of her. They still talk about her and what she could do if you got on the wrong side of her," says Eddie.
For anyone who thinks all this happened hundreds of years ago, think again.
Within the past few years, a commercial farmer contacted Eddie about a peculiar bundle he found tied to his boundary.
"He found a 10-10-20 bag with seven hazel sticks, pointed at each end, on May morning," says Eddie. "Someone was trying to frighten or give him bad luck."
Another part-time farmer, whose suckler herd pined away each year around May Eve, became suspicious of an old lady who lived beside his farm. He resolved to stay up one May Eve and camped out in his boundary ditch under a blanket.
At dawn, he watched as the old woman crept into his field and searched for a cow pat. Crouching over it, she drew a reaping hook through the dung repeatedly, chanting "All for me, all for me, all for me." The furious farmer confronted the old woman and his cattle never pined again.
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