From birthing girdles inscribed with prayers to tricks used to fool malevolent fairies, we have a long history of folk beliefs in Ireland around pregnancy and childhood
it’s the message that all parents dread. The one that tells them that they will outlive their child. For my own mother, it was simple, but stark: “I’ve very sad news, little Baby Ryan didn’t make it”. My father, a bus driver, was weaving a double decker through Dublin city centre. It was promptly abandoned and a replacement driver called. Then the frantic dash to the hospital, all the time knowing that there was nothing more he could do. Fate had snatched his son, only a handful of days old, before he’d had a proper opportunity to hold him.
By the time he’d reached my mother’s side, everything had changed. There’d been a dreadful mistake. It was a different Baby Ryan. I had lived, while another had died. Waves of disbelief, and then relief, all the while mixed with genuine sorrow for the parents of the other Baby Ryan, who were now entering their own fields of loss.
Birth and its aftermath can be an anxious time. A recently edited volume, which explores Irish traditions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, illustrates the variety of ways in which people have faced these fears over the centuries, and the practices that they adopted to ensure a safe delivery and the continued protection of their baby in its earliest weeks.
In the Middle Ages, women in childbirth often sought the protection of female saints such as Catherine of Alexandria or Margaret of Antioch (who, according to her legend, had safely extricated herself from the belly of a dragon by making the Sign of the Cross). The wearing of birthing girdles, inscribed with prayers or charms, was also common.
From the late 19th century, women prayed to St Gerard Majella, an Italian saint promoted by the Redemptorist order, for a safe delivery. His increasing popularity is seen in the census returns of 1901 and 1911, which show a sevenfold increase in the number of Gerards, from 226 in 1901 to 1,609 in 1911.
Apart from the invocation of saints, there were other Irish folk beliefs which purported to assist mothers-to-be in seeing their child safely through to birth. A pregnant woman was advised not to visit a graveyard, or attend a wake, for it was believed that a corpse could attract the unborn like a magnet. If she was present at the slaughtering of an animal and got spattered with blood, it might result in a birthmark on the child.
It was said that one should avoid giving a pregnant woman a fright, for if she spontaneously lifted her hand to her cheek there was a chance that the handprint would appear on the child’s face once it was born. Furthermore, it was bad luck for a pregnant woman to see a hare as it could lead her child to be born with a cleft lip. To counteract this, she would immediately need to make a tear in her clothing to transfer the disfigurement there.
But even when the child was safely delivered, the danger did not cease. The need now arose to protect the child from malevolent supernatural beings. Fairies, for instance, might steal a child in its earliest days. Boys were generally felt to be in greater danger than girls, and thus a baby boy might be dressed in girls’ clothes so that it would be passed over.
Certain items were also understood to help ward off fairies. Iron tongs were often placed over the cot when the mother wasn’t in the room, giving her a similar degree of comfort that a baby monitor might afford today. Alternatively, a piece of iron might be sewn into a baby’s clothes, or sometimes a burnt cinder was placed in the infant’s cradle.
A further protection against supernatural abduction was the practice of tying a piece of red thread around a baby’s wrist or ankle, or sewing a piece of red flannel on to the baby’s vest. One form of this custom still survives among members of the Travelling community to this day, and children often continued to wear their red threads into adulthood.
Some of these traditions (such as the red thread and the coal) also extended to the young of animals who likewise required protection.
In a mixture of the sacred and the profane, both the sprinkling of holy water and stale urine around a new mother’s bed, was considered to be effective in keeping fairies at bay.
Meanwhile, if a child was lucky enough to be born with a caul, the remains of the amniotic sac became a protective talisman in itself, believed by sailors to prevent shipwreck and drowning. It was placed in the rafters of houses for protection, and carried around in prayerbooks. Its Irish name was caipín an tsonais (the little cap of happiness).
Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth. ‘Birth and the Irish: a Miscellany’ is published by Wordwell Press