Land of the fairies
People made sure to keep on the right side of the little people -- and for good reason too, writes Anita Guidera
FOR centuries, belief in the supernatural was so strong that it permeated every facet of Irish life. Invisible and imaginary people such as fairies, pookas, banshees and leprechauns formed part of a strong oral culture and superstitions that were rife in the past can still be found today.
Such was the extent of their faith in the other world in 1950s Ireland that rural people shouted out warnings before throwing water out the door, lest a fairy should be passing.
In Mayo a glass of poitin was pitched out the door to appease the most feared and malevolent of all fairies, the pooka, and send it off to bother someone else instead.
It was widely held that fairies inhabited the thousands of ring forts scattered throughout the country, and the wrath of the fairy people would be incurred if those fairy fort remains were disturbed.
Countless tales exist throughout the country of people suffering illness, misfortune or even death if they interfered with these forts.
Building along fairy paths or disturbing the hawthorn or fairy bush also carried a heavy price, according to ancient lore.
To avert any possible bad luck, people would place small piles of stones in the four corners of the planned building and leave them overnight.
If they remained untouched it was safe to go ahead with the construction.
If construction had already taken place, the bad luck could be corrected by having a Mass said in the offending building.
In the 1960s, it was not unusual for new roads to be rerouted because workmen refused to build through a fairy fort.
But as recently as 1999, the NRA changed the route of the Ennis bypass following a successful campaign by local storyteller and folklorist, Eddie Lenihan.
He claimed that a lone hawthorn bush at Latoon, near Newmarket-on-Fergus, marked the site where the fairies of Munster gathered before they set out to do battle with the fairies of Connacht.
"They would be vexed by the removal of their bush and when they are vexed they have no mercy," an unapologetic Lenihan argued.
It was also claimed that a fairy fort was demolished for the controversial Quarryvale Shopping Centre development, which in turn precipitated the Mahon Tribunal.
Some locals even blamed the collapse of the multibillion euro empire of Cavan businessman, Sean Quinn on angry spirits after he relocated a 4,000-year-old megalithic burial tomb to expand a quarry.
But fairies were not the only creatures capable of inflicting misfortune and bad luck.
In bygone days, May Eve was considered the most dreaded night of the year when fairies were at their most active.
Little boys were often dressed as girls to protect them from abduction by the fairies.
But fairies were not the only creatures to fear as this was the night when 'piseogs' were also at work.
Piseogs were a kind of pagan curse, applied mainly by women that could wreak havoc on the unsuspecting farmer.
They caused hens not to lay, crops to fail or butter not to keep.
By putting rotten meat or eggs on a neighbours' land, it was ensured he had no produce. Putting them in the barn resulted in dry cows.
Eddie Lenihan described them as the Irish equivalent of Caribbean voodoo.
"People used to believe that there was only a certain amount of luck to go around.
"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 explained.
He revealed that on May Eve between midnight and dawn the women would creep on to the neighbour's land and use a cloth to skim the dew from the grass, which she would use to do her bad work.
Placing raw eggs on the neighbour's land was said to reduce his crop and increase your own. Placing raw meat on another man's crop would ruin his crop.
Piseogs were often associated with certain families and certain parishes.
In a tradition that still exists in some places today, farmers would use a sprig of palm to douse holy water in the four corners of their fields on May Eve and bless each animal individually to ward off bad luck.
Shaking Easter water or blessed water from 'Cumann na dTri nUisce' was considered particularly powerful.
Milking cows were protected by a red ribbon being placed around their tail or neck.
All persons remained close to home from sunset to sunrise and under no circumstances slept outdoors.