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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Charms, Amulets and Magical Sites

The charming of rats, which was described by Eugene O’Curry to Dr. J. Henthorne Todd, seems to have been forgotten in the Doonaha district, where, at least, I never heard of it during several visits in the neighbourhood from 1896. The performance is ancient, being described after A.D. 600 by the famous bard Seanchan Torpeist, a contemporary of King Guaire Aidhne of Gort, who ruled the district adjoining Clare on the north from about A.D. 610. O’Curry’s story is that a certain John O’Mulconry joined the Established Church, and was ordained, being eventually advanced to be curate of Kilrush and Kilfieragh in the south-west corner of Clare. Now Kilfieragh graveyard was so horribly infested by rats that serious accidents occurred at every burial (I presume from their attacks), and every corpse buried there was entirely devoured by the following morning. The curate, horrified by the scenes he witnessed at a burial, proceeded to charm the rats, as the country folk firmly believed him able to do from his knowledge of old Irish literature. A certain John Foley, of Querin on the Shannon, saw that evening what looked like a bank of low-lying fog crossing a bog between him and Kilfieragh. He fancied it was the fairy host, and ran to one side, when he saw it was a compact body of rats. They went through his cornfield, without stopping, to Querin point, then burrowing into the dry sand and disappearing. They soon proved as destructive as ever, gnawing the fishermen’s nets and boats (probably leather curraghs). The sufferers gathered a great number of neighbours, amongst whom was Owen Mór O’Curry, the writer’s father, and proceeded to dig out and kill the vermin. An incredible number were slain, but survivors seemed innumerable, and in the end, with the courage of despair, attacked the slayers, trying to run up their clothes and bite them. Wearied and terrified at the swarms, the peasantry at last gave up the fight and fled. Eugene O’Curry never heard what became of the remnant of the rats.

Thomas O’Keane, a land surveyor, told O’Curry in 1820 that he knew and used an ancient satirical poem to expel rats, and that he had successfully driven out all that infested his house and mill at Bealahaglas, near Dunlicka Castle. The charm was in archaic and enigmatical Irish. Fired by emulation, young O’Curry wrote a satire against the rats, and tried it on an infested house at Kilkee, in the same year, but without success.

About the same time certain men in Limerick City were famous for being able to free ships in that port from rats. Their method was to fix a razor, edge upwards, on the ship, and by their charms to force the rats to cut their throats on it.[105]

St. John’s Well, Killone
St. John’s Well, Killone

Cursing Stones
In some cases the use of the round stones generally,—but not by the peasantry,—called ‘cursing stones’ is not for magical purposes, and there is often no belief in their efficacy for good or evil. For example, the rounded stones on St. John’s altar at Killone ‘Abbey,’ and those at Kinallia and Ross, appear to be used only as a rude rosary to keep count of the prayers and ‘rounds’ offered at these shrines. At Killone the well and altar lie under old ash-trees at the end of a lake, with the gables and two east windows of the convent showing between the tall trunks. On the altar lie, or rather lay, seven of the cake-like concretions found in the shale of the district; on my last visit I only saw five. These stones used to be moved, one at each ‘round,’ as the penitent went on the knees along the grassy slope and ended each time by prayer on the altar steps. At the lonely little oratory and cave of St. Colman MacDuach, under the high cliff of Kinallia in Glencolumbcille, we find several of these stones and a flat slab with two parallel shallow flutings, (each with one end rounded), lying on the altar. At Ross, near Loop Head, numerous rounded stones from the neighbouring shingle beach lie on the altar in the Saints’ church,—one of them hollowed like a shallow saucer. I have seen no religious rites at either of the latter churches, and so can tell nothing of the part played by these objects. Killeany church, near Lisdoonvarna, has a primitive altar, carefully built of large rude limestone blocks, in the graveyard, and on it lie several of the shale concretions. I have seen other examples at Glenquin, Kilcredaun, and elsewhere.

The ‘bad member’ of the group is the set of ‘cursing stones’ at Kilmoon, between Killeany and Lisdoonvarna. They lie on a dry-stone wall under an old wind-bent tree at the holy well, adjoining the ruin in the field to the west of the church, and were brought to more than local knowledge some fifteen or sixteen years ago. A farmer was prosecuted by a beggar woman for beating and laming her. He put forward as his defence, (at petty sessions, I think, at Corofin), that ‘she swore to turn the stones of Kilmoon’ against him. It was believed that, if a person went fasting to the place and did seven rounds ‘against the sun,’ turning each stone in the same unlucky direction, the mouth of the person against whom the stones were turned would be twisted under his ear, and his face permanently distorted.[106] It is said that the magistrate, in consequence of the strong local belief in the possibility of such injury, regarded the farmer’s act as one of bona fide self-defence, and advised him to end the grievance by satisfying the damaged would-be practitioner of the black art with a sum of money.

Sacrificing Black Cocks and Beasts
Besides the rites of the ‘cursing stones,’ avowedly malignant ceremonies have been performed at two, if not three, places in East Clare. At Carnelly, near Clare Castle, at an unknown period remote even in 1840, ‘a black cock, without a white feather,’ was offered to the Devil on the so-called ‘Druid’s altar,’—two fallen pillars near an earthen ring beside the avenue,—to avenge the sacrificer on an enemy, but in this case it brought an equivalent misfortune on the sacrificer himself. The Duchess de Rovigo, an heiress of the last Stamer of Carnelly, used the story, combined with irrelevant family legends and pseudo-archæology, in a poem dated 1839, but I obtained it, as given above, from a more reliable source, her mother, in 1875 and 1882, as well as from my brothers and sisters, who heard it in ‘the forties.’ When I was at the dolmen near the house at Maryfort in 1869, an old servant, Mrs. Eliza Egan (née Armstrong), said to me,— ‘Don’t play at that bad place where the dhrudes [druids], glory be to God!, offered black cocks to the Devil!’ Possibly a legend like that at Carnelly hung round the place at that time, but I found none in later years. The third case, however, admits of no doubt. It occurred in 1879, not very far from the place last mentioned. A ‘black beast’ was cut into quarters and offered at the four corners of a field to bring ill luck on the owners. It was locally believed to have been offered to Satan, but this was indignantly denied by the reputed offerers of the unhallowed sacrifice. I heard this from many persons in the immediate neighbourhood, (including one member of the family against whom the charm was directed), from 1879 onwards. Local feeling is, or was recently, so strong that I do not publish the names and fuller details in my possession.

These are very rarely found in Clare, although their religious equivalents are common. An amber bead, used as a charm in childbirth, was long preserved at Ennis. It bore in ogham characters ‘L.M.C.B.D.V.,’ which, as Prof. R. A. S. Macalister notes,[107] closely corresponds to an ogham inscription on a stone near Fahan, County Kerry, viz. ‘L.M.C.B.T.M.,’ (as T is equivalent to D, and V partially to Mh). The letters are probably the initials of a formula or prayer like those on religious medals. Dr. G. U. MacNamara appositely quotes from the ‘Homilies’ of St. Eloi of Limoges, (born circa 588), ‘let no woman hang amber round her neck . . . or have recourse either to enchanters . . . or to engravers of amulets,’ and ‘do not tie strings round the necks of women.’[108]

Ennis Amber Bead and Ogham Inscription, Glenfahan, Co. Kerry
Ennis Amber Bead and Ogham Inscription, Glenfahan, Co. Kerry

An unbreakable equivalent to the ‘Luck of Edenhall’ has been kept, for time out of mind, by the head of the Westropp family in Munster. On it the preservation of the estates was said to depend, but, as they are now sold, the ‘luck’ must find another field for the exercise of its benevolent tutelage. The legend existed in four distantly-related branches of the family. As told by John Westropp of Lismehane (Clare), before 1780, to the father of one of my informants,[109] the legend ran much as follows:— ‘When the first of our family in Ireland went to see the Kilkerin property [on the Shannon in the south-west of Clare], he saw a black bird, [a raven, a crow, or cormorant, in the various versions], rise out of the river with a fish in its mouth, which it dropped and commenced to eat. When Westropp approached it flew away, and, as he saw something shining in the sun, he went to the fish and found a gold ring.’[110] The tale varied as to the bird between the Westropps of Fortanne (Clare) and those of Cork, and the latter located it only ‘on the Shannon.’ The ring, now held by Col. John Massy Westropp of Doonass (Clare), is of plain gold, and probably dates from the earlier part of the seventeenth century, with arms of five fleurs de lys forming a cross with the cadency mark of the mullet, and a wreath, the last relic of the effaced crest. ‘A famous antiquary in Cork’ told my father that it was the ring of a Spanish knight, lost in the Armada,—none of whose ships were wrecked within very many miles of Kilkerin,—while the bows of the wreath were the sacred tetragrammation,—such was local archæology in 1840! The ‘raven’ version was that most popular, but it was a cormorant that figured in the oldest version recovered by me.

Another highly valued gold ring is preserved by the Molony family of Kiltanon. It belonged to an ancestor’s brother, a Roman Catholic Bishop of Kilaloe, about 1690, but no superstition attached to it so far as I could learn from the last generations of the family. I have been told also of a ‘lucky’ flint arrow head, or ‘thunderbolt,’ preserved by another family in the north of the county,[111] but know nothing of its qualities.

It was lately, and I believe is still, the custom at Scattery Island on the lower Shannon for each boat to bring a pebble from St. Senan’s grave, or even from the beach. In 1816 a leaf from his ‘alder’ (elder-tree) was equally effectual in preserving from wreck. A ‘slip’ of the mountain ash or a forked hazel twig protects against fairies. A red string round the neck protects a child against fairies and a lamb against fairies and foxes.

Thomas Dineley, travelling in Clare in 1680, heard of a stone on Loop Head ‘whereon if any one turns on his heel and thinks of any one’ of the other sex for a mate ‘he shall never fail of his thought.’ Many had cut their names, but dared not make the turns, for the stone was balanced at the edge of a fearful precipice. It seems to have disappeared, but was remembered as ‘Clough an umphy’ even in the middle of the last century.[112] At Urlanmore Castle, between Kilmaleery and Newmarket-on-Fergus,[113] a reputed ‘wishing seat’ remained in 1902, in a side wall of the ruin. There were others in yew-trees at the Turret of Doonass, over the beautiful Salmon Leap of the Shannon, and in the garden of Fortanne near Tulla. Whether these originated in the belief of the peasantry or in a conceit of the owners I know not, but their repute dates back before the memory of the living. It was also said in Ennis that a wish made ‘on the right day’ in the cave of Lismulbreeda, a few miles to the south-west of the town near the Kilrush road, was fulfilled. I could not learn the all-important day. If you wish ‘reasonably’ on seeing a shooting star, before its flash has faded, you will also get your desire. When the new moon is first seen, turn thrice ‘sunward’ (left to right), preferably bowing and spitting at each turn; this brings luck or satisfies the wish specified. A horse-shoe, or piece of iron, when accidentally found, should be thrown with a silent wish over the left shoulder. The wish fails if spoken aloud or if you see where the iron falls. It is also good to pray, or wish, on eating any vegetable or seeing a flower for the first time in the year, or on the arrival of the swallow or the cuckoo. You will get your wish if you count nine stars for nine successive nights. You should bless (or wish good to) ploughing or other such work, or a person or animal that you praise. ‘God save all here’ was a common salute on entering a cottage, and I have known the formula ‘except the cat’ added to this courtesy.

Foundation Sacrifices
Horse skulls were buried under the floor or in recesses in the walls of a house. When the drawing-room floor of Edenvale [114] near Ennis was recently taken up, four horse skulls were found, one in each corner. At Moyreisk, a house of the Vesey Fitzgerald family near Quin, horse skulls were found in recesses in the wall, and the same arrangement occurred at my old home Attyflin, near Limerick, and elsewhere. These burials may probably be regarded,—like the broken querns placed in house foundations at Torry Island in Donegal,[115] and cats built up alive in the walls of houses in Dublin [116] and elsewhere,—as substitutes for human sacrifices. That such sacrifices were not unknown to the early Irish seems implied in the startling story of St. Columba’s disciple buried as a voluntary sacrifice in the foundations of a new building.[117]

Burial and Skull Beliefs
There are two noted cases of superstitious beliefs attached by the pagan Irish to human burials, and Tirechan implies that it was common among the early Irish ‘quia utuntur gentiles in sepulchri armati, prumptis armis facie ad faciem usque ad diem ‘Erdath,’ apud Magos (Druides), id est Judicii diem Domini.’ Laoghaire, the last avowed pagan King of Ireland, followed the teaching of his great father, King Niall of the Nine Hostages, and, when he died in 458, was buried in the south-east side of his (existing) fort, Rath Laoghaire, at Tara, in his armour, holding his spear and with his face turned towards his enemies in Leinster. So also in 537 his kinsman Eoghan Bel was buried in Rath o bh fiachrach, standing upright and holding his spear, and facing the north against Ulster. The Ultonians, believing that the influence of the mighty dead caused their defeats in Connaught, made a raid in great force, exhumed and carried off his body, and buried it face downwards in low ground near Lough Gill.[118] The finding of human bones, with a skull beneath them, in the rampart of the ‘Rath of the Synods’ at Tara, may imply a similar belief. There is also a Norse example of exhuming, beheading, and burying a chief’s body with the skull underneath, to destroy his posthumous power.[119]

Another, and more repellent, skull charm is found in Clare, but, for obvious reasons, it is hard to get any information. I have noticed on three occasions skulls with nails driven into them. In the last case, at Killone near Ennis, I was told by old people in that district that this was secretly done by persons suffering from chronic headache. There is some belief relating to moss upon skulls which I could not get explained, but I was asked not to pull it off.

To take a human bone from a graveyard causes a ghost to follow and disturb you until the bone is replaced in consecrated ground. I heard of a young Englishman carrying off the end joint of a finger bone from Quin ‘Abbey,’ and being so worried that next day he walked some miles to the nearest graveyard to get rid of it. A curious story of a haunting skull, stolen from a Clare graveyard and for many years refusing to be buried, is known to me, but is too long and too little connected with Clare folklore to be told here. Strange to say, despite the deepest regard for the dead, their remains are treated with little respect in most of the graveyards, which display skulls, bones, and literally stacks of coffin planks. Many remember the enormous pile of skulls and bones at Quin ‘Abbey,’ before 1878, and lesser piles at Killone, Dromcreehy, Kilmaccreehy, Doora, and Tomfinlough,—at the last church neatly stacked. There is a strong feeling against removing a body from the place of its first burial to one in another parish, and this has led to more than one case of removal and private burial in perhaps the same churchyard. In the case of the Keane family, who made temporary use of an old vault at Kilmaley until a new burial place was ready, the coffins disappeared, and were long afterwards found buried in the adjoining cemetery with the name plates under them. I remember hearing, at the time of the alleged desecration, the belief expressed that the disappearance was only to prevent removal to another parish. It was firmly believed that sickness and death would come into the other parish with the remains.

The mud and water in the socket of the cross at Kilvoydan, near Corofin, cure warts, and so does the water in Doughnambraher [120] 'Font,’ a basin stone near an old ‘killeen’ graveyard [121] in Templemaley parish. The basin is half filled with round pebbles, but I could not discover whether they played any part in the cure. Other wart cures are effected by the milk of the ‘Seven Sisters’ plant [122] applied seven times with prayers, or by rubbing a wedding ring or a stolen scrap of meat three times round each wart in the name of each Person of the Trinity. In the meat cure the piece was afterwards buried, and, as it decayed, the wart disappeared.

Wart Stone, Doughnambraher
Wart Stone, Doughnambraher

People at Fortanne near Tulla used to try to cure the whooping cough by bringing the child to running water, putting a frog held by its hind legs three times into the child’s mouth, and then letting the creature swim away uninjured, taking the disease with it.[123] Near Corofin the favourite cures for this illness were to pass the child under an ass, or to give the sufferer any food or cure prescribed by a man on a white horse when met accidentally, or to give the patient the ‘leavings of a ferret’ i.e. food left uneaten by that animal.[124]

A posthumous seventh son has marvellous gifts of healing; near Tulla he can cure a swelled or sore throat by blowing down it.[125] I was told also that he can aid a woman in childbirth by shaking her gently in his arms, but, as this was told in reply to a leading question (contrary to my custom), I give it with reserve.[126] ‘Head-measuring’ to ‘close the skull’ and cure headache was found by Dr. MacNamara in use near Corofin. I never heard of it, but certainly much still remains to be discovered in the county.

Toothache was cured by holding to the face the once removable head of Christ carved on the then prostrate cross of Dysert O’Dea.[127] I was also told, but on uncertain authority, that a charm for toothache was to rub the gum with a human fingerbone. At Lough Eenagh, in the same parish, people used to pick and chew the bark of an ancient hawthorn bush at a holy well as a cure for toothache.

Cattle cures at Loughs Eenagh and Fergus will be given later. The water of the seven streams of Teeskagh, a wild glen in the heart of the terraced limestone hills in the north-west corner of Kilnaboy parish, cures all sickness (nausea), indigestion, and stomach complaints; it first cured the famous Glasgeivnagh cow.[128] In the same district difficult childbirth could be aided by hanging on the sufferer’s bed the clothing of a man whose wife was reputed to have been unfaithful to him.

Dr. G. U. MacNamara tells me that Denis Curtis near Corofin cures liver complaints, bleeding, and cows that have swallowed raw potatoes. He puts his human patients on their backs on his anvil, and pretends to strike them with a sledge hammer. This is done on three occasions, on two Mondays and a Thursday. The patients then drink forge water. All the family have the gift of healing, but only one exercises it. The family legend says that St. Patrick’s horse lost a shoe near Kilnaboy, and their ancestor shod it gratuitously. The saint therefore endowed the family with the power, and people even return from America to be cured by the smith.

It is lucky to kill a bird or an animal on St. Martin’s Eve,[129] and near Bodyke in Kilnoe parish some of the blood of a hen was put on the four corners of a house, and the rest mopped up by a rag and hidden in the rafters. Holy water and ‘quickbean’ slips are sprinkled and set in potato drills in that parish, but secretly, or they lose their efficacy.[130] In Kilnaboy and other parishes near Corofin, meal used to be tied up in a corner of an infant’s clothes for luck when it was taken to baptism. A patch of untilled land was left untouched when an old-established grass field was ploughed in Carran parish. A small sheaf is sometimes left in the corner of a field in the Tulla district as an offering to St. Brigit. This is to improve the crop, but must be done with care, as in one case a hazel stick was put into such a sheaf to ‘take’ the butter of the owner of the crop.

A family relic of Dr. G. MacNamara is a small wooden image of the infant Saviour, which prevents the house where it is kept from taking fire, and extinguishes fire when flung into another house, even when the latter is burning fiercely. This recalls St. Declan’s crozier, which put out the fire of a burning ‘fort’ near his church of Ardmore.[131] The most usual preventative all over Clare is, however, to plant house-leek on a gable or hole in the wall or thatch of a house.

The very strange and unusual custom prevailed of sailing a new boat round the Sacred Isle of Iniscatha ‘in a course opposite to the sun.’ At Inisglora ships used to lower their topsails to St. Brendan, while in Aran the sails are dipped in honour of St. Gregory, opposite his reputed tomb, a dry-stone turret on the shore of Gregory’s Sound. Roderic O’Flaherty, in 1686, tells of a similar observance by boats passing between Mason Head and Cruach MacDara on the northern shore of Galway Bay, and of the melancholy fate of a captain who neglected this act of homage to St. Sinnach MacDara in 1672.[132]

The unpleasant custom of spitting on a child, or a new suit of clothes, ‘for luck,’ was still practised some thirty years ago, if not now, and a pinch was equally lucky for the wearer of the new suit.

Various protective phrases are in common use, even amongst some of the gentry. ‘God bless us’ and ‘Glory be to God’ are used without the least sense of unfitness when telling of some horrible crime or accident. ‘Good hour be it spoken,’ ‘Good word be it spoken,’ ‘The Lord be with us’ (or ‘about us’), and these phrases with the names of the Virgin or the Saints inserted, are used in telling of any ghastly or uncanny thing or being, after a presumptuous or profane speech, or after praising a person or animal. (The local saints, save Senan and Patrick, are rarely mentioned nowadays.) ‘My Christmas box on you’ and ‘My Patrick’s pot on you’ are of a different class, being merely hints for a present or a drink.

Miscellaneous Charms
Seven hairs were knotted in the mane of a horse or the tail of a cow to protect against fairies. If the corpse of a drowned person cannot be found, a sheaf of straw is blessed and thrown into the stream, and is expected to follow every move of the body and stop over its resting-place. (It was tried successfully in 1894 near Ennis.)[133] To bathe in the waters of the Shannon confers the gift of impudence,[134] —an idea which there seems much to justify.


Chapter 9


Chapter 11