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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Animal and Plant Superstitions

I have had occasion to search, in Irish works of pre-Tudor date, for sidelights on the early fauna of Ireland, and the results, so far, are meagre. There is constant reference to dogs, cattle, horses, deer, and wolves, but rarely do any but the hound put on any definite shape. Even the bull plays little more part in the ‘Tain bo Cualgne’ than Briseis does in the ‘Iliad,’ and generally the animal is a mere appendage to an incident.

Place-names give us little information save as to the custom of driving the animals up to the hills in the summer time, Mount Callan being girt by a series of ‘Boolies’ (i.e. milking places),[166] usually qualified by some phrase such as ‘of the sun’ or ‘of the sea-gulls.’ The cow was the practical unit of value in olden times, three cows being worth a woman-slave, and a single one the ‘ounce,’ which seems to have been an imaginary standard. Legendary cows, such as the Glasgeivnagh and Glas gamhnach, play a large part in the traditions, the hoofmarks of the latter pitting all the rocks of the eastern Burren and its borders. Another supernatural cow predominates in the extreme west of the barony, near Crumlin. The Seven Streams of Teeskagh were said to originate from the exuberant milk of a ‘Glas.’ Supernatural bulls and water cattle have already been dealt with.

The most remarkable customs relating to cattle centre round Lough Fergus. Along its north shore stand twelve cairns in an irregular line. On the eighth from the east end are two natural stones resembling a small chair and a cross, named after St. Forgas, (who appears in none of the calendars and is perhaps a river-spirit). Along with these are put a china image, bits of iron, buttons, and broken crockery. Patients sit in the ‘chair’ to cure lumbago. It is believed that the water of this lake cannot be boiled and that no one can be drowned by it, and sixty or seventy years ago cattle were cured by it. The beasts were brought in herds to the lake to drink, and were driven into it. If they turned to the right hand they would recover, but not if they swam to the left. It is said that on one occasion a cow sank, but was found next day grazing in a field beside the lake, completely cured. In consequence of drainage works, the water level has fallen, and the mud round the shore is too deep to allow the cattle to be driven through it, so on May Day every year, before sunrise, a little crowd gathers, of perhaps over 100 persons, to fill bottles with the water for curing cattle, especially of ‘the worm.’ The water keeps good till the next anniversary, and is also used to give a ‘good churning’ and to clear a ‘garden’ of caterpillars.[167]

In 1839 Lough Iona (now Eenagh) was reputed to cure sick cattle on Mondays and Thursdays.[168] In 1808 the smiths were in some districts employed to kill the cattle,—or rather to fell them for slaying,—and their perquisites were the animals’ heads.[169]

Persons over sixty years of age are often firm believers in the charming away, or ‘taking,’ of milk and butter. The younger folk usually deny that they hold this belief, and, where they take part in quarrels caused by it, avowedly only do so to support their elders. Two families living in the south-east corner of the county had about 1890 a quarrel resulting in a serious feud, hardly as yet appeased. It seems that for about three years the cows of the first household gave but little milk, and that little so bad and so unwholesome for pigs and calves that several died. Ordinary veterinary practitioners, and even the local ‘knowing men,’ did no good, so the farmer sought a ‘wise man’ of renown in another parish. This sage directed his client to watch the local well all May Eve, and to let no one come near it till after midnight. The farmer and his sons hid near it, saw a man and a woman of the suspected family coming to the well, and sprang out and bade the newcomers keep away. The parties quarrelled, and were reinforced, as the news spread, by all the women, children, dogs, and sympathisers of both families. At last guns and hay-forks were brought, and blood was on the point of being shed, when some one found that midnight had passed, and the contestants at once went home. The cattle gave good milk all that year, and the well was watched on succeeding May Eves with equally good results. The bitterness is said to have died out round the well some years ago, but is still apparent between the households in other matters.[170]

A charm to cure ‘slow churning’ has already been described.[171] In 1892 a horrible case of stirring milk with a dried human hand in order to ‘bring butter’ was reported from the Kilkee district, but I could never learn the details. A similar practice somewhat earlier, near Oola on the borders of Limerick and Tipperary, was brought to light after the death of a farmer by a quarrel, ending at the sessions, between his three sons for the possession of the ghastly object.

The method of ‘taking butter’ practised near Cragbrien, to the south of Ennis, was to take a hair from the tail of each of the victim’s cows on May morning, twist the hairs together, and dip them in the milk.[172] I heard of a protective knotting of seven hairs in each cow’s tail near Edenvale in the same district, and of a magic dashing of water over the churn when the butter was slow to come,—an excellent natural aid in hot weather. The greasy substance called ‘May butter,’ lying on the grass with the dew, was used for milk charms near Clonlara. I heard of it more definitely at Kenry, County Limerick, where a woman gathered it in her apron, and a hare was seen rolling and rubbing itself in the ‘May butter’; the hare, when pursued, turned into a local witch. If you come into a house where churning is in progress, you should always ‘put your hand to the churn,’ i.e. give a few strokes with the churn ‘dash,’ and if you are smoking you should finish the pipe in the house, or you may ‘take’ the butter. There is still living to the south of Ennis a man who is afraid to touch a churn lest the butter should ‘go away,’ and he get the discredit of ‘butter-taking.’ (I may boast myself of the repute of having ‘the lucky hand’ that ‘brings’ the butter quickly.) Long ago the O’Briens of Kells near Corofin told the late Dr. G.U. MacNamara of the later place how one ‘Donogho buidhe’ (yellow Donogh), a local ‘fairy man,’ being offended one day about getting a glass of whiskey, left the house angrily. After his exit no amount of churning would bring the butter. He was pursued and appeased, and took a bit of paper from under the churn, when the butter came at once. In a case in the Tulla district in which a farmer’s butter was ‘taken,’ he consulted the priest, by whose direction he searched in the corner of his corn-field, and found a small sheaf with a hazel rod in it. After destroying this the butter ‘came’ in great abundance.

I have found no folklore relating to horses except that already given regarding supernatural animals. I have since recalled a legend of a dangerous spectral horse, probably a púca, haunting the bridge over the Blackwater, between Limerick and Clonlara, and the tree-darkened road towards the latter place,—a terror by night to passengers till about twenty years ago. There was also the bodiless head of a spectral horse which used to float beside cars on a road near Clooney, of which I heard about 1876, but now forget the details. The riding of horses by fairies was not unknown.

Dog, Fox, and Hare
Besides the supernatural dogs already noted, and the ‘Red Dog’ (or Fox?), near Cragmoher, at Drehidnavaddaroe Bridge, there is little to tell. Finn’s famous hound Bran was drowned at Tirmicbrain lake, and a ghastly dog broke the bones in some graveyard, (perhaps Doora or Clooney), before 1876.[173] It is unlucky to meet a fox, a red-haired woman, or a hare ‘first thing’ in the morning. The hare is said to eat human flesh,—probably from being often ‘started’ in graveyards. I have been told by several Clare people of witches turning into hares, but the alleged incident was never located in the county. Anthony Bruodin (Bruodinus or Prodinus), a Franciscan of Quin Abbey, tells in ‘Corolla Oecodemicœ Minoriticœ’ (Prague, 1664, p. 73) how his uncle (patruus), Florence of Moynaeo (Moynoe on Lough Derg) went out at the dawn of the first of May with his eldest son Bonaventura, (who died in Spain in 1643), and with their hounds to hunt hares. At last the servants saw one sucking a cow. The hounds chased it, biting it as it escaped, into a cottage, where an old woman was found torn behind.

A very vague belief prevails on the coast that seals are enchanted human beings.[174] It gets more definite above Galway Bay, where the Kinealeys are of reputed seal descent. Some such belief may underlie the name Cumarra (or sea-hound) in the MacNamara family. I found more difficulty in getting fisher beliefs in recent years than in getting folklore from the country people. Much of what I heard in 1906 was probably of tourist origin, and, like the merrow at Killard,[175] not to be trusted as genuine belief.

Beyond vague belief in an enormous ‘durracow’ [176] (the king of the otters), which I heard of as a child on the Shannon Bank about some unnamed lake in east Clare, I am not aware of any folklore about this creature in the county. There was said to be a ‘remarkable’ otter at Glenomera.

The cat was much regarded by the early Irish, and holds honourable place in their ancient code of laws. It even appears in the illuminations of the ‘Book of Kells.’ Numerous places in Clare bear its name, but local belief tends to consider the ‘cat’ in these names as a weird monster. The ‘Cata’ and ‘Faracat’ of legend were probably ‘dragons.’ The cat has supernatural knowledge. If a cat looks fixedly at a person without apparent reason it forebodes sickness or death, but if it does so to an unmarried person, after making its toilet, it foretells marriage. The wild cat is believed to have a spike or hook at the end of its tail which it can stick into a pursuer, but I found no such fine legend in Clare on this point as I did near Kenry in Limerick, where the cats pursued, and anchored themselves on, a farmer and his dog, after chasing them from Clorane to Old Kildimo!

The Irish elk is known among the turf cutters of Clooney and Tulla as the ‘Fiaghmore’ (so pronounced, but really fiadh mor, big deer),— ‘it might be one of the deer Finn hunted.’ Its numerous remains have given to one townland the name ‘Fiaghmore, Fiah,’ [177] in 1655. The ‘Agallamh’ [178] has an interesting allusion. Diarmaid kills a huge deer, and its antler, when resting on his foot, reaches above his head, despite his great height. Caoilte produces this horn from a lake to convince St. Patrick of the truth of his stories of the heroes.

Badger, Squirrel, and Marten
It is asserted that there are two kinds of badgers,—the ‘dog-badger,’ which eats carrion and digs into graves, and the ‘pig-badger,’ which is a strict vegetarian, and is eatable. In the ‘Boroma’ tract from the ‘Book of Leinster,’ [179] and the ‘Agallamh,’ badger bacon and squirrels are mentioned as fit to set before a king or hero. It is doubtful whether the togmal, (kept as a pet by Queen Maeve and killed on her shoulder by Cuchullin’s slingstone), was a squirrel or a bird, but squirrel skins, along with marten skins, formed a considerable export from Ireland at least from 1230 to 1580, and in 1686 Roderic O’Flaherty names the squirrel amongst the animals of Connaught.[180] The true marten was until recently common in east Clare, and, like the supposed ‘marten-cat’ (a large red domestic cat that has gone wild), was reputed uncanny in my boyhood. I have seen martens at play in the Clare woods in 1869, and had one stuffed in 1876, but they seem now to be extinct.

Besides the ‘dog-badger,’ there were said to be uneatable hybrids of the cat and the rabbit, and of the rook and the domestic hen. The ‘soft egg laid by the cock’ was looked on with suspicion, and so was the egg of the bat, which was even unlucky to find, and could be used for malignant charms.

In Clare the stoat is always called ‘weazel.’ A corruption of the strange Irish name Feasóg (the little beard) is as often used, even by English speakers, as the whishshoge or whushshoge. The creature was equally disliked and respected. It is wished ‘Good morning, ma’am,’ by some, and generally saluted by raising the hat on meeting; but others spit and cross themselves. It is regarded as peevish and persistent; ‘as cross as a bag of weazels’ is a proverb in east Clare, while Finn is compared to a weazel in the pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne. I have heard many stories about its revengefulness ‘when its nest is killed,’ and of one of its persistent attempts to get at a corpse in a house in south-east Clare, rather, it was thought, for magical purposes than from hunger. Old belief ascribed to the animal the power of poisoning. At Carnelly a labourer told that when cutting a meadow near the ‘Druids’ Altar’ [181] he killed a young weazel. Soon afterwards his wife brought him his dinner and a can of sour milk. While they talked, she cried out that a weazel was spitting into the can, but the man laughed and drank the milk. Soon afterwards he got violent gripes, and gave himself up for lost. The doctor had great difficulty in persuading him to try any remedy, and his wife was almost scandalized by his recovery. A similar tale was told at my old home, Attyflin, in which young weazels were not killed but put on a wisp of grass safely in a bush. The parents were seen spitting into the milk, but, on finding the young ones safe, they returned and upset the can [182] So ‘even the weazel has justice.’ Both stories probably originated in the animal’s love for milk.

A Clare woman told me that a man whose love was rejected by a girl living in Limerick city died, and his soul went into a rat and used to bite her throat until she had to emigrate.[183] The rat tried to follow her and was drowned, and so the persecution ended. A curious ‘parliament of rats’ was held near Durra in Upper Bunratty, the fields being covered with them, but, when it broke up, the ‘troops’ dispersed, and no bands were seen at any distance from the rendezvous. A rat was ‘heard talking with the Devil’ in the grave of an unpopular person before 1875, but how the holders of this curious conversation were identified was never stated. I have met a belief in speaking rats in eastern Clare and among fishermen at Kilkee.

This animal is reputed to steal apples and suck cows and eggs, so that it is persecuted and called grainoge (little ugly thing).

A pair of ravens roosted in a top window of the round tower of Iniscatha (Scattery) early in the last century. The birds were said to escort their young, when fully fledged, across the Shannon to Carrigfoile Castle in Kerry, and not to let them return to the island.[184] Scaldcrows (roystons) are considered unlucky, and much feared. The old Irish regarded them as incarnations of the war-goddess Bodbh.[185] Birds as omens have already been noted. The bat is looked on as a sort of bird, and it is ominous of death for it to fly at one’s face. The entry of a robin into a house is a death omen near Tulla, but elsewhere a sign of good fortune. Although swans are so plentiful that I have often seen more than forty together in Inchiquin and other lakes, the only folklore associated with them seems to be a tale of swan-maidens at Inchiquin. The hunting of the wren has been described in Section XIV.

It was regarded as a custom among the fishermen of Kilrush and Scattery that no one should go fishing for three days after the arrival of the herring shoals, but, when the first day dawned, a crowd of boats was always discovered, and much quarrelling resulted.[186] As the shoals arrived, a mass used to be celebrated on the shore at Kilmurry, Ibrickan, to secure good fishing and to keep off dogfishes and small sharks.[187] The reputed giant lake pikes and eels have already been mentioned.

Newts, lizards, and large caterpillars are included by the peasantry under this term. They are supposed to be very dangerous to both men and cattle, and are relentlessly destroyed. Of late years I have even had difficulty in saving the pretty little grey lizards, now much rarer than when, over thirty years ago, they swarmed in Clare Abbey and other sunny and sheltered ruins. A colony of unfortunate little lizards in a hollow tree was reported to me as ‘a nest of adders.’ My informant [188] about the sacrifice on the dolmen of Maryfort,—the daughter of an old Peninsular veteran, living near Clonlara,—told me a circumstantial tale which was faintly remembered at Clonlara many years later. A ‘worm with legs’ ran down a man’s throat as he slept in a field, and he pined away, with an ever-increasing appetite, until he was persuaded to consult a ‘wise person.’ He was kept from drinking for two days by the expert, and then fed on bacon and taken to a stream. The patient’s mouth was fastened open, and a freshly-toasted piece of bacon put near it. The thirsty ‘worm’ heard the running water, and came out into the man’s mouth, where it smelt the meat and sprang on it, fixing its claws in it. The ‘wise man’ then threw the bacon into the water, and the man rapidly recovered. A similar story from near Tulla ended in the ‘worm’ drinking and trying to jump back into the patient’s mouth, but being killed by the doctor.[189]

Children were told that, if they slept with their mouths open, ‘worms’ (apparently caterpillars of the death’s head or the puss moth in Inchiquin and central Clare) or frogs (at Newmarket-on-Fergus) would creep down their throats. The finding of flukes and other parasites in sheep and cattle has helped the belief, and a beast’s tongue, if swollen, is supposed to have been ‘stung by a worm.’ We have already noted a cure for ‘worm’ in cattle, and the milk of the ‘Seven Sisters’ plant boiled in milk cures similar cases in human beings.[190]

Besides jumping down children’s throats, the frog cures a cough if held by the legs, put for a moment in the sufferer’s mouth, and returned to the water.[191] In a variant of the Bishop Hatto legend, at Bohatey, near Lough Derg, frogs mob and devour a boy who has tortured one of their numbers.[192] Frogs are said to have been rained on a field in eastern Burren more than once.

Insects etc.
An old woman at Maryfort in 1869 scandalized her neighbours by asserting butterflies to be dwellings of the human soul, and that her own soul would go into a ‘blessed (tortoise-shell) butterfly.’ Whence she derived this belief is unknown. I heard about the same time, and, it may be, from the same source, a horrible story of a ‘spider as big as a bonnive’ (young pig) sucking the blood of children in the dark, but I forgot the details. It is lucky to kill the ‘daudayle’ (dubh dael) or ‘devil’s coach-horse,’ for the hideous but harmless creature has the repute of having guided Judas to Gethsemane.[193] Then it ‘cocks up its hind end,’ you should crush it, preferably with your bare foot, for you are then spared a day, hour, or week in Purgatory. In Clare I have only found this belief near Tulla, but it is common in other counties.

The ‘hungry grass’ grows on mountains, and, if trodden on, causes a sickening hunger which kills if not relieved. I knew a man in County Limerick who said he ‘knew it to happen to another man’ on the Clare hills, and the victim got food in bare time to save him.[194] Seven strips of a plantain leaf stop the bleeding of a bad wound. The ‘Seven Sisters’ plant for healing purposes must be picked at a particular period of the sun and moon in August. Fern ‘dust’ (seeds) heals cuts from rushes; the dock charms nettle stings; and the four-leafed shamrock brings luck if found accidentally. The belief that house-leek preserves a house from burning is widespread in north and east Clare.
The pennywort has a sectarian bias, and only cures Protestants,[195] and this is connected near Bunratty with a curious legend of Anne Boleyn. This hapless queen, after enjoying by means of the plant the greatest influence over her terrible spouse,[196] ‘got into trouble, but, when she was sent to jail, she couldn’t get the plant, and they hanged her.’

The rowan, or mountain ash, is a luck-bringer and preservative from magic, and I remember small forked twigs being carried. A rowan, planted at Iniscaltra about 890 by King Cormac mac Cuileanan, bore apples.[197] Moss from a skull, or an ancient cross such as that at Dysert O’Dea, or a pillar, is curative; the moss at Fortanne well was used for the eyes, but had to be replaced. If you see a ‘button mushroom’ you should pluck it, as ‘it will never grow any more once it is looked at'.[198]



Chapter 16


Chapter 18