The heART of Ritual

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Taboo Folklore in the Irish Record: Sex, Death, and Dark Magic



Recently, I read posts from two different people arguing for opposing views of how Irish folklore should be treated. The first person was arguing that traditions must be 'pure' and shown to only exist in Ireland and have no outside non-Irish influence, not even from Scottish or Welsh beliefs. The other person argued that folklore is a living tradition and never originated as one complete lexicon in the first place. This person's view was that there never was one original Irish folklore and it was always a combination of beliefs brought by the various groups, traders and immigrants who came here. Personally, I think that as people come into contact with others the folklore can't help but change to reflect that. Irish folklore, for me, never stands still even if we capture some of it in books and songs. The past is always only part of it.

Duchas.ie is a wonderful treasure-chest of customs, beliefs and traditions but to assume that it contains a full account of Irish folklore is problematic. It was interesting to read this excellent piece about the Hawthorn Tree by Dr Marion McGarry, an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Regarding the folklore of the hawthorn Dr. McGarry writes, "Why was this tree singled out in Irish tradition as the one to be avoided, with its associations with faery merriment, retribution and bad luck? ...


In the days before modern embalming techniques, people often laid out their own dead relatives or neighbours, and sat with them during wakes, which were attended by great numbers of the local community. The decomposing smell would have been recognised as being closely associated with death.

Paradoxically, triethylamine also gives the flowers a musky fragrance that some associate with the smell of sexual bodily fluids. These connotations of death and sex, largely missing from Irish folklore, perhaps sealed the fate of hawthorn as being regarded as strange, inappropriate and unwelcome inside the home and outside, something to be avoided." Read the full piece here.


"These connotations of sex and death, largely missing from Irish folklore..." What are we to make of this? There are no entries about sex in the Duchas archives. There are some vague references to fertility but none which can parallel the mainland European spells and medicines recorded in Italy, Germany and the Nordic countries, for example. Does this mean that there was no sex folklore or sex-magic in Ireland? Well, anyone who knows even the slightest amount about Irish occult practices can tell you that this is not true.


But, the fact of the matter is that people just would not, and could not, talk about these subjects openly in Ireland in the 1930's. They certainly were not going to document something that would go into the public domain with their name attached to it. The archivists themselves may have felt an obligation to protect identities as well as a worry of falling foul of the Irish Church-state at the time. Another important factor to note is that The Irish Schools Collection was recorded by children. This in itself eliminates many subjects and taboo areas that adults would have a reluctance to speak openly about to each other, never mind the young people of their families and villages.

Folklore concerning sex and death magic is prevalent throughout continental Europe in a much more open fashion. From Italy to the Nordic regions there is no attempt to hide the potency and effectiveness of such customs and traditions. In fact it was often a bastion holding strong against Christian erasure of a culture or native people. Sex magic even survives in English folk poetry to some degree, even if the exact techniques are veiled. We have nothing like that documented in the Irish folklore archives. Except, of course, in folk rituals, recipes and occult rites which would NOT be spoken aloud as they were private matters or part of traditions which were kept hidden.

There are other reasons why accounts of Irish witchcraft and magical practices are scarce. In the introduction to his book, Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, Andrew Sneddon writes, "Combined with the destruction of records in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, almost all of Irish administrative and criminal manuscripts are now lost...Irish historians have no option but to rely on 'aggregations of examples drawn from the contemporary press, or the wealth of anecdotal evidence contained in the private papers of prominent individuals."


What this means is whatever possible written accounts of witchcraft which would have been deemed criminal or taboo are now lost and we must rely on oral testimony and renditions instead. As I have written, when adults are asked to relay folklore to children, as in the case with the schools collection, it is easy to see how so much darker folklore would be omitted. Sneddon goes on to confirm that, "A consequence of lack of sources is that academic history of witchcraft in early modern and modern Ireland is under-researched in comparison to England and most of continental Europe."


At this point we should take a quick look at what constituted witchcraft in early modern Ireland. Also, what kind of practices did the bean feasa and fairy doctor offer to those who would seek them out and why were they so secret?


When we look at Ireland's most famous fairy doctor, Biddy Early, we often hear accounts of how she was so despised by both the medical profession and priests. Known for her 'cures' and herbal remedies as well as her fairy bottle, Biddy is usually associated with love spells, healing farm animals and the gift of prophecy. Most likely Biddy often helped women with menstrual 'regulation' too, and has been proposed, pregnancy termination, much like countless other wise women of this time and before, although this is barely mentioned. Even today, this subject is one of great sensitivity in Ireland so it is not hard to see why such women and their herbal medicines are wilfully eradicated from the record.

Recently, Lorraine Grimes, a historian based in Galway, caused some controversy when she wrote that St. Brigid performed Ireland's first recorded abortion. The text in question from Cogitosus's account reads, "“Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the feotus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain.” Dr. Mary Condren, in her work, The Serpent and the Goddess, writes, "This story is successively toned down in the various editions of the "Lives" until in the nineteenth century it vanishes altogether from the "official" version of her "Life" at the hands of a most prestigious Latin ecclesiastical scholar." (P.76). And yet, this should not really be so controversial at all.


Returning to ancient Ireland, Sneddon, in the previously mentioned Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, tells us that, "People who used magic to harm were often feared and prohibited in Irish Penitential and legal codes, especially sorcerers and male clerics who used love magic to control fertility or arouse or destroy amorous feelings in others." The sixth century Penitential of Finnian tells us, "If any cleric or woman who practices magic have led astray anyone by their magic, it is a monstrous sin, but it can be expiated by penance. [...] If a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived of somebody, she shall do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water..."


Before concluding this brief summation, it is worth mentioning what we have been told about Irish society before the arrival of Christianity and the evidence for deeply understood magic of medical and psychological complexity. Although usually explained as piseogs, in their crudest definition of superstition, Irish magic is documented at this time as being not only a threat to church teachings but as a clearly widespread tradition involving physiology, anatomical knowledge as well as involving timed herbal and plant toxicological properties.


There are further links to the seasons and astronomy which demonstrate no small level of sophistication which, for many reasons, has been glossed over and marginalised in order to posit the context of a savage, barely civilised people who only blossomed following the arrival of Christianity. Occult knowledge and witchcraft, or sorcery for shorthand, would not be mentioned in such documents if it had not been considered something that needed to be addressed by the early Irish church.


To conclude, then, secret witchcraft and magical rituals would not be logged in the same way as weather omens and cures for warts in the official record. As Sneddon notes, at this time period, the feminine forms, 'lamia' and 'striga' were specifically used to associate women with harmful magic and this was also the standard church view of the bean feasa, unfortunately. (C.) David Halpin. Image: Richad Moult: 'An Da Shealladh'.