A sense of magic in the air? Boatmen, islanders and more talk about their rituals

Pat Condon: ‘Some people believe bananas bring bad luck on boats.’

Boatmen, islanders, Travellers and mindfulness gurus talk rituals and the reasons behind them with Rita de Brún.

If a flame-haired lady said you could save 13 black cats by unhesitatingly walking under a ladder, would you? Or would your head be so half-melted with conflicting superstitions, you’d be momentarily grounded in contemplation?

We might fancy ourselves as too sophisticated to be superstitious. But while we can express or suppress it, we can’t deny it’s within. Ireland’s a country steeped in mysticism and folklore. Before tech-addiction half-blinded us to our surroundings, we were a people connected with nature, noticing everything and detecting meaning, where there may or may not have been any.

Clare Clarke: Rises early each May Day to bathe her hands in morning dew.
Clare Clarke: Rises early each May Day to bathe her hands in morning dew.

Tales, true and tall, were passed down through generations gathered around smoking turf fires; a habit that left us, before the information age, trusting ritual and reticence to keep us safe from harm.

In his fascinating book: Superstitions of the Irish Country People, the late Padraic O’Farrell wrote that on glimpsing a new moon our ancestors fell to their knees, even if crossing a river at the time. They whispered prayers into the ears of wild horses to tame them. They waited for sheep to sleep before taking out the knitting. Because we hail from these people, superstition is innate in us.

Magical May Days

Each May Day, Wicklow-born Clare Clarke rises early to bathe her hands in morning dew: “In the 1950s our mother said that practice would ensure we’d always be able to tie a knot.” To this day, she works her nimble fingers to create a wonderful garden that is, though she’d never say it, the pride of her locality.

Thespians are expected to be to be superstitious. But Ronan FitzGibbon, founder of the Cork-based BrokenCrow Theatre Company says many are not.

“I don’t know any so fearful of mentioning ‘Macbeth’ they’d call it ‘The Scottish play’ instead,” he says.

This makes sense, but leaves me wondering if modern thespianism has been a tiny bit diminished by sensibleness’ smothering of superstition. Of course the two are often linked. Whistling backstage was rightly deemed jinx-making when that was the method by which stage-hands responsible for manually raising and dropping props communicated.

No whistling on boats

There’s no shortage of superstition amongst boatmen. “Some believe bananas bring bad luck on boats,” says Cork-based Pat Condon of Atlantic Charter Hire.

Recalling that many fishermen don’t swim I ask if he can: “I can a little. If I fall in, I can keep myself up. But if you’re in freezing water 20 miles offshore, swimming’s not much help.”

It’s a sobering thought and not something to judge or question. As Pat Condon says: “It’s just the way it is.” Whistlers aren’t popular on boats. So says John Draper, coastguard at Valentia Marine Rescue. While not superstitious himself, he knows the folklore: “Red haired woman were bad news for fishermen. They’d turn back if they saw one while going out to sea.”

Margaret Meehan: Places the Statue of Prague in her window facing outwards, whenever good weather’s wanted.
Margaret Meehan: Places the Statue of Prague in her window facing outwards, whenever good weather’s wanted.

Our forefathers of all professions headed home whenever they’d glimpse a rabbit, or a rooster checking them out when setting off to work.

There’s no doubt we had a fondness for abandoning work plans and heading home to the leaba. That this was the origin of duvet days for frazzled Irish workers is a theory I’m secretly working on.

Island steeped in tradition

Arranmore Island is steeped in tradition. On Oíche Fhéile Bhríde a female called (or representing) Bríd,would go outside with a bundle of ‘cloths or bratóg. She’d knock then and wait to be called in,” explains local woman Grania Glynn.

“There was a ritual then, during which holy water was sprinkled. Later, fragments of the blessed bratóg were sewn into fishermen’s clothes for protection.

“That blessing is prayed for again when islanders gather to say the rosary at the annual Oíche Fhéile Eoin beach bonfire.” Other traditions of the island are described in the booklet Fadó Fadó on Arainn Mhór, which documents housebuilders placing whiskey bottles and religious medals at the foundations’ four corners.

Ronan FitzGibbon: Many thespians not superstitious.
Ronan FitzGibbon: Many thespians not superstitious.

Also, islanders, lost in mist or fog, finding their way by turning their coats inside out and turning around three times.

Corkwoman Margaret Meehan learned tradition from her mother Ann O’Driscoll whom she describes as ‘a great lady for storytelling and singsong.’ Margaret places the Statue of Prague in her window facing outwards, whenever good weather’s wanted..

Describing some traditions lady members of Travellers North Cork like to keep, she says: “Sprinkling the home with holy water on May Eve. No clothes to be hung out that day. Caravans or wagons to be burned if a parent died there. Bread and water to be left out for the holy souls on All Souls’ Day.”

Where there’s thought of souls and spirits there’s thought of fairies. On the Aran Islands, young males were once dressed as girls to trick the fairies who had a penchant for stealing small boys. Elsewhere, kids had their scalps massaged with salt to prevent them from being stolen.

Vengeance of fairies

Mindful-living coach and Soul Sanctuary Holistic Therapies owner, Catriona Hughes, knows not to enter a fairy ring without first asking permission.

“Fairies work with the light,” she explains.

Catriona Hughes: Stepping on grass can supposedly connect us with the energy of fairies.
Catriona Hughes: Stepping on grass can supposedly connect us with the energy of fairies.

”When we step on grass we supposedly connect with their energy.” As she seems fond of fairies, I enquire if she’s ever fed them. “I have, honey, mead and biscuits, and I’ve seen others do so as well,” she replies.

Perhaps because she’s a joyous, uber positive being, I’m extra glad she’s nice to fairies.

It means she’s unlikely to displease them, a mistake learned the hard way by scornful disbelievers, on whom — if our ancestors are to be believed — vengeance was wreaked. in the form of stammers, humpbacks and feet that can’t stop dancing.

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